• Heritage Action
  • More

October 11, 2012

The Complicated History of U.S. Relations with China

Heritage expert Dean Cheng explores the roots of the United States’ long history with China and explains how our complex past impact’s the nations’ relationship today.

In 1784, the Empress of China, bound for Canton (now Guangdong) China, was the first ship to sail under the American flag.

Photo Credit: akg-images

America’s relationship with China began as an economic one. America represented a broad new market for the sale of Chinese goods.

Photo Credit: © Ivy Close Images / Alamy

In the mid 1830s, American missionaries began traveling to China to preach and seek converts, as well as to study Chinese language and culture.

Photo Credit:

A Kindergarten class at the Presbyterian Mission in Nanking.

Photo Credit:

Many Chinese immigrants saw America as a land of opportunity and traveled to the United States to work on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Photo Credit:

In 1882, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, marking the first time the United States restricted immigration.

Photo Credit:

America’s participation in helping put down the Boxer Rebellion still leads many Chinese to view the United States as a foreign exploiter.

Photo Credit:

America, along with nations including Great Britain and Japan, formed the Eight-Nation Alliance, and ended the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).

Photo Credit:

Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth (1931) led many Americans to see China in a positive light before the onset of World War II.

Photo Credit:

The 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, famously nicknamed the “Flying Tigers,” fought alongside the Chinese in World War II.

Photo Credit:

Between 1927 and 1955, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and wife Soong Mei-ling appeared on TIME magazine’s cover nearly a dozen times.

Photo Credit:

In 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took power, establishing the People’s Republic of China and bringing an era of strained Sino-American relations.

Photo Credit: © MARKA / Alamy

Beginning in 1949, Americans fought Communist Chinese forces in the hills and trenches of Korea.

Photo Credit:

U.S. Soldiers with Korean prisoners of war.

Photo Credit:

President Richard Nixon re-established relations with the People’s Republic of China, hoping to balance the rising power of the Soviet Union.

Photo Credit:

Skyline of modern-day Pudong, a hub of Chinese commercial and financial activities.

Photo Credit:

Boasting the world’s two largest economies, the U.S.-China trading relationship shapes today’s global economy.

Photo Credit: 2006 Getty Images

In the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, China’s Communist government was broadly condemned for its use of deadly force to suppress protestors.

Photo Credit:

A protestor holds a poster showing jailed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei during a vigil outside The Consulate General of the PRC in Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: © ZUMA Wire Service / Alamy

In 2012, blind activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest, fleeing first to the U.S. embassy, and ultimately relocating to New York with his family.

Photo Credit:

China’s support for Iran underscores the difference of opinions on nuclear proliferation between China and the United States.

Photo Credit:

The U.S. should be prepared to work with China when our interests coincide. But it must also criticize and oppose China when it violates our principles.

Photo Credit:

The Complicated History of U.S. Relations with China


Trade, Faith, and Freedom: The Foundations of U.S. Relations with China

Americans have been interested in China for a long time. In 1784, when the American War for Independence was barely over, the first ship to sail under an American flag left New York. It was the merchant ship Empress of China, bound for Canton (now Guangdong), China.

At first, the American interest in China was economic. Americans were looking for new markets to buy goods, as the British refused to deal with Americans. And the Chinese preferred to work with Americans, who bought Chinese goods. The Europeans only wanted to sell them things.

By the middle of the 19th century, though, the relationship had grown. American churches led the way, seeking converts to Christianity among China’s enormous population. American missionaries began preaching in China in the 1830s, even when they could not legally visit many areas. Missionaries were among the first Americans to study the Chinese culture and language, and helped to shape American perceptions of Imperial China.

For their part, many Chinese saw America as a land of opportunity, just like immigrants from Europe did. Many Chinese immigrated during the California Gold Rush, and more helped to build the Transcontinental Railroad. The United States signed a treaty to encourage Chinese immigration and guaranteed them protection from discrimination.

Some Chinese leaders were inspired by the American political system. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, is said to have modeled his political philosophy of the “Three Principles of the People” after Abraham Lincoln’s belief in government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” When Sun helped to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and to found the Republic of China, his principles became part of the new republic’s constitution.

U.S. Relations with China in the Age of Imperialism

The result of these commercial, religious, and political connections was that relations between the U.S. and China were good for much of American history. In the late 1800s, the powers of Europe and Japan were expanding their colonial empires. Some of them wanted to break China up into colonies, but U.S. leaders believed it would be better for American interests if China remained independent and united. So, the U.S. supported an “Open Door” policy, which meant that China would have an “open door” to foreign investment and trade, but no nation would control it. This was a fundamental part of U.S. policy toward China through the end of World War II, and it kept China from fragmenting and limited foreign exploitation.

