In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, diplomatic relations between the United States and China are at their lowest in decades, as each continues to point fingers and criticise each other’s response. It is hard to find a more vocal China hawk in Trump’s administration than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose insistence that the G7 use the phrase “Wuhan virus” meant the group failed to release a joint statement. China’s foreign ministry spokesmen and increasingly vocal diplomat corps are using social media to berate the US and spread conspiracy theories . This is not how US-China diplomacy was traditionally executed. On the contrary, the most positive, stable US-China relations were when their diplomats were professionals and valued the strength of the bilateral relationship over their own political interests. Starting in the 1840s, with China on the brink of its “ century of humiliation ”, several generations of devoted American diplomats and China scholars have committed the US to defending Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. With the end of the opium war and the spectre of British hegemony over China looming, president John Tyler dispatched Caleb Cushing to China. The treaty he negotiated with the Qing government established that the US had no territorial ambitions in China and valued Chinese interests. Twenty years later, another diplomat, Anson Burlingame, cultivated such trust with the Chinese that he later represented the Qing government in its negotiations with US Secretary of State William Seward. The ensuing Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868 granted protections for Chinese citizens in the US and reiterated US commitments to Chinese sovereignty. At the dawn of the 20th century, when other Western powers were carving out their spheres of influence in China, US diplomats again stepped up to advocate for Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Open Door Notes , co-authored by State Department China hand and scholar William W. Rockhill and supported by secretary of state John Hay, stipulated open borders and free trade between spheres of influence, ensuring the other Western powers could not further denigrate Chinese sovereignty by turning their spheres into de facto colonies. Hay and Rockhill further demonstrated their commitment to the future of Sino-American ties by working with Chinese diplomat Liang Cheng on remitting the US share of the Boxer Indemnity. The remittance funded Chinese students’ education in the US and also the establishment of Tsinghua University. Both the US and Chinese sides agreed that education was essential to continued positive relations between the countries. The legacy of this chapter of Sino-American diplomacy has seemingly been lost. The Chinese government lumps the US in with the Western powers who wronged China during its “century of humiliation” – forgetting that the US never sought territory or even a sphere of influence in China. It neglects the generations of committed US diplomats who continued to advocate for Chinese sovereignty in the face of Western imperialism. Both the US and China were much weaker in the 19th century, and neither was expected to carry the torch of global leadership. But even as the 20th century wore on and global power dynamics began to shift, leaders in both countries demonstrated the value placed on the relationship by appointing their most capable to key diplomatic roles. The most distinguished of these in China was Wellington Koo, who represented the Chinese during the Paris Peace Conference and later served as ambassador to Britain, France and the US. Diplomatic barriers must be removed to ease US-China tension The peak of US-China diplomatic cooperation was reached during WWII. The Cairo Conference, held in November 1943, was a clear manifestation of how the US, unlike the other Allied powers, saw China as more than just a wartime ally but as an equally important partner in shaping the post-war global order. The goodwill established between president Franklin D. Roosevelt and generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (facilitated by Chiang’s wife and translator, Soong May-ling ) helped China secure favourable provisions in the Cairo Declaration. The Cairo Declaration paved the way for decolonisation in Asia, and ensured the return of Japanese-occupied territories to China – including Taiwan. Roosevelt planned for the Republic of China to be one of the “Four Policeman” in his ideal post-war world. This showed tremendous faith in China’s governance and in Chiang – which would soon be tested. Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman recognised that even as the war in Pacific ended in 1945, a resumption of hostilities between the Communists and Nationalists in China loomed. He dispatched none other than general George Marshall, among the most trusted and highly regarded strategists in the country, as a special envoy to broker peace. Marshall’s mediation proved unsuccessful, and the US and China became diplomatically estranged. Decades later, this estrangement would thaw because of the efforts of the very best foreign affairs specialists in both countries. While the dramatic meeting of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong became the highlight of this diplomacy, it would not have been possible without the likes of Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai – Kissinger being a highly-regarded foreign affairs scholar and Zhou modern China’s greatest statesman. It is clear that US-China diplomacy is at its most meaningful and productive when the most qualified and sincere personnel are involved. It is unsurprising then, that the relationship has grown so antagonistic. Secretary of State Pompeo is neither a diplomat nor a foreign policy expert; while in China, propaganda and conspiracy theories spreading on social media overshadow diplomacy, even as seasoned diplomats like ambassador Cui Tiankai criticise such tactics. US-China cooperation is essential, not only in the global pandemic response , but in confronting many other global, regional and transnational challenges. While politicians in Washington and Communist Party elites in Beijing may continue to trade barbs , ultimately, both governments would be best suited if their diplomats focused instead on maintaining a peaceful, stable relationship. This may require a return to the old standards of diplomacy but would be in everyone’s best interests. Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.