The Complicated History of U.S. Relations with China

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The Complicated History of U.S. Relations with China

October 11, 2012 5 min read
Dean Cheng
Dean Cheng
Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Dean was a senior research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.

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.


Dean Cheng
Dean Cheng

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center