Sino-US Relations: For Better, For Worse

Shankari Sundararaman, Researcher, IDSA


Sino-US relations in the past almost three decades have swung from one extreme to the other and this is a trend that continues to influence the ties between these two states. The United States understanding and relations with China have been long standing one and their impact upon the international environment on the whole has always been of interest to those who monitor these developments. In trying to understand the nature of this relationship it is significant to trace the growth of these ties from around the end of World War II. The Chinese civil war that ensued in the aftermath of World War II was watched keenly by the United States. The United States' policy of Containment of Communism at that time was a pivotal part of its foreign policy calculations. Though the US was in favour of the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, it did not have any direct involvement in the war and the inefficiency of the Koumintang nationalist rule was slowly eroded by the Communist forces that won the war in 1949.1

What followed between 1949 and the early 1970s was the response of the United States to what they conceived as the threat from the Communist ideology. In the decade after the presidentship of Harry Truman, the United States policy towards China hardened and this became evident in its approach towards political as well as economic issues. In its political attitude, the US was willing to recognise only "one China"—that is, the Republican China that was under Chiang Kai-shek. Another obvious move was to deny China the right to a seat in the United Nations and in this the US was against the notion of having the UN seat occupied by Mao's regime. Another aspect to this was that at the end of the World War II, the US had emerged as one of the main aid donors and its assistance was linked to such political issues. But the ability to isolate China economically was not as successful as it had hoped for. The involvement of the Chinese in the Korean War that broke out in 1950 was the first indication that the regime under Mao was not to be taken lightly. The response was even stronger than it had been earlier—the US policy centred around the view to intensify and consolidate the military encirclement of China by the 'establishment of American bases in East Asia and the signing of mutual defence treaties with those Asian states willing to make anti-Communist professions."2 The US under Truman had already signed treaties with Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. The Eisenhower period witnessed the strengthening of ties with South Korea, Pakistan and Thailand. The ties with the UK, France Australia and New Zealand were also given more emphasis during this period. These treaties were all aimed at the isolation of China. The final endorsement of this policy came from the ties which the US established with the nationalist government in Taiwan and it was this relationship that concerned the Chinese interests most.3

At this point in time, the European region began to take second place in the US concerns—the split in Europe along the Cold War fault lines had already occurred and in fact, as the Iron Curtain thickened, the clear cut divide became less of an issue and the threat from the Soviet Union had reduced considerably. According to Cohen:

The prominence of McCarthyism in American affairs and the rigidity of Dulles' anti-Communism further undermined world respect for the leadership of the United States. As the Marshall plan enabled European countries to recover behind the NATO sheild, as it became increasingly apparent that the nature of the Soviet threat had changed after Stalin's death—if not before—Europe became less dependent on American aid and less willing to accept American dictation of policy.4

The American preoccupation with Europe began to diminish in inverse proportionality to its concerns over the Asian region. The Korean War as well as the Vietnam experience are ample proof of the fact that the US felt that its security in the Cold War period was definitely linked to some kind of hold that it had over the Asian region. As such the spread of the Communist ideology in Asia was viewed as a major threat to the stability of the region and it was from this that the domino theory received its fillip. The policy towards China was still one that was governed by the ideology factor. In spite of this, however, and all the attempts that supported the restoration of the nationalist rule on the mainland, the United States was forced to accept the "two China" policy. Through the situations of the Korean crisis and the Indochina War, the hostility between China and the United States remained but they were also forced to negotiate at the diplomatic level. In the Kennedy era, the first signs of thaw appeared, especially since the reduction of Cold War tensions was one of the prime angles of the American foreign policy during this period. However, the thawing of tensions was more between the Soviets and the US—the Sino-Soviet split became evident and the US tried to ease the tensions with the USSR rather than with China. The Chinese at this time were not considered to be a direct threat to the United States and to world peace at large, but the Chinese backing to guerilla warfare and insurgent movements was a cause for concern. Though there was a willingness in the American mindset to go ahead with the process of normalisation of ties with China, it did not really gain much impetus in the Sixties. The period after 1965 was one in which China's foreign policy became more close and the inward looking trend of the Cultural Revolution left very little scope for a detente in the ties. From the early Seventies onwards, the US started viewing China as a countering force to check the Soviet expansion in South-East and North-East Asia and from then on, the US policy towards China was influenced more by strategic concerns.

From around this period to the present stage, Sino-US relations have gone through a process of several changes. This period can be broadly classified into three phases: the first from around 1972-1979 which is a period of normalisation; the second from 1979-1989 which is the phase of development of ties; and lastly, from 1989 to the present which has been a stage of difficulty in the ties. The relationship between the two underwent the metamorphosis that was characteristic of this phase—China which had been a part of the Cold War triangular relations became less important to the United States as a measure of containing the Soviet Union. As a result of this change, other issues became the focus of the ties. In this regard, there are several factors that have to be considered—trade and the most favoured nation (MFN) issue, the question of human rights and the Taiwan factor are the key elements of Sino-US relations in the post-Cold War period.

