How the China-US relationship evolved, and why it still matters
It might be complicated, but experts say it’s too important to ignore or damage
Diplomatic observers struggle to reach a consensus definition of the complicated Sino-US relationship, but all agree it’s too important to be ignored or damaged by miscalculation or mismanagement.
It also stands out as arguably the most important bilateral relationship to be managed by the next US president, irrespective of whether Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump wins Tuesday’s election.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the relationship between the world’s leading capitalist democracy and its most populous communist state has evolved from stand-off to conflict and then on to today’s complex mix of intense diplomacy and escalating rivalry between two increasingly intertwined economies.
Observers also agree that no country has played a greater role than the United States in shaping and influencing modern China’s historical development, regardless of whether that influence is viewed as positive or negative.
For instance, the US was the world power most deeply involved in the latter stages of the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, from 1945 to 1949, first attempting to mediate a settlement and then providing massive financial aid to the Nationalists, who lost and withdrew to Taiwan. Then, in the early 1950s, troops from the two nations came into direct conflict during the Korean war, with tens of thousands killed on both sides. In the mid to late 1960s, during the Vietnam war, Chinese anti-aircraft artillery shot down American planes over North Vietnam and Chinese jet fighters shot down others near Hainan Island.
US president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, ending decades of estrangement, was a landmark event in the history of the People’s Republic. It not only reshaped the international geopolitical map, leading to the normalisation of diplomatic ties in 1979, but also laid the groundwork for China’s opening to the outside world in the following decade.
“The US-China relationship has occupied a unique place in China’s foreign policy and overall development,” said Professor Zhiqun Zhu, an international relations specialist who is director of Pennsylvania-based Bucknell University’s China Institute. “Today, the US-China relationship remains the most important bilateral relationship in China’s foreign policy.”
Political luminaries from both nations have played key roles in the evolution of the relationship – from China’s communist revolutionaries Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, to modern-day leaders Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, and all US presidents since 1972, from Nixon to Barack Obama, to former US national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who played a crucial role in Sino-US rapprochement.
President Xi has described the relationship as an “unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead”, despite occasional turbulence.
The world’s two largest economies are now deeply intertwined, with bilateral trade in goods and services totalling US$659.4 billion last year – up from barely US$991 million in 1978. China is now America’s largest foreign creditor, holding about US$1.8 trillion of US national debt, while American companies have set up more than 20,000 businesses in China.
The deep engagement is also evidenced by the frequent consultations between the leaders of the two countries. Obama has met his current Chinese counterpart nine times since Xi became head of state in 2013 and met Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, 12 times from 2009 to 2013.
David Zweig, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s chair professor of social science and director of its Centre on China’s Transnational Relations, said the US had played an enormous role in China’s economic development in recent decades, both as a purchaser of so many Chinese-made products and through the transfer of technology to China.
“Just like much of East Asia grew through its trade with the US, China could not have developed as quickly as it has without the US market,” Zweig said.
Zhu said that without the efforts of Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Zhou to normalise relations, and without Deng and US president Jimmy Carter’s cooperation to help China open up, China would not have achieved such great transformations in the past three decades.
Bilateral relations were generally good between 1972 and 1989, before China’s June 4 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. But the relationship became more complicated and unstable following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the subsequent breaking up of the Soviet Union.
Zweig said there was a strong US consensus supporting engagement, particularly in the late 1970s and 1980s. But the policy was to encourage China to open up and join the world on Western terms.
However, since 1989, the two countries have had disagreements on a host of issues, ranging from trade, human rights and Taiwan to more recent suspicion and distrust over their stances on regional and global security.
Washington imposed sanctions on China, including the suspension of high-level official exchanges and weapons exports, following the June 4 crackdown and a subsequent exodus of human rights activists to the US, and also approved the sale of more American arms to Taiwan. Those developments sent a chill through the bilateral relationship that lasted for nearly a decade. When Beijing test fired missiles in waters off Taiwan in the mid 1990s amid rising pro-independence sentiment in the self-ruled island, Clinton dispatched US aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait, confronting Beijing on the sensitive issue of “national reunification”.
Sino-US ties began to thaw following a state visit to the US by president Jiang Zemin in 1997 and a reciprocal visit to China by Clinton in 1998, the first by a US president following the Tiananmen crackdown.
However, two incidents, one in 1999 and the other in 2001, again complicated the relationship. The US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in May 1999 during the Nato campaign in that country, which killing three Chinese reporters, and a mid-air collision between a US Navy spy plane and a People’s Liberation Army Navy J-8D jet fighter in April 2001, in which the Chinese pilot was killed, triggered protests against the US in China.
However, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US just months later proved to be a turning point in bilateral relations, with China swiftly expressing its support for Washington’s “war on terrorism”.
The following decade and a half have seen the bilateral relationship grow wider and deeper, especially in the economic arena and even more so since China overtook Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy in 2011. They have tussled over issues including America’s bilateral trade deficit and the valuation of China’s yuan currency, but such issues seemed to become less contentious in recent years.
Generally speaking, Obama succeeded in maintaining a relatively stable and friendly relationship during his first, four-year term in office, from 2009.
The strategic economic dialogue initiated by Hu and US president George W. Bush in 2006 was broadened to a two-track strategic and economic dialogue by Hu and Obama in 2009, with more than a dozen cabinet ministers from both countries attending the annual meetings.
However, the relationship grew rockier towards the end of Obama’s first term, with major changes in the foreign policies of both nations.
From 2012, Obama began to implement his “pivot to Asia” strategy, refocusing Washington’s attention on the Asia-Pacific region, just as Xi, the Chinese Communist Party’s new general secretary, declared his intention to embark on an ambitious rejuvenation programme aimed at restoring China’s global pre-eminence.
Mutual suspicion and distrust has grown in recent few years amid escalating rivalry, even though there have been some cooperative highlights, chief among them this year’s agreement to sign the Paris climate change treaty.
They are competing for regional economic leadership, with Obama pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which excludes China – and Beijing countering with challenges to the US-led, Bretton Woods international monetary system such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, New Development Bank and its “one road, one belt” blueprint.
Politically they are at odds on basic values such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech and religious freedom, democracy and the protection of human rights.
And on the security front, the two nations are butting heads over a contentious maritime dispute in the South China Sea, an area both insist is a “core national interest”. That rivalry has heated up recently following a landmark ruling in July by an international tribunal that denied Chinese claims of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
Beijing also sees a recent decision by Washington and Seoul to deploy a missile defence system in South Korea in reaction to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme as another “pivot to Asia’ effort designed to contain China.
In US eyes, an increasingly assertive China is intent on challenging the security order in the region that America established after the second world war.
Professor Andrew Mertha, an international relations expert at Cornell University in New York, said the key question now was not who was responsible for the rising tension, but what was the “best way to handle the many conflicting goals and interests of the actors involved”.
“Both the US and China need to maintain the maximum degree of flexibility in their bilateral relations,” he said.
Zweig said there was a battle in the US between “engagers” and “containers”. “However, we cannot see where the doves are in China. This is a big problem.”
Zhu said that while the relationship was complicated it was also strong.
“Fundamentally this is a relationship between two great powers that do not share history, culture or a political system,” Zhu said, while adding that it was “a relationship that is too important to be damaged by themselves or others”.