Overview U.S.-China Relations

Confucius (551-479 BC)

Confucius (551-479 BC)

Before leaving for China, I felt it was important to review changing United States-China relations, vital for understanding how that rising power and the U.S. view each other today. I offer my blog readers this brief historical summary because we Americans traditionally have focused more on events in Europe, due to our cultural and ethnic roots. As the Chinese sage Confucius counseled, “Study the past if you would define the future.”

Despite China’s long, expansive history under powerful emperors, the 1842 British defeat of China in the First Opium War starkly revealed the weakness of the Qing dynasty, encouraging European governments to demand territorial concessions through humiliating unequal treaties.

In l899 U.S. President William McKinley called for an Open Door Policy with China, calling for all nations to have equal access to the Chinese market, even those (like the United States) without a sphere of influence. Despite this apparent concern for China’s sovereignty, American sailors and marines joined European powers in suppressing the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against foreigners carving up Chinese territory.

Boxer Rebellion 1900

Boxer Rebellion 1900


Japan seized China’s Manchuria province in l931, six years later invading China. After the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. sent aid and advisers to both Nationalist and Communist forces fighting Japanese troops in World War II.

After the 1945 defeat of Japan, a civil war raged between the Nationalist and Communist forces. The victory of the Chinese Revolution in l949 forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist troops to flee to the island of Taiwan. The Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung proclaimed, “China has stood up.”

In the emotional clamor of partisan politics in the l950s, the hot issue of “Who lost China?” led America to adopt a Cold War foreign policy that attempted to isolate the People’s Republic of China, a nation of over 500 million people at that time.

The United States orchestrated United Nations voting to recognize Taiwan as China, granting the Republic of China (Taiwan) China’s permanent seat on the Security Council. In 1950 U.S. armed forces and the mainland’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) became embroiled in the Korean War as American-led U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel and approached China’s border.

When President Lyndon Johnson escalated America’s troop levels in Vietnam in the mid-l960s, he worried that China might enter the conflict. However, Beijing provided Hanoi with only economic and military aid, not combat forces as in Korea.

In l971, after undisclosed negotiations with the Nixon administration, the Peoples Republic of China received China’s permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council—and its veto power.

Mao Nixon
The following year President Richard Nixon stunned the American people when he secretly flew to Beijing to initiate a new détente with China and its Communist leader Mao Tse-tung. A shrewd strategic thinker, the realist Nixon also sought to play the “China card” to counter the Soviet Union’s influence in Asia.

China invaded Vietnam in February l979 to teach its fellow-communist neighbor a “lesson.” Beijing justified its short, punitive, and costly border offensive by pointing to Vietnam’s mistreatment of ethnic Chinese on its soil, Hanoi’s provocative “friendship” treaty with the USSR, and the Vietnamese government’s 1978 overthrow of Beijing’s Cambodian ally, the Pol Pot regime.

President George H.W. Bush’s close relations with the Chinese leadership, after serving as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, helped him obtain the U.N. Security Council’s 1990 approval for collective security action to end Saddam Hussein’s aggressive takeover of Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

Presidents Hu Jintao, Putin and Bush

Presidents Hu Jintao, Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush


President Bill Clinton promoted globalism to increase exports to China, thus providing more jobs at home. In 2000 George W. Bush attacked Clinton for considering China a “strategic partner.” In contrast, the second Bush Administration initially labeled China as a “strategic competitor,” before embracing a similar trade-oriented policy toward China’s vast market.

The hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics by the Peoples Republic of China brought the emergent nation of 1.3 billion people to the attention of the world. Global media coverage highlighted China’s long history, remarkable economic growth, and unique “socialist market economy”–to many Americans a contradiction in terms.

In July 2009 the Obama administration held a Strategic Economic Dialogue with Chinese leaders in Washington, D.C. President Obama presciently observed, “The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century.”

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao

In November President Obama visited Beijing, engaging in discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao on economic, security, and international issues. These initial talks revealed areas of mutual interests as well as differences that will require extensive diplomatic talks in the years ahead.

