The People’s Republic of China is a relatively young country when compared to the United States of America. Formed in 1949 by Mao Tse-Tung, China has only just reached it’s fiftieth anniversary, when the existence of the United States now spans four different centuries in history. "Well sure!" someone might say. "But isn’t China an ancient culture, with history spanning back thousands of years?" Of course. But their government has only been existence for the past fifty years, whereas the United States of America is one of the oldest and most stable governments in existence today. So that issue can really be looked at from two angles. China, with it’s ancient culture and traditions versus the new and Westernized United States, or the established and wise United States of America versus the young, upstart People’s Republic of China.
When China was consumed by a communist revolution a half century ago, it fed the fires of paranoia and McCarthyism in the United States. "Oh no! The Reds span the whole of the Asian continent!" the people of America collectively said. "Next they’re going to invade us!" No longer did the people of the United States view China as the hapless victim of aggression, hoping to come to their aid (as it was during the Second World War). The fact that the Soviet Union was helping to arm the People’s Republic with advanced (for the time anyway) weapons and technology only fueled the mistrust that the American powers that be felt towards the Chinese government.
Another serious blow to Chinese-American relations was the Korean War of the early 1950s. After the Allied forces had pushed the North Korean armed forces all the way up to the Yalu (Yellow) River, which served as the border between the Democratic Republic of Korea (North) and the PRC, China’s People’s Liberation Army came to the aid of their communist brethren, and viciously counter-attacked all along the Allied front. This counter attack forced Allied forces all the way back across the 38th parallel, and deep into South Korea. The PLA and the North Koreans eventually succumbed to the Allied liberators, and were pushed back to the 38th parallel, which to this day remains the border between the two Koreas. China’s Korean adventure certainly fueled American (and South Korea, and Japanese) fears of a communist tide sweeping over the Westernized democracies of East Asia, and really set the stage for the tensions that were to come later