Relations between the United States and China have a long history checkered with moments of good faith and mutual understanding, and moments of severe tension and distrust. Ultimately, both states want to advance their own interests and foster the survival of their own nation (such is true of every nation state that has ever existed or will ever exist). This holds true for the United States and China throughout the history of their international relations. However, there is a relatively unique aspect to the history of relations between the U.S. and China in that they spent most of the latter half of the twentieth century on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, with the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union always looming on the horizon. China’s often poor relations with the Soviet Union also pushed them into the arms of the United States (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020).
Diplomacy between the U.S. and China has had its ups and downs, and taken various, sometimes extremely interesting form. In the early 1970s, the United States national ping-pong team was invited to China to play against China’s national team (famously portrayed in Forrest Gump) (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). U.S. journalists could accompany the team. They were the first U.S. journalist allowed into China since 1949, a truly historic event for the times, especially when considering the ideological differences between the two nations at that time.
Another diplomatic milestone was reached in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter granted China full diplomatic recognition and severed all normal ties with Taiwan (the nation established by the Chinese nationalists after Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kaishek in 1949) (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). Whether or not this was a good or morally just decision aside, this was a huge step forward in relations between the United States and China, both of whom still perceived an enemy in the Soviet Union.
As I have previously said, the history of U.S./China relations has had its highs and lows, and we now come to perhaps the most infamous of those lows, Tiananmen Square. In June 1989 there was a standoff between Chinese military forces and civilian students (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). The incident resulted in the deaths of anywhere from hundreds to thousands of protestors according to many Western reporters (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). Following the massacre, the United States suspended military sales to Beijing and froze all relations between the two nations (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). This infamous incident and the response of the United States marked a low point in the U.S./China relations up to this point in history.
Things began to change again in the early 21st century when President Bill Clinton granted Beijing permanent normal trade with the United States (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). By 2006, China had become the second largest trade partner of the United States (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). By 2008, China had become the largest creditor of the United States in the world (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). Trade tensions continued to rise between the two superpowers in 2012 as U.S. debt to China continued to explode (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). In 2015 China was in the process of militarizing land in the South China Sea, an act the United States explicitly condemned. In 2018, President Trump began to tariff Chinese imports amongst the rising tensions of the trade war (Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020). Now, in 2020 China is again a controversial issue amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions about whether the Chines government has been completely truthful regarding how much they about the virus and when have been legitimately raised. Questions about possible human rights violations against Muslims by the Chinese government have also been legitimately raised.
Does all this seem a little back and forth? Maybe hard to follow and make sense of? I agree and the inconsistency has led to a feeling of distrust between the two nations. As long as that feeling of distrust remains, relations between China and the U.S. will continue to decline.
Timeline: U.S. Relations With China 1949–2020. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-relations-china