Trade and the MFN Issue

One of the fundamental principles of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is the MFN status that is accorded to a country. In 1979, after the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US, the first trade agreement between the two countries was signed and they granted each other MFN status. From 1980 till the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, there was no change in the concept of granting MFN status to each other. Though this period did witness some disputes between the two with regard to trade, the US Congress went through the process of granting MFN status to China.5 The massacre of student leaders at the Tainanmen Square brought home the seriousness of the human rights situation and there was a discord within the US Congress on granting MFN status. In 1990, for the first time, there was discord within the Administration and Congress over the granting of MFN status to China, but President Bush managed to override the concerns expressed by Congress and with the backing of the Senate, MFN status to China was pushed through. The issue of MFN at this point became linked to the ideas of morality and good politics. It was believed that the 'compelling reason to renew MFN and remain engaged in China is not economic, its not strategic, but moral. It is right to export the ideals of freedom and democracy to China.. It is wrong to isolate China if we hope to influence China."6

From July 1991, the United States policy toward China centred around what came to be known as 'constructive engagement', the essence of which was the continued interaction with China and the use of diplomatic leverage to address certain concerns that it had, while at the same time the granting of MFN status would assure that the trade relations remained unaffected. This policy of constructive engagement was based upon three fundamental principles—that is, first, the question of the Chinese trade practices; second, the concerns over the sale of arms and issues relating to the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and third, that of human rights.7 The basis of this constructive engagement policy were the three Joint Communiques that were signed between the two countries. The Chinese for their part were more than willing to concede to some of these demands and highest on their list was the issue of non-proliferation and control over missile technology, which was very important to the US.8 With regard to trade, there was the specific issue of unfair trade practices that was addressed by the United States Trade Representative. This was to look at China as a special 301 under the provisions of the 1988 Omnibus Trade Act and was related to issues concerning intellectual property rights.9 When the Democrats came to power in the US, the Chinese feared the possibility of MFN status being linked to the human rights issue. The Chinese felt that such an act would affect the Sino-US relations.

However, the policy of constructive engagement continued to gain support during the period of the Democratic government. Sino-US relations developed further and the ties that had existed were reaffirmed under a new policy of "comprehensive engagement" which the Clinton Administration had earmarked for China. The economic and trade relations that existed between the two countries were maintained during this time. Within the last five years, a trade deficit emerged between the two countries and the balance between the Chinese exports to the US and that of US exports to China is not evenly placed. In fact, the PRC exports four times more to the United States then it imports and the US trade deficit will exceed $60 billion in 1999.10 In May 1998, the visit of the US trade representative addressed several issues relating to trade which included, economic reforms and China's induction into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The question of China's accession to the WTO was reaffirmed by the two sides but there was a difference in the pace of the accession and the extent to which the markets would open up. One of the hallmarks of the foreign policy under the Democrats with regard to China were the two state visits that took place. This included Jiang Zemin's visit to the United States in 1997 and later the visit of President Clinton to China in 1998.

Human Rights

Between 1989 and 1998,China had been a party to 17 international agreements on the issue of human rights and had even shown a willingness to sign the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By becoming a party to this, China would automatically adhere to the principles of freedom of religion and expression.11 In fact during the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in March 1998, both the United States and the European Union refrained from moving their resolution on the issue relating to China's human rights record.12 When the pressure on human rights had been reduced with regard to China, there was a move by the United States to delink this issue from the question of MFN status which had been the crux of the policy till then.

In trying to understand the debate on the granting of MFN status, the fact that must be recognised is that the single most important aspect of Sino-US reltions is trade. During Madeleine Albright's visit to China, prior to Jiang Zemin's visit to the United States, there was a reference to the issue of human rights. However, the American response at this time seemed to indicate a willingness to allow each country to follow its own policy on the issue of human rights. The US interest differentiated in this regard between China and Myanmar. With more than $10 billion investment in China the American pressure on human rights seem to be less compared to its policy towards Myanmar where its investment is negligible, while the stress on freedom and democracy is more. Having been a party to the above mentioned agreements China has swung back and forth on this vital issue and the end of 1998 was a significant period.

