Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States today represent the most important node on a global level. It is a relationship that has always been fluctuating, alternating between periods of effective and fruitful cooperation and situations of great friction, such as the one we are currently experiencing. A brief history of a difficult relationship: a historical summary of relations between the two superpowers starting from the birth of the People’s Republic of China

by Maurizio Sacchi

The United States and China are respectively the world’s first and second economies, but it is almost certain, and imminent, that the Asian superpower will overtake the star-studded one. China is the second largest foreign creditor of the United States, after Japan. A paradoxical aspect of this confrontation is that the greatest tensions have often occurred when democratic administrations have led the United States, while, beyond the nationalist rhetoric, there have been moments of mutual openness during some of the Republican-led presidencies. But the issue is so complex that it resists easy simplification.

Almost immediately after the proclamation of the People’s Republic, relations between the two giants were born amidst difficulties.The invasion of South Korea by North Korea, with its close ties to Moscow and Beijing, caused the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 82, which provided for military action against North Korea. Despite opposition from the Soviet Union, which vetoed it, Mao Zedong, President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) saw the presence of hostile forces on its border as a threat. PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai’s warning that China would intervene in the war for reasons of national security was rejected by US President Truman. At the end of October 1950, China clashed with American and international forces. During the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army defeated the US Eighth Army. The Chinese were also victorious in the Third Battle of Seoul and the Battle of Hoengsong, but following the counterattack of the UN forces the front moved to the 38th parallel. The stalemate ended with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953. Since then, the divided Korea has become an important factor in US-China relations, with large US forces stationed in South Korea.

In the ensuing years of the Cold War, relations between China and the US were frosty, not least because the US continued to recognise the Nationalist Republic of Taiwan, born out of the establishment of Chang Kai-Shek’s government-in-exile in ancient Formosa, as the only China. The deterioration of relations between the USSR and Maoist China offered the US an opportunity to weaken the Soviets and build an alliance, or at least an agreement, with the Asian giant. In his 1969 inaugural address, US President Richard Nixon stated that the two countries were entering an era of negotiations after an era of confrontation. Although Nixon had loudly supported Chiang Kai-Shek during the presidential campaign, in the second half of his term, he began to declare that there was ‘no reason to leave China angry and isolated’. Although an editorial in the People’s Daily denounced him as ‘a tribal chieftain to whom the capitalist world had turned out of desperation’, Nixon believed that it was in America’s national interest to establish a relationship with China, despite the enormous differences between the two countries. This change of course can be attributed to his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Thus began what was called ‘ping-pong diplomacy’.

Ping-pong diplomacy 

In 1971, a friendly match in Japan between table-tennis players Glenn Cowan and Zhuang Zedong paved the way for a hitherto unfeasible visit to China by American athletes, which Chairman Mao personally approved. Table-tennis diplomacy also allowed journalists to enter the country, breaking a barrier that had previously existed. In July 1971, Henry Kissinger called in sick during a trip to Pakistan and did not appear in public for a day. He was actually on a top-secret mission to Beijing to negotiate with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The meeting with Zhou Enlai was productive, and the Chinese leader expressed hope for improved relations between China and the United States, arguing that it was the United States that had intentionally isolated China, not the other way around, and that any initiative to restore diplomatic ties should come from the American side. “We are willing to wait as long as necessary. If these negotiations fail, in time there will come another Kennedy – who had apparently initiated secret contacts before he was killed – or another Nixon’.

On 15 July 1971, President Richard Nixon revealed the mission to the world and announced that he had accepted an invitation to visit the PRC. This announcement caused an immediate shock around the world. In the US, some hard-line anti-communists (notably Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater) denounced the decision, but most of the public supported the move and Nixon saw the jump in the polls he had hoped for. Nixon had excellent anti-communist credentials, he was virtually immune to being described as ‘soft on communism’. Even in the PRC, the decision met with opposition from radical elements. Apparently, the faction was led by army chief Lin Biao, who just then died in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia while trying to flee to the Soviet Union. His death silenced most of the internal dissent.

From 21 to 28 February 1972, President Nixon visited Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai. At the end of the trip, the United States and the People’s Republic of China issued the Shanghai Communiqué, a declaration of their respective foreign policy views. In the communiqué, both nations pledged to work towards the full normalisation of diplomatic relations. The US recognised the PRC’s position that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait share the ‘one China’ position, and that Taiwan is part of it. The declaration has so far allowed the US and the PRC to temporarily set aside the Taiwan issue and open trade and communication. Furthermore, in the declaration, both the US and China agreed to take action against ‘any country’ that wants to establish ‘hegemony’ in the Asia-Pacific.

