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Defining the 21st Century: the Sino-US Relationship


The Sino-US relationship is, without question, the most important bilateral relationship in the international system today, and is likely to define the twenty-first century. At stake will be whether China and the US can become “strategic partners”, as Bill Clinton argued they ought to be, or whether they will remain the “strategic rivals” as they were characterized by George W. Bush. In other words, can the two develop a working relationship that serves the core interest of both parties as well as the stability of the international system, or are they destined to clash over key interests? The answer will depend on careful management by both sides of the many tensions that exist between the two powers. In truth, given the complexity of the Sino-US relationship, it is unsatisfactory to characterize the relationship in such simplistic partner-rival terms; a productive and stable relationship between the world’s two greatest powers will surely have to encompass elements of both partnership and competition. A constructive Sino-US relationship will be one in which the partnership element is at the fore.

The Cold War and Normalization

After the end of the Second World War, the international system in general, and US bilateral relations in particular, came to be defined by the dichotomy between Communist and non-Communist nations. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) fell firmly into the Communist camp, while the US was at the head of those opposing communism. US relations with China were further complicated by the existence of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, which was an ally of the US and still recognized as the legitimate government of the whole of China by most countries in the non-Communist bloc. Additionally, the ROC held China’s UN Security Council seat. The two sides actually fought an armed conflict in the Korean War, which resulted in the deaths of nearly two hundred thousand Chinese soldiers and over thirty thousand Americans.

The first steps towards Sino-US reconciliation came somewhat out-of-the-blue in the early 1970s, although, with hindsight, there was clear motivation for wanting rapprochement on both sides. The US was mired in the Vietnam War and still feared the “domino effect” of communism toppling state after state across the world. The US leadership felt that they needed a breakthrough to split the most powerful country within that bloc (the USSR) from other significant players. This coincided with a Sino-Soviet rift of the 1960s that had, by the end of the decade, become a serious threat to the PRC’s own perception of its national security, exemplified by a series of border skirmishes that occurred between the two former allies at that time.

In the autumn of 1969, there existed no official channel of exchange between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, so that when Nixon wanted to indicate to China his willingness to create conduits of communication between the two countries, he had to relay the message through the Pakistani and Romanian leaders who then communicated with China. Having received no reply from China, Nixon tried again in December 1969. The US ambassador to Poland approached his Chinese counterpart at a function in Warsaw. This time China responded, albeit in a circuitous manner through the two countries’ respective ambassadors to Pakistan, indicating that the two respective ambassadors to Poland might meet in Warsaw in January 1970. In this meeting, the US expressed willingness to send an envoy to China. In a second meeting China communicated that if the Americans wished to upgrade their diplomatic relations with China, they would need to recognize that Taiwan was a part of China and to withdraw all US forces from the Taiwan area. Nixon again pushed to establish a direct channel of communication with Beijing so that the two countries could more effectively discuss Taiwan and other issues. However, events in Southeast Asia complicated the process, with the US deeply entrenched in the war in Vietnam and China involved in a power struggle with the Soviet Union involving both Cambodia and Vietnam.

An acceleration in the Sino-US reconciliation came in March 1971 when the US and Chinese ping pong teams met in Japan, during which the Chinese invited the American team to visit China. The visit of the American ping pong team to China received prominent coverage in Chinese media. During the visit, the American team met with Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People, where he declared that the Americans’ visit had “opened a new chapter in the history of the relations between the Chinese and the American people.” This “ping pong diplomacy” paved the way for Henry Kissinger’s clandestine visit to China in July 1971, which laid the groundwork for Nixon himself to make his historic visit to Beijing in February 1972. The famous image of Nixon walking down the steps of the plane with his hand extended came about because Kissinger had caused great offence by refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai on his own visit. Nixon’s gesture was appreciated by the Chinese who considered it a restoration of ‘face’. During the visit, President Nixon agreed to withdraw US forces from Taiwan, and to publicly recognize that there was only “one China” as Taiwan was part of Chinese territory. Although it paved the way for a normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the US, thus driving a wedge between the two major Communist powers of the Soviet Union and China, the ‘one-China’ concession was viewed as highly controversial, with many in the US as it was considered an abandonment of a long-term ally. This controversy, along with the disruption caused by the deaths of both Mao and Zhou Enlai in China, meant that it took a further seven years before diplomatic relations were finally established between the US and the PRC, causing the US to cut official ties with Taipei in the process. In order that agreement could be reached within the US, the Taiwan Relations Act was passed. Under the terms of the Act, the US allows Taiwan to be treated as a normal state in its relations in everything but name and, even more significantly, it legally obliges the US to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”. These provisions were essential to the acceptance of the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, allowing the two countries to formalize their diplomatic relations. Yet these provisions also created the greatest source of current tension between the two countries.


