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

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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

1.6 Recapping history

The following two activities will help you to recap and assess key aspects of the history of China–US relations.

Activity 1

Timing: Approximately 10 minutes

This brief overview will have given you some sense of the changing place of China in the international system and its relations with the United States. Make a few notes to identify evidence from this section to back up (or challenge) any of the ‘bold claims’ mentioned in the first paragraph of this section. The claims mentioned were:

  • China’s rise is a new development
  • China is moving from being a closed society to a more open one
  • China’s rise and US decline is part of a constant cycle of great powers
  • China’s rise will bring either more cooperation or more conflict.


China’s rise is a new development

There is evidence (explored more in subsequent sections) that recent years have seen an increase in China’s economic and military clout. However, the idea that China’s rise to prominence is something entirely new should be treated with a good deal of caution. China has long been important to international politics and at times a pre-eminent power.

China is moving from being a closed society to a more open one

While the Communist era in China has been authoritarian with severe restrictions on international trade, investment and political freedoms, the era since 1978 saw a liberalisation on economic ties in particular. But a longer historical timeframe shows a fluctuation in how ‘open’ or ‘closed’ China has been.

China’s rise and US decline is part of a constant cycle of great powers

There is some support for the idea that great powers rise and fall over history, though one shouldn’t therefore conclude that this is a necessary or inevitable process (an important issue for US strategists in particular).

China’s rise will bring either more cooperation or more conflict

In terms of the prospects for cooperation and conflict today, one should treat with caution any simple claims of a one-way process either towards greater cooperation or towards deeper conflict. The historical record shows different phases of conflict and cooperation and one should perhaps expect that to continue.

For both the United States and China, this changing relationship leaves a difficult legacy including scepticism on both sides about the other’s motivations. These worries still affect diplomacy today despite the seemingly ever-closer integration of the US and Chinese economies. Such historical fluctuations in relations mean that contemporary analyses of the overall character of relations between China and the United States, and the prospects for cooperation, have to be somewhat tentative.

Activity 2

Timing: About 30 minutes

As you have seen, China and the United States share a long history of interaction which has fluctuated as their power has varied and as areas of cooperation and conflict have come and gone. To help consolidate your knowledge of that history, this slideshow provides a brief summary of some of the main events in the history of China–United States relations. It will give you some more background if you’ve never studied China before, in the stories and backstories of China–United States relations. The slideshow is not a comprehensive history but identifies some key points in modern Chinese history and points to some of the shifting dynamics of China–United States relations and the critical moments when the dynamics and power relations shifted between the two states.

Download this video clip.Video player: Slideshow: A short history of China–United States relations
Skip transcript: Slideshow: A short history of China–United States relations

