Sino-American relations

From Academic Kids

Sino-American relations refers to interstate relations between the United States and China. Most analysts have characterized present Sino-American relations as complex and multi-faceted, with the U.S. and the People's Republic of China (PRC) being neither allies nor enemies. At the same time, it is generally acknowledged that the nature of Sino-American relations will be a major factor in determining the state of the world in the 21st century.

Sino-American relations have generally been volatile especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, which removed a common enemy and ushered in a world characterized by American dominance. Many in the United States remain suspicious of Communist China and believe that its goal is to establish hegemony in East Asia and threaten U.S. interests. There are also grievances which relate to human rights in China and the PRC's claims over Taiwan. For its part, there are suspicions in China that the United States wishes to keep China weak and divided, that the U.S. criticisms over human rights are unwarranted in light of the economic and living standard improvements that have occurred in mainland China, and that the United States' support for Republic of China (ROC) government on Taiwan, particularly with regard to weapons sales, is an unwarranted attempt to keep the PRC weak.

While there are many irritants in Sino-American relations, there are also many stabilizing factors. The People's Republic of China and the United States are major trade partners and have common interests in the prevention and suppression of terrorism and in preventing nuclear proliferation. While the end of the Cold War removed a common enemy, the War on Terror has produced a new common enemy, which has greatly stabilized relations.

In addition, while there is still a great deal of Chinese mistrust at American intentions, there is also the grudging realization that the United States will likely remain an unipolar global power for much of the early 21st century, and a direct challenge to the United States is likely beyond China's capability for several decades. There is also a realization that most of China's challenges and difficulties are internal, and therefore there is a desire on the part of China to maintain stable relations with the United States.


Images and conceptions

Much of the complexity of Sino-American relations comes from the images that the two have of themselves and of the other.

The Chinese see their national goal as a rich, powerful, and united China, with centuries of humiliation erased and some of its ancient glory restored. Americans see their national goal as bringing freedom and democracy to the world, and many within the United States see their country as the natural leader of the free world.

Within mainland China, there is a love-hate relationship with the United States. On the one hand, American products and culture are seen as stylish and superior to local products. This accounts for the huge number of international students from China in the United States. At the same time, there is popular resentment of American meddling with other nations' affairs, which is mixed with a genuine fear of American power. The Chinese are often perplexed at the stated motives of American foreign policy and tend to conclude that these goals, (such as promoting freedom and democracy) are an insincere cover for darker motives, namely to keep China weak and divided. The Chinese are also often perplexed at how others could interpret Chinese foreign and domestic policies as threatening.

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Sheet music cover sheet (1917): The lyrics illustrate common stereotypes, trade relations, and Chinese immigration just after the Chinese Revolution of 1911

Americans tend to see China as a far off and distant land. Since the 19th century, there has been a missionary impulse in American dealings with China, and the United States often believes that as part of its mission to advance freedom and democracy, it has the duty to advance the cause of human rights in China. Over the past 150 years, Americans have also tended to see the Chinese people as oppressed and abused by either the Japanese in World War II and more recently by their own Communist government. Americans are often perplexed by the notion that many Chinese support the PRC government despite its authoritarian nature and are dismissive at the idea that the PRC government might do anything good. In addition, Americans also tend to be confused by the notion that people may find American criticism of human rights to be insincere and meddlesome.

Many in the United States, such as adherents of Neoconservatism and the blue team, view the possibility that China may eventually challenge American global dominance as an alarming outcome. Echoes of this suspicion have presented themselves in suspicion of trade with China.


For 30 years after its founding, the United States did not formally recognize the People's Republic of China. Instead, it maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (on Taiwan), and recognized the ROC as the sole legitimate government of all China.

As the Communist armies moved south to complete the communist conquest of mainland China in 1949, the American embassy followed the Republic of China government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, finally moving to Taipei later that year. U.S. consular officials remained in mainland China. However, the new PRC Government was hostile to this official American presence, and all U.S. personnel were withdrawn from the mainland in early 1950. Any remaining hope of normalizing relations ended when U.S. and Chinese communist forces fought on opposing sides in the Korean conflict.

The United States worked to prevent the PRC from taking China's seat in the United Nations and encouraged its allies to also not deal with the PRC.

Despite this official non-recognition beginning in 1954 and continuing until 1970, the United States and People's Republic of China held 136 meetings at the ambassadorial level, first in Geneva and later in Warsaw


Both the Chinese and the Americans had issued feelers to try to improve relations between the two major powers. This became an especially important concern for the People's Republic of China after the Sino-Soviet Split left them surrounded by enemies in the USSR, Vietnam and India. The Chinese were isolated and the leadership came to believe that improved relations with the United States would be essential to guarantee the PRC's security. This is an age-old Chinese foreign policy tactic: to play off a distant barbarian against a barbarian nearby. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier foreign minister was at the forefront of this effort, but he had the committed backing of Chairman Mao.

Henry Kissinger, shown here with Zhou Enlai and , made two secret trips to China in 1971 before Nixon's groundbreaking visit in 1972.
Henry Kissinger, shown here with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, made two secret trips to China in 1971 before Nixon's groundbreaking visit in 1972.

In the United States there was long a feeling that excluding Communist China from the world stage had a harmful effect. The Americans hoped that improved relations with China could help them in the Southeast Asia to deal with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and that if China would align with the U.S. it would mean a major redistribution of global power against the Soviets. There had also long been a belief that China's market of over a billion consumers could be a boon to American business.

One of the most interested in China was Mike Mansfield, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader. He was contacted by the Chinese and they proposed a meeting. Mansfield passed the note on to the State Department and President Richard Nixon.

Nixon had long been interested in Asia as well and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger also believed an approach to China would be valuable. Domestic political concerns entered heavily into Nixon's thinking. The boost from a successful courting of China would help him greatly in the 1972 American presidential election. He also worried immensely that one of the Democrats would preempt him and go to China before him.

Communications were ongoing between the Chinese and American leadership through various intermediaries including Pakistan, Romania, and American journalist Edgar Snow.

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Richard Nixon met with Mao Zedong in 1972.

In 1969, the United States thus initiated measures to relax trade restrictions and other impediments to bilateral contact. In April of 1971, while negotiations over improving relations were proceeding, a young American ping pong player approached the Chinese delegation at a tournament in Nagoya, Japan and talked with them in a friendly fashion. While this was a purely spontaneous gesture of friendship from the American athlete the Chinese took it as an officially sanctioned outreach. Later known as Ping Pong Diplomacy, the Chinese responded by inviting the American ping pong team to tour China. The Americans agreed and in March of 1971 the athletes became the first Americans to officially visit China since the communist takeover in 1949.

In July of 1971 Henry Kissinger, while on a trip to Pakistan, was announced to the media to be ill and did not appear in public for a day. In fact he was on a top-secret mission to Beijing to open relations with the government of the PRC. On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon revealed the mission to the world and that he would initiate direct contact with the communist Chinese leadership and that he, the President, had been invited to visit mainland China.

This announcement caused immediate shock around the world. In the United States some of the most hardline anti-communists spoke against the decision, but the vast majority of politicians and the people supported the move and Nixon saw the jump in the polls he has been hoping for. Since Nixon had sterling anti-communist credentials he was all but immune to being called "soft on communism."

Within China there was also opposition from the most dedicated communists. This effort was led by Lin Biao, head of the military. Lin Biao, however, died in a still unexplained plane crash over Mongolia while trying to defect to the Soviet Union, silencing most internal dissent.

Internationally the reactions varied. The Soviets were immensely concerned that their two enemies seemed to have resolved their differences, and the new world alignment contributes significantly to Détente.

America's European allies and Canada were pleased by the initiative, especially since many of them had already recognized China. In Asia the reaction was far more mixed. Japan was extremely annoyed that it had not been told of the announcement until fifteen minutes before it had been made, and feared that the Americans were abandoning them in favour of China. In only a short time Japan also recognized China and was involved in substantial trade with the continental power. South Korea and South Vietnam were both concerned that peace between the United States and China could mean an end to support for them against communist aggression. Throughout the period of rapprochement both these states had to be regularly assured that they would not be abandoned.

From February 21 to February 28, 1972, President Nixon traveled to Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. At the conclusion of his trip, the U.S. and PRC Governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué, a statement of their foreign policy views. In the Communiqué, both nations pledged to work toward the full normalization of diplomatic relations. The U.S. acknowledged the Chinese position that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The statement enabled the U.S. and PRC to temporarily set aside the "crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations" - Taiwan - and to open trade and other contacts.

The rapprochement with the United States benefited China immensely and greatly increased its security for the rest of the Cold War. The United States saw fewer benefits than it had hoped for. China continued to heavily support North Vietnam in the Vietnam War and also backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The economic benefits of normalization were also slow as it has taken many decades for American products to penetrate the vast Chinese market. While Nixon's China policy is regarded by many as the highlight of his presidency, others such as William Bundy, have argued that it provided very little benefit to the United States.

Liaison Office, 1973-1978

In May 1973, in an effort to build toward the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, the U.S. and PRC established the United States Liaison Office (USLO) in Beijing and a counterpart Chinese office in Washington, DC. In the years between 1973 and 1978, such distinguished Americans as David Bruce, George H. W. Bush, Thomas S. Gates, and Leonard Woodcock served as chiefs of the USLO with the personal rank of Ambassador.

President Ford visited China in 1975 and reaffirmed the U.S. interest in normalizing relations with Beijing. Shortly after taking office in 1977, President Carter again reaffirmed the interest expressed in the Shanghai Communiqué. The United States and People's Republic of China announced on December 15, 1978, that the two governments would establish diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979.

U.S.-China relations since normalization

In the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations dated January 1, 1979, the United States transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The U.S. reiterated the Shanghai Communiqué's acknowledgment of the Chinese position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China; Beijing acknowledged that the American people would continue to carry on commercial, cultural, and other unofficial contacts with the people of Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act made the necessary changes in U.S. domestic law to permit such unofficial relations with Taiwan to flourish.

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Deng Xiaoping and Zbigniew Brzezinski meeting in 1979

Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping's January 1979 visit to Washington, DC initiated a series of important, high-level exchanges, which continued until the spring of 1989. This resulted in many bilateral agreements - especially in the fields of scientific, technological, and cultural interchange and trade relations. Since early 1979, the United States and China have initiated hundreds of joint research projects and cooperative programs under the Agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology, the largest bilateral program.

On March 1, 1979, the United States and People's Republic of China formally established embassies in Beijing and Washington, DC. During 1979, outstanding private claims were resolved, and a bilateral trade agreement was concluded. Vice President Walter Mondale reciprocated Vice Premier Deng's visit with an August 1979 trip to China. This visit led to agreements in September 1980 on maritime affairs, civil aviation links, and textile matters, as well as a bilateral consular convention.

As a consequence of high-level and working-level contacts initiated in 1980, U.S. dialogue with the PRC broadened to cover a wide range of issues, including global and regional strategic problems, political-military questions, including arms control, UN and other multilateral organization affairs, and international narcotics matters.

The expanding relationship that followed normalization was threatened in 1981 by Chinese objections to the level of U.S. arms sales to the Republic of China on Taiwan. Secretary of State Alexander Haig visited China in June 1981 in an effort to resolve Chinese questions about America's unofficial relations with Taiwan. Eight months of negotiations produced the U.S.-China joint communiqué of August 17, 1982. In this third communiqué, the U.S. stated its intention to reduce gradually the level of arms sales to the Republic of China, and the Chinese described as a fundamental policy their effort to strive for a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan question. Meanwhile, Vice President Bush visited China in May 1982.

High-level exchanges continued to be a significant means for developing U.S.-PRC relations in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan and Premier Zhao Ziyang made reciprocal visits in 1984. In July 1985, President Li Xiannian traveled to the United States, the first such visit by a Chinese head of state. Vice President Bush visited China in October 1985 and opened the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, the U.S.'s fourth consular post in mainland China. Further exchanges of cabinet-level officials occurred between 1985-1989, capped by President Bush's visit to Beijing in February 1989.

In the period before the June 3-4, 1989 crackdown, a large and growing number of cultural exchange activities undertaken at all levels gave the American and Chinese peoples broad exposure to each other's cultural, artistic, and educational achievements. Numerous Chinese professional and official delegations visited the United States each month. Many of these exchanges continued after Tiananmen.

Bilateral relations after Tiananmen

Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin hold joint press conference

Following the communist Chinese authorities' suppression of demonstrators in June 1989, the U.S. and other governments enacted a number of measures to express their condemnation of the PRC's violation of human rights. The U.S. suspended high-level official exchanges with the PRC and weapons exports from the U.S. to China. The U.S. also imposed a number of economic sanctions. In the summer of 1990, at the G-7 Houston summit, Western nations called for renewed political and economic reforms in China, particularly in the field of human rights.

Tiananmen disrupted the U.S.-PRC trade relationship, and U.S. investors' interest in China dropped dramatically. The U.S. Government also responded to the political repression by suspending certain trade and investment programs on June 5 and 20, 1989. Some sanctions were legislated; others were executive actions. Examples include:

  • The U.S. Trade and Development Agency (TDA) - new activities in China were suspended from June 1989 until January 2001, when then-President Clinton lifted this suspension.
  • Overseas Private Insurance Corporation (OPIC) - new activities suspended since June 1989.
  • Development Bank Lending/IMF Credits - the United States does not support development bank lending and will not support IMF credits to China except for projects, that address basic human needs.
  • Munitions List Exports - subject to certain exceptions, no licenses may be issued for the export of any defense article on the U.S. Munitions List. This restriction may be waived upon a presidential national interest determination.
  • Arms Imports - import of defense articles from China was banned after the imposition of the ban on arms exports to China. The import ban was subsequently waived by the Administration and reimposed on May 26, 1994. It covers all items on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' Munitions Import List.

In 1996, the PRC conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in an apparent effort to intimidate the Taiwan electorate before the pending presidential elections, triggering the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis. The United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. Subsequently, tensions in the Taiwan Strait diminished, and relations between the U.S. and PRC had improved, with increased high-level exchanges and progress on numerous bilateral issues, including human rights, nonproliferation, and trade. President Jiang Zemin visited the United States in the fall of 1997, the first state visit to the U.S. by a PRC president since 1985. In connection with that visit, the two sides reached agreement on implementation of their 1985 agreement on Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation, as well as a number of other issues. President Clinton visited China in June 1998. He traveled extensively in China, and direct interaction with the Chinese people included live speeches and a radio show, allowing the President to convey first hand to the Chinese people a sense of American ideals and values.

Crippled  stranded on
Crippled EP-3E Aries II stranded on Hainan Island

Relations between the U.S. and PRC were severely strained by the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 (said in some press to have been deliberate). By the end of 1999, relations began to gradually improve. In October 1999, the two sides reached agreement on humanitarian payments for families of those who died and those who were injured as well as payments for damages to respective diplomatic properties in Belgrade and China.

In April 2001, a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft flying over international waters south of China. The EP-3 was able to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island despite extensive damage; the PRC aircraft crashed with the loss of its pilot, Wang Wei. Following extensive negotiations resulting in the Letter of the two sorries, the crew of the EP-3 was allowed to leave China 11 days later, but the U.S. aircraft was not permitted to depart for another 3 months. Subsequently, the relationship, which had cooled following the incident, gradually improved.

Sino-American relations after 9/11

Sino-American relations changed radically following the September 11, 2001 attacks. The PRC offered strong public support for the war on terrorism. The PRC voted in favor of UNSCR 1373, publicly supported the coalition campaign in Afghanistan, and contributed $150 million of bilateral assistance to Afghan reconstruction following the defeat of the Taliban. Shortly after 9-11, the U.S. and PRC also commenced a counterterrorism dialogue. The third round of that dialogue was held in Beijing in February 2003.

In the United States, the terrorist attacks greatly changed the nature of discourse. It was no longer plausible to argue, as the blue team had earlier asserted, that the PRC was the primary security threat to the United States, and the need to focus on the Middle East and the War on Terror made it a priority for the United States to avoid distractions in East Asia.

In mainland China, there were initial fears that the United States would use the War on Terror as an excuse to advance an anti-Chinese agenda, especially as the United States began establishing bases in Central Asia and acting against Iraq. These fears had largely subsided by mid-2003 as the continuing American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed the limits of American ability to act unilaterally. Among the Chinese public, there was some initial celebration at fact that 9-11 had shown that the United States was not invulnerable, but this quickly dissipated as the magnitude of the attack became known. Many Chinese citizens died in the WTC rubble, and Chinese companies and individuals sent expressions of condolences to their U.S. counterparts. The application of American power in Iraq and continuing efforts by the United States to cooperate with China has significantly reduced the popular anti-Americanism that had been fostered in the mid-1990s.

The PRC and the U.S. have also been working closely on regional issues like North Korea. The People's Republic of China has stressed its opposition to the DPRK's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its concerns over North Korea's nuclear capabilities, and its desire for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. It also voted to refer the DPRK's noncompliance with its IAEA obligations to the UN Security Council in New York. However, many Americans have accused the PRC of dragging its feet on this issue and even secretly propping up North Korea, as a cugdel against US and Japan.

Taiwan remains a volatile issue, but one that as of 2003 appeared to be under control. The United States policy toward Taiwan has involved emphasizing the Four Noes and One Without, and in several cases the United States appeared to step in when it appeared that the Republic of China government on Taiwan was moving away from that policy. However, in 2005, China passed an anti-succession law which implied that China would reunify with Taiwan through whatever means possible. Many critics of the PRC, such as the Blue team, note that China was trying to take advantage of the US quagmire in Iraq.

Important issues in Sino-American relations


The Republic of China remains a focus of difficulties in the relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. The United States exports large amounts of weaponry to Taiwan and there is a great deal of sympathy for Taiwan partly because it, unlike the PRC, is a pluralistic democracy and because of residual sympathy over the ROC's anti-communism during the Cold War. Taiwan becoming part of the PRC is also expected to change the balance of power in that region, which has alarmed Japan as well.

At the same time, neither the PRC nor the United States appears interested in provoking a conflict over Taiwan. The United States sees war in East Asia as disruptive to its interests, while the PRC believes that the long term trends are in favor of Chinese reunification and that there is no point in provoking a war in which it stands a high chance of losing. However, with improvements in China's military capability since the 1990s, the threat of an invasion of Taiwan remains real and the ability of the US to defend Taiwan has been put in doubt. Furthermore, increased economic engagement with China is making it more difficult for the US to react as many US business conservatives consider Taiwan expendable.

On Taiwan, there is a general public consensus in favor of the status quo. However, some supporters of Taiwan independence, such as Lee Teng-hui have expressed the idea that Taiwan must act quickly to declare independence because the long term trends are against it. In several cases in which the administration of Chen Shui-bian appeared to be moving away from the status-quo and toward independence, the United States has asked for and received assurances that the ROC remains committed to the Four Noes and One Without.

Officially the United States policy is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act, by the Six Assurances and by the Three Communiques and has stated a commitment to a one China policy. The strength of that commitment and the relationship between these policies, which are contradictory, changes from time to time.

U.S. diplomatic representation in the ROC is done through the American Institute in Taiwan and ROC diplomatic representation in the U.S. is done through the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Offices. These institutions act as embassies and consulates all but in name.

See also: Political status of Taiwan

U.S.-China economic relations

U.S. direct investment in mainland China covers a wide range of manufacturing sectors, several large hotel projects, restaurant chains, and petrochemicals. U.S. companies have entered agreements establishing more than 20,000 equity joint ventures, contractual joint ventures, and wholly foreign-owned enterprises in China. More than 100 U.S.-based multinationals have projects in China, some with multiple investments. Cumulative U.S. investment in China is valued at $48 billion. The U.S. trade deficit with mainland China exceeded $162 billion in 2004 and was the United States' largest bilateral trade deficit. Total two-way trade between mainland China and the U.S. has grown from $33 billion in 1992 to over $230 billion in 2004. Some of the factors that influence the U.S. trade deficit with mainland China include:

The strength of the U.S. economy: A shift of low-end assembly industries to China from the newly industrialized economies (NIEs) in Asia. Mainland China has increasingly become the last link in a long chain of value-added production. Because U.S. trade data attributes the full value of a product to the final assembler, Chinese value added gets overcounted.

U.S. demand for labor intensive goods exceeds domestic output. The PRC's restrictive trade practices, which include a wide array of barriers to foreign goods and services, often aimed at protecting state-owned enterprises. These practices include high tariffs, lack of transparency, requiring firms to obtain special permission to import goods, unevenness of application of laws and regulations, and leveraging technology from foreign firms in return for market access. China's accession to WTO should help address these barriers.

In economics and trade, there are two main elements to the U.S. approach:

At the September 2002 Joint Economic Committee meeting in Washington, the United States and People's Republic of China discussed strengthening cooperation in fighting terrorist finance and money laundering, prospects for foreign direct investment in mainland China's financial services, and the regional reliance on U.S. macroeconomic developments. Mainland China's continued strong growth has made it an important regional engine of growth, and the PRC reiterated its commitment to a strategy of market reforms and global economic openness.

Human rights

The United States maintains a policy that China needs to improve its human rights in a wide array of fields from the treatment of dissidents to the strict enforcement of its one child policy. China, however, argues that its human rights concerns are a strictly internal matter and should have no effect on trade or other bilateral relations. There are still many outstanding issues including, political prisoners, the repression of the Falun Gong sect, the mistreatment of Chinese Christians, and forced abortions. More recently, the democratic archivement of Hong Kong also came to concern. Although human rights has improved in China to a certain extent, China has been able to successfully control the Internet and other mediums.

The War on Terror had been a step backwards for human rights, when China convicted a dissident of terrorism in a closed trial. This was roundly criticized by the US and other nations, due to China's refusal to release any of the evidence, leading to speculation that China was using terrorism as an excuse to jail dissidents. In 2003, a proposed anti-terrorism law in Hong Kong was met with concern and demonstrations because it was widely viewed as an attempt to clamp down on dissidents who were based in Hong Kong.

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