The United States and China first connected in 1784 when the American vessel, the Empress of China, docked in Guangzhou with Samuel Shaw aboard. But was this unofficial visit the true beginning of the intricate relationship between these future superpowers?
A historical overview of the U.S. and China relations reveals centuries of trade, diplomacy, and cooperation. However, challenges like spying, cyber threats, the Taiwan issue and the possibility of World War III have arisen. Effective negotiations and cybersecurity preparedness are essential for future stability and collaboration.
The history of U.S.-China relations offers a fascinating narrative. This article explores the evolution of their ties, examining the potential consequences of deteriorating relations and why cyberattacks might become their primary battleground in the future.
The Good Times: The Interesting Exchanges between U.S. and Chinese Citizens
The history of U.S.-China exchanges is rich and varied, with many notable individuals playing key roles. Here’s a descriptive list of some significant interactions between American and Chinese citizens:
- Samuel Shaw’s Voyage (1784): Samuel Shaw was the first American to travel to China. His journey paved the way for other Americans who would visit China about 50 years later.
- Christian Missionaries (1830): Unlike Shaw, the Americans who traveled to China in 1830, such as Reverend Elijah Bridgman and David Abeel, were on a mission to spread Christianity. They undertook extensive studies on Chinese culture and history in preparation for their mission.
- Dr. Peter Parker’s Medical Mission (1834): Dr. Peter Parker went to China as the first medical missionary. He initially established a small clinic, which, due to overwhelming demand, was later expanded into a hospital.
- Chinese Sailors in Baltimore (1785): The first known Chinese visitors to the U.S. arrived unexpectedly in 1785. Three sailors found themselves stranded in Baltimore, Maryland, after their trading ship broke down. Their subsequent fate remains undocumented.
- Nathan Dunn’s Collection (1839): After 12 years of trading with the Chinese, Philadelphia merchant Nathan Dunn brought a vast collection of art, artifacts, botanical samples, and more to the U.S. Believing that Americans should gain insight into Chinese life, he housed his collections in a Philadelphia museum.
The Twists and Turns That Would Bring China and the U.S. Even Closer
Before the official establishment of diplomatic relations, China and the U.S. had already engaged in subtle trade interactions. A deep dive into China’s past sheds light on the intertwined destinies of these two superpowers.
From 1839 to 1949, China experienced what is often termed its “century of humiliation.” Historically prosperous, China reaped substantial benefits from selling tea, silks, and other commodities to foreign nations, including Great Britain.
However, as Britain’s appetite for trade grew, they sought to monopolize the profits. Initially, Britain attempted to expand trade with China to acquire more of these sought-after goods, but China resisted. In response, Britain introduced opium to China, a trade item that proved irresistible.
The massive influx of opium led to widespread addiction in China, prompting the emperor to dispatch Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou to halt the opium trade. The British surrendered their opium stocks to the Chinese for destruction.
This act precipitated the notorious Opium Wars. The subsequent devastation necessitated a peace agreement, resulting in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. Favoring Britain, this treaty opened four new ports in China, facilitating expanded trade between China, Britain, and other Western nations, including the United States.
The Beginning of Official Relations: The 1844 Treaty Wangxia
In 1844, the United States and China inked their inaugural treaty, laying the foundation for official diplomatic ties. This treaty emerged from protracted negotiations, which, as records suggest, encountered several hurdles.
Caleb Cushing traveled to China to broker a treaty with the Qing dynasty but was barred from entering Beijing. Stationed in Macao and on the verge of abandoning the mission, Cushing finally received word from Qi Ying, the Chinese negotiator, who conveyed their acceptance of the U.S. terms.
This treaty accorded the United States a superior diplomatic standing compared to other Western nations, even surpassing Great Britain. Consequently, the U.S. gained substantial privileges in China, including the right to set up permanent diplomatic posts in Beijing.
However, China’s memory of the “century of humiliation” remained vivid. They endured territorial losses, diminished sovereignty, and a tarnished global reputation. While much of this suffering was due to Britain’s extreme greed for wealth or material gain., China perceived these injustices as transgressions by all Western powers, the United States included.
The Qing Dynasty Did Not Keep Their Promise!