Transcript: Slideshow: A short history of China–United States relations

This slide show navigates you through the relationship between China and the United States from their first contact to the present day.
In 1784, the American merchant vessel, The Empress of China, sailed from the newly independent United States of America and entered the Chinese port of what was then known as Canton.
Driven by a high American consumer demand for tea, a consortium of American merchants, including the business agent Samuel Shaw, were seeking to establish trade with China. The ship returned to America with a cargo of tea and earned a substantial profit.
Its success, and the lucrative rewards, inspired other American merchants to follow suit. And by the early 1800s, America had joined the many European nations already trading in Canton, including the British, Dutch, French and Danish.
Formal mutual recognition between the US and China came in June 1844 when US envoy Caleb Cushing presented his credentials and met with Chinese officials to discuss treaty negotiations. Cushing, a Massachusetts lawyer, had been dispatched by President John Tyler under pressures from American merchants concerned about the British dominance in Chinese trade.
The resulting treaty of peace, amity and commerce was modelled on the unequal treaties signed between UK and China. Its elements included extraterritoriality, which meant that US citizens could only be tried by US consular offices, fixed tariffs on trade in the treaty ports, the right to buy land in five treaty ports, and to erect churches and hospitals there, and the right to learn Chinese.
By the mid 1800s, a series of disputes over trade and diplomatic relations erupted between China and the Western powers, climaxing in the Opium Wars of 1839 to '42 and 1856 to '60.
The first war was over Britain's desire, against the wishes of the Chinese empire, to export opium from India to China to pay for British imports of Chinese tea. It began when Britain used force to gain redress over confiscated supplies.
The second war involved Britain and France, who, along with other Western powers, shared a wider aim of extracting more economic and political concessions from the Chinese.
These wars ended after French and British forces entered Beijing and the Chinese conceded to a series of Western demands, including the opening up of trade and access to the Chinese interior for foreigners, amongst them, missionaries.
Following the second Opium War, there was an explosion in the number of Western missionaries from Europe and North America travelling to China in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Their aim was to convert the Chinese to Christianity, and this image shows the Chinese converts preaching to the unconverted. For Christians in the US, trying to convert non-Christians to Christianity was a key part of their faith.
Inevitably, the local Chinese felt that this was a gross affront to them, which caused tension between the visitors and the imperial authorities.
Movement was not one way. Chinese migration to the US began with the first Gold Rush from 1848 to 1855. And to keep labour costs down, many Chinese labourers were brought in to work on the transcontinental railroads then being built.
The immigrant workers were subject to animosity from local workers and were blamed for pressing down wages. This resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to exclude Chinese migrant labour.
The Act, as this cartoon shows, had its critics. They saw it as legalised racial discrimination. Eventually repealed in 1943, it was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in US history.
In China, resentment against foreign imperialism and missionary evangelism seeded the rise of the Boxers, an anti-foreign, nationalist movement, so-called by foreigners because of their use of martial arts.
The Boxer Rebellion took place from 1899 to 1901 against a background of severe drought, economic disruption and of conflict within the imperial court between reformers and conservatives.
The conservatives won the conflict and decided to support the Boxers, who then began attacks on Westerners with the support of the imperial government.
In response, Western powers attacked China, ultimately occupying Beijing. Although China did not cede any territory, it had to pay reparations to the Western powers.
The failures of the imperial governments to either confront foreign aggression or modernise led to a series of revolts and uprisings. This photo shows Shanghai following the uprising there in 1911, with houses flying the flag used by the revolutionaries.
In the autumn of that year, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China founded. A series of military governments followed, and in 1913, the US, who had been largely supportive of the newly formed republic, became one of the first countries to establish full diplomatic relations.
The Chinese Civil War began in April 1927 and continued intermittently until 1937. It was fought between forces of those loyal to the nationalist government of the Republic of China, led by the Kuomintang Chiang Kai-Shek, and the forces of the communist party of China, of which Mao Tse Tung soon became a leading figure.
In 1937, the two parties formed a second united front to counter a Japanese invasion, but the Civil War resumed after the Second World War ended.
The Japanese economic presence and political interest in Manchuria had been growing through the twentieth century and, in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria.
During the subsequent war between China and Japan, the Japanese invading forces carried out considerable human rights abuses, such as the Nanjing Massacre, when hundreds of thousands of civilians and disarmed soldiers were killed.
After the Japanese attack on the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbour in 1941, the US formally declared war on Japan, and the Manchurian War merged into the greater conflict of World War II.
The Sino-Japanese War still causes much tension within China and Japan today. As a result of the war, the United States provided aid to China. The American public became increasingly sympathetic towards the Chinese after reading reports from missionaries, novelists and Time Magazine about the Japanese brutality, particularly the Nanjing Massacre.
The Roosevelt administration gave massive amounts of aid to the beleaguered government in China, headed by Chiang Kai-Shek. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, who'd been educated in the US, toured the country to rally support for China. She even addressed Congress.
In late 1942, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed in the Cairo Declaration that all the territories Japan had occupied in China should be restored to the Republic of China.
After the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Japan, the Civil War between the nationalists and communists resumed and intensified. By 1949, the communists had taken control of northern China, and during that year, proceeded to drive the nationalists out of the South and on to Taiwan and other islands.
On October the 1st 1949, having gained control of mainland China, Mao Tse Tung proclaimed victory and established the People's Republic of China.
The Republic of China was then confined to Taiwan and other islands, where it remains to this day.
But the US did not recognise the communist-controlled People's Republic, instead recognising the Republic of China and Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.
At the end of World War II, the Allied powers unilaterally decided to divide Korea between the Soviet Union's sphere of influence on the one hand, and the West on the other, with the North establishing a communist government, and the South a pro-Western government.
Fighting broke out in June 1950 when the North invaded the South, prompting the US to come to the support of the South, dispatching substantial numbers of ground forces.
Mao and the Chinese communist leadership viewed these actions as US aggression and, in October 1950, China entered the war. Relations between the US and the People's Republic deteriorated even further and, as a result, the US increased its support for Taiwan.
This conflict lasted until 1953 and resulted in the division of Korea that remains to this day.
The 1960s were a tumultuous decade for both China and the US. In China, initial efforts to industrialise, through the programme known as the Great Leap Forward, ended in mass starvation in the countryside.
A subsequent political campaign, the Cultural Revolution, aimed to entrench orthodox communist ideas in China and led to increasing isolation from outside influences - in particular, the West.
In the US, there was domestic conflict over civil rights and the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Relations with China deteriorated yet further when China provided technical support for the North Vietnamese communists.
In 1972, the American President, Richard Nixon, visited China, marking the first time a US president had visited the People's Republic. At that time, the US was considered one of its greatest foes.
The meeting between Nixon and Mao was an important step in formally normalising relations between the United States and China. The visit allowed the American public to view images of China for the first time in over two decades.
Nixon dubbed the visit, 'The week that changed the world'. And the repercussions included a significant shift in the Cold War balance, pitting China with the US against the Soviet Union.
Following Mao's death in 1976, and the subsequent power struggles, Deng Xiaoping took control of the communist party. He was a veteran of the Civil War who'd fallen out of favour during the Cultural Revolution.
As paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1992, Deng was at the forefront of leading China towards both economic reform and more open relations with the rest of the world.
Deng took the opportunity to visit the West, including meeting with US President Jimmy Carter in Washington in 1979. This was part of a diplomatic process that led to a normalisation of relations between the USA and China.
Deng promoted economic reform through a synthesis of economic policies that became known as the Socialist Market Economy. Aided by the normalisation of relations with the US, Deng opened China to foreign investment and the global market and promoted limited private competition, including personal entrepreneurship.
He's generally credited with developing China into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and of raising the standard of living of hundreds of millions of Chinese.
The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations in Beijing in the spring of 1989 calling for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the restoration of workers' control over industry.
The students were supported, at their height, by over a million people in the square, and in protests in 400 other cities. The students were soon met by a sharp crackdown. Deng and the other party elders declared martial law and mobilised as many as 300,000 troops to Beijing.
The scale of military mobilisation, the resulting bloodshed and level of casualties shocked the watching world. The crackdown led to widespread condemnation internationally and sanctions from Western governments, including Washington.
In subsequent years, widespread repression followed. Political reforms were halted and economic reforms didn't resume until 1992. Western governments, in response, continued to impose economic sanctions and arms embargoes.
After Deng's retirement in 1992, China had a series of changes of leadership, throughout which China continued to grow. Trade with the West increased. Through this period, China maintained sustained and rapid economic growth and development. It modernised its infrastructure and transformed its cities.
By 2011, China had become the world's second largest economy after the United States. By 2012, it also became the world's leading trading nation. Relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis, China's economic power had increased its international stature immensely.
When President Xi Jinping became head of state in 2013, some of the biggest challenges included the very high levels of inequality between rich and poor, pollution, cronyism, corruption and rising discontent.
The Beijing Olympics in 2008 were strategically important to the Chinese government, as they wanted to project an image of China as a modern state.
However, the games were not without controversy, and issues such as China's stance on human rights came under international scrutiny. The Olympic torch relay designed to promote China was met by protesters, such as these in San Francisco. And the heavy-handed response of the Chinese protecting the torch caused outrage.
Concerns over human rights abuses in China, China's stance towards Tibet, and other aspects of China's foreign policy were also all the subject of criticism.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton normalised trade relations with Beijing, and China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
In 2006, under George Bush's presidency, US Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, launched a strategic dialogue with China asking them to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system.
Policy debates within the US were also impacted by many Western companies, having, by now, established significant interests in the Chinese economy. Some companies with investments in China have pressed the US government to take a softer line on China, or have countered those who criticise the communists.
Other tensions remain. In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in recognition of China's increased military power, announced a US strategic pivot towards Asia, increasing US military assets in the Asia Pacific region.
In recent years, China's assertion of its new power has raised various diplomatic tensions. At the UN, China opposed the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a number of Western policies, particularly towards conflicts in Africa.
Conflict with the US extends to the issue of climate change. Disagreement between China and the USA has been a major obstacle. This has frustrated efforts to achieve a global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The changing pattern of cooperation and conflict that has characterised China's relationship with the West throughout history looks set to continue in the present day.
End transcript: Slideshow: A short history of China–United States relations
Slideshow: A short history of China–United States relations
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Watch the slideshow and listen to the commentary. Then make some notes in the box below in answer to the following questions.

  1. In what ways did the changing relationship between China and the West in the nineteenth century impact on China’s contemporary international relations?
  2. What were the key moments of cooperation between China and the United States in the twentieth century?
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  1. You may have noted several points. Some we noted were as follows.
    • The Opium Wars opened China to trade but on very unequal terms. The balance of power shifted from the West having to defer to Chinese restrictions on trade, to China being forced by the West to open its ports to trading. However, the Communist victory in 1949 saw this opening reversed. China has been keen to ensure that the more recent opening of the economy is on more favourable terms.

    • The Opium Wars were critical to China’s subsequent political development, with deep internal conflict emerging within Chinese politics thereafter. Torn between violent rejection of change and radical demands for reform, the Chinese Empire collapsed in 1911, followed by civil war and eventually the victory of the Communists under Mao Zedong.

    • Today, the ‘century of humiliation’ continues to exert influence in China, with Chinese political leaders keen to overcome the inferior status the West imposed on them.

  2. Key areas of cooperation included the following.
    • The United States supported China both after the Japanese invasion and during World War Two.
    • US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 represented not only a shift in Chinese–United States relations but also in the balance of power and political alliances at a global level.
    • From the late 1970s and 1980s onwards, China and the United States developed increasing areas of diplomatic and economic cooperation, though tensions still remain today.

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