When Japan tried to expand its empire in the early 1930s, the U.S. believed this violated the “Open Door” policy. America’s opposition to Japanese expansion ultimately led the U.S. to deploy its Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor, where Japan attacked it on December 7, 1941. Even before then, American volunteers, such as the famed “Flying Tigers,” were fighting in China. When the U.S. entered the war, it flew squadrons of B-29s from China, and sent it substantial amounts of aid. After the war, it was the U.S. that insisted that China be included as one of the five Permanent Members of the U.N. Security Council.

Sino-American relations were not always good. The U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882; this marked the first time the U.S. had restricted immigration. The U.S. later prohibited Chinese immigrants from obtaining citizenship because of their race, which it had never done before. When U.S. forces joined other nations in protecting Americans and Europeans in Peking during a rebellion (called the Boxer Rebellion) that began in 1899, some Chinese branded the U.S. a foreign exploiter. Yet, after the war, the U.S. used some of the reparations that China paid to establish the “Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Fund,” an influential education program in China.

The Rise of Communist China

The longest period of Sino-American tension came after the founding of the mainland People’s Republic of China (the PRC) in 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists onto the island of Taiwan. American and Communist Chinese forces fought each other during the Korean War, which began in 1949. Communist threats against Taiwan in the 1950s drove the U.S. and the PRC to the brink of nuclear war. The U.S. went to war in Vietnam in part to prevent the expansion of Chinese Communism.

But in 1972, President Richard Nixon reestablished relations with the PRC. Nixon hoped to use better relations with China to balance the rising power of the Soviet Union. Chinese leaders were receptive because they too were worried about the USSR. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, sought to bring China closer to the West, but he also believed that the Communist Party had to remain in power. So even as he opened the economy, he sought to prevent political liberalization at home. The result was the start of China’s economic rise, but also the killing of protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Tiananmen Massacre and the end of the Cold War reshaped U.S. relations with China. While the U.S. and China grew closer economically, their foreign policies diverged. When NATO mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, during its war in the Balkans, it convinced many Chinese that the U.S. was trying to contain China. At the same time, China’s lack of respect for human rights, its efforts to steal American technology, and its growing military power raised American doubts about whether the U.S. could work with China.

Sino-American Relations Today

Today, the United States and the People’s Republic of China are like the European great powers of a century ago. They trade with each other, but do not trust each other. They have the largest economies in the world, and they have a financial and trading relationship that shapes the global economy. But at the same time, they have different, and often opposing, views on many national security and foreign policy issues.

Washington and Beijing disagree fundamentally on how to deal with rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Syria. The PRC does not appear to worry about the spread of nuclear weapons. It is a close friend to Pakistan, which spread nuclear weapons technology around the world.

Nor do the U.S. and China agree on human rights. At home, China remains a dictatorship under the Communist Party. Average Chinese citizens do not have a right to decide how many children they can have or where they can worship, or to say what they want to about their leaders.

Abroad, China supports odious dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who supply China with raw materials. The Chinese government would rather deal with dictators than trust the United States, other free countries, or the free market.

While the U.S. military is still superior to China’s numerically larger forces, two decades of double-digit growth in China’s defense budget have narrowed the gap. Today’s Chinese military is a professional force that carefully analyzes the American military to identify its weaknesses. Chinese hackers regularly break into U.S. military computers, and China has built anti-satellite systems and anti-ship ballistic missiles to counter U.S. strengths in space and on the high seas.

Our friends and allies in Asia have the same problem. The U.S. is legally committed to providing Taiwan with the means to defend itself against the Chinese. U.S. treaty allies in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia are also worried about Chinese intentions. Even nations like Vietnam, with whom we fought a war, want the U.S. to be strong in the Pacific to balance growing Chinese military power.

What the U.S. Should Do

For the United States, China today is neither an outright enemy, nor a trusted friend. The tensions between them are not the result of an enduring U.S. resentment of China, or a tradition of hostility between them. They exist because of the kind of government China has, and the actions it takes. The U.S. relationship with China is long, rich, and complex. In the past, both our traditions of freedom and our interests led us to support and cooperate with China. Today, the U.S. should be prepared to work with China when our interests coincide. But it must also criticize China when it violates our principles and oppose China when our interests conflict.