Among the current surfeit of books that claim to explain China, Terminus: Westward Expansion, China, and the End of American Empire, a new treatise on Sino-American relations, distinguishes itself by placing the current bilateral tensions in the context of almost two and half centuries of American expansion (“imperial expansion” as author Stuart Rollo puts it) which, it argues, had China as its target and which have reached its limit (hence “Terminus”).
Some, perhaps much, of Terminus is relatively well-trodden ground, such the insistence on having the term “empire” applied to the United States. “The question of whether the United States is in fact an empire,” Rollo writes, “should be settled from the outset,” arguing that America has always been imperial. While this usage to describe the country and its policies is of course resisted by many Americans, it is hardly new; this idea was covered extensively in Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
And while it is true the United States was far more involved with China, especially early on, than is generally realized—The Empress of China left New York for Canton in 1784, for example, returning the next year—this history was broadly covered in by Michael J Green in By More Than Providence: Grand strategy and American power in the Asia Pacific since 1783. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum had, not that long ago, an entire exhibition on early Sino-American trade).
Nor will Rollo’s recommendations that the United States needs to adopt policies (he calls them “post-imperial” policies) to deal with a world where it and China are at near parity seem unprecedented; they echo positions taken by such other commentators as Kishore Mahubani.
What stands out in Terminus is not, therefore, Rollo’s claim that
from the earliest days of its existence as a republic, the United States has been engaged in near constant imperial expansion…
but rather the one that China (“the envisioned economic prize at the endpoint of westward expansion and crowning imperial jewel”) has always been the point of such expansion:
China, traditionally the largest economy in the world, has been the lodestar toward which American market-oriented expansionism has been directed for much of its history…
Or, as the marketing copy puts it a bit more directly:
Terminus traces the development of American empire building from the pre-independence period to the eve of World War I, arguing that this new empire was primarily driven by commercial interests in China.
This would, one imagines, overturn much conventional wisdom about American history and what drove it. I was left unconvinced. Rollo succeeds—usefully—in developing a throughline of China’s presence in the American mental landscape, but not however its primacy. The null hypothesis is that American expansion would have happened anyway, that land, furs, gold, whale oil, guano, fears of European powers and other reasons closer to home were behind most personal and national decisions to expand or “go West”, rather than possible commercial opportunities in (far off) China.
To be fair, although Rollo positions this primacy as a, if not the, key plank of his argument, it doesn’t in fact seem crucial to the conclusions he wishes to draw.
It may be worth noting, although Rollo himself does not, that the author hails not from the US nor even Britain, but from Australia, a country tightly tied to, yet not a direct party to, the relationship between the two superpowers. There is no “we” or “us” in Rollo’s account: he writes as an observer rather than a participant. It is hard to imagine an American commentator framing the question in quite the way he has. Regardless of one’s point of view on this subject, there is something to be said for being exposed to as wide a range of perspectives as possible.