Dawing of a New Era: 1949-1980


The celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a time to look back upon the past five decades and China's evolution as a nation. For this special October issue, the U.S.-China Policy Foundation takes a brief look back at the last 50 years of U.S.-China relations, as well looking ahead to new trends.

In tracing the evolution of the modern Chinese state, the role of U.S.-China relations is integral. From the period of containment to rapprochement and engagement, the evolution of U.S.-China relations has paralleled developments in China. Ideological differences have caused many issues to ferment between the two nations, but through the years they have worked through many of those issues and have built a strong relationship.

In looking back on the past fifty years of U.S.-China relations, the tremendous progress made by these two nations cannot be discounted and should be used as a basis for further understanding between the countries. In the past, brilliant statesmen have laid a successful groundwork for U.S.- China relations. This relationship should continue into the next millennium as China continues to grow as a nation.

Dawning of a New Era

During the Communist rise to power, the U.S. supported the Nationalists, which contributed to a breakdown in relations between the U.S. and the soon-to-be Chinese government. When the victorious Communists drove the Nationalist government from mainland China in 1949, they had no desire to befriend the ally of their enemy. Thus began the three decades of estrangement between the PRC and the U.S.

During the next twenty years, the relations between the U.S. and China gradually changed from estrangement to rapprochement. The 1950s was the era of McCarthyism, when Communism was considered a threat to be contained at all costs., so that most U.S. foreign policy regarding China centered on encapsulating communism. Strengthening the non-communist countries in Asia was one of America's methods to achieve this end. Thus, for the first third of the PRC's existence, U.S.-China relations were virtually nonexistent as the U.S. pursued its policy of containment, and China perceived the U.S. as an imperialist threat.

In the early 1950s, the possibility of any immediate reconciliation between the U.S. and China was rendered impossible by the Korean War. Chinese support for North Korea and U.S. support for South Korea was a visible illustration of U.S. and Chinese positions on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. In supporting North Korea, China expressed its willingness to aid other struggling communist parties and further increased U.S. fears that China would spread communism. This fear in turn deepened the U.S. commitment to stand against communism. As a result of the Korean War, the U.S. imposed a comprehensive embargo on trade with the PRC and banned travel to the PRC by U.S. citizens. This war defined America's policy towards China as one of ideological warfare, and set the tone for many years to come.

Defining China as a threat to the capitalist world, the U.S. proceeded to build strategic alliances in Asia. As a part of its encirclement policy, the U.S. sent its Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Straits and gave military aid to the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. In 1954, the U.S. and Taiwan signed a mutual defense agreement in which the U.S. agreed to defend Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands should any country attempt to attack and claim them by force. As U.S.-Taiwan relations deepened, China's perception of the U.S. as an imperialist threat grew. China viewed Taiwan as a rebel province separated by civil war and as such a domestic matter to be handled without international interference.

China's perception regarding the U.S. was strengthened by the involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Tibet. The CIA intended to frustrate the communist forces by creating a buffer zone and obstructing the spread of communism to South and Central Asia. In 1959, the Chinese suppressed a local Khamba uprising in Tibet, which precipitated the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet, during which he received aid from the CIA. The CIA also supported the Khamba forces with arms and paramilitary training. In the minds of the CIA strategists, the Tibetans would fight the Communists through guerilla warfare, which would seriously hinder the communist's gaining control of the region. Unfortunately, Tibetans tended to move in large groups that were ill-sized for this type of fighting and were easily defeated by the Communist forces. The CIA withdrew from Tibet in the 1960s, as America's relations with China began to warm and the policy of containment slowly gave way to one of rapprochement.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PRC was growing estranged from the Soviet Union. Nikita Krushchev, the leader of the U.S.S.R., repudiated many of Stalin's ideals, which put the USSR and China on an ideological collision path. Mao Zedong criticized Krushchev for not being "red" enough and a series of differences between the two heads of state led to the 1960 removal of all U.S.S.R. military and technological support from China. As these relations deteriorated, China began to fear that its northern neighbor might become hostile and try to invade China on the pretext that China wasn't truly Communist. This Soviet threat was compounded by warming relations between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. This so called "strategic triangle" was the impetus for later changes in U.S.-China relations, as China sought some form of rapprochement with the U.S. to stymie the threat of Soviet aggression.

Conversely, the U.S. realized that its presence in Asia should be diminished and thought that China should play a role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. This position was expressed in the Nixon Doctrine, which stated that the U.S. would remove troops from Indochina and needed China to take over the role of peacekeeper there. The main point of the Nixon Doctrine, as outlined in John Holdridge's book Crossing the Divide, was that "The U.S. should not be more concerned with the threat of internal subversion in a friendly country than was the country itself, and that while the U.S. would supply military equipment to allies to deal with the internal threat, it would not contribute manpower." Therein, the U.S. seemed to allay some of China's fears that America was seeking hegemony in Asia.