By the 1850s, the United States grew increasingly disillusioned, recognizing that the Qing government was not upholding the stipulations of their treaties. The British shared this sentiment, leading them to initiate the Second Opium War from 1857 to 1858.
Interestingly, the Qing dynasty often agreed to treaty terms with foreign powers as a strategy to placate them without genuine intentions of honoring the agreements.
Furthermore, the concept of treaties was relatively new to the Chinese. Historically, their foreign policy revolved around the tribute system. To engage in trade with China, foreign nations were expected to present tributes to the emperor, acknowledging the superiority and ultimate authority of Chinese culture.
While neighboring Asian nations readily complied with this system, European powers balked at such concessions merely for trade access. Consequently, Western diplomats pushed for China to adopt their diplomatic conventions, leading to the establishment of the treaty system.
While these treaties, especially the most-favored-nation clause, facilitated trade with foreign entities, they also sowed seeds of resentment against Western imperialism.
Reestablishment of Sino-U.S. Diplomatic Relations
Upon taking office in 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter dispatched Secretary of State Vance and White House National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to China, aiming to normalize Sino-U.S. relations.
China set forth three primary conditions for normalization:
- The U.S. must sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
- The U.S. must withdraw its military forces from Taiwan.
- The mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Taiwan must be annulled.
After extensive discussions, the two nations agreed on the following terms:
- The U.S. recognized the “One China” policy, affirming Taiwan as a part of China.
- The U.S. acknowledged the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate authority.
- Commercial, cultural, and other non-official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan would continue unaffected.
- Following the declaration of normalized relations with China, the U.S. promptly terminated its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
- Diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. were officially reinstated on January 1, 1979.
The United States Expectations
The United States anticipated that China would pursue a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue. Conversely, China viewed the Taiwan situation as an internal matter, seeking to address it without external interference. However, the U.S. did not entirely relinquish its inclination to intervene in China’s domestic concerns.
A visit by a Chinese consulate solidified the renewed ties between China and the U.S. Both nations concurred on future collaboration in areas such as science, technology, education, space, and commerce.
What Happened Thirty Years After 1979?
The rekindled relationship between China and the United States thrived for over three decades following 1979. This rejuvenated bond yielded several positive outcomes for both nations, including:
- Enhanced economic and trade interactions
- Collaboration on global and security issues
- Exchanges in science and technology
- Strengthened cultural ties
Over time, China became a paramount focus for the United States. The U.S. aimed to integrate China into an international framework, largely shaped and controlled by the U.S. This strategy was believed to balance global powers, foster worldwide stability, and crucially encourage China to adapt to this system.
While the two countries faced occasional disagreements, they typically resolved them through effective dialogue. Some persistent challenges, like the debate over Taiwan’s political status, remained. Notably, China consistently honored its commitments, showcasing an unprecedented commitment to peacefully resolving its differences with Taiwan.
It’s widely acknowledged that between 1979 and 2009, China and the United States experienced a period of peace and stability unparalleled in their shared history.
One caveat to this relationship is that China was spying on the United States and stealing every trade and technology secret they could get their hands on to help the Chinese economy excel.
China’s Rise to Become the Second-Largest Economy in the World
By 2010, China had emerged as the world’s second-largest economy, a feat largely credited to its bilateral ties with the United States.
However, this meteoric rise encountered resistance in 2017 with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Despite China showing no inclination to alter its 1979 agreements, President Trump seemed less inclined to sustain the cooperative relationship with China.
By 2022 Chinese spying in the United States has become so widespread and pervasive that the FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a NBC News interview with Pete Williams that they are launching an average of two counterintelligence investigations per day and have 2000 cases against China.
Renewed Tensions Between China and the United States
The military landscape of the world is undergoing a seismic shift, with China’s aggressive military buildup at its epicenter. The U.S., recognizing the growing military prowess of China, has recalibrated its foreign policy, categorizing China not just as a competitor but as a strategic military rival.
This has ignited a series of military and strategic confrontations in Sino-U.S. relations, including:
- Trade and economic warfare: Beyond tariffs and sanctions, the U.S. has expressed concerns over China’s “Made in China 2025” initiative, viewing it as a strategic plan not just for economic but also for military dominance in key technological sectors.