The status of Taiwan cannot be ignored in any aspect of China’s international relations; it is impossible for any state in the international system to have diplomatic relations with Beijing without recognizing the PRC’s sovereignty over the island. This is especially pronounced in the relationship with the US, and in almost every high level political meeting it is incumbent on the representatives of the US to reiterate their support for the “one-China policy”. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan is at the root of this sensitivity, but it is more serious than a linguistic exercise in diplomacy. The US has, on several occasions, demonstrated its willingness to defend Taiwan should it be subject to an unprovoked attack from the PRC. This was evidenced in the 1996 deployment of warships to the Taiwan Strait in response to PRC missile testing in the region. Additionally, the US has continued to meet its legal obligation to provide Taiwan with defensive arms which provokes strongly worded protests from Beijing on each occasion. Since 1990, according to a US Congressional report, Taiwan has made major purchases in every calendar year except for 2006 and 2009. The most recent purchase, agreed in January 2010, included 114 PAC-3 defense missiles and 60 Black Hawk helicopters in a deal worth almost $6.4 billion; one of the largest ever agreed. In 2011, the US reached a decision to refurbish Taiwan’s fleet of F-16s, stopping short of approving the sale of new planes, but going far enough to anger China. While there are now some calls among American academics to rethink this alliance, it is unlikely to alter in the near future.

Belgrade Embassy Bombing and Hainan Spy Plane Incident

At both the political and popular levels, the reputation of the US in China has suffered greatly in recent years for a number of reasons. The most notable incidents were the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by US forces in 1999, and the collision of a US spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet close to Chinese territory two years later. The embassy bombing, which resulted in the deaths of three Chinese staff, occurred during the action against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. It was blamed by the US on outdated maps that failed to identify the building as the Chinese embassy, despite the fact that it had been in that location for three years. This version of events has never been fully accepted by the Chinese. The reaction in China was one of anger and outrage. Popular protests in Chinese cities culminated with an attack on the US embassy by a mob of protesters who threw stones and other projectiles, and tried to set fire to the building with the US ambassador still inside. A similar reaction occurred in 2001 when a US spy plane was intercepted by Chinese jets and ultimately collided with one of them, killing its pilot and causing the US plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan. Its 24 crew were captured and held by the Chinese authorities, who refused to release them until an apology was issued by the US government, though the eventual apology was deliberately ambiguous and designed to allow both sides to claim a moral victory.

Economic Interdependence

Trade relations and the growing level of economic interdependence that exists between both countries cannot be ignored in any assessment of the bilateral relationship. The level of trade is a cause of concern for some in the US, both because of its exceptionally high trade deficit with China and because of the belief that this deficit is caused in large part by the PRC’s policy of maintaining a debased RMB. The high level of trade dependence, while viewed by some as a sign of US weakness, is in fact seen by many as a reason for optimism. Some scholars argue that high levels of economic interdependence lead to stable and peaceful relations between states due to the resulting greater levels of bilateral interaction and the increased costs to both sides of conflict. There are concerns in the US that Chinese ownership of US debt puts the US in a position of weakness vis-à-vis China; in theory, if China decided to sell its debt and its other holdings of US currency en mass, it could trigger a collapse in the value of the dollar and an economic crisis in the US. However, the result of such an action would be catastrophic for China as well given that any collapse in the value of the dollar would diminish the value of their huge reserves, as well as triggering a global economic downturn that would unquestionably affect China detrimentally. Indeed, recent Chinese criticism aimed at the US about its debt ceiling management indicates that China understands fully how much it has invested in the prudent management of the US economy and its currency. Thus, it seems well argued that the economic relationship is mostly beneficial to the overall condition of the political relationship between the two states.

Human Rights

On the agenda at every high-level meeting between almost any Western nation and China is the issue of human rights and political reform. In no Chinese international relationship is this more prominent than with the US. While many in the US consider this to be an important issue that their leaders have a moral responsibility to tackle with China, the issue of human rights is perceived by the CCP leadership as, at best, an irritation and, at worst, a hypocritical infringement of China’s sovereignty. The annual report issued by the US State Department on China’s human rights record is frequently critical of the lack of, among other issues, freedom of religious expression, the failure to liberalize politically, and the practice of detention without trial. In 1998, in direct response to this criticism, China began to publish its own annual report on the US record on human rights. In 2004, for example, this report highlighted the abuses of Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib. While this report is not taken seriously in the US, it is designed to reveal what many on the Chinese side view as double-standards from the US over this issue.

Perhaps the most prominent ongoing issue of human rights in China that concerns the US government and many of its citizens alike is the issue of Tibet. Although the US explicitly recognizes Tibet to be sovereign Chinese territory, it frequently expresses concern over apparent human rights abuses in the region. The position of the Dalai Lama, dismissed in Beijing as a “splittist”, is a constant thorn in Sino-US relations. Every US president since George Bush Senior has met with the Dalai Lama – though, with the exception of George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tibetan leader in 2007, these meetings are never in public – and, on each occasion, Beijing reacts with venomous language. In 2010, a Chinese official issued a veiled threat over President Obama’s planned meeting, calling it both “irrational and harmful” and warning that China “will take necessary measures to help them realize this (US mistake)”. However, such rhetoric has yet to sway any president from a planned meeting with the Dalai Lama, though the US continues to give limited publicity to such meetings; just a single photo of Obama’s meeting was released.

China’s Military Development

A key concern in the US regarding China’s increasing power in the international system pertains to its military development. There is a widespread perception that China’s rapidly developing military capacity and its year-on-year double-digit increase in expenditure has positioned it as a military rival to the US. Such views, however, are not accurate. While it is true that China’s military expenditure has grown by significant amounts in recent decades, it is important to put this into some kind of perspective. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the most widely-respected research organization that reports on such matters and one that uses educated estimates to include military spending that is not declared in official statistics, China’s military expenditure as a proportion of GDP has actually fallen from 2.5% in 1990 to 2.2% in 2009. For comparison, the figures for the US show military expenditures were at 4.7% of GDP in 2009. More significantly, despite the sharp increase in absolute terms, and even using the higher estimate provided by SIPRI, China’s military budget remains less than one fifth of that of the US, whose own expenditure exceeds the combined total of the next 17 largest military budgets. Similarly, apparent advances in military technology, while unquestionably real, appear to have been exaggerated. The reports of the testing of a new Chinese Stealth fighter earlier this year were, in some quarters, treated as proof that US superiority is being eroded. Yet this seems premature; conservative estimates suggest that even if the testing was successful, and there is no evidence in the public domain that it was, then it will likely be at least seven years until the technology is battle-ready. Given the consistent levels of investment in military technology in the US, it is improbable that its own arsenal would stand still over this period and, in any case, it already has in excess of 130 stealth fighters that are ready for military deployment.