As 1998 drew to a close, the Chinese government clamped down on dissent. Several sentences were passed on leaders of dissident and freedom movements, and the responses from the US as well as from Britain, France and Germany have been strong. Between December 20 and 29, 1998, the Chinese government put on trial and sentenced as well as exiled several leaders. These were, first, Liu Nianchun, who was released from labour camp on "medical parole" and was later forcibly exiled to the United States.13 There seems to be a great deal of hypocrisy with regard to this case since he had been jailed in 1995 for demanding the reassessment of the government's verdict on the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Second was the case of Xu Wenli who was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment and of Wang Youcai, who got 11 years imprisonment. These two were held responsible for founding the controversial China Democracy Party and were charged with "engaging in illegal activities to subvert state power."14 Third was the sentence meted out to Qin Yongmin on Decemebr 22, 1998, to 12 years in prison for 'subversion in trying to register a branch of the opposition party in Hubei province."15 Fourth was the case of Zhang Shanguang to 10 years imprisonment for speaking to Radio Free Asia about rural unrest. And the final case was that of Zhang Lin and Wei Quanbao. According to the Foreign Ministry, these two dissidents returned from the United States and were sentenced to three years of "education through labour." This punishment was given for their evasion of border police and the hiring of prostitutes.16 After the Tiananmen Square incident, the Chinese Administration has been quick to identify the dissident movements that are likely to impact the stability of the system. Two lessons that emerged from the issue was that such movements must be quelled at the lower levels and the basic aim in this regard has been to prevent the dissident movement from linking up with the disaffected workers. Second, the leadership at that point was divided over the way in which such activities could be tackled. Any movement in this regard is bound to drive the leadership together.17

As the year came to a close, the internal political dynamics in China once again came to the forefront and Jiang Zemin's two significant speeches were clear indicators of the fact that a hardline policy was not yet a thing of the past. These speeches were one, marking the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and the other at a conference of political and law enforcement officers. Four important points that were the outcome of this conference were, first, the reaffirmation of the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Second, the government encouraged the continuation of foreign trade and investment but warned against the "importation of decadent thinking and lifestyle." Third, was the Party cadres were asked to talk politics, that is, to follow the Party line. Fourth, the government listed certain tasks as its priority tasks for the coming year which included the stringent measures against crime, "guaranteeing basic needs for laid-off workers, prohibiting business activities by the party and army, and expanding grassroots elections."18 One of the main thrusts of both these issues was the emphasis that was given to the Party leadership in the system. Jiang Zemin stated that "at no time shall we waver from, weaken or eliminate the (current political) system.We cannot copy western models'. He stressed that reforms should be carried out in a stable manner and that any attempt to destabilise the country would be severely dealt with. The importance given to the issue of political stability was endorsed time and again during these meetings: "Stability is the basic precondition of reform and development. Without stability, nothing is possible."19

There is a belief among China viewers that the recent trend shown by the Chinese government in dealing with dissidents and movements of dissent will have its effects upon Sino-US relations. Over the last few years, the Chinese government has shown a policy of relaxation and tightening with respect to its position on the issue of human rights. Just prior to the Sino-US summit, there was a relaxation on the human rights issue and several dissidents were actually set free. There seems to be ambiguity in this matter. A possible explanation could be that the Chinese government expects that there will be some internal turmoil within the country in the wake of any impact from the Asian financial crisis and if this were to occur, the implications for the Administration would be very severe. The recent crackdown seems to be a precursor to such an event. Within Washington itself, much of the attention has been focussed upon the proceedings related to the impeachment of President Clinton and as such, the attention that the crackdown merited has been more subdued than normal. Clinton's failure to personally admonish the recent repressive tendency within China is indicative of the fact that he still believes in the engagement policy with China. How far the question of human rights will affect the Sino-US relations is difficult to assess. If one looks at the interpretations of human rights from the two sides, it is evident that in the case of China, there is a belief that the concept is not a simple one and must take into consideration several social, economic and political factors that govern the historical development of a country. Thus, in China's case, in spite of its signing the United Nations Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, there would be no acceptance of the divisive trends that can harm the political setting and cause social instability. The response of the US, however, is that there are certain basic elements of political and civil rights that are universal in nature and "China's refusal to accept this point puts Beijing on the wrong side of history."20

The Taiwan Issue

One of the most crucial aspects of Sino-US relations has been the issue of Taiwan. Ever since the Communist victory on the mainland and the establishment of the Koumintang rule over Taiwan, China's main aim has been to get political recognition for only one China—that is, mainland China, and the possible reunification of Taiwan with China. Initially, in the early Nineties, the Chinese response to the victory of the democratic movement in Taiwan was very cautious. At that point China believed that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan would be in favour of the "one China, one Taiwan" policy and feared that there would be moves to assert the independence of Taiwan. The fact that the US supported the growth of the democratic movement within Taiwan added to the fear that the US and Western countries' growing ties with Taiwan would "perpetuate the separation of Taiwan and the mainland indefinitely."21 By this time, the fact that the US had sanctioned the sale of F-16s to Taiwan further added to the Chinese concerns over the Taiwan issue.

