China-US relations

Why fears over a malign China replacing a benign America are a gross distortion of history

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says apprehensions over what future Chinese global leadership would look like should not obscure the fact that historical meddling with other democratically elected governments shows the concept of ‘America as a beacon of freedom’ to be pure propaganda

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 10:05am

This has been an extraordinary year: we are witnessing arguably the most radical global transition since 1945. To quote sinologist Richard McGregor: “If China continues in its present path, the world as we have known it will never be the same again.”


The signs had been there for some time. In 2012, Financial Times Washington Bureau chief Edward Luce published Time To Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline. The beginning of the end for US leadership can be dated back to two events in 2003: the illegal US invasion of Iraq on March 20 and the collapse of the World Trade ­Organisation’s ministerial meeting in Cancún on September 14. These events effectively heralded the end of US leadership of a Western-oriented multilateral global order.

In the ensuing years, the trends have intensified. US President Donald Trump’s rejection of the 2015 Paris climate agreement is a particularly brutal signal, as is the threat to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.

Certainly, in the course of his Asia Tour, Trump ­appears to have been ceding more and more global leadership to China and to President Xi Jinping. To suggest, however, that Pax Americana will be followed by Pax Sinica is misleading. The global circumstances of 2017 are dramatically different from those of 1945. The US and China are very different societies and their respective views of their place in the world differ radically.

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One major error, however, is to assume that, with the eclipse of the US, the world is losing a benign ­hegemon, to be almost certainly followed by a malign force. Harping on US leadership through “Western values” is to delve in mythology.

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Thus, China is lambasted for not being a democracy and for its failure to respect ­human rights – deemed a core Western value. The fact is that, in the West, ­democratisation was a consequence – not a cause – of successful ­industrialisation. Democracy in the West is a relatively recent phenomenon. The UK is often held up as a model. However, Britain’s rise to wealth and power depended initially on the slave trade and subsequently on colonisation.

American historian Sven Beckert’s book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, demonstrates the close correlation ­between cotton and Britain, and how its development depended on slavery and colonies.

Thus, while by the 1920s democracy existed for the British in Britain, it was forcefully denied to Britain’s overseas colonial subjects. Those who advocated ­independence were “dissidents”. Later, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed nine times by his British colonial overlords, for a total of 3,259 days. China is harshly criticised for its ­occupation of Tibet, while in fact Britain invaded in 1904.

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That was then. But how about more recently, especially the decades of Pax Americana?

First, there has always been a considerable degree of hypocritical ambiguity and a stunning degree of historical amnesia in the American self-perception and projection. Thus, the late eminent US historian Richard Hofstadter: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” He was referring to “Jeffersonian democracy”, yet Jefferson owned slaves.

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As US writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, America is a nation founded by slaveholders extolling a gospel of freedom, and that its initial wealth was derived from “the ability to employ this slave labour on abundant land stolen from Native Americans”. It is difficult to argue that the US had been anything resembling a “true” ­democracy until under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Even then, it has retained many imperfections, especially due to what would seem to be sentiments of nationally visceral white supremacy, which Coates deems “the scourge of American history”. The concept of “America as a beacon of freedom” does not necessarily compare favourably with some of the Soviet Union’s most blatant propaganda.

It was never really expected that Trump might use his stopover in Da Nang for the Apec summit to ­apologise on behalf of the US for all the appalling suffering caused to the Vietnamese in the 1954-1975 Vietnam war. US ground troops first landed in Da Nang in 1965.

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In A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos, author Joshua Kurlantzick estimates that 10 per cent of the Laotian population was killed, mainly civilians, and 25 per cent were made refugees. Recently ­released reports indicate that, during the Korean war, numerous and terrible offences were committed by the US military against South Koreans; in Indonesia, the massacre of some 100,000 civilians by the Indonesian army in the mid-1960s was supported by the US, on the grounds that they were “commies”.

Of course, ideologically, Washington supported democracies, but practically this might have depended on how friendly and compliant the ­democracy was to the US. In 1953, the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown in a CIA-orchestrated coup, the consequences of which are still with us. Twenty years later, it was the turn of democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. In 1989, the US invaded Panama and overthrew president Manuel Noriega. The list goes on. Boston professor Lindsey A. O’Rourke estimates that during the cold war, Washington tried to change other governments 72 times, through 66 covert operations and six overt. Unarguably the most deplorable recent example was the illegal invasion by the US (and its ally the UK) of Iraq, unleashing one of the darkest chapters in the history of humanity.

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As the global hegemon, the US was able to carry out all these acts with impunity. Russia was expelled from the G8 for the annexation of Crimea; the US retains its position in the G7 and, indeed, in all global governance institutions after Iraq. The broader American population seems not to question this mythology, and indeed even extols it.

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I continue to believe that, given the global circumstances in 1945, Pax Americana was undoubtedly the best option. Having been born in that year, I am grateful to US leadership, especially under Franklin D. Roosevelt. There can also be no doubt that – while the alleged Western values of democracy, with the US as its beacon, is a sham, as is the notion of the US as a benign global hegemon – there have been many and considerable tangible benefits of Pax Americana.

But, the Manichean view of the US as a benign hegemon, in contrast to China as a potentially malign ­hegemon, is not borne out by the facts. It is also not a constructive mindset with which to approach the 21st century. Empires never exit gracefully. Trump provides ample evidence of that. Declining empires and rising empires are also prone to engage in war, as in the ­so-called Thucydides Trap.

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As the Western powers and Japan rose in the 19th and 20th centuries, China was treated abysmally, from the opium wars to the liberation. There is indeed truth in the perception that it was China’s era of humiliation. So far as the US is ­concerned, this is egregiously illustrated by the Chinese Exclusion Act (barring Chinese from entering the US), enacted in 1882 and repealed only in December 1943, two years after Pearl Harbour, when China had become an American ally in the war against Japan.

To build a solid future, honest recognition of the past would seem essential. There is ample reason to be somewhat apprehensive of what Chinese global leadership will look like. But drawing a contrast ­between an allegedly benign US and an allegedly malign China is a gross distortion of history and no way to build a relationship.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong