The enduring China-US relationship: it’s complicated, but they’re still talking 40 years on

  • David Shambaugh says cooperation has been the relationship’s bedrock since Carter met Deng in 1979, and through bumpy events like the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Trump’s trade war won’t undo four decades of engagement
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 2:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 3:02am

Forty years ago, on December 15, 1978, the world was stunned as American president Jimmy Carter and Chinese Communist Party chairman Hua Guofeng simultaneously announced to the world that the United States and the People’s Republic of China would establish and normalise diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. The surprise announcement from the two capitals came after months of secret negotiations and six years after president Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in February 1972.

It was not easy “getting to yes” in the negotiations, and there was not quite an agreement on the sensitive issue of American arms sales to Taiwan, but Carter and Deng Xiaoping – who was directly involved in the negotiations – agreed that the time had come for the two great powers to have normal interactions after three decades of estrangement. In January 1979, Deng himself commemorated the event by personally visiting the White House and several cities across the US (I had the honour of meeting Deng several times during his visit).

At a time of high stress in US-China relations today, it is worth recalling just how far the two countries have come in their relationship over the past four decades. Consider some of the areas that link the two nations.

Forty years ago, there were no students exchanged; today, there are 363,341 Chinese students studying in American universities, and about 12,000 American students in China. Scholarly exchanges have come a very long way since 1979, when I was among the first groups of American students to go to China.

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Besides studying in classrooms in three different Chinese universities, I have taught many Chinese students in my classes over the past three decades. Scientists, doctors, social scientists, humanists and other specialists now interact and collaborate on joint projects. Of the several million Chinese students who have studied in the US since 1979, a considerable number have become American citizens after graduation and built lives in the US.

Trade was US$2.3 billion in 1979, but has ballooned to US$636 billion in 2017. Forty years ago, there was no American direct commercial investment in China; between 1990 and 2017, American companies invested US$256.5 billion in China, according to Rhodium Group. Meanwhile, Chinese investment in the US has grown from nothing to US$139.8 billion. Despite the tension in the bilateral relationship at present, epitomised by the ongoing trade war, economic bonds continue to tie the countries together.

Four decades ago, few American tourists visited China, while none travelled to the US; now, nearly 3 million Chinese tourists visit the US every year, and nearly 2 million Americans go to China. These exchanges are buttressed by 201 sister-city and 44 sister-province partnerships between China and the US. Although exchanges between non-governmental organisations have contracted since a Chinese law on foreign NGOs went into effect in 2017, there are still more than 90 American NGOs registered in China.

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Over the decades, many bilateral agreements have been signed by the two governments to facilitate exchanges in a wide variety of fields, ranging from the sciences to athletics. American sports, popular culture and brands remain very popular among the Chinese public, while Chinese films, literature and arts are gaining traction with the American public.

Thus, even as the two tigers – or governments – are fighting, it is worth remembering the multiple societal bonds that the two countries share. These ties did not grow by accident; they were very much in the minds of Deng and Carter. When the two met at the White House in January 1979, their conversations had as much to do with the potential of building social and governmental links as with countering the Soviet “Polar Bear”.

Their reasoning was that the two governments’ common strategic opposition to the Soviet Union would one day dissipate or disappear, and that when that day came the two sides would need a stronger foundation for their bilateral relationship. It was their vision not only to construct links between the two societies, but also to give the two government bureaucracies more positive, collaborative missions. This latter strategy produced countless intergovernmental dialogues that endure to this day, such as the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, the US-China Social and Cultural Dialogue and the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.

Over four decades, the relationship has certainly had its ups and downs, but it has endured. The 1980s was the honeymoon period, when the two sides began to get to know each other and Americans were transfixed by the encouraging economic, social and political reforms being undertaken by Deng, Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang. The Ronald Reagan administration did much to build the bilateral relationship and implement Carter’s vision of broad-based ties. Then came the traumatic events of June 4, 1989, which resulted in a sharp curtailment in relations, though not a rupture in diplomatic ties.

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Under presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin, the two sides began to re-engage in the mid-1990s, and after the Hainan Island incident in 2001, this momentum continued throughout the presidency of George W. Bush in the 2000s. During the Barack Obama administration, which spanned the leadership of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, bilateral relations were a mix of cooperation and growing competition. In retrospect, the presidencies of Reagan and (the younger) Bush saw the longest periods of stability and cooperation in the past 40 years.

Currently, under the Donald Trump administration, relations are obviously highly stressed and deeply strained. Yet, beyond the daily headlines about bilateral friction, quieter interactions and exchanges endure between the two countries. This is what Carter and Deng envisioned 40 years ago, and this is worth remembering today as the two powers increasingly clash over a range of issues. This is what makes the current competition between the US and China fundamentally different from the cold war with the Soviet Union.

David Shambaugh is professor and director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University in Washington