1 China–United States in international history
In this section, you will read about the China–US relationship and how it has changed over time. It sets out some historical context by looking at the fluctuations in China’s relations with the international system over several centuries and with the United States.
The international system is in a profound period of change. The rise of China and other large developing countries is posing a series of major challenges for analysts and politicians to grapple with. In one sense, change is not new in the international system – other periods have seen the rise and decline of great powers. The balance of power between European powers in the nineteenth century differed markedly from the international system in the 1930s, or in the 1950s and 1960s when the world was split during the Cold War between two competing capitalist and communist blocks. That bipolar world gave way in the 1990s to a period in which expert and media opinion focused on the dominance of the United States. Nor is this the first time that questions of China’s place in the international system have become important. However, the rise of China today does pose a series of new challenges as an international system shaped above all by Western states faces a potentially huge shift in influence towards the East.
In terms of everyday lives in the West, while consumers have benefitted economically from goods ‘made in China’ the prospect of China becoming the world’s largest economy also generates uncertainty and insecurity, even fear. Indeed, many periods of major change in international politics have been accompanied by significant political and economic upheavals, conflict and war. China’s own relationship with other countries, especially the United States, has fluctuated over the years. Whether China’s rise today results in greater conflict or new kinds of international cooperation is a critical question of our times.