U.S.-China Relations Since 1949

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power on the Chinese mainland from the Nationalist government and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalist government evacuated the administration of the Republic of China (ROC), as it was called, to the island province of Taiwan, contesting the power of the CCP on the mainland. The United States and other governments continued for some time to recognize the Republic of China (ROC) as the government of all China.

(Please see also the companion article on on Taiwan and U.S.-China Relations Since 1949)

China-U.S. relations have gone through three periods since the founding of the People’s Republic:

Containment: 1949-1971

For twenty-two years (1949-1971), the United States tried to disrupt, destabilize, and weaken China's communist government. Washington believed that the PRC (hereafter, "China") was an aggressive, expansionist power that threatened the security of its noncommunist neighbors.

  • The United States constructed an off-shore line of military alliances along China's eastern and southern borders. These included the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Nationalist government of the ROC on Taiwan.
  • With its allies, the United States formed the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) that included Thailand, the Philippines, and South Vietnam, and the ANZUS Treaty that linked Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The United States maintained military bases and in some cases stationed significant numbers of troops in many of these countries, especially Japan and South Korea.
  • During these years, the United States also became involved in the war in China's southern neighbor, Vietnam, with the aim of preventing the spread of communist government from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.

The United States encouraged its allies to refrain entering into diplomatic relations with China. The United States prohibited Americans from visiting China. The United States cut off trade and orchestrated an international embargo of China.

By being even tougher on China than on its main communist rival, the Soviet Union, the United States pursued a so-called "wedge strategy." This strategy aimed to encourage a split between the two communist allies of the PRC and the Soviet Union. It was successful, because such a Sino-Soviet split did occur, becoming evident in around 1960 and worsening thereafter.

Rapprochement: 1971-1979

China and the United States began to move closer to one another in the 1970s.

  • The Americans were seeking to bring an end to the war in Vietnam while China wanted to find support for its resistance to pressure from the Soviet Union.
  • After an initial secret visit to China by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1971, President Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972 marked the breakthrough to rapprochement. President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communiqué. The Communiqué said that the United States:
    acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes...
  • On this basis, U.S.-China unofficial relations began to develop, with trade, educational, and cultural exchanges.

On this basis, U.S.-China unofficial relations began to develop, with trade, educational, and cultural exchanges.

Engagement: 1979 to 2016

In 1979 the two governments established full diplomatic relations. To do this, the United States had to break its formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, although it maintained "people to people" ties that were the equivalent of diplomatic relations. The U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. The Act commits the United States to help maintain Taiwan's self-defense capacity and to consider coming to its defense if it is attacked by mainland China.

  • On the U.S. side the Nixon visit marked the beginning of a policy of "engagement" toward China, based on the idea that bringing China into the global economy and world institutions would lead the country to adopting economic and political reforms and accepting the international status quo.
  • On the Chinese side, the establishment of normal diplomatic relations with the United States coincided with the adoption of "reform and opening" policies in China.
  • The following period saw rapid development of trade and investment ties with the West, including America. China also opened itself to Western tourism, and developed extensive ties in academic and cultural fields.
  • The two countries cooperated in a number of issues, such as working for the denuclearization of North Korea. They failed to achieve that goal in Korea, and many important issues remained unresolved in U.S.-China relations.
  • One of the most important was the issue of human rights. The event that fixed human rights as a core U.S.-China issue was the violent crackdown against student demonstrators in Beijing on June 4, 1989—the so-called Tiananmen Incident. The U.S. and its allies imposed certain sanctions on China after the incident.
  • The entry of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, however, made it illegal for the U.S. to use trade sanctions to bring pressure to bear on China over human rights.
  • China's entry into the WTO in 2001 also laid the basis for greatly increased Chinese exports to the U.S.

The "new Cold War": 2016 to 2020.

With the accession of Xi Jinping to the position of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary in 2012, China adopted more assertive policies on security issues like Taiwan and in its relations with Japan, India, and neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

  • China sought more influence in international organizations and expanded its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, a global program of infrastructure investment.
  • China also adopted more repressive policies at home,
    • arresting lawyers, feminists, and pastors of Christian congregations,
    • placing Muslim Uyghur residents of the northwestern region of Xinjiang into coercive "education camps," and
    • imposing a draconian security law in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.

In the U.S., the presidency of Donald Trump (2016-2020) marked a corresponding shift toward a harder line on China. The Trump administration focused at first on the trade deficit with China, unsuccessfully seeking to force change by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports.

By the end of 2020, U.S. officials had defined the "strategic competition" with China as a comprehensive clash of value systems, leading commentators to call the relationship a "new Cold War," eluding to the tensions between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies from roughly 1947-1991. The comparison was imperfect, however, because

  • China did not seek to impose its own value system on the whole world.
  • the U.S. and China still had intense economic, educational, and other ties that made them much more interdependent than the U.S. and the Soviet Union had ever been.

As the Chinese navy, air force, missile force, and cyber warfare capabilities improved, the risk of an armed clash between the two countries increased.

At the end of 2020 it was clear that global problems like climate change, pandemics, and terrorism, could not be managed without the two countries' cooperation. It was also hard to predict how the two countries would cooperate at the same time as they competed for regional and global influence.

The consultant for this unit is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His teaching and research interests include Chinese politics and foreign policy, the comparative study of political participation and political culture, and human rights.

Discussion Questions

  1. On a map of Asia, mark all the countries with which the United States was allied in the 1950s and 1960s. Explain how these alliances would affect China.
  2. List other ways the United States tried to "contain" China's influence in the 1950s and 1960s.
  3. Why were both China and the United States interested in moving closer, in the 1970s?
  4. Why did the United States agree with China that Taiwan "is a part of China"?
  5. When the United States and the People's Republic of China established full diplomatic relations in 1979, what issues did the two countries cooperate on? What issues did they differ on?
  6. What event in the 1980s caused an international outcry about human rights abuses in China?