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Foreign Policy

The 40th Anniversary of U.S.-China Relations: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Jan 09, 2019
  • David Shambaugh

    Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University


Forty years ago the world was stunned as the United States and the People’s Republic of China established “normal” diplomatic relations. The surprise move came following eight months of secret negotiations in Beijing and six years after President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in February 1972.

It was not easy “getting to yes” for the negotiators, and they never did agree on the sensitive issue of American arms sales to Taiwan—but President Jimmy Carter and senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (who oversaw and conducted the final round of the negotiations on the Chinese side) agreed that the time had come for these two great powers to have normal interactions after three decades of estrangement. Deng himself commemorated the event by personally visiting the White House and several cities across the United States in January 1979.

At this time of high stress in U.S.-China relations, it is worth recalling just how far the two countries have come in their relationship over the past four decades. Consider some of the things that link the two societies together.

Forty years ago there were no students exchanged—today there are 363,341 Chinese students studying in American universities and an estimated 80,000 in American secondary schools, while there approximately 12,000 American students studying in China. Scholarly exchanges have come a very long way since I was among the first groups of American students to go to China in 1979. Instead of studying in Chinese classrooms, as I did at three different Chinese universities, I have taught many Chinese students in my classes over the past three decades. Scientists, doctors, social scientists, humanists, and other specialists now interact professionally and many collaborate on joint projects. Of the several million Chinese students who have studied in America since 1979, a considerable number have become American citizens following graduation and have built their lives in the United States.

Trade was a paltry $2.3 billion in 1979 but ballooned to $636 billion in 2017. Forty years ago there was no U.S. commercial direct investment in China, today total accumulated stock has reached $256.49 billion. Meanwhile, China’s investment in the U.S. has grown from zero to $139.81 billion today. Despite the multiple stresses in the bilateral commercial relationship at present, epitomized by the ongoing tariff war, the economic bonds continue to tie the countries together.

Four decades ago only a few of American tourists visited China, while none traveled to the United States. During 2018 an estimated 3.24 million Chinese tourists will have visited America, with approximately 2.25 million Americans going to China. Approximately 250 direct flights per week traverse the Pacific between the two countries. These people-to-people ties are buttressed by more than 201 sister city and 44 sister state-province relationships. Although exchanges between non-governmental organizations have contracted sharply since China’s 2017 NGO law went into effect, there are still about 20 American NGOs registered in China.

Over the decades dozens of bilateral agreements have been signed by the two governments to facilitate exchanges in a wide variety of fields—ranging from the sciences to athletics. American sports, popular culture, and brands remain very popular among the Chinese public—while Chinese films, literature, and arts are gaining traction with the American public.

Thus, when the two tigers are fighting—as the two governments are currently doing—it is worthwhile to reflect on the multiple societal bonds that still link the two countries together. These ties did not grow by accident—they were very much in the minds of Deng Xiaoping and President Carter. When the two met at the White House in January 1979 their conversations had as much to do with the potential for building intersocietal and intergovernmental linkages than it did with countering the Soviet “Polar Bear.” Their reasoning was that the two governments’ common strategic opposition to the Soviet Union at the time would one day dissipate or disappear, and when that day came the two sides would need a stronger foundation on which to base their mutual relationship. It was not only their vision to construct linkages between the two societies, but also to give the two government bureaucracies more positive missions of cooperation. This latter strategy produced countless intergovernmental dialogues that endure to this day—such as the U.S.-China Diplomatic & Security Dialogue, U.S.-China Social & Cultural Dialogue, and the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.

Over four decades the relationship has certainly had its ups and downs, but it has endured. The 1980s was the honeymoon period, where the two sides began to get to know each other and Americans were transfixed by the encouraging economic, social, and political reforms being undertaken by Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, and Hu Yaobang. President Ronald Reagan’s administration did much to build the bilateral relationship and implement Carter’s vision for broad-based ties. Then came the traumatic events of June 4, 1989, which resulted in a sharp curtailment in relations (although not a rupture in diplomatic ties), which lasted until the mid-1990s. Under Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin the two sides began to reengage in the 1996-97 timeframe and, following the May 2001 EP-3 Incident, this momentum continued throughout the presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2008). Relations during the Obama presidency—which spanned the leaderships of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping—were a mixture of some cooperation but growing competition. In retrospect, the presidencies of Reagan and Bush 43 witnessed the longest periods of stability and cooperation over the past 40 years.

The current period, during Donald Trump’s presidency, is obviously deeply strained. Yet, beyond the daily headlines of frictions, underneath a quieter set of thick interactions and exchanges endure to tie the two societies together in times of trouble. This is exactly as Carter and Deng envisioned it forty years ago, and is worth remembering today as the two major powers increasingly clash over a range of issues. This is what makes the current U.S.-China competition fundamentally different than the US-Soviet Cold War.  

Nonetheless, we would be mistaken to oversell these mutual bonds and underappreciate the deep sources of stress and suspicion in both countries. These frictions, and the perceptions that underlie them, are real—and now dominate the relationship. U.S.-China relations have always been a mixture of cooperation and competition and friction, but until recent years the former outweighed the latter. Now predominant “competition” is the “new normal.” The challenge, therefore, is for both sides to learn how to manage the competition so that it does not morph into a fully-fledged adversarial relationship.

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