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For the past six years the largest country in the world—with a quarter of the earth’s population—has been a blank space on the map of American foreign policy. For many reasons, political and moral, our government has steadfastly refused to recognize the government of Communist China. That refusal has been strongly supported by both political parties, and almost certainly reflects the emotions of most Americans. Yet many people concerned with foreign affairs have expressed uneasiness about this situation.

A combination of 200 million Russians and 600 million Chinese would confront us with an array of military manpower that we and our allies could never hope to match. Moreover, Red China’s contribution to the hostile alliance is no longer merely people. The country is making a back-breaking effort to industrialize, and within the not-too-distant future it may be able to join Russia in fighting a modern war.

Even if war is avoided, an alliance between Russia and Red China becomes more dangerous to the free world with every gain in Chinese economic power; for that power will increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure the partners can bring to bear on the uncommitted nations of Asia and Africa. Obviously, then, it would be to our advantage to loosen the ties between China and Russia whenever an opportunity arises.

We need have no illusions about getting the Chinese Communists to like us or our ideas. As George Kennan has pointed out, the present generation of Chinese leaders hates the United States and distrusts our every motive. It sees in us the only force capable of threatening their national ambitions, and it associates American influence with the worst abuses of the prerevolutionary regime. But the men in Peking are realistic, and they will come to terms with American policy if it does not conflict with their essential aims. But what are those aims? That is the most difficult question of all, and on it depends our own future course.

The best evidence suggests that the Chinese want to reshape their country in the classic Marxist image. They plan to muster an industrial army of 20 million, led by native engineers and scientists. Within each of the next five years they hope to increase the gross national product by 15 percent. In the same period, they aim to reclaim vast tracts of eroded land, to control the Yellow River, to build hospitals in every province, and to pierce the deserts and mountains of West China with modern roads. To accomplish even a fraction of this dream, Communist China needs peace.

Probably there are men in Peking who put expansion and ideological control over the rest of Asia above domestic development. Such men may even consider a military showdown with the United States inevitable. But they do not now appear to be in the majority or in the lead.

For good moral and psychological reasons, many Americans are unwilling to rethink their assumptions about China. This leads to continuing a policy that is tenable, but increasingly obsolete and unimaginative. In the future it may become very costly. China is no longer isolated or even attached solely to Russia. It is the leader of the Bandung countries, that immense alliance of colored peoples united by dislike of the white man and fierce nationalism. French soldiers in North Africa have found pictures of Mao Zedong on Arab walls, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser is, in many respects, a creation of this “Bandung mentality.” To millions of colored people, from Indonesia to Casablanca, Communist China foreshadows their own destiny.

This alone makes it exceedingly important for us to attempt to separate Chinese interests from those of Russia. Moscow is ever eager to claim a natural alliance with the anti-colonialist and nationalist passions in Asia and Africa. That claim is a vast fraud—but our present policy toward Peking is helping the Russians get away with it.

Perhaps our efforts to wean China away from Russia will fail. Nevertheless, so long as it costs us nothing more than recognition, the attempt seems well worth making.

Today there are only three great powers in the world. As of now, two of them are allied against us. An administration that ignores this fact may avoid some political squabbles for the moment, but only at the risk of gravely damaging our long-range national interests.

FromA Better Way to Deal with China,” which appeared in the June 1957 issue of Harper’s Magazine. 

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March 2001

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