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Foreign Policy

The Eagle and the Dragon: U.S.-China Relations Have Hit a Bump in the Road

Sep 02, 2022
  • Charles Ray

    Former U.S. Ambassador; Chair of the Africa Program, Foreign Policy Research Institute

To say that relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China are tense at the moment is to dramatically understate the reality. What began as a relationship of convenience, that has oftentimes served both sides well, was not established on a solid foundation from the outset.

From 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Communist forces defeated the Nationalists and the People’s Republic of China was established, relations between the U.S. (which had backed the Nationalists) and China were tense. Relations were further strained when China intervened in the Korean War on the side of the North Koreans. During the 1950s and 1960s, because of conflict between the PRC and Taiwan over the Quemoy and Matsu Islands in the Taiwan Straits and U.S. support for Tibetan resistance fighters, the U.S. and China came perilously close to war with each other.

During this same period, relations between the PRC and the Soviet Union were strained, leading to armed clashes on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969. It was during this time that the Soviet Union replaced China as the biggest threat to the United States, and moves toward rapprochement began, leading to the establishment of formal ties in 1979 and U.S. acknowledgment of the One China Policy. The U.S. Congress, however, passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which allowed continued commercial and cultural relations between Taiwan and the U.S. and required Washington to provide the Taiwanese with defensive arms. While a sensitive issue for China, it was ultimately agreed that this didn’t violate the One China Policy.

Over the decades since the establishment of official diplomatic relations in 1979, U.S.-China relations were up and down like a see-saw. Bilateral trade expanded by leaps and bounds, with China becoming a major trade partner, especially after 1980, while at the same time, the U.S. and China competing for influence in the greater Indo-Pacific region.

My first introduction to the complexities of this relationship came in 1983 when I was assigned to the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou on my first assignment as an American diplomat after completing a 20-year career in the U.S. Army.

The view of China through the eyes of a junior consular officer was one of contrasts. On the one hand, Chinese seemed eager to travel to and do business with the United States, while many in the government put barriers in the way of developing interpersonal ties. During my second tour at the American Consulate General in Shenyang in the northeast, I traveled to the port city of Dalian to arrange the visit of Secretary of State George Schulz. When the visit was over, I went to the train station to arrange my ticket back to Shenyang and was put in a ‘soft seat’ or first class car with a travel companion who happened to be an officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The officer was friendly enough, but peppered me with personal questions for the entire trip, some of which I put down to just curiosity, but many were clearly an effort to fill in holes in whatever official file they had on me. 

This, of course, was all before the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Relations were frozen from 1989 until 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000 which established permanent trade relations between the U.S. and China and paved the way for China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

I had little contact with Chinese officials until I was assigned to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 1988 as the first American consul general to that city. The Chinese also had a consulate general there, but relations between the Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese have always been strained and that office had limited access to local Vietnamese officials. Despite the Vietnam War and my status as a military veteran of that war, I had close relations with local officials. Even after the 1989 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade when Chinese diplomats gave Americans the cold shoulder worldwide, my Chinese counterpart in Vietnam continued to meet cordially with me, inviting me to his residence and  attending a farewell party I held for my departing deputy. This during a time when the Chinese ambassador in Hanoi had refused an invitation to the U.S. national day reception— but the consul general came to the one I hosted.

When I was sent to Cambodia as American ambassador in 2001, there was more of the same, but relations began to demonstrate further hostility. I had close relations with the Chinese ambassador and good working relations with all parties in the Cambodian government. There was general recognition that the U.S. and China were cordially competing for influence in Cambodia, but the broader relationship was strained. When a U.S. reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane near Hainan Island in April 2001, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot, the U.S. crew was detained for twelve days. Our diplomats were banned from travel to Hanoi, and I became the first American official allowed on the island in 2008 when I, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, was invited by the Chinese Transportation Minister to speak at a search and rescue conference on Tainan.

Tensions between the two sides waxed and waned, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as the Chinese economy grew by leaps and bounds, and China began to flex its muscles internationally, there developed a sentiment in the U.S. of China as a global competitor and America’s number one antagonist. China, through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has expanded its presence in Africa to the point where Chinese companies are now dominant in the infrastructure sector and are the number one trading partner for many African countries.

While China’s activities should be of concern, whether in Africa or in the Indo-Pacific, I do not believe they should be cause for alarm, with the possible exception of escalation of tensions in the Straits of Taiwan. Rather, we in the United States need to recognize that China is in all these places and wishing them away is an exercise in futility. What we need is an attitude of working with China where there are mutual benefits to be had, such as mitigating the impact of climate change; making known our views on issues of disagreement such as human rights and respect for rule of law, without becoming disagreeable; and that the countries of the world who currently deal with China are sovereign nations with the right to determine the relationships that are important to them. China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific and the rising U.S. trade deficit with China in 2011 and 2012 further increased tensions between these two economic powerhouses.  The on-again, off-again relationship in the Trump Administration, concluding with the imposition of a wide range of tariffs against Chinese products, escalated the U.S.-China trade war, and then the Covid-19 pandemic pushed relations almost to the breaking point, with each side hurling accusations against the other regarding the origin of the deadly virus. It’s time for both sides to take a step back and do an attitude adjustment and move to find areas of convergence to counterbalance the many areas of difference.

The complications introduced by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine notwithstanding, contentious issues between the United States and the People’s Republic of China should not come as a surprise to anyone. The U.S. has been the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the end of World War II, and it should surprise no one that it sees China’s rise in the region as a threat to its hegemony. The situation in the 21st century, with a much broader network of relationships, is far more complex than it was in the 20th century.

The management of the complex network of relationships in the Indo-Pacific should be a truly whole-of-government endeavor involving diplomacy, development, and defense, with diplomacy taking the lead in the absence of outright hostilities, which we should all hope to avoid. This is in no way intended to rank any of these over the others, just a recognition of the importance of building and maintaining relationships that are necessary if we’re to address the many challenges that lie ahead of us, and diplomacy is the driver of that train, with development and defense as essential elements that fuel its movement.

None of this will be easy, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. The world is forever changing and if we’re to not just cope with those changes but take positive advantage of them we must recommit ourselves to building the mutually beneficial, mutually respectful relationships that underpin progress and ensure peace and prosperity for all our people. In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, it is to be expected that our differences will chafe on occasion, but we should not let the occasional bumps in the road become impassable obstacles. It is up to all parties to such disputes to take a step back and look for points of convergence while addressing our disagreements without becoming disagreeable.     

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