Historical Experiences and Important Principles of China-US Relations

By Su Ge

China-US relations are the most important and complicated bilateral relations in today’s world. A review of the history of this relationship sheds light on how and why the ups and downs in its development. The historical experiences and important principles that have been accumulated over the years may provide useful reference points for China-US relations in the days to come. 

I. The history of China-US relations in the 20th century

1. The Cold War and the origin of China-US relations

In the 1940s, China and the United States fought shoulder to shoulder in the Second World War. The two countries are founding members of the United Nations and have played a major role in establishing and maintaining the post-war international order of peace. The People’s Republic of China was founded when the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War. After the Korean War broke out, the United States was involved in the war and decided to send its seventh fleet to the Taiwan Strait. The signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance dashed the hopes of the American decision-makers to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, China and the United States fought hard against each other on the battlefield in Korea. After the war ended, the US government had since adopted a containment policy towards China. 

2. Normalization of relations and the establishment of China-US diplomatic ties.

The Soviet Union factor later became a catalyst for engagement between China and the United States. In the 1960s, the United States, in order to get out of the quagmire of the war in Vietnam and counter the expansion of the Soviet Union, started strategic retrenchment on the Nixon doctrine and gradually adjusted its relations with China. China and the United States, formerly two enemies, were brought together by their converging national security interests. The strategic consensus on joining hands to resist the Soviet Union was the foundation for normalizing China-US relations. In the early 1970s, China-US relations were promoted by what is known as the ping pong diplomacy, “the small ball pushing the big ball”, so to speak. In 1972, China and the United States concluded the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the US “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”

It took 7 years for China and the United States to ultimately establish diplomatic relations. In this process, the biggest obstacle was the Taiwan question. In 1979, the two countries issued the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations. The US government accepted China’s three pre-conditions on establishing diplomatic relations: severing the so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan, withdrawing all US armed forces and military facilities from Taiwan, abolishing the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan and recognizing the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole, legitimate government of China. The Chinese government adheres to the basic policy of “peaceful reunification, and one country, two systems”. After China and the United States established diplomatic relations, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, through which the US continues to sell arms to Taiwan and interfere in China’s internal affairs. Due to China’s relentless insistence, the two countries issued the August 17th Joint Communiqué in 1982 to solve the issue of US arms sale to Taiwan through a step-by-step approach. These three communiqués thus lay an important foundation for the healthy and stable development of China-US relations. 

The normalization of China-US relations and the establishment of diplomatic ties opened a new chapter in the history of the relations between the two countries, and created a favorable external environment for China’s reform and opening-up, which, in turn, further promoted the growth of China-US relations. In the 1980s, the two countries had incessant problems and fought on issues such as Taiwan, trade and intellectual property, but made continuous and vigorous progress in political, economic, scientific, technological and cultural fields. 

3. China-US relations have withstood the test of changes in the international situation. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, dramatic turmoil and profound changes took place in the international situation. Besides the transformation of East Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, severe political turbulences also occurred in China. The United States and the West under these circumstances went tough on China. The US government imposed economic sanctions on China in 1989.  Then, Mr. Deng Xiaoping put forth the guiding principles of “observing with a cool head, holding the ground, keeping a low profile and making things done”. With a firm commitment to upholding national sovereignty and security, China maintained a stable environment for reform and opening-up and the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics. During his meeting with the special envoy of the US president, Deng Xiaoping said, “Ultimately, China-US relations must grow well. This is what is needed for world peace and stability.” Thanks to China’s calmness, the tensions in China-US relations were eased. 

In the 1990s, after Bill Clinton became US president, the human rights issue was linked to China’s Most-Favored Nation (MFN) status, which at times plunged China-US relations to low ebbs. On the margins of the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Seattle in November 1993, Chinese and American leaders met and reached the consensus to take a healthy and stable China-US relationship forward into the 21st century. In the next year, the Clinton administration adopted the policy of engagement with China; the US government later announced its decision to delink the human rights issue and MFN status. 

In 1995, as a result of Li Denghui’s visit to the United States, China-US relations dropped to its lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic relations. Since then, China has worked to manage its relations with the US in the spirit of “increasing trust, reducing troubles, promoting cooperation and avoiding confrontation”. At the same time, China firmly upheld its principled position on the Taiwan question. Recognizing the importance and sensitivity of the Taiwan question, the US government stated that “constructive engagement” is crucial and reaffirmed its commitment to the One-China policy. In mid-1998, President Clinton visited China. The two sides set the direction for developing China-US relations oriented towards the 21st century. President Clinton, for the first time, articulated the “three no” policy of the United States, namely the US does not support Taiwan independence, Taiwan’s participation in international organizations composed of sovereign states, and such assertions as “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”. 