More recently, in 1995-96, the crisis along the Taiwan Straits was a real test to Sino-US relations. The Clinton Administration dispatched an aircraft carrier force to the straits to respond to China's intimidating posture toward Taiwan. Despite this crisis, the issue of Taiwan has not caused any serious friction in Sino-US ties. The fact that China's relations with Taiwan have undergone considerable improvement could be a very significant reason. In recent times Taiwan's stance toward Tibet and the Dalai Lama's visit there have been sources of friction between the two. Moreover, any reference to the likely reunification with the mainland in the aftermath of the Hong Kong handover has not been well received in Taipei. There is no willingness in Taipei to accept the "one China, two systems" policy and such references will not help in easing the political tensions that exist between the two.22 However, while the political tensions remain, the economic ties have been consolidated.

For the Chinese, the basis of any ties with the United States must be the three Joint Communiques that were signed, especially that which pertains to Taiwan. While the Clinton Administration endorses the idea of "one China," it has also emphasised that cross-strait relations should be amicably settled. The Chinese government, on the other hand, still believes and reiterates the fact that reunification is an internal matter and has not ruled out the possible use of force in bringing about the compliance of Taipei in this respect. If the relations between China and Taiwan continue to improve, there is not much likelihood of strains in Sino-US relations. China, for its part, has realised the necessity of stronger political and economic ties with Taipei, and as long as this trend continues, Taiwan will be a soft issue with regard to Sino-US relations.

Conclusion: The Way Ahead

There are several aspects that remain unaddressed with regard to Sino-US relations. One of the other factors that has been highlighted in the recent years relates to the issue of non-proliferation which has a high priority in the United States' stand on international affairs. The Chinese have, till now, kowtowed this line of thinking. However, the recent Cox Report of the House of Representatives Investigation Committee is expected to have an impact on Sino-US relations. This committee was established to look into the claims that China had been illegally procuring sensitive military technology from the United States. Allegations were also made on the grounds that China had stolen nuclear weapon technology. If these facts were to be proved then the possibility of strong repercussions is likely to occur.

However, the recent trends in Sino-US relations are indicative of the changes that lie ahead. Several factors are seen in this regard. First, both China and the US are now in the process of reshaping a strategic framework for a mutual relationship and here the issue of non-proliferation has also become crucial. What is significant here is that a dominant Asian factor stands out and this will be the basis for stronger ties in the new millenium. Second, there is a kind of consensus that is shaping up in regard to Sino-US ties. China, which is at present coping with several internal changes in the post-Deng period, is at a crossroads —the pace of economic reforms must continue while there is a simultaneous need to focus attention on the political scene. The reigns of political control remain within the CCP and the recent trends prove that the suppression of human rights and freedoms and that of dissident movements is not likely to decrease in the near future. Within the US there is a belief that China will emerge as a global power by 2015 and as such the need to have an open, stable and prosperous China is vital to US interests.

Therefore, in the post-summit period, it is important to emphasise certain key components of the relations. First, there is a need to cope with the threats that are common to the two while continuing to seek new interests. Second, it is necessary to develop and strengthen the ties that already exist—here there must be space for the endorsement of commonality of interest while retaining the differences and accepting them. It is important to have a strategic dialogue in this regard to deal with the problems that exist and this can be done by preventing any single issue from affecting the overall relations and ties.


1. John King Fairbank, The United States and China (New York: 1958), pp. 260-72.

2. Warren I. Cohen, America's Response to China: An Interpretative History of Sino-American Relations (New York, 1971), p. 216.

3. Ibid.,

4. Ibid., p. 218.

5. Yangmin Wang, "The Politics of US-China Economic Relatios: MFN, Constructive Engagement, and the Trade Issue Proper," Asian Survey, vol. 33, no. 5, May 1993, p. 442.

6. New York Times, May 28, 1991, p.A1.

7. n.5, p.444.

8. Chintamani Mahapatra, "Chill in Sino-US Relations: Rhetorics and Reality," Strategic Analysis, vol. XV, no. 8, November 1992, p. 777.

9. n. 5, p. 444.

10. Remark of US Representative, Christopher Cox to The Republican National Committee. The Capital Hilton, Washington D.C., January 22, 1999, Internet Edition.

11. Swaran Singh, "Sino-US Summit: Priorities, Problems and Prospects," Strategic Analysis, vol. 22, no. 3, p. 382, June 1998.

12. Ibid.,

13. Far Eastern Economic Review, January 14, 1999, p. 13.

14. Ibid.

15. Asiaweek, January 8, 1999, p. 23.

16. n. 13.

17. Ibid., pp. 12-13.

18. n. 15, p. 24.

19. Ibid.

20. Avery Goldstein, "China in 1997: A Year of Transitions," Asian Survey, vol. 38, no.1, January 1998, p. 46.

21. Bonnie S. Glaser, "China's Security Perceptions: Interests and Ambitions," Asian Survey, vol. 33, no. 3, March 1993, p. 263.

22. n. 20, p. 48.