Pence on China: Mere Flap-Doodle

In a speech to the Hudson Institute in October outlining his administration’s stance toward China, Vice President Mike Pence said:

“When China suffered through indignities and exploitation during her so-called ‘Century of Humiliation,’ America refused to join in, and advocated the ‘Open Door’ policy, so that we could have freer trade with China, and preserve their sovereignty…”[1]

To crib a line from John Hay, the US Secretary of State who personally outlined America’s Open Door Policy to all great powers in 1899, what Pence said is “mere flap-doodle.”[2]

By the time America formulated the Open Door Policy, which urged “the various powers claiming ‘spheres of interest’ that they shall enjoy perfect equality of treatment for their commerce and navigation within such ‘spheres,’” it had already signed multiple “unequal treaties” with China.[3] Those treaties guaranteed extraterritoriality for foreigners, pried open new treaty ports, opened Beijing to a legation, allowed American boats to access to the Yangtze River, and protected missionary activities throughout China.[4] America also supplied troops to the eight-power alliance dispatched to Beijing to quell the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion in 1900, an intervention that killed a large number Chinese and the looted the capital’s treasures.[5] So much for “refusing to join in” and “preserving their sovereignty.”

As for free trade, America joined late in the carving up of China, having been preoccupied with its own colonialist Spanish-American War until 1898.[6] The Open Door Policy’s goal was to ensure the more-established “unequal treaty” powers wouldn’t exclude America from China. By claiming the “lofty principles of fair trade,”[7] Hay and the Americans tried to guarantee American products and capital would have equal access to the Chinese market—that Americans would get their slice of the melon. “Freer trade”, then, whether China wanted it or not.

Pence’s comments have implications beyond exposing historical illiteracy. From perspective of Chinese policy makers, Americans talking about the Open Door policy to rationalize a tougher line on bilateral relations recalls China’s “Century of Humiliation” and tints American intentions with 19th and 20th century aggression. Invoking the Open Door Policy is a fine way to signal by “free trade” American leaders really mean “American interests.” It’s hostile, counterproductive, and reminds the Chinese of a time when foreigners exploited China’s weakness for their advantage.

Unlike 1899, China is no longer weak and is eager to demonstrate it. Like 1899, America does not have the unilateral ability get want it wants. It needs some cooperation or at least acquiescence, this time from China. Talking about the Open Door, then, is perhaps not the best way to negotiate a troubled relationship.


[1] Pence, Mike, “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Toward China” (delivered to the Hudson Institute, 4 October 2018).
[2] Westad, Odd Arne, Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 130.|
[3] Waley-Cohen, Joanna, The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History (New York: Norton, 1999, digital edition), 190-191.
[4] Ibid, 190-191.
[5] Westad, Odd Arne, Restless Empire, 127.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 131.

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