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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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1.2 The Chinese Imperial era

It is important to bear in mind that the history of China’s relations with other countries, including the United States, has always been a key factor shaping the international system. The following brief overview provides some historical background to contemporary debates but also suggests that China’s distinctive history reveals a more complex picture than some of these narratives imply. Don’t worry about taking in all the detail or dates, just focus on the main lines of the story or narrative. Table 1 summarises some key dates in Chinese history and in its international relations.

Table 1 China timeline
TimeKey periodsKey events
1368–1644Ming dynasty1402–1424 Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di
1792–1911Feudal decay in China, rise of European colonialism

1792 British envoy Macartney kowtows; 1840s–1850s The Opium Wars and advent of unequal treaties; 1899–1900 Boxer Rebellion

1911–1937Nationalist rule under Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-Shek

1911 Fall of the Chinese Empire, advent of Chinese Republic; 1931 Japanese invade Manchuria; 1934–1935 The Long March; 1937 Japanese invasion;

1937–1945Fighting between China and Japan1945 Defeat of Japan
1949–1953Communist revolution, Chiang Kai-Shek retreats to Taiwan

1949 Founding of People’s Republic of China (PRC); 1950–1953 Korean War

1953–1964Mass collectivisation and rural industrialisation

1953 First Five-Year Plan; 1953–1955 Taiwan straights crisis, United States threatens nuclear strike on China; 1954 Taiwan–United States mutual defence treaty; 1955 Bandung Conference (the Asian-African Conference); 1960–1961 Famine; 1960 Split with Soviet Union; 1964 China successful atomic test


Cultural Revolution, radical political campaigns

1969 China–Soviet Union border conflict; 1971 Rapprochement between United States and China; 1972 China takes UN Security Council Seat, Nixon visit to China; 1975 Support for Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; 1976 Mao Zedong dies

1978 to current day

Reform era: economic liberalisation and opening up to international economy

1978 Deng Xiaoping assumes leadership; 1979 War with Vietnam; 1979 Full US recognition of PRC; 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, fall of  Berlin Wall; 1991 End of Cold War; 1996 Free elections in Taiwan; 1997 China reclaims Hong Kong; 1999 NATO accidentally bombs Chinese embassy in Belgrade; 2000 United States normalises trade relations with China; 2001 China joins World Trade Organization; 2005 US Secretary of State Robert Zoellick urges China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in international affairs; 2007 China increases defence spending by 18 per cent; 2008 China becomes United States’ largest creditor; 2010 China becomes world’s second largest economy, overtaking Japan; 2011 US strategic ‘pivot towards Asia’