The economic benefits of normalisation were slow, as American products would take decades to penetrate the vast Chinese market. Although Nixon’s policy towards China is regarded by many as the high point of his presidency, others, such as William Bundy, argued that it brought little benefit to the United States. But in the meantime diplomatic relations were established, and the US set up a United States liason office (Uslo) in Beijing: effectively an embassy. Between 1973 and 1978, George W. Bush, Thomas S. Gates, Jr. and Leonard Woodcock served as heads of the Uslo with the rank of ambassador. China made it clear that it considered the Soviet Union its main adversary. Liaison officer George Bush concluded: “China continues to want us to be strong, to defend Europe, to increase our defence budgets, etc.” Bush concluded that US engagement was essential to sustain markets, allies, and stability in Asia and around the world.

On 1 January 1979, the US transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The US reaffirmed the Shanghai Communiqué’s recognition of the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of China; Beijing for its part accepted that the Americans would continue to maintain commercial, cultural and other unofficial contacts with the people of Taiwan. Taiwan, while fully expecting this step, expressed its disappointment at not being consulted sooner The Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies were mostly indifferent, Romania welcomed the move, while Cuba and Albania strongly opposed it. North Korea issued a statement congratulating ‘our fraternal neighbours for ending their long-standing hostile relations with the United States’.

The Taiwan issue

Shortly after being elected President in 1980, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech criticising the People’s Republic and welcoming the restoration of ties with Taiwan. These remarks caused some concern in Beijing, but Reagan’s advisers quickly apologised for his comments and the President-elect soon retracted them. The first two years of Reagan’s term saw some deterioration in US-China relations due to the President’s strong anti-communism and the inability of the two nations to reach an understanding on the Korean conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Falklands-Malvinas War. In 1982, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, reiterating Mao Zedong’s ‘three worlds’ theory, criticised US and Soviet imperialism.

Since the renewal of US-China relations in early 1979, the Taiwan issue has remained a major source of contention. In April 1979, the US Congress signed the Taiwan Relations Act into law, encouraging unofficial relations with Taiwan, but also the right of the US to supply Taiwan with weapons of a defensive nature. A clause that caused the People’s Republic’s firm opposition as soon as it became known. Secretary of State Alexander Haig visited China in June 1981 in an attempt to resolve Chinese concerns about America’s unofficial relations with Taiwan. Then Vice President Bush visited the PRC in May 1982. Eight months of negotiations produced the US-PRC joint communiqué of 17 August 1982. In this third communiqué, the US declared its intention to gradually reduce the level of arms sales to the Republic of China and the PRC described this commitment as ‘fundamental’ in the search for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue.

Tiananmen Square

During the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, naval and air weapons systems were deployed to Guam and Japan, and cooperation with Singapore began with the construction of an aircraft carrier facility at Changi Naval Base. “The Bush Administration assigned an additional aircraft carrier to the Pacific theatre and the Pentagon announced in 2005 that it would deploy 60 per cent of US submarines to Asia. Americans, then optimistic about the development of democratic characteristics in China in parallel with rapid economic growth, were traumatised and surprised by the brutal suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The US and other governments then took a series of measures against China’s violation of human rights. The US suspended exchanges of high-level officials with the PRC and arms exports from the US to Beijing.

Here began the season of economic sanctions. In the summer of 1990, at the G7 summit in Houston, the West pressed mainland China for political and economic reforms, particularly in the field of human rights. Tiananmen seriously deteriorated US-China trade relations and US investors’ interest in mainland China dropped dramatically. The Bush administration denounced the repression and suspended some trade and investment programmes on 5 and 20 June 1989, but it was Congress that imposed many of these actions and the White House itself took a much less critical attitude towards Beijing, repeatedly expressing the hope that the two countries could maintain normalised relations.

This change of course by the US caused strong reactions in China. The 1996 manifesto ‘China Can Say No’, whose authors called on Beijing to take more aggressive action against the US and Japan to build a stronger international position was a case in point. The Chinese government first approved the manifesto, China Can Say No: Political and Emotional Choices in the Post-Cold War Era, which became a bestseller, but then banned it, calling it extremist and irresponsible. Its popularity, however, indicates the growth of anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiment in the Chinese public, and the disillusionment of many younger and more educated Chinese seeking a role in global economic and political systems…

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush repeatedly criticised the previous Clinton-Gore administration for being too friendly with China, perceived as a strategic competitor. In April 2001, a J-8 fighter of the Plaaf – the Chinese Air Force – collided with a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane flying south of the PRC in what became known as the Hainan Island Incident. The EP-3 managed to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island in the PRC despite the damage; the PRC plane crashed instead with the loss of its pilot, Wang Wei. The American crew was taken prisoner after destroying all classified documents relating to the plane’s operations. After lengthy negotiations, resulting in the ‘letter of two apologies’, the EP-3 crew was released and allowed to leave the PRC eleven days later. The US plane was returned from Beijing three months later in pieces, after which relations between the US and the PRC gradually improved again.

