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  • America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Warren I. Cohen. America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations. Fifth edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xxiii, 326 pp. Paperback $27.50, ISBN 978-0-231-15077-4.

Now in its fifth edition, the above book has seen a shelf life of four decades. America’s Response to China first appeared in 1971 and again in 1980; both were published by John Wiley & Sons with the subtitle An Interpretative History of Sino-American Relations. The subsequent three editions by the Columbia University Press (1990, 2000, and 2010) have dropped the word “interpretative.” [End Page 173]

Setting the five volumes side by side, opened to the page of their respective contents, we can see little substantive change other than the same epilogue in the first and second edition becoming a full chapter 8 in the next three editions. In each new edition, Cohen has added accumulated facts and significant new historical happenings, such as the tectonic shift in China’s future viability caused by the Beijing massacre of its citizens on June 1989, which became chapter 9, “In the Shadow of Tiananmen,” in both the fourth and fifth editions. Cohen describes how the time-tested survival and diplomatic skill of Chinese leaders within Sino-American relations were able to finesse avoiding China being permanently branded as a pariah state.

Each new edition includes more information and insights on people such as Dean Rusk, John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, and other significant Washington players in Sino-American relations, not to mention the pivotal role of different U.S. presidents. Cohen expresses relief that Sino-American relations were able to survive eight years of Ronald Reagan, who favored free China Taiwan to the point of threatening the crystal clear one-China ambiguity set forth in the Shanghai communiqué under Nixon in 1972 and the gains of normalization under the Carter administration in 1979. Thus, Cohen’s epilogue, “Rapprochement — At Last,” in the second edition became a full chapter 8 in the following three editions. It details the twists and turns in the Reagan era, and how Vice President George H. W. Bush, through personal friendship with Premier Deng Xiaoping, was able to lessen the tension between the two countries.

Why America’s Response to China has enjoyed its longevity is due largely to Cohen’s central focus on the driving force behind U.S. foreign relations — namely, national self-interest. That nations in the world arena act primarily out of national self-interest is a truism, but such an obvious fact is, nevertheless, often overlooked when Americans view China either romantically or with undue fear. That nations are driven by self-interest was most crassly expressed quite candidly by President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal to his counterpart, Chen Shui-bian, that “countries have no friends, they have only interests” when his country broke relations with Taiwan in favor of the People’s Republic of China.1 Or, in a more subtle, presumably conciliatory manner, President Clinton’s delinking improved human rights as a condition for renewing most-favored-nation status. Cohen sees the president’s act as resurrecting the famous dictum of Calvin Coolidge that “the business of America is business” (p. 231, fourth edition).

In America’s Response to China, Cohen confirms the apparent schizophrenic nature of U.S. foreign policy in the facile friend or foe pendulum swing that Harold R. Isaacs (1910–1986) wrote about more than half a century ago.2 U.S. interest in East Asia in general, and China in particular, in the nineteenth century, Cohen tells us, had been secondary or tangential to its central preoccupation with Europe. Also, China in the Qing dynasty was such a weak and insolvent entity that America never exerted much effort on its behalf, let alone considered [End Page 174] siding with it in a war. Despite all the empathy toward the Chinese people languishing under Japanese atrocities in the 1930s, including the brutal massive rape of Nanking in December 1937, President Roosevelt stood firm on U.S. neutrality. This ended when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor...