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

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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.

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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.