Uncle Sam and the Paper Dragon

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In his groundbreaking book When in the Course of Human Events, Charles Adams shed great light on the American War Between the States by his extensive use of British and European publications from the time of the war. The European press, it turns out, took (and still takes) a very different view of the war than that trumpeted by the victorious North.

A similar approach to the recent diplomatic clash between the United States and China is also instructive.

The London Sunday Times, for example, headlined its coverage of the dispute as follows: "Pentagon hawks make China chief enemy in new cold war."

Try to find a headline like that in the American media, which has generally portrayed the United States as an innocent victim of Chinese militarism. Worse, compare it to the front page story in the Friday, April 6, 2001 Wall Street Journal entitled "Behind the Standoff: China’s Dated Vision of its Own Territory: A 19th-Century Perspective Lingers Today, Turning Encounters into Crises."

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. What century, dear War Street Journal, does the Monroe Doctrine date from? Monroe Doctrine aside, the Journal blithely ignores the fact that the United States takes exactly the same view of American territory, for example, challenging foreign military aircraft spying on American shores.

The BBC, meanwhile, reported that the Chinese man-on-the-street is wondering just how benign a world power is the United States:

For China’s strategists, America makes trouble in many ways. It takes what China sees as unilateral actions: It fights in the Gulf, it bombs Kosovo, it deploys soldiers, ships and spy planes in Asia, and supports Taiwan, the island state that China calls its own…So for a young Chinese fighter pilot, buzzing an American spy plane is in fact confronting American power in Asia

The Chinese are not suffering from vision problems in seeing the bombing of Kosovo, for example, as an example of overstepping by the United States. Think for a moment how the United States would have reacted if the Chinese had decided to invade Iraq, or if the Chinese had bombed the American embassy in Belgrade.

Significantly, the BBC also noted that

At Beijing University, China’s future elites watch world affairs closely and cynically. Many of them want to study in the US one day, but most believe America knows little of China and cares even less.

"Every year thousands of Chinese students do like to go there but sometimes America just acts like a policeman – they just want to take charge of too many states," said one student. "Sometimes we admire Americans and sometimes we think they are just bullies."

These Chinese attitudes are not only understandable, they are correct. Without a doubt, Americans know little of China, and care even less. As for the claim that "sometimes America just acts like a policeman," this is beyond dispute. The American role as a global supercop, after all, is nearly an article of religious faith among some American politicians, as it is at the War Street Journal.

In its April 6, 2001 front page story, the Journal writes that

in today’s world, instead of absolute sovereignty, countries nose into each other’s business all the time…Many countries have difficulty coming to grips with the evolving system of international relations. The history of the Balkans in the 1990s was one of countries trying to suppress the right of ethnic groups to determine their futures, even if it meant breaking up sovereign states. And in many cases, the U.S., too, ignores international conventions and agreements when doing so suits its ends; most recently, the U.S. pulled out of a global agreement on climate change and has refused to pass United Nations treaties on human rights. But China is the only major power uncomfortable with the overall system of multilateralism to which much of the rest of the world subscribes.

The Journal only gets it half right. The U.S., for example, indeed acts to suit its ends, but not because it recognizes any "evolving system of international relations." No, the U.S. acts to suit its own ends because that is what sovereign states do. The U.S. has only chosen to cloak its self-interest in the language of humanitarianism because the U.S. has found that this will enable it to do as it pleases.

"China has elevated sovereignty to a sacred principle," Tom Gold of the University of California, Berkeley, told the Journal. "It has joined many international economic organizations, but politically, it is uncomfortable with surrendering sovereignty." (pg. A6).

Isn’t this also true of America? If not, what is it that separates Republicans like Bush the Second from Democrats like FDR or Bill Clinton who sought to sell American sovereignty to the United Nations? Surprise, the Journal informs us, the United States doesn’t care about its own sovereignty. How then to explain that bloodshed in America from 1861-65, which was supposedly justified by the effort to keep a sovereign nation in one piece? Similarly, while the Journal criticizes Chinese expansionism in Asia, it is strangely silent over the earlier American expansionism – known as Manifest Destiny – which, for example, led to a war with Mexico in 1848 and with Spain in 1898.

To be very blunt, the Chinese are right to admire what is good in America, and to see Americans as bullies when Americans act like bullies. It is high time for Americans to ask themselves how it is in America’s long-term interests to alienate and anger the next generation of Chinese leaders – the generation which, one hopes, will oversee the transformation of China from a communist and totalitarian state into a free and prosperous commonwealth. If the United States is hoping to serve as an example of a free society for the Chinese to emulate, the United States is doing an utterly contemptible job.

Returning to the examination of the British press, aspects of the British coverage of the spy plane affair also may be faulted. The Sunday Times, for example, noted that

The first decision was that, unlike his father, Bush would not "reach out" to the Chinese. He did not use a hotline to contact President Jiang Zemin. He would be kept at arm’s length from the negotiations.

The Sunday Times, however, neglected to remind its readers of the fact that Bush I was the chief U.S. liaison officer to China from 1974-75; Bush the First was also the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (appointed by Nixon, no less) from 1971-72, chairman of the Republican party from 1973-74, and the director of the CIA (yes, that CIA) from 1976-77.

The decision by Bush the First to "reach out" to China, however, may have been not only a product of Bush I’s extensive contact with the Chinese; the Tiananmen Square massacre was a more outrageous event, requiring greater diplomatic skills, than the recent conflict over the spy plane. For what it’s worth, I recall watching scenes of the Tiananmen Square massacre on CNN, and being shocked that the United States would allow it to happen. In the case of the spy plane, I never had the sense that calm would not be shortly restored. (By the way, it should also be noted that Bush the First has co-authored a book on American foreign policy: A World Transformed.

The Sunday Times also did not explain the following cryptic reference to the song "Edelweiss:"

In China the hawks were in command. Diplomatic sources have confirmed that Lieutenant-General Xiong Guangkai, an army intelligence staff officer, was put in charge of a taskforce handling the crisis. The Americans knew Xiong’s volatile mood and regarded him as dangerous. On one occasion he had serenaded a visiting American admiral with a rendition of Edelweiss.

Although Baron von Trapp was in the Austrian Navy, what precisely was the significance of a Chinese General singing Edelweiss to an American? Readers are forced to wonder.

In the end, the spy plane affair will lead to a barbeque of pork for the hawkish in the United States. The Sunday Times notes that

Bush is now expected to mend fences among conservatives: Taiwan will get a top-line arms package, including submarines, anti-submarine weaponry and precursors of the Aegis missile defence system. America will also get tough on trade with China and on Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics.

And so we see how the game is played. Those who were disappointed that shots were not fired between the U.S. and China will receive consolation prizes: military sales to Taiwan (which will further anger the Chinese) and yet more selective American blathering about human rights.

As the Sunday Times concluded,

In place of the traditional Kissinger view of awesome Chinese power, American diplomats in Beijing might now be instructed to recall the words of the Japanese military attaché, one Colonel Aoki, after a similar period of tension in 1908. "The dragon of China," Aoki observed, "is still a paper dragon."

Nearly 100 years later, China remains a paper dragon. Americans, who have been played like credulous fools by their "public servants" in Washington, DC throughout the spy plane affair, should recall exactly how remote is any Chinese threat to the American mainland.

Americans, some apparently eager for war in the wake of the affair with China, could learn a lesson from the war-weary Irish song "The Patriot Game:"

Come all you young rebels, and list while I sing, For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing. It banishes fear with the speed of a flame, And it makes us all part of the patriot game.

Rather than beat the drums for war, say a prayer of thanksgiving and lift a Tsingtao to peace and free trade.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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