At the close of the 20th century, the new interventionism in the United States presented new challenges to China-US relations. In May 1999, the “Cox Report” came out of US congress, accusing China of “stealing” US “nuclear secrets”. During the Kosovo War, the NATO forces led by the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, leading to a flat downturn in China-US relations, which had been otherwise on an upward trajectory owing to the exchange of visits of the two presidents. At the end of 1999, the United States and NATO made compensations for the casualties and damaged embassy. With that, China-US relations started to move out of the shadow of the “embassy bombing” incident.

Afterwards, China and the US finally reached agreement on China’s accession into the World Trade Organization. In 2000, China-US relations recovered and developed. The Chinese and US presidents met on the sidelines of the United Nations Millennium Summit and APEC Economic Leaders Meeting. The two countries resumed security dialogue and military exchange. The US congress approved the legislation on permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China. 

II. China-US relations in the early 21st century 

1. Twists and turns in China-US relations under the George W. Bush administration.

During the presidential campaign in 2000, George W. Bush renounced the characterization of China-US relationship by the Clinton administration as a “strategic cooperative partnership” and defined it as one between “strategic competitors”. In January 2001, Bush became the 43rdUS president. In the early days, especially after the crash between a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet, the Bush administration grew increasingly tough on China, openly criticizing the previous administration for being weak on China, defining China-US relationship as one between strategic competitors, and even claiming that it would do all it can to defend Taiwan, which crossed the red line on the Taiwan question in China-US relations. 

The 911 terrorist attacks provided an opportunity for the US to adjust its policies toward China. In the aftermath of the 911 attacks, the US was focused on fighting terrorism, and defense of national security was the top priority for the country. On foreign relations, the “new conservatives” in the US drew the line based on whether a country supported counter-terrorism. Shortly after the attacks, the Chinese president had a phone call with his US counterpart, offering sympathies and condolences on the terrorist attacks, strongly condemning international terrorism and expressing the willingness to work with the US to fight all forms of terrorism. Later on, the US stopped its aggressive rhetoric such as “strategic competitors”, which eased the tensions in bilateral relations. China-US relations thus moved into a new stage of stable growth. The US gradually adjusted its China policy and hoped to shape China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international relations. 

2. The Obama administration’s strategy of “rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific”and China-US relations

In the new century of deepening globalization and multi-polarity, major changes have taken place in the balance of power between China and the US. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011, China’s economy experienced two rounds of rapid growth. For the first round, China grew fast and became a big global trading nation after joining the WTO. Then during the 2008 global financial crisis, which was triggered by the financial bubbles on the Wall Street, the United States was significantly hurt in both soft and hard strength. By comparison, the Chinese economy remained stable and steadily took off. It expanded at a fast pace and eventually overtook Germany and Japan as the world’s second largest economy. 

As the No. 2 economy, China has attracted global attention.  Just as an old Chinese saying goes, “If a tree stands tall in the forest, it will be sure to be blown by the wind.” The previous fulcrum in China-US relations has shifted. Changes have also taken place in the twin engines, economic and trade cooperation and counter-terrorism cooperation, that had driven China-US relations in the first 10 years. President Obama decided to gradually withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and made accelerated efforts to implement its “pivot to Asia-Pacific” or “rebalancing of Asia-Pacific” strategy. The US shifted the focus of its national security strategy to the East in response to the challenge of the rise of some other major powers. It also moved faster to promote the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), in an attempt to replace WTO rules. 

Moreover, some “third-party factors”, which were not within the scope of China-US relations, have now interfered with and even hijacked the foreign policy and China policy of the United States. On the East China Sea and South China Sea issues, the United States backtracked on its commitment not to take sides and has been favorable to the other parties in its action. This has an adverse impact on the normal growth of China-US relations. For some time, there were hypothetical arguments in the Western media that China-US relations were “endangered” or at a “tipping point”. Some even went so far as to say the two countries would not be able to avoid the “Thucydides’ Trap” that had proved to be inevitable between an emerging power and the status quo power. 

Based on his deep understanding of the situation, President Xi Jinping made insightful observations that we must coordinate efforts both at home and abroad to avoid the two traps. At home, China must overcome the middle-income trap and strike a balance between reform, development and stability to stabilize growth, adjust structure, improve people’s life and promote reform, so that the Chinese economy will move steadily forward. Internationally, China must avoid the Thucydides’ Trap and the conflict between established and emerging powers. President Xi called for building a new model of major-country relations between China and the United States featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, which sets the right direction for China-US relations going forward. 

