Tuesday, 15 February 2011

“U.S.-China Relations”, by Robert G. Sutter (Rowman & Littlefield)

Sutter-USChinaRelationsPerilous Past, Pragmatic Present

This comprehensive and lucid assessment of the key historical and contemporary determinants of Sino-American relations explains the conflicted engagement between the two governments. Offering a welcome richness of discussion and analysis, distinguished analyst Robert G. Sutter explores the twists and turns of the relationship over the past two hundred years. The mixed historical record convincingly shows that strong differences and mutual suspicions persist, only partly overridden by a mutual pragmatism that shifts with circumstances. As the only book on the subject that combines a unified assessment of the historical evolution, contemporary status and likely prospects of U.S.-Chinese relations, this balanced and pragmatic study will be an essential resource for all concerned with the globe’s most crucial bilateral partnership. [Back Cover matter]

In this volume, long-time China scholar offers a mixed study of US-China relations. The book is broad, but sadly lacking in detail. For a scholar so well-versed in US-China relations, this was disappointing. The book is not, however, without its uses.

I have a very mixed opinion of Sutter’s latest book. I bought it because the table of contents suggested a structure that would benefit my own research in the subject – specifically, that the book is separated into historical assessments, followed by specific chapters on economic, normative, and security relations is slightly similar to my own study. Also, the statement “the only book on the subject that combines a unified assessment of the historical evolution, contemporary status and likely prospects of U.S.-Chinese relations” is not true – Warren Cohen’s America’s Response to China is superb and highly detailed-yet-accessible.

As the author builds his arguments over targeted chapters, the reader will experience some moments of de ja vu as subjects, themes and issues are revisited in new contexts. However, these instances do not always provide more information and greater understanding. My main argument about the lack of depth to the book can be summed up nicely by looking at one issue: the 1999 NATO (accidental) bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Here’s what Sutter writes, in a section describing the “vitriolic” debate during the Clinton administration:

“Heading the list was the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the most important incident in U.S.-China relations after the Tiananmen crackdown. The reaction in China included mobs stoning the U.S. embassy in Beijing and burning U.S. diplomatic property in Chengdu. Both of the governments restored calm and dealt with some of the consequences of the bombing, but China and the United States never came to an agreement on what happened and whether the United States explained its actions appropriately.” (109) (Emphasis mine)

This is, as it turned out, the entirety of Sutter’s discussion of this “most important incident”. There is nothing else to explain why this was the most important incident, there is no discussion or even supposition of why this is the most important incident, or any presumption to understand what longer-term impacts this might have had. Checking the index, I noticed that the bombing was mentioned later in the book, so I checked out these other instances – mere short mentions of the bombing in lists of other security events/crisis that occurred. This was very disappointing. The bombing does not, to be honest, appear to be considered particularly important by almost everyone else, which might explain why so little is mentioned about the event in other texts on US-China relations (in both the Chinese and American media, however, you can find plenty).

As simple history, Sutter offers good, clear summaries of US-China relations since 1789, touching on each and every key issue, crisis and event that has helped shape the bilateral relationship.

  • Human Rights: China’s well-publicised, mixed record on human rights; frequent arrests and imprisonment of democracy advocates; continued persecution of Falun Gong, Uighers in Xinjiang, and Tibetans; unsavoury family planning policies (forced abortions and sterilisations); use of prison labour for manufacturing products for sale to the US; lack of religious freedom in China; Beijing’s internet censorship policies
  • Security: China’s military expansion and what it means for American interests in Asia and cross-Strait relations; China’s policy towards Taiwan and US arms sales to same; China’s tendency to sell weapons and nuclear technology to ‘unsavoury’ or ‘rogue’ regimes like Iran and Pakistan; American accusations of Chinese espionage within the USA
  • Economics: US-China trade deficit; continuing problems with Intellectual Property Rights infringement; US complaints about China’s currency valuation; China’s purchase of US government securities and what this means for the relationship (fear of overreliance)
  • Taiwan: US arms sales to Taiwan; independence moves and rhetoric; Chinese belligerence and military build-up along Straits

But, even here, they are “summaries” more than anything else. I did not feel that the author really put much of himself into the book, and I would have liked some more discussion and analysis.

Ultimately, I feel this book is best suited to a comprehensive introduction to the broader US-China relations debate, at which it is very successful. The book is The style throughout the book was that of ‘introduction’, and the details I was waiting for never fully revealed themselves. Every key issue is highlighted, but the author fails to deliver in details. It’s unclear to me if this was his intention all along, but ultimately there are far better books available on the subject (see below). Having read plenty of Sutter’s other work, my expectations were somewhat high – however, the lack of depth in his analysis was disappointing, and I don’t believe this is written to the same standard I have come to expect from Sutter. I would probably recommend this to undergraduates, but I think postgraduates and policymakers might require something with a little more depth and detail.

What to read on US-China Relations:

Warren Cohen, America’s Response to China (2010); James Mann, About Face (1999) & The China Fantasy (2007); Patrick Tyler, The Great Wall (2000); Zachary Karabell, Superfusion (2009); Robert Suettinger, Beyond Tiananmen (2003); Jean Garrison, Making China Policy (2005); David Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Robert G Sutter, US Policy Toward China (1998)

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