US-China relations at China's 70th: Continuity of change

US-China relations at China's 70th: Continuity of change
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October 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There will be many analyses speculating about China’s future or explaining how China got to where it is today. The poor state of U.S.-China relations will no doubt be discussed. But the anniversary also provides an opportunity to place this bilateral relationship into broader perspective, and to underscore how specious and damaging it is to repeat the tired mantra that “we got China wrong” by anticipating an imaginary, inevitable path to democratization.

Looking back over the past seventy years illustrates how fraught the relationship has always been, a fact the China watcher community has been more fully cognizant of than almost anybody else. Our bilateral relationship is not grounded in (re)capturing some imaginary “golden age” of relations, but, rather, is based on navigating the fearsome cataracts of our very real differences in ways that ultimately benefit the people in both countries. 

In 1949, as Mao Zedong declared the founding of the PRC, China had resigned itself to relying on the Soviet Union in the rapidly-escalating Cold War. Mao was just months away from traveling outside China for the first time in his life to spend two months in Moscow, and was just a year away from entering into the Korean War against the United States. Korea transformed Taiwan from a casualty of the Chinese civil war to a then-U.S. protectorate and to an uneasy cross-Straits relationship that exists to this day.


In 1959, while China celebrated its 10th anniversary, tens of millions of people were on the brink of starvation under Mao’s ill-conceived Great Leap Forward. As President Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were seeking ways to maintain “peaceful coexistence,” Mao declared “the East Wind has prevailed over the West Wind” and sought increasingly radical steps to goad the West. By 1959, this had contributed to a schism between China and the USSR over the latter’s “accommodation” with the U.S. The subsequent breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations did nothing to bring China closer to the U.S. until 1972.

By 1969, China had completed the “radical phase” of the Cultural Revolution, with the military firmly in control of the government and party apparatus. There was serious debate on how to end China’s isolation, whether to extend overtures to Moscow or to Washington. That debate continued for another two years until the mysterious death of Mao’s heir apparent, Lin Biao, in a fiery plane crash

Rapprochement with Washington and the 1972 Shanghai Communique between Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai was essentially a list of areas the two countries failed to reach agreement, but nonetheless signaled a commitment to a relationship that transcended these differences.

1979 is perhaps the single unambiguously positive of Chinese decennials as far as bilateral relations with the U.S. are concerned. The two countries had established diplomatic relations that January, and China’s leaders were setting the stage for what would be an unprecedented era of reform and opening to the outside world. Both countries maintained their strategic cooperation to balance the Soviet Union, sharing intelligence and military-to-military exchanges. Fearless entrepreneurs on both sides were beginning the fragile minuet of establishing economic relationships.

By 1989 this hopeful relationship was tested as it has never been before or since. The June 4 military crackdown, accompanied by the political freeze in relations, created fissures in the heretofore bipartisan consensus on China while strengthening the Chinese hardliners’ position. As much as the two governments, it was the growing networks of commercial and educational exchanges that managed the relationship and brought it back from the brink. 

By 1998, the Clinton administration began to understand how to work through the frustrations presented by China rather than attempt to do away with them. Both sides took serious domestic political risks to maintain the bilateral relationship.

In 1999, this fragile state of affairs was tested once again by one of the biggest crises ever to face the relationship. On May 7, U.S. planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the war in Kosovo. To this day, the U.S. maintains it was a mistake and China maintains it was deliberate. 

The bombing provoked a nationalist fervor in China that led to the burning down of the  U.S. consul’s house in Chengdu and saw thousands of people take to the streets in Shenyang, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Despite this, the two sides flipped some of the key tenets of international law to find a meaningful, satisfactory solution.

2009 marked the end of China’s confidence in the Western economic and financial system as a response to the unfolding global financial crisis. We do not fully appreciate the degree to which this crisis has led to a profound realignment of China’s evaluation of Western wisdom and Beijing’s desire to provide a new model, however poorly-defined. Although relations were on a steady keel, the tectonic plates below were moving, and we are feeling the tremors today.

Given this history, one might ask: Why have we continued this relationship? After all, these are events that would test even the most committed diplomats, politicians, scholars and business leaders. 


The answer is simple: Strong bilateral relations decrease the probability of military conflict around the world, maximize economic opportunities for people all over the globe and bring two remarkable cultures together in ways that benefit each of them socially, commercially and, yes, politically. As the foregoing has made clear, building such a relationship occurs alongside potentially divisive and highly conflictual events, which are inevitable between two such complex advanced societies within the context of global power politics. It is thus a fool’s errand to imagine, let alone seek, a modus vivendi without conflict or competition. 

Moreover, it is also clear that the relationship has been changing – sometimes radically so – from one decade to the next. On that basis, it is up to us to ask ourselves as the PRC turns 70: Does the state of U.S.-China relations represent a change in degree or in type? Or does it demonstrate a “continuity of change” that forms the very DNA of the relationship, through good times and bad.

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and the director of China studies and director of SAIS China at the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University.