Future Trends

As with most bilateral interaction in the international system, there are causes for both optimism and pessimism in the Sino-US relationship. There are signs of both the rivalry

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and partnership that Presidents Bush and Clinton identified. The economic interdependence has two principle benefits that ought to aid relations. Firstly, the increased mutual reliance on each other’s economies raises the cost of any potential conflict for both parties, which ought to at least alleviate some tensions. Secondly, the higher amount of interaction at a societal level that results from the natural course of trade should foster a greater understanding between the two peoples, and go some way towards mitigating the mistrust that has developed over recent decades. As demonstrated above, the oft-cited military build-up is not as great a threat to the balance of power as is sometimes suggested. Additionally, the number of contacts between the two militaries is reason for cautious optimism.

Nevertheless, there are other issues that may come to the fore which, if not handled sensitively on both sides, may cause Sino-US relations to deteriorate. For instance, as China’s involvement in, and financial contribution to, major international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF has increased, it has also jockeyed for more influence within the organizations still dominated by the US and Europe; in 2008, Justin Yifu Lin, a Chinese citizen who was born in Taiwan but defected to the PRC, was appointed as Vice-President at the World bank. The US has been reluctant to weaken its positions of prominence and this has caused resentment in China. In some cases, this resentment has contributed to China’s decision to work outside of existing frameworks. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China plays the leading role, has been termed as a potential competitor to NATO. China decided to work within the G77 instead of joining a G9 so that its interests would not be overwhelmed by the other Western-oriented members. China’s creation of rival international frameworks not only frustrates a US accustomed to global control, but it also creates concerns about China’s ultimate aims and intentions.

Similarly, as China’s economy expands, it will be a fiercer competitor with the US for natural resources and basic commodities around the globe. This affects the Sino-US relationship in three ways. Firstly, as natural resources are finite, there may become a time when there will not be enough resources to go around and China’s acquisition of resources may be at the expense of the US. Secondly, rising global demand, much of which has been driven by China’s booming economy, has sent global prices for commodities to record levels. In April 2011, the IMF raised its global inflation forecast from 3.7% to 4.5% due to these commodity price gains. Similarly, the IMF revised its 2011 US inflation forecast to 2.2% in 2011 up from 1% in 2010 due to higher food and energy prices. If inflation continues to increase, the US may feel pressured to raise interest rates to curb its rise, thus putting at risk the already weak Western recoveries. Finally, China’s eagerness to secure supplies of natural resources has led it to form alliances with countries which Western powers have tried to ostracize. Such Chinese alliances directly conflict with US policies in the region, and can inflame citizen passions on both sides. Mia Farrow, for instance, led protests against Beijing’s “genocide Olympics”, so-called because of China’s continued support of the Sudanese regime despite its actions in Darfur. The Chinese reject such claims out of hand, and viewed Western attempts to meddle with the Olympics as insulting and an attack on its national honor. China maintains that it does not interfere in internal affairs of other countries. This position stems from China’s own experiences of occupation and meddling in its affairs by Western powers during the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as the brief, but unsuccessful, period in the early years of the PRC when Maoist policies were exported to other countries. It is certainly observable that the no-strings attached approach to infrastructure investment in Africa has had some significant benefits for China in terms of promoting itself there.

Yet despite these many issues of concern between the two countries, some form of which will undoubtedly remain between the two powers as the US adjusts to a more vocal and powerful China in the international arena, outright conflict between the two powers is highly unlikely. Instead, current and future issues between the two countries will continue to be resolved, or at least mitigated, through negotiation and diplomacy.

The wildcards in this prediction are Taiwan and the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with Japan. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan, and the US’s own legal obligations to defend the island should it be attacked, render the possibility of military conflict between China and the US over Taiwan a possibility, however unlikely. Vigilance on both sides – and in Taiwan – is essential in order to avoid a conflict that would be to nobody’s benefit. Similarly, the US is committed to defending Japan, its closest ally in Asia, should it be attacked. The simmering tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands that boiled over in 2012 continue to cause concern for US policy-makers. The US will continue to push for diplomatic resolution on this issue but an outside chance of a low-level military conflict cannot be ruled out.