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background on u.s.-china relations


The Beginning of U.S.-China Relations

About "Dangerous Straits"
An introduction to the FRONTLINE documentary

  • Historical Context
  • Issues Between the Two Countries
  • Recent Strains in U.S.-China Relations

  • Lesson Plan
    Students are asked to prepare policy briefs for their U.S. representatives; to learn about the art and practice of diplomacy; and to engage in meaningful debate about U.S.-China relations.

    Where to go, on the Web and in the library, for more information

    Short descriptions of the key terms and historical figures

    U.S.-China relations are generally viewed as beginning in the late 18th century, at which time trade was the main focus. Firms in Boston and elsewhere in New England built up flourishing businesses, selling whatever could be marketed in China, including opium. Fortunes made off this trade were invested in U.S. railroad development, and some would later finance political careers (most notably that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt). In the 1830s and 1840s, protestant missionaries and missionary doctors and educators journeyed to China, beginning a work of evangelization that would become a major preoccupation of America's religious life and an important contribution to the modernization of China's educational and medical institutions.

    Later in the 19th century, Chinese coolies came to the U.S. to look for gold and to help build the western railroads. That began the immigration of Chinese people to the U.S. It also sparked anti-Chinese hysteria that led to race riots and exclusionary laws, which had a negative effect on the U.S.-China relationship for decades.

    After China threw off its age-old empire in 1911, young students began coming to the U.S. to seek a modern education. In the 1930s and 1940s, when China was invaded and partially occupied by Japan, the U.S. emerged as China's most important friend and ally. The Stillwell mission helped shore up Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies, and lend lease aid, flown at great risk over the Burma "Hump," helped to alleviate Nationalist China's hard-pressed and inflationary economy. After 1945, the U.S. continued to provide political and material aid to Chiang Kai-shek's government.

    The Cold War

    In 1949, the Communist forces of Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalist armies and set up the People's Republic of China (PRC). Two million mainlanders, led by Chiang, escaped to Taiwan, which at that time had a population of around 6 million people. The very next year the Korean War broke out. American forces came to the support of South Korea, and President Harry S. Truman interposed the 7th fleet between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. In 1954, the U.S. organized the anti-Communist South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and signed a mutual security treaty with the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan. Within the U.S., a campaign led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin scoured the country for Communists and for China specialists who might have helped "lose" China to the Communists. For the next 20 years, the U.S. and China stood on opposite sides of the Cold War, bitterly denouncing each other at every possible opportunity.

    Nixon's Visit to China

    In the early 1970s, a remarkable warming occurred in U.S.-China relations. In 1972 President Richard Nixon visited Beijing and met with Chairman Mao. The latter, who had long admired America's founding fathers, greeted Nixon by shaking his hand for fully one minute. The U.S. and China found common cause in opposing Soviet power (although this did not last long into the 1980s). The PRC had already taken Nationalist China's place in the U.N. In January 1979, the Carter administration, in a move that caught Taiwan and its American friends by surprise, would recognize the PRC and end formal recognition of the Nationalist government on Taiwan.

    That decision ushered in a decade of remarkable expansion in economic and cultural relations between China and the United States. Bilateral trade and commerce grew by leaps and bounds. Tens of thousands of Chinese students came to the U.S. to study in America's graduate schools. Exchanges of information developed between military, political, legal, medical, environmental, and financial counterparts. Major American foundations began investing heavily in China's development. Important relationships were developed between institutions and individuals in both countries, which continue to the present day.

    Tiananmen Square and 'Peaceful Evolution'

    But far-sighted people in both countries knew that problems existed in the relationship that could not be papered over by good will and shared opposition to the Soviet Union. These problems had to do with basic differences in the way the two cultures were organized, and in their attitudes toward politics, human rights, history, and national priorities. For some time, Chinese officials had worried openly about what they called "peaceful evolution," namely the propensity for Americans to carry on ideological propaganda even during times of peace. For China's leadership, the 1989 movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which engaged at times as many as a million people, appeared to confirm these fears, especially when students erected a large plaster-cast statue in the Square looking suspiciously like America's Statue of Liberty. The movement was crushed, and a chill came down on U.S.-China relations.


