Sunday essay: Sino American duet is turning into a Danse Macabre

Mar 7, 2021

Of late, the bilateral relationship has evolved into something akin to a Danse Macabre.

We have previously compared the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China to the Apache Dance, a Parisian stage act famous at the Moulin Rouge in the early twentieth century. Of late, however, the bilateral relationship has evolved into something akin to a Danse Macabre.

As I observed in May 2020:

Those of us who are inextricably involved with both of those nations while living, for the most part, on the periphery of these cheek-by-jowl empires, have long witnessed a decades-long ‘apache dance’. For me, the contemplation of that fluid, constantly-transmuting dialectic brings to mind the description of the come-hither performances witnessed in the New York art world as described by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word (1975):

‘The artist was like the female in the act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt … more thrashing about … more rake-a-cheek fury … more yelling and carrying on … until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriek — pain! ecstasy! — she submits … Paff paff paff paff paff … How you do it, my boy! … and the house lights rise and Everyone, tout le monde, applauds …’

In recent times, that bilateral gyration is more reminiscent of a danse macabre, the dance of death that flourished as an idea, a cultural trope and a reality in the late middle ages. During an era when war, pestilence and poverty might visit a cruel fate upon anyone at any time, the danse macabre was a reminder and warning, as well as a form of comic relief that was performed as a memento mori — a reminder that we all die. The danse macabre helped the living face the inevitable even as they dealt with the horrors of the day. As part of the dance, the cadaverous messengers of Death were unequivocal:

Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis

‘What we were, you are; what we are, you will be’

— from ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Washington’
China Heritage, 14 May 2020

In a presentation made to the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs on 11 February 2021, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. chose the metaphor of the pas de deux to characterise the Sino-American relationship. In his remarks, reproduced below, Ambassador Freeman emphasised that such a balletic duet requires considerable virtuosity and offered a clear-eyed evaluation of the quality of a performance that is, in essence, a grand pas de deux.

grand pas de deux is a suite of dances, often in five parts, that share a common theme. The five parts are the:

  • Entrée: a highly ritualised and pageantry-laden prelude during which much is made of the couple’s intentions and romantic aspirations;
  • Adagio: a slow and entrancing courtship during which the lead offers support to the often convoluted balancing acts of their partner;
  • Variations: during which each performer takes a turn in centre stage, showcasing their athletic talents via leaps, turns and various acrobatic displays; and,
  • Coda: the conclusion to the performance in which earlier set pieces are repeated in a build up to a grand finale.

The halcyon days of the Sino-American bilateral adagio have long given way to a seemingly endless round of variations. How and when a coda might result, and which performer will garner the most applause, are anybody’s guess. In the meantime, Ambassador Freeman says,

‘…let China take its own path while we take our own. We need to fix our own problems before we try to fix China’s.’

We are delighted that Ambassador Freeman has given China Heritage permission to reproduce his remarks — ‘Playing at War Games with China’ — as a chapter in Spectres & Soul: China Heritage Annual 2021.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
20 February 2021


  • The typographical style of Ambassador Freeman’s original has, for the most part, been retained, although the footnotes have been incorporated into the body of the text.


‘In America’s pas de deux with China, we have consistently been the initiator of the dance and taken the lead. We developed some well-founded complaints about Chinese economic behavior, so we launched a trade war with it. We were alarmed about China’s potential to outcompete us internationally, so we decided to try to cripple it with an escalating campaign of “maximum pressure.” We saw China as a threat to our continued military primacy, so we sought to contain and encircle it.’

— Chas W. Freeman, Jr.


The State of the Sino-American Pas de Deux in 2021 – China Heritage



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