3. Trump’s election puts China-US relations at a crossroads. 

The 2016 US presidential election took place at a time of profound and complicated changes in the world. Trump’s election and the earlier Brexit referendum are widely regarded as two major “black swan” events, adding uncertainties to the international situation. During the election campaign, Trump made tough and negative statements on China. For example, he said trade with China had hurt US interests and blamed trade deficit with China for job losses in the US. He called for putting “America First” and bringing more jobs back to America. He criticized China for manipulating the currency to expand exports. The US attitude toward China seems to turn more negative. 

After Trump won the election, President Xi sent him a letter of congratulations and had a telephone conversation with him on November 14th. In the letter, President Xi expressed the hope to work with the US under the principle of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. In the telephone conversation, President Xi underlined cooperation as the only correct choice for China and the US. However, President Trump later had a phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Taiwan authorities, and called into question the One-China policy on Twitter, creating setbacks for bilateral relations. In January 2017, the new US president was inaugurated. China-US relations faced both challenges and opportunities. 

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has engaged resolutely with the US on issues concerning China’s core interests and demonstrated its firm determination to defend China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, prompting gradual, positive changes in Trump’s “learning curve”. Trump has altered his previous words and actions, and returned to the right track of One China policy. On February 10, President Xi had another telephone conversation with President Trump. Trump emphasized that he fully understands the great importance of the One China policy followed by the precious US governments and that his government is committed to the One China policy and is willing to develop “constructive relations”  with China. 

The interactions between the two presidents have brought about tangible stability to China-US relations, which sends out a positive signal and marks a new starting point for the relations. The important consensus reached by the two sides maintains the political foundation of China-US relations, stabilizes the development of the relations, alleviates the concerns and doubts from the international community, and creates necessary conditions for the two countries to cooperate in bilateral, regional and global affairs. 

III. China-US relations should build on past achievements and strive for new progress. 

1. Inspirations from historical experiences.

As an old Chinese saying goes,“Taking history as a mirror, one will know the rise and fall of past dynasties.” Over the past years, China-US relations have gone through many twists and turns. One can draw important reference points from the continuous progress of the relations despite the ups and downs. 

First, China and the United States were in a state of rivalry in the early days of the Cold War. As the US government defined friends and foes along the ideological line, the newly founded People’s Republic of China had no other choice but to “fight the US to assist the DPRK and defend the motherland”. 

Second, the New China was independent in the world and constituted an important force in the relations between big countries. It is an important reason for the transition in China-US relations. Shared needs for national security prompted China and the US to rise above ideological differences and normalize their relations.

Third, the strategic fulcrum in China-US exchanges and cooperation is where their national interests converge. China and the US have many converging interests. Their relations are mutually beneficial in nature. And their shared interests far outweigh their differences. Dialogue and cooperation remain the mainstream of China-US relations.

Fourth, the Taiwan question is where China and the US have argued the most and fought the hardest. It has often caused ups and downs in China-US relations. Stability, improvement and development of the relations hinge on whether the One-China principle is observed to manage the Taiwan question. 

Fifth, differences between the two sides must be resolved in the spirit of mutual respect and equal-footed consultation. Any attempt to contain, sanction or threaten China will not help resolve issues and will only lead to confrontation or even conflict. 

Sixth, historical facts show that only by maintaining stability and increasing its own strength can China maintain and develop China-US relations. 

2. Profound changes in the current situation.

At present, the international situation is undergoing the most profound and complicated adjustments since the end of the Cold War. The US and the West, the traditional “constants” in the international landscape, are on the decline in the global balance of power and have become “variables” that affect the stability of international relations. They seem to lose some of their previous confidence and fail to adjust their mindset to the new changes. As China’s national strength improves and carries out diplomacy in all areas, confidence has been demonstrated in its development path, theory, system and culture. China now has a positive role to play in shaping its relations with the US.  She sees things more in perspectives and her posture has shown both strategic focus and patience. 

The future direction of China-US relations has implications far beyond the bilateral scope. The cooperation and shared development between the two countries will not only benefit the two peoples, but also contribute to the stability, peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific and even the world at large. It is true that there have been differences between the two countries now and then. It is also true that shared interests between China and the United States are significantly increasing. The two sides must have candid dialogues and exchanges and engage in sincere cooperation to ensure the giant ship of China-US relations steers clear of reefs and rocks and keeps moving forward. 