    The Growth of Nationalism in China

    For Americans, the most important issue to emerge in recent years is the growth of nationalism in China, and with it a growing suspicion of American political and strategic aims toward China. This development is not very well understood in the U.S., where many people still regard China as a "communist" country. It is true that China is still governed by a communist party and that there are upwards of 60 million party members in the country. But most of the trappings of communism have gone. The agricultural communes disappeared 20 years ago. The big state-owned enterprises are being steadily dismantled and their workers retired or laid off. The "barefoot" doctors who once served the rural population are mostly gone. The attire of Chinese communism lingers on amongst some old people, but hardly any young people wear such clothes today. Much of popular culture has taken on the rhythms and sounds of American pop culture. Most important, Marxism, Leninism, and thoughts inspired by Mao Zedong exert little more than a ritualistic influence over present-day thought.

    What has taken their place is an increasingly assertive nationalism. With the growth of economic wealth has come the revival of nationalist identity. China has reaffirmed its 5,000-year history and its place at the center of the East Asian world. It has done much to revive national and international interest in its Confucian inheritance. Millions of tourists stream to its cultural icons -- both ancient, such as Xi'an's terra cotta warriors and Beijing's Forbidden City; and modern, such as new Shanghai or the great dam rising across the Yangtze river -- as if acknowledging that China's cultural inheritance is a world-class phenomenon. China has the world's largest army, its big cities are modernizing and transforming themselves, and its products are flowing across the globe. China's influence in international agencies such as the U.N. and APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group) is increasing manifestly. It will shortly join the World Trade Organization after 15 years of convoluted negotiations, and in 2008 it will host the summer Olympics.

    Sovereignty: Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan

    Along with this vibrant nationalism has come an edgy determination to confirm its boundaries and insist on its sovereignty. The Chinese are adamant that Tibet, Xinjiang (once known in the West as Chinese Turkestan), and the Northeast (once known as Manchuria; for 15 years, it was converted by the Japanese into a separate kingdom) are part of China. Hong Kong -- for 155 years a British colony -- is back as part of China. So is Macao.

    Most important, China insists that Taiwan is part of China. Taiwan was taken from Imperial China by the Japanese in 1895 and converted into a Japanese colony. It was restored to Nationalist China at the end of the Pacific War, and then removed from Communist mainland control by Chiang Kai-shek when he set up his government there in 1949. The 1954 mutual security treaty with the U.S. reinforced Nationalist control over Taiwan. After switching diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979, the U.S., led by the Congress, passed a Taiwan Relations Act, which provided the island with guarantees of military assistance and expectations of continuing security protection.

    Thus Taiwan remains divided from China, and the PRC government is determined to get it back. One of its biggest current fears is no longer "bourgeois liberalism" or capitalism but what it calls "splittism," meaning attacks on China's territorial integrity. Among China's current bogiemen are the Dalai Lama and whoever happens to be president of the government on Taiwan. In the last 50 years, the mainland government has generated several crises in the Taiwan Strait to remind people living in Taiwan of China's interest in reclaiming control over the island. It is increasing its military readiness on the southeast China coast and equipping itself with missiles to dampen any ideas of Taiwanese independence. In short, there are historical and contemporary aspects to Chinese nationalism that differentiate it in certain ways from American or any other nationalism.

    Taiwan presents an even more basic problem for the U.S. After several decades of dictatorship, Taiwan now has an elected president, elected political representatives, and a remarkably free press. It is a more genuine democracy than many other countries that claim to be democratic. Taiwan's path to democracy has been learned from and aided by the U.S. Thus, the U.S. government cannot simply stand aside when it comes to the future of that island. Many American legislators believe in supporting Taiwan against what they see as the elephantine autocracy on the mainland. Because of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. has legal commitments to Taiwan, despite its diplomatic acknowledgment that there is only one China and that the Beijing government is Taiwan's legal governing entity.