This overview of United States-China relations since the late 19th century reveals the ups and downs in our relationship with the Middle Kingdom. Past misunderstandings and conflicts complicate our shared interest in beneficial economic relations and a peaceful world.


The Awakened Giant

Pearl Buck's THE GOOD EARTH

Pearl Buck's THE GOOD EARTH

An intriguing aura always surrounded the distant, mysterious country of China in the eyes of Americans, with its 5,000 years of history and rich culture. In the l930s Pearl Buck’s book The Good Earth stirred readers with her story of a Chinese peasant’s close ancestral bond to the soil. The daughter of missionaries, Pearl Buck declared, “Nothing and no one can destroy the Chinese people. They are relentless survivors.” She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

In 1800, Napoleon allegedly said, “Let the sleeping giant (China) sleep! For when he wakes he will move the world.” In recent years that Asian giant clearly awoke, emerging as a rising global force, powered by an extraordinary rate of economic growth. Underscoring the mounting strength of that ancient country, a recent book by British writer Martin Jacques bears the provocative title, When China Rules the World.

I hope that during my spring semester experience as a Fulbright Scholar living, teaching, and traveling in China, I will gain insights about this formidable rising global power. I leave for Chengdu in February 2010 to teach at Sichuan University in southwest China.

The immense size of China’s population quickly became evident to me. Chengdu, my host city, has a population of about 12 million, twice the number of people living in the entire state of Tennessee! Chengdu also promotes itself as the “giant panda’s hometown.”

SichuanUnivTowerThe Sichuan University campus has about 60,000 students. In contrast, my fine institution—the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which I’ve seen grow in students, faculty, and quality since the l970s—celebrated last fall an enrollment of 10,000 students. And we think UTC has classroom space problems.

During my younger years as a Navy destroyer officer, I served in the Western Pacific (WestPac). During the Cold War years I visited then-British owned Hong Kong as well as Taiwan, so I became somewhat acquainted and fascinated with Chinese culture.

But in those not-so-distant days, we were not permitted to buy products manufactured in “Red China.” Ironically, in preparing for my forthcoming teaching duties at Sichuan University—courses on American Government and U.S. Foreign Policy—I discovered most of my clothing and supplies were “made in China!”

In my subsequent blogs I want to provide readers with a better understanding of Chinese students and universities, the dynamic economic growth of the “Middle Kingdom,” and the richness of China’s long history and culture, illustrated with photos. As a guest of the Chinese government, deemed a “cultural ambassador” by the U.S. Department of State, I will candidly discuss America’s democratic principles and core concepts of foreign policy that guide our nation in my classes and lectures.

In my application essay to become a Fulbright Scholar, I emphasized my interest in learning more about how China, with its lengthy history, takes a long-term perspective when setting policy goals.

In America, our foreign policy may change every four or eight years as a new president enters the Oval Office. The economic globalism of Bill Clinton preceded the muscular neo-conservatism of George W. Bush, now followed by the “principled pragmatism” of Barack Obama. The zig-zags of U.S. foreign policy often confuse both our friends and foes.

Critics often accuse United States corporations and American voters of also focusing too much on each year’s “bottom-line,” not long-term plans and prospects. Certainly our recent financial crisis revealed the major banks’ drive for high short-term profits and huge bonuses dominating over concerns for stable growth.

Likewise, President George W. Bush encountered rising public calls to quickly end the Iraq War and withdraw troops, leading to the Republicans’ loss of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. Americans would not patiently wait for the re-trained Iraqi military to “step up, so America could stand down.”

Currently President Obama faces voter pressures to immediately create jobs and restore a thriving American economy. Otherwise, a voter backlash in November 2010 could threaten the Democratic Party’s control over Congress. Patience is not always an attribute of voters in our democratic political system, particularly during difficult times.

However, an old Chinese proverb colorfully illustrates the advantage of an extended outlook: “Patience is power; with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”


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