Sino-American Relations

Sino-American Relations

China's relations with the other superpower, the United States, also have followed an uneven course. Chinese leaders expressed an interest in possible economic assistance from the United States during the 1940s, but by 1950 Sino-American relations could only be described as hostile. During its first two decades the People's Republic considered the United States "imperialist" and "the common enemy of people throughout the world."

The Korean War was a major factor responsible for setting relations between China and the United States in a state of enmity and mistrust, as it contributed to the United States policy of "containing" the Chinese threat through a trade embargo and travel restrictions, as well as through military alliances with other Asian nations. An important side effect of the Korean War was that Washington resumed military aid to Taiwan and throughout the 1950s became increasingly committed to Taiwan's defense, making the possibility of Chinese reunification more remote. After the United States-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty was signed in 1954, Taiwan became the most contentious issue between the United States and China, and remained so in the late 1980s, despite the abrogation of the treaty and the subsequent normalization of relations between Beijing and Washington in 1979.

In 1955 Premier Zhou Enlai made a conciliatory opening toward the United States in which he said the Chinese people did not want war with the American people. His statement led to a series of official ambassadorial-level talks in Geneva and Warsaw that continued fairly regularly for the next decade and a half. Although the talks failed to resolve fundamental conflicts between the two countries, they served as an important line of communication.

Sino-American relations remained at a stalemate during most of the 1960s. Political considerations in both countries made a shift toward closer relations difficult, especially as the United States became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam, in which Washington and Beijing supported opposite sides. China's isolationist posture and militancy during the Cultural Revolution precluded effective diplomacy, and Sino-American relations reached a low point with seemingly little hope of improvement.

Several events in the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, led Beijing and Washington to reexamine their basic policies toward each other. After the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969, China saw its major threat as clearly coming from the Soviet Union rather than the United States and sought a closer relationship with Washington as a counterweight to Moscow. When President Richard M. Nixon assumed office in 1969, he explored rapprochement with China as part of his doctrine of reduced United States military involvement in Asia. Moves in this direction resulted in an American ping-pong team's trip to China and Henry A. Kissinger's secret visit, both in 1971, followed by Nixon's dramatic trip to China in 1972. The Shanghai Communique, a milestone document describing the new state of relations between the two countries, and signed by Nixon and Zhou Enlai, included a certain degree of ambiguity that allowed China and the United States to set aside differences, especially on the Taiwan issue, and begin the process of normalizing relations.

After the signing of the Shanghai Communique, however, movement toward United States-China normalization during the 1970s saw only limited progress. The United States and China set up liaison offices in each other's capitals in 1973, and bilateral trade grew unevenly throughout the decade. "People's diplomacy" played an important role, as most exchanges of delegations were sponsored by friendship associations. Chinese statements continued to express the view that both superpowers were theoretically adversaries of China, but they usually singled out the Soviet Union as the more "dangerous" of the two.

In the second half of the 1970s, China perceived an increasing Soviet threat and called more explicitly for an international united front against Soviet hegemony. In addition, rather than strictly adhering to the principle of self-reliance, China adopted an economic and technological modernization program that greatly increased commercial links with foreign countries. These trends toward strategic and economic cooperation with the West gave momentum to Sino-United States normalization, which had been at an impasse for most of the decade. Ties between China and the United States began to strengthen in 1978, culminating in the December announcement that diplomatic relations would be established as of January 1, 1979. In establishing relations, Washington reaffirmed its agreement that the People's Republic was the sole legal government of China and that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China. Deng Xiaoping's visit to the United States the following month was symbolic of the optimism felt in Beijing and Washington concerning their strategic alignment and their burgeoning commercial, technical, and cultural relations.

In the 1980s United States-China relations went through several twists and turns. By late 1981 China appeared to pull back somewhat from the United States as it asserted its independent foreign policy. Beijing began to express increasing impatience with the lack of resolution on the Taiwan issue. One of the main issues of contention was the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1979, which provided for continuing unofficial relations between Washington and Taipei. In late 1981 China began to make serious demands that the United States set a firm timetable for terminating American arms sales to Taiwan, even threatening to retaliate with the possible downgrading of diplomatic relations. In early 1982 Washington announced it would not sell Taiwan more advanced aircraft than it had already provided, and in August, after several months of intense negotiations, China and the United States concluded a joint communique that afforded at least a partial resolution of the problem. Washington pledged to increase neither the quality nor the quantity of arms supplied to Taiwan, while Beijing affirmed that peaceful reunification was China's fundamental policy. Although the communique forestalled further deterioration in relations, Beijing and Washington differed in their interpretations of it. The Taiwan issue continued to be a "dark cloud" (to use the Chinese phrase) affecting United StatesChina relations to varying degrees into the late 1980s.

In addition to the question of Taiwan, other aspects of United States-China relations created controversy at times during the 1980s: Sino-American trade relations, the limits of American technology transfer to China, the nature and extent of United States-China security relations, and occasional friction caused by defections or lawsuits. Difficulties over trade relations have included Chinese displeasure with United States efforts to limit imports such as textiles and a degree of disappointment and frustration within the American business community over the difficulties of doing business in China. The issue of technology transfer came to the fore several times during the 1980s, most often with Chinese complaints about the level of technology allowed or the slow rate of transfer. China's dissatisfaction appeared to be somewhat abated by the United States 1983 decision to place China in the "friendly, nonaligned" category for technology transfer and the conclusion of a bilateral nuclear energy cooperation agreement in 1985.

Determining the nature and limits of security relations between China and the United States has been a central aspect of their relations in the 1980s. After a period of discord during the first years of the decade, Beijing and Washington renewed their interest in security-related ties, including military visits, discussions of international issues such as arms control, and limited arms and weapons technology sales.

Beginning in 1983, Chinese and United States defense ministers and other high-level military delegations exchanged visits, and in 1986 United States Navy ships made their first Chinese port call since 1949. The United States approved certain items, such as aviation electronics, for sale to China, restricting transfers to items that would contribute only to China's defensive capability. As of the late 1980s, it appeared that American assistance in modernizing China's arms would also be limited by China's financial constraints and the underlying principle of self-reliance.

Despite the issues that have divided them, relations between the United States and China continued to develop during the 1980s through a complex network of trade ties, technology-transfer arrangements, cultural exchanges, educational exchanges (including thousands of Chinese students studying in the United States), military links, joint commissions and other meetings, and exchanges of high-level leaders. By the second half of the 1980s, China had become the sixteenth largest trading partner of the United States, and the United States was China's third largest; in addition, over 140 American firms had invested in China. High-level exchanges, such as Premier Zhao Ziyang's visit to the United States and President Ronald Reagan's trip to China, both in 1984, and President Li Xiannian's 1985 tour of the United States demonstrated the importance both sides accorded their relations.

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