    The Current Mood

    From China's perspective, the most important issues dividing the U.S. and China have to do with American "interference in China's internal affairs," specifically with regard to human rights, religious freedoms, Tibet, and Taiwan. Understandably, the Chinese hate being lectured by American leaders and agencies about their human rights problems. That they have them is undeniable. It is the critical reporting by the U.S. State Department and non-governmental organizations that the Chinese people and government find hard to accept. Many Chinese people point out that China today is a much freer place in which to live than it was 20 or especially 30 years ago. The American standard reply is "not free enough." Americans are perturbed by lack of due process, exploitation of prison labor, and attacks on free speech. They are disturbed by the oppression of religious practice in China. There are Americans who would like to flood China with Bibles; some are doing so. Americans have grown increasingly disturbed by what they regard as the Chinese occupation and oppression of Tibet, and are sympathetic to the search by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders for real internal autonomy for Tibet.

    Since Tiananmen Square, the two countries have grown more distant politically and strategically, even as they have moved closer economically and commercially. In terms of trade and finance, there is increasing cooperation in both the private and public sectors. American and Chinese negotiators labored long, and in the end successfully, to negotiate China's entry into the World Trade Organization. But on the political and strategic fronts, it is a different story. China has become more overtly nationalist, more determined to protect its territorial integrity, and more suspicious of what it regards as interference in its internal affairs. The U.S. has become more critical about human rights issues in China, more vocal about the situation in Tibet, and more worried about the future of Taiwan. It is in this context of growing strategic and political differences -- particularly those relating to Taiwan -- that the "spy-plane" incident occurred.


    During the last five years, several developments have strained the bilateral relationship. The PRC government has been turning up the heat on Taiwan and its leadership, particularly during the times of presidential elections, in an effort to force Taiwanese people to forgo any thought of independence. When the Chinese military lobbed missiles offshore of northern Taiwan in 1996, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers toward the island, ending the Chinese missile offensive. In the same year, PRC agents were accused of illegally subsidizing Democrat Party races in American political campaigns, effectively interfering in American internal affairs. In May 1999, NATO planes attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three people. This event, coupled with American excuses that it was the result of inaccurate maps, caused a furor in China. Student crowds damaged American embassy buildings, which in turn angered people in the U.S. But despite belated American apologies and compensation for the victims, the conviction lingers in China that the embassy bombing was a deliberate act to diminish China's national prestige.

    The present Bush administration's interest in missile defense technology has caused further offense to China, which views itself and its Taiwan policy as a primary target of this initiative. In fact, when President George W. Bush came into office, he quickly signaled that America's China policy would take a less friendly or ambiguous approach than those of his recent predecessors. China would be redefined as a competitor; America's commitments to Taiwan, including a new round of arms sales, would be reconfirmed.

    These trends, and other problems in arms sales and their effect on regional strategic balance, help explain the heightened importance of the U.S. reconnaissance planes, which fly along China's southeast coast. For America, the EP-3 reconnaissance planes provide information on military build-up in the area opposite Taiwan. From a Chinese perspective these are "spy-planes," and they represent another example of bullying, hegemonic interference in China's internal affairs. Chinese military planes buzzed the American planes, trying to move them further offshore. A Chinese F-8 fighter plane flew too close to the much larger American EP-3 and was fatally damaged. The EP-3, meanwhile, was forced to make an unauthorized landing on Hainan island, precipitating the April 2001 confrontation between the U.S. and China.

    The EP-3 reconnaissance or "spy-plane" incident can thus be interpreted as yet another sign of trouble in U.S.-China relations. It took considerable time for both governments to negotiate the demands advanced by each side and move toward a diplomatic solution. In the intervening weeks, political commentary on both sides became quite angry and volatile. Cooler heads in both countries know that this kind of antagonism could hurt both sides. The U.S. may be the sole current world power, but China is a very large political entity and it has an agenda and a sense of authority and pride that cannot be discounted. The American and Chinese peoples must learn to deal with each other as they are today. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Chinese authorities, for reasons of their own, have become quite sympathetic to the American case for war against terrorism. But this does not mean that the other issues have been fully addressed. They have merely been deferred.

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