In the early 1960s, U.S.- China relations experienced a thaw during which leaders discussed the possibility of a series of meetings among high-ranking officials in both capitols. These discussions were cut short by a coup d'etat in Cambodia. Once again, the U.S. and China found themselves on opposite sides of an international conflict, as China supported Prince Sihanouk, with whom they had signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Nonagression, and the U.S. supported the Nationalist General Lon Nol. The main point of contention was that Prince Sihanouk had allowed the North Koreans to use Cambodia as a pathway to attack South Vietnam. General Lon Nol was anticommunist and wanted to drive the North Vietnamese out of Cambodia. The U.S. was drawn into the fray because Cambodia appealed for U.S. aid when North Vietnam attacked Cambodia as a means of assuring access to South Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, China's position was similar to its position during the Korean War. Logistically, China aided North Vietnam, but did not show a strong commitment to this war. In fact, China resented the Soviet presence in North Vietnam, which further damaged Soviet-Chinese relations. The U.S. supported South Vietnam, but by the early 1970s recognized the need to withdraw from the war. The Vietnam War raged on for many years, with the U.S. finally removing all troops by 1973. Some speculate that China would have preferred the U.S. to win the war rather than allowing the Soviets to have an ally so close to China.

Two important steps in the rapprochement process occurred in 1971, when Dr. Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China, and the PRC was recognized as the one true government of China and given China's seat at the UN. Kissinger's trip was the first high-level, official contact between the PRC and the U.S. In his meetings with Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger laid the groundwork for President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China, and for the growth of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. also lifted its trade embargoes on China, and supported the PRC's assumption of the Chinese seat at the UN, giving the PRC global recognition. Gaining the UN seat gave the PRC a genuine role in world politics that it had hitherto been denied. In turn, the ROC's loss of the seat was a blow to any international recognition of Taiwan as independent from the PRC. In entering the UN, China left its former isolationism and became an active part of the international community, in which it had to follow certain international rules.

In 1972, President Nixon made an official trip to China seeking rapproachment between the U.S. and the PRC. As the situation with Vietnam and the Soviet Union heated up, China needed an ally in its rivalry with the Soviets and thus turned its attentions to the U.S.

The signing of the Shanghai Communique during this trip caused a stir in the international community. The main points in the document were: 1) there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it; 2) it is up to the Chinese people on the mainland and in Taiwan to settle the situation peacefully; 3) the U.S. will eventually withdraw military forces from Taiwan. The U.S. also endorsed the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Both the U.S. and China promised to not seek hegemony in Asia, not to collude with one country against another, and to engage in exchanges in science, technology, culture, journalism, and sports. Both sides agreed to continue the process of official normalization of relations. A definitive step in the thawing of relations between the U.S. and China, this document is still of great historical significance.

After the signing of the Communique, liaison offices were set up in Beijing and Washington, D.C. In the international community, many nations were stunned by this complete about-face in U.S.-China relations. After the U.S. announced its intent to set up liaison offices, other nations followed suit and began building formal relations with Beijing. The people of Taiwan were agitated and upset by the Shanghai Communiqué, and felt as though their ally had deserted them. Congress continued to support strong U.S.-Taiwan relations, which is to this day a point of contention in U.S. China relations.

Scholarly exchanges between the U.S. and China furthered political as well as academic communication. In 1966, the Committee on Scholarly Communication with Mainland China, a non-governmental organization, was established to promote scholarly exchange between the U.S. and China. The late 1960s were a difficult time in China, and most scientists were unable to continue their work during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. But by 1971, the situation had changed, and the U.S. and China began to discuss building an exchange relationship. With the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué, the door to scholarly exchange was officially opened. Through the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China (formerly the Committtee on Scholarly Communication with Mainland China), scholars played an important role in shaping future U.S.-China relations. When scientists and scholars from both countries met and exchanged ideas, they shared knowledge and built mutual understanding. At times, scientists served as unofficial diplomats as they brought back ideas about China that helped to mold policy makers' views of political relations with China. These meetings between scholars established unofficial means of communicating between the two countries, and showed the American public that China could be a friendly power.

Throughout the late 1970s, the political dynamics in China shifted. With the death of Zhou Enlai and the ensuing mass displays of grief which culminated in gatherings in Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping once again fell from grace as the "Gang of Four" blamed these demonstrations on his lack of control. Deng receded from the limelight, and relations between the U.S. and China did not progress as much as they could have because of China's internal power struggles. After Mao's death, Deng returned to Beijing and began amassing a power base. By 1978, Deng's role in government had begun to eclipse that of Hua Guofeng , Mao's chosen successor.

At this time, dialogue with the U.S. regarding further normalization of relations re-opened and culminated in 1979, when official diplomatic relations were established between China and the U.S. A trade pact granting each country most favored nation (MFN) status was signed, a major step in the bilateral relationship. These events of 1979 were the culmination of more than a decade of work to bring the U.S. and China into a mutually beneficial friendly relationship.


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