Gregg A. Brazinsky: Sino-American Competition Past and Present

Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War, by Gregg A. BrazinskyWe welcome a guest post today from Gregg A. Brazinsky, author of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (April 2017). In the book, Brazinsky examines afresh the intense and enduring rivalry between the United State and China during the Cold War. He shows how both nations fought vigorously to establish their influence in newly independent African and Asian countries. By playing a leadership role in Asia and Africa, China hoped to regain its status in world affairs, but Americans feared that China’s history as a nonwhite, anticolonial nation would make it an even more dangerous threat in the postcolonial world than the Soviet Union. Drawing on a broad array of new archival materials from China and the United States, Brazinsky demonstrates that disrupting China’s efforts to elevate its stature became an important motive behind Washington’s use of both hard and soft power in the “Global South.”

In the following post, Brazinsky offers insight into how President-Elect Donald Trump’s recent phone call with the president of Taiwan could affect American relations with China.


Although President-elect Donald Trump has yet to take office, he has already put U.S.-China relations on a more dangerous footing. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump vilified China as a pernicious competitor that has “ripped us absolutely to shreds.” During debates and public rallies Trump vowed repeatedly that if victorious he would take a tougher stance against China. Most recently, the president-elect’s decision to accept a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen demonstrated that he refuses to be bound by many of the protocols that have kept ties between Beijing and Washington stable if not always warm during the last forty years.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric and willingness to aggravate the thorny Taiwan issue have raised hackles in Beijing. Part of the reason for this is that China’s view of itself and its role in the international community differs starkly from Washington’s. China does not see itself as an amoral and unfair competitor intent on replacing American hegemony but as a developing country that has been carved up and humiliated by the West in the not so distant past. When American politicians criticize China—especially on issues where it has made concessions—Chinese leaders inevitably view it as another form of Western bullying.

Most troubling from the perspective of a historian is that Trump’s actions seem to portend a return to a more competitive relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Through much of the Cold War, China and the United States were locked in a bitter rivalry—competing for power and status around the world. From the time the Chinese Communist Party first defeated the U.S.-backed Guomindang and established the PRC in 1949, American policymakers took the position that the new government was illegitimate and refused to recognize it. For more than two decades, Washington sought to isolate the PRC—encouraging its allies to shun diplomatic contact with the communist regime and imposing harsh economic controls. Mutual animosity between the two countries led to direct military confrontation in Korea and exacerbated the war in Vietnam. More American lives were lost in both conflicts than would have likely been the case if the United States and China had been more willing to talk.

In my forthcoming book, Winning the Third World: Sino American Rivalry during the Cold War, I examine how this heated rivalry gave rise to a fierce competition in newly independent Afro-Asian countries during the 1950s and 1960s. China emerged as a powerful new force for world revolution and Afro-Asian solidarity during these years because many postcolonial nations admired the Chinese Communist Party’s successful struggle to end foreign domination of its homeland and build a new state. But for American officials, Beijing represented a threatening combination of socialism and anti-colonial nationalism that could turn the Global South against the United States.  The two rivals quickly became ensnared in a bitter, protracted contest for influence that extended over much of Asia and Africa.

Who won this competition? Ultimately, nobody did. Sino-American rivalry often deepened divisions within both individual countries and the international community as a whole. Countervailing pressures from China and the United States made it difficult for leaders in some new states to achieve a strong consensus for their policies. Moreover, to many non-aligned leaders, these constant efforts by Beijing and Washington to attack and undermine each other often came across as uncompromising and domineering. The rivalry thus diminished the credibility and prestige of both parties. Through endless competition, Beijing and Washington ended up doing far more harm than good to their own interests and to the prospects of the newly independent countries whose loyalties they fought over.

Of course, it was President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that marked the beginning of the end of Sino-American Cold War rivalry. In subsequent decades, as China undertook far-reaching reforms that transformed it into a global economic power, new spheres of cooperation emerged. The PRC became a leading venue for American trade and investment while playing an increasingly constructive role in international institutions. Although China’s rise—especially during the last twenty years—has also produced new frictions over a range of economic and strategic issues, leaders on both sides have carefully maintained a balance between competition and cooperation. There has been a general realization that greater cooperation can do more to promote mutual interests than greater competition.

President-elect Trump has thus far seemed eager to shift the scales far more heavily toward competition than his predecessors, however. In his recent tweets, Trump has fiercely criticized Beijing on trade and condemned its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Moreover, some of the people under consideration for high cabinet posts such as John Bolton have been advocates of more vigorous confrontation with the PRC in the past. Beijing doesn’t seem to like what it’s been hearing. The official Chinese news agency has warned that “it would be a mistake to think that Washington could gain from undercutting Beijing’s core interests.”

As rhetoric becomes more incendiary on both sides, there is a serious danger that the Sino-American relationship could devolve into the kind of unproductive competition that characterized it in the past. Of course even renewed competition is unlikely to match the intensity and violence of the Cold War era. Nonetheless, it is certainly possible that with both sides adopting a more combative posture, many of the benefits of cooperation will be lost and the world will once again suffer from the ramifications of Sino-American discord.

Gregg A. Brazinsky is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. He is author of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (April 2017) and Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy (2007). Follow him on Twitter @gbrazinsky.