Global Affairs

21st Century China: The New 20th Century America?

The focus of geopolitics in the last decade has increasingly centred around China’s antagonistic rise to superpower status, but does China’s current foreign policy share any similarities to America’s in the 20th century? There is no doubt that China’s actions over the last twenty years have become ever more hostile both on the international stage and within China itself. In terms of foreign policy, China has aggressively used soft power through tech companies such as Huawei and Tiktok. Indeed, China’s use of this technology to enforce censorship, surveillance and autocracy at home has raised concerns in the West over national security. Meanwhile schemes such as the Belt and Road Initiative — which involves 129 countries and 29 international organisations — has led to China essentially buying up debt in the Middle-East and Africa in order to assert its leverage. This is a belligerent form of hard power.

Trepidation in the West has been exacerbated in recent months, with a handful of Tory backbenchers such as David Davis and Tom Tugendhat urging for a tougher stance on China. Over the summer Bob Seely stated that “there are multiple issues we need to push ahead with as part of a general China reassessment”. Certainly, China has come to embody a genuine and distinctive threat. In particular, their systematic persecution of the Uighur Muslims at home has no parallel. If any historical analogy can be made at all, the locking up of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in regions such as Xinjiang in so-called ‘rehabilitation camps’ echoes the horrific Gulags of the Soviet Union. Western nations are only now beginning to realise the gravity of these shocking human rights violations. In the past few weeks Canadian MPs have begun to label Chinese persecution of the Uighurs as a genocide, whilst an independent London tribunal is investigating the severity of these human rights abuses.

Therefore, the aim of this article is, of course, not to suggest that America’s actions in the 20th century — especially at home — are the same as those of China’s in the 21st. Doing so would seriously underestimate the gravity of Chinese actions, especially their persecution of the Uighurs. However, ignoring domestic agendas for the moment, with the rise of a new superpower it is worth examining comparisons to an older one.

China has rightfully been criticised for its use of soft and hard power: the former most notably characterised by exporting technology abroad and the latter by the Belt and Road Initiative. However, we cannot forget that America too had an aggressive foreign and economic policy after the Second World War. President Truman’s Marshall Plan in 1947 pledged $13bn to aid the economies of Eastern European countries. Although this was supposedly altruistic, Truman’s primary motive was to contain the spread of communism and increase American influence within Europe. More significantly though, as Cold War tensions became amplified, America played a substantial role in turning the Cold War into a hot one. In 1950, Truman intervened in Korea to prevent the communist state of North Korea from invading South Korea. Initially, Truman was able to pass this off as neatly aligning with his policy of ‘containment’: preventing the spread of communism. In October, however, General MacArthur — leading the American troops — overstepped the 38th parallel and invaded North Korea. This move shattered any superficial ideology that was disseminated in Cold War rhetoric: of defending liberty and American values abroad. For by actively invading North Korea, America had become the aggressors. America, not entirely unlike China now, was using a facade of moral principles to hide the reality of advancing its own interests.

The same case can be made for Vietnam. Even before war began, for a decade under Presidents Eisenhower and then Kennedy the corrupt far-right dictator Ngo Dinh Diem was supported with American troops and money. Thus economic and military influence was being ruthlessly used to maintain America’s national interests abroad. Sound familiar? Further, American actions in the 20th century cannot only be categorised as ‘economic imperialism’. Atrocities such as the sickening 1968 My Lai massacre in which American troops killed 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians are reminders that we cannot simply lie back on the notion of Western Exceptionalism. This is not to say that America’s actions in the 20th century were worse than China’s today, but rather that they are not entirely dissimilar. Xi’s propagation of his own moral benevolence is a characteristic which other nations rising to superpower status have set the precedent for: America being one example.

Even China’s Belt and Road Initiative echoes certain American foreign policy in 20th century. For whilst China is essentially holding African countries to ransom using debt, America’s economic policy in South and Central America amounted to nearly the same thing. In 1909 the United States overthrew the Nicaraguan President Jose Santos Zelaya, and subsequently in 1914 the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty asserted the perpetual rights of the U.S. to the canal — used as part of the vast Panama Canal project. This was America was using its military muscle to preserve its own economic interests abroad in an explicit and undeniable fashion. Thus China is not the first superpower to tap into the resources of the developing world on a whim.

There are, of course, crucial differences. Most notably, whilst America and China’s obtrusive styles of foreign policy may share some similarities, their domestic records are incomparable. America’s in the 20th century was, no doubt, very far from flawless. In fact, the great irony was that — whilst fighting a Cold War abroad in which politicians propagated rhetoric about freedom and democracy — at home the so-called ‘leaders of the free world’ still failed to grant their black citizens basic rights. Ideological propaganda such as Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ jarred with the Mississippi Riots of 1963. Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson’s idealised notion of the ‘Great Society’ was in the end undermined by the race riots of 1968. Needless to say, sixty years later systemic racism within America still remains.


However, contemporary China’s imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in socalled ‘rehabilitation camps’ is a far more grave violation of human rights. This point cannot be stressed enough. The fact that the West has taken so long to realise the extent of this persecution is both appalling and depressing. You would think that the lessons of the 20th century might have taught us something. We study the Holocaust in textbooks for GCSE but fail to recognise a potential genocide when it is staring us in the face.


Nevertheless, the world is not binary. China may well pose a more serious threat to freedom and democracy than America did in the 20th century. But that is not to say there aren’t some similarities — especially in terms of foreign policy. To argue otherwise would be to fall into the trap of Western smugness: ceaselessly criticising the aggression of one nation rising to superpower status, whilst forgetting that only a century ago Britain still had an empire and only fifty years ago America was fighting in Vietnam. To put China’s foreign policy into perspective, as well as to realise the seriousness of their actions at home against the Uighurs, a few more history lessons are needed.