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The Roots of Sino-American Antagonism

Although we still do not know what sent jousting Chinese and American planes as well as Sino�US relations into a nose dive, this has not hindered people on both sides from unleashing an avalanche of accusations and uncompromising demands for apologies. While an answer to the question as to what actually happened remains elusive, a more important question begs our attention: why do such incidents balloon into crises that keep US�China ties almost permanently out of kilter?

Both nations have a long and complicated history with each other. The United States arrived on the Chinese scene during the 19th century flushed with its “manifest destiny” to trade and save China's soul, following this in the 20th century with a messianic effort to save China from Godless Communism. But mixed with America’s moral and economic concerns were large measures of condescension and arrogance, which arose from seeing China as a poor, benighted land in need of rescue. For a proud and once powerful land such as China, such noblesse oblige was painful to accept and created lasting reservoirs of resentment.

To travel through urban China today is in many ways a deceptive experience. Yes, China has emerged into the global market and boasts many of the hallmarks of a modernizing society. Many of these emblems of modernity and cosmopolitanism, however, mask the provenance of China's “socialist revolution.” We forget, indeed, that China had such a revolution, and that there were both reasons and consequences to that convulsive experience.

China's current government arrived through a tectonic revolution animated by anti�imperialism, anti�colonialism, and anti�capitalism codified as orthodox Marxist�Leninist doctrine. These sentiments resulted from a century of being preyed upon by the West beginning with the first Opium War (1839�42), when Britain seized Hong Kong as a colony and then sailed up China’s coast with warships to force open one coastal “treaty port” after an other.