“China” has been in the news a lot lately as pro-democracy protests have erupted in Hong Kong and the Trump administration engages in continuing hardball trade negotiations with them, among other countries.
As a country, “China” and its almost 1.4 billion people, in contrast to its current state apparatus, is no greater belligerent inherently than any other nation. However its Communist government has become increasingly so in recent years, setting up what is a difficult foreign policy dilemma for the United States not only now but in the long-run.
As we grapple with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and their wide variety of military, economic, and social policies and actions – often and increasingly in opposition to the United States – we should be exact and informed on what kind of opponent we are dealing with and to what degree.
In the PRC’s early years they were eminently hostile to the United States. The US-backed Republic of China (ROC), our ally in World War 2, had been forced by them off the mainland onto the small island of Taiwan. The new PRC, led by Mao Zedong, quickly found itself on not just the verbal but military battlefield against the United States directly in the Korean War and indirectly through countless proxy conflicts across the globe.
That would change when President Richard Nixon “opened” the PRC and brought it as an uneasy partner into not the free world but an anti-Soviet alliance. After all, Mao Zedong was responsible for the slaughter, labor camp, and starvation deaths of tens of millions of persons under his control as well as the torture, imprisonment, and subjugation of countless more. This strange but increasingly close partnership would continue until the fall of the Soviet Union, as the PRC had already seen a number of ideological, economic, foreign policy, and even military conflict with the USSR.
By the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s there was great optimism for the PRC. Deng Xiaoping, China’s new primary leader, led numerous reforms that increased economic freedom in China and spurred hope for political freedom as well. Those hopes were quashed in the blood of the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989, but the spark still remained.
The next two and a half decades actually saw enormous, optimistic, bold and serious moves towards political freedoms in the PRC – a “Glasnost” of sorts – even under the boot of the Communist Party is China still. Powered by the Internet, countless billions in foreign investment and international corporate activity, major freedom of travel, a move towards “leadership by committee and consensus,” and increasing internal pro-US sentiment, many began to refer to China as a capitalist country but only in name still Communist.
That unfortunately reversed in dramatic and painful fashion in just mostly this past half decade, reflecting how sensitive liberty in a nation without engrained checks and balances is and how quick it can revert to restricting freedom and human rights. The Internet in the PRC has become a censored Swiss-cheese web and a tool for citizen monitoring. Foreign companies have faced an uncertain environment as perceived openings by the PRC have been shaky. Anti-US activities have increased dramatically, as the PRC seeks to build out its own international network – sometimes and often in cooperation with the Russian Federation – to the US and free world.
This has all created a difficult situation for the United States. The last few decades have seen enormous exchange and interconnection that is difficult to unravel yet is increasingly posing serious security and economic challenges. The increasingly faint hope, for now at least, of a Free China – and accordingly balancing between containment and detente – is hard to approximate exactly.
Whatever the case, we are at a pivotal point for US-China relations and what will undoubtedly be one of the most defining – and challenging – relationships of the 21st century. Our nation must remain clear eyed on what the PRC is and the complexity of its, and ours, past, present, and future.
— Erich Reimer is a Captain in the United States Army. He previously served as a government affairs lawyer and media commentator. Views expressed are his own and not those of the Department of Defense.

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