- Intellectual property rights battles: The U.S. has consistently accused China of intellectual property theft, especially in sectors with military applications. The arrest of Huawei’s CFO in 2018 on charges related to violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran is a notable example of the intertwining of trade, technology, and security concerns.
- The Hong Kong situation: The U.S. has been vocal against China’s National Security Law for Hong Kong, passed in 2020, which they view as a means for China to exert military and security control over the semi-autonomous region, potentially threatening regional stability.
- Technological warfare: The U.S. ban on companies like Huawei and ZTE, citing national security concerns, underscores the fear of technological backdoors that could be exploited for espionage or military advantage.
- South China Sea military contentions: China’s construction of artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea, particularly around the Spratly and Paracel Islands, has been a significant point of contention. The U.S. conducts “freedom of navigation” operations to challenge China’s territorial claims, leading to close military encounters.
Tension During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 added another layer of distrust between these two superpowers. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. took a confrontational stance, especially in terms of military posturing. While President Biden has sought a more diplomatic approach, the underlying military caution remains.
The U.S. is particularly alarmed by:
- China’s aggressive mercantilism: The Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, is seen by some in the U.S. as a means for China to establish military footholds in strategic locations globally.
- China’s disregard for human rights: The U.S. has sanctioned Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, viewing such actions as destabilizing and a potential precursor to broader regional military actions.
- The rapid modernization of China’s military apparatus: China’s unveiling of advanced military hardware, such as the DF-21D “carrier killer” missile and the J-20 stealth fighter, has raised eyebrows in the Pentagon.
China’s state capitalist system and its authoritative governance model stand in stark contrast to Western ideologies, further widening the chasm. The military friction between the U.S. and China reached new heights with revelations of Chinese hackers potentially targeting critical U.S. military and civilian infrastructure.
The Taiwan Strait remains a significant flashpoint. With China’s military capabilities growing, there’s a palpable fear that China might deploy its vast cyber warfare arsenal against U.S. military assets and critical infrastructure. However, the situation is complex, with China also labeling the U.S. as a primary cyber aggressor.
China’s claims that allegations against them are part of a U.S.-led disinformation campaign cannot overshadow the Annual Threat Assessment’s findings, which highlight China’s military capability to launch cyberattacks that could severely compromise U.S. military and civilian operations.
The United States has been extremely naive in their relationship with China in the last 20 years and allowed them to steal so many strategic secrets it is unfathomable.
The U.S.-China relationship, spanning centuries, has evolved from initial trade interactions to complex diplomatic ties. While periods of cooperation have been punctuated by tensions, recent concerns over Chinese spying and cyber threats underscore the need for emergency preparedness.
As China’s technological capabilities grow, the U.S. must remain vigilant, ensuring robust cybersecurity measures to safeguard its critical infrastructure, especially given the historical intricacies and potential flashpoints in this bilateral relationship.
- Air University: Assessing China’s Motives: How the Belt and Road Initiative Threatens US Interests
- DNI.gov: Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community
- Federation of American Scientists: “Made in China 2025” Industrial Policies: Issues for Congress
- Federation of American Scientists: China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress
- FMPRC: The Establishment of Sino-U.S. Diplomatic Relations and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States
- History State Gov: The Opening to China Part I: the First Opium War, the United States, and the Treaty of Wangxia, 1839–1844
- History State Gov: The Opening to China Part II: the Second Opium War, the United States, and the Treaty of Tianjin, 1857–1859
- Mint: US Labels China as Nation’s Top Competitor, Capable of Reshaping Global Order
- Springer Link: Understanding Changes in Sino-U.S. Relations From a Historical Perspective
- U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission: The “Century of Humiliation” and China’s National Narratives
- UC Law San Francisco: The United States’ Ineffective Response Towards Hong Kong’s National Security Law
- FBI Director Wray says scale of Chinese spying in the U.S. ‘blew me away’
- USC U.S.-China Institute: Treaty of Wangxia, May 18, 1844
- US-China Policy Foundation: U.S.-China Relations: A Brief Historical Perspective
- USNI News: China Protests U.S. South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation