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How the United States' perceptions of China have changed for the better

By Jianwei Wang - posted Monday, 30 June 2003

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States - from policymakers to the public - has engaged itself in the seemingly endless debate about whether China is its friend or foe. Immediately after the Tiananmen incident and the demise of the Soviet Union, people debated whether this struggling communist regime would soon collapse and whether it was therefore still worthy of friendship from the United States. After China achieved a remarkable economic "soft landing" followed by a robust economic boom in the early 1990s, the notion of a "China threat" soon gained currency. With a series of disagreements between the two countries that included the dispatch of two US aircraft carriers to the South China Sea during the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996; the US-led NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999; and the midair collusion between a Chinese fighter and a US spy plane in 2001; Americans increasingly perceived China as an adversary.

Consistent with the public's unsettled mood toward China, successive US governments have had great difficulties in defining China in its overall post-Cold War foreign policy strategy. No sooner had the Clinton administration elevated China to a status of "strategic partner," than Republican presidential candidate George W Bush characterised it as a "strategic competitor". The pattern seems to be that US policy makers have to redefine US-China relations every few years. Whenever the relationship appears to be stabilising and a consensus shaping, new crises emerge and destroy hard-won progress. This triggers another around of debate on China as if people had not learned anything from the previous debate. In short, an old and stereotyped discourse starts all over again.

Before September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration's national security and military strategy clearly defined China as a present nuisance and long-term threat to the United States. This was the main thrust of various classified and unclassified reviews such as Marshall and Khalizad reports. The perception was that no matter how China evolves in the future, it would be a menace to the United States. These reports suggested that to deal with this erratic giant, the United States should shift its strategic priority from Europe to East Asia; abandon the longtime strategy of fighting two major regional conflicts; and modernise its long-range navy and air capabilities in the region. The Pentagon's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), largely prepared before September 11, implicitly identified China as "a military competitor with a formidable resource base" that would likely come into conflict with the United States in the future. Perhaps for the first time since World War II, the US grand strategy became China-centered.


The September 11 terrorist attack dramatically changed the geopolitical background against which the two countries interacted. It tragically proved that the Bush Administration's preoccupation with China was misplaced. The imminent danger to US national security was not from major powers like China but rather from stateless international terrorist organisations and their state patrons. It provided an unexpected window of opportunity for the two countries to reverse the previous adversarial trend in their relations. This reverse has been the result of China's "unhesitant" (in Bush's words) support for the US war on terror; low-key diplomacy on Iraq; softened postures towards Taiwan as well as painstaking efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiation table. These efforts coupled with the American need for building an international coalition against terrorism and appreciation for China's support, have produced a remarkable turnaround of the relationship beyond anyone's expectations. More significant is that China's cooperative behavior apparently has led some US policy-makers to re-conceptualise China's nature and its position in the US global strategy.

The most noticeable change has been that of President Bush. After September 11, he completely dropped the term of "strategic competitor" to describe China. Instead, he redefined Sino-American relations as 3Cs (constructive, cooperative, and candid) and started calling China an "ally." It has become increasingly evident that he is treating Chinese leaders with more respect and warmth. The friendly atmosphere and body language between him and new Chinese President Hu Jintao in their summit meeting at Evian is just the most recent example. In his West Point speech on national security strategy in 2002, Bush further conceptualised his new understanding of major power relations including China. He declared that the United States faces the "best chance since the rise of the nation state in the 17th century to build a world where the great powers compete in peace instead of prepare for war". While competition between great nations is inevitable, armed conflict between them is not. This is a critical perceptual change, often overlooked, that paves the way for the improvement and stabilisation of the relationship.

President Bush is not alone. Even the perceptions of China "hawks" in the Pentagon have been evolving. In their recent trip to East Asia, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and his entourage made some extraordinary remarks, indicating how much their views on China have been modified after September 11. Wolfowitz suggested that if the North Korean regime wants to survive, it could look to China as an example. By doing so he subtly praised China's reforms, endorsed the legitimacy of the Chinese regime, and drew a clear line between China and those "rogue states." A senior Pentagon official accompanying Wolfowitz further elaborated that "compared to other evils in the world, China doesn't seen so evil as it did two years ago".

Due to Beijing's preoccupation with its economic modernisation and internal problems, it will pursue a peaceful policy toward its neighbours in the foreseeable future. In both words and deeds, "the Chinese have been fairly good participants in this part of the world recently". Such an interpretation of Chinese international behavior is almost identical to Beijing's official proclamation! There have been some signs that such perceptual changes regarding China have begun to influence strategic and military planning in the Pentagon. Some reviews and studies floating around, in direct contrast to those pre-September 11, apparently use the perceived diminishment of the China threat as a rationale for possible restructuring and redeployment of military forces in the region.

These are certainly positive trends for US-China relations. After September 11, the United States and China both seized the opportunity to promote ad hoc cooperation. A more challenging test of the political wisdom of both countries, however, is how to turn this opportunity into lasting momentum for a more stable relationship. To achieve this, it is not sufficient merely to have functional collaboration in various areas. More important is a realistic understanding of each other's natures, intentions, and goals. A good first step is moving away from regarding the other side as a mortal and embedded enemy. Changes of perception between nations are never easy, and translating these changes into policy change is equally difficult. However, one can argue that after more than a decade of post-Cold War and particularly post-September 11 interactions between the two countries, the United States should have been able to figure out the "true color" of China as a rising power. The divisive debate on China as a friend or foe ought to come to an end, thus laying a necessary cognitive foundation for a truly "constructive" and "cooperative" relationship in the 21st century.

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About the Author

Professor Jianwei Wang is a professor of political science, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and senior research associate, Shanghai Institute for American Studies and Shanghai Center for RimPac Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of Limited Adversaries: Post-Cold War Sino-American Mutual Images (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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