As China and the US are coming closer in national strengths with shifts in strategic dynamics, the strategic competition between the two countries is likely to increase. At the same time, neither side has the intention to enter into conflict and confrontation. Therefore, Trump’s China policy is clearly double-sided. On the one hand, he sees China as a rival in economic and security fields. On the other, he still needs cooperation with China in domestic economic development, infrastructure, counter-terrorism and other international and regional affairs. Trump is still in the process of shaping up its policy towards China. It still takes time for the two sides to adapt to each other in developing the relations. 

3. Future prospects have yet to be expanded. 

(1)Expanding interests and focusing on cooperation. China and the US are both permanent members of the UN Security Council. They both benefit from and uphold the existing international order, and shoulder important and unique responsibilities for regional and international peace, security and prosperity. China stands ready to work with the US to push forward the international system in a more equitable and reasonable direction, jointly tackle global challenges such as counter-terrorism, climate change and disease prevention and control, and strengthen communication and cooperation on Korean nuclear, Iranian nuclear, Afghanistan and other regional hotspot issues. In the Asia-Pacific, the two sides should encourage inclusive diplomacy and together play a constructive role in regional peace, stability and prosperity. “The Pacific is vast enough to accommodate both China and the United States.” On bilateral relations, China and the US have extensive shared interests and a solid basis for cooperation. Economic and trade relations are the ballast stone for the giant ship of China-US relations. The two sides need to continuously expand practical cooperation, create highlights in cooperation, enlarge the cake of shared interests, increase employment and expand cooperation in two-way investment and infrastructure. Sanctions or trade wars are in the interests of neither side and should be avoided as much as possible. Moreover, the two sides should strengthen practical cooperation in such areas as military, law enforcement, energy and health. At the same time, exchanges should be promoted in different fields to consolidate the social foundation for relations between the two countries. 

(2) Mutual respect and seeking common ground while shelving differences. China and the United States are two big countries with different national conditions. They should view each other’s strategic intentions in an objective and rational light, respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, respect each other’s political systems and development paths, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, appreciate each other’s cultural traditions, and refrain from imposing one’s will and model on the other side. This is the important prerequisite and foundation for the healthy and stable growth of bilateral relations. The path of peaceful development is China’s national policy that is determined based on China’s confidence in thinking and practices. Certainly, only when the two countries live in peace can the path of common development be widened.  It is China’s genuine hope and need to pursue peaceful development. But China will never do so at the sacrifice of its sovereignty and core interests. In international affairs, China advocates for embarking on a path of openness, inclusiveness and win-win cooperation and jointly building a community of shared destiny for mankind. China hopes that the US correctly views and adapts to China’s changes, welcomes China’s development and success with an open and inclusive mind, and finds cooperation opportunities from it. A China of peaceful development should not be seen as a threat to the US. China and the US should work together to abandon the zero-sum game and Cold War mentality. This is a fundamental issue concerns the correct direction of China-US relations and allows no strategic miscalculation. 
(3) Managing differences and avoiding confrontation. “The wise people always seek common ground.” There exist differences between China and the United States in development stages, social systems, cultural traditions and economic interests. It is inevitable that they may occasionally have misunderstandings, differences or even frictions.  The two countries must pursue dialogue and equal-footed consultation, be broad-minded, seek common interests, adopt long-term policies and not let isolated incidents or problems undermine the foundation of stable growth of China-US relations. The two sides should resolve their differences and sensitive issues in a constructive way and refrain from doing things that jeopardize each other’s core interests. As for frictions on values, there should be dialogue and communication to increase trust and dispel misgivings. Conflicts of interests should be coordinated through negotiations. Economic and trade issues should not be politicized. Even for structural problems that cannot be reconciled easily, efforts must be made to manage the differences, seek maximum restraint.  It is imperative to avoid miscalculation, and to prevent conflicts from breaking out through a crisis management mechanism. The two sides should take a long-term perspective and continuously expand and deepen coordination and cooperation. “Both countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.” “No conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” serves the fundamental interest of China and the US, and is in line with the trend of peace, development and progress of the times. China is ready to work with the US based on mutual respect and inclusiveness to increase strategic trust, avoid strategic miscalculation and tackle global challenges so as to continuously benefit people of the two countries and the whole world. 

As President Xi Jinping said, “Cooperation is the only correct choice for China and the US.” Although China-US cooperation cannot resolve all problems in the world, it is indispensable for solving all major problems. It seems that for China-US relations to grow in a healthy and stable manner, consorted efforts are needed from both sides. 

Su Ge is President of the China Institute of International Relations.