Bush’s hostility and Obama’s ‘pivot’

At the beginning of his presidency, Bush increased arms sales to Taiwan, including eight submarines. Bush’s hostile stance towards China was suddenly reversed after the 9/11 attacks, and China became an ally in the new ‘war against terror’, freezing US agreements with Taiwan. President Obama changed the strategic priorities of the US, defining East Asia as its ‘pivot’, focusing US diplomacy and trade in the region. The continued emergence of China as a major power has been a major theme of Obama’s presidency. Also known as the ‘Pivot to Asia’, the US military and diplomatic ‘pivot’, or ‘rebalance’, to Asia became a buzzword among US Democrats after Hillary Clinton wrote ‘America’s Pacific Century’ in Foreign Policy. Clinton’s article emphasises the importance of the Asia-Pacific, noting that nearly half the world’s population resides there, making its development vital to American economic and strategic interests. Clinton states that “open markets in Asia offer the United States unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to technology.

Although the two countries have cooperated on issues such as climate change, relations between China and the US have been strained over territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea. In 2016, the US hosted a summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first time, reflecting the Obama administration’s pursuit of closer relations with ASEAN and other Asian countries. After helping to encourage elections in Myanmar, which maintains close ties with the PRC, Obama lifted many US sanctions on the country. Obama also increased US military ties with Vietnam, Australia, and the Philippines, increased aid to Laos, and helped re-establish more cordial relations between South Korea and Japan. Indeed, Obama envisaged the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a key economic pillar of the Asian pivot.

Criticism to the Obama doctrine

Not everyone agreed with Obama, however. Robert S. Ross, an associate at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, argues, for example, that the ‘pivot’ to China is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby US policy ‘unnecessarily exacerbates Beijing’s insecurities and will only fuel China’s aggression, undermine regional stability, and diminish the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington. “The right policies for China should appease, not exploit, Beijing’s anxieties while protecting US interests in the region” (Ross, Robert (Foreign Affairs November-December 2012). “The Problem with the Pivot: Obama’s New Asia Policy Is Unnecessary and Counterproductive”).

Donald Trump made a breakthrough by withdrawing the US signature from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. As a result, the agreement could not be ratified and did not enter into force. President Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on 2 December 2016 was the first such contact with Taiwan by a US President-elect or President since 1979. It provoked a diplomatic protest from Beijing. Trump later clarified his move: “I fully understand the ‘one China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make an agreement with China that has to do with other things, including trade.”

On the day of President Trump’s inauguration, a People’s Liberation Army official wrote that the US military build-up in Asia and its push to arm South Korea with the THAAD missile defence system were “provocative hotspots that were approaching ignition” and that the possibilities for war had become “more real”. After a telephone conversation with Trump on 3 July 2017, Xi Jimping states that: “China-US relations have made great progress in recent days, but they have also been affected by some negative factors” What is meant by “negative factors” is explained by Geng Shuang, spokesman for the Chinese government, who in a televised briefing cautioned: “Under the pretext of freedom of navigation, the US side has once again sent military ships into Chinese territorial waters of the Xisha (Paracel) Islands. This violated Chinese and international law, violated Chinese sovereignty, disrupted the order, peace and security of the waters concerned, and endangered the facilities and personnel of the Chinese islands concerned. This is a serious political and military provocation. The Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied and strongly opposes the US actions’.

Another flashpoint of the Trump presidency was the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer on 1 December 2018. In August 2018, the US government signed an update to legislation for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, expanding government control over investments, mainly funded by the Chinese state, in US technology start-ups. Michael D. Swaine in 2019 warned: “The often positive and optimistic forces, interests, and beliefs that have underpinned bilateral ties for decades are giving way to undue pessimism, hostility, and a zero-sum mentality in almost every area of engagement.

Relations with the new Biden administration in 2021 have seen tensions escalate over trade, technology, and human rights, particularly with regard to Hong Kong and the treatment of minorities in China. In addition, international tensions over control of the South China Sea remained high. However, the Biden and Xi administrations agreed to work together on long-term projects on climate change, nuclear proliferation, and global pandemic. Bilateral talks were held in Alaska on 18 and 19 March 2021. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Americans harshly attacked Chinese policies on human rights, cyber attacks, Taiwan, and repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The Chinese counterpart attacked the US position in the world and defended China’s sovereignty rights and development model.

The Biden Era

On 3 March 2021, the Biden administration reaffirmed the strength of the US-Taiwan relationship in the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. On 8 March 2021, the Biden administration issued the following statement: ‘We will stand with friends and allies to advance prosperity, security, and shared values in the Indo-Pacific region. We will uphold our long-standing commitments as outlined in the Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances. And we will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient capacity for self-defence.”

On 23 May 2022, President Biden, during his trip to Asia, vowed to defend Taiwan with the US military in the event of an invasion by China. Finally, on 2 August 2022, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan, provoking a military and economic response from China that occupies headlines around the world. Here we are to the news of these days and here our brief historical summary of the relations between the two great world giants stops, without forgetting how important the strategic alliance between China and Russia welded during the ongoing war in Ukraine.


Cover Image: Nixon and Chou En-Lai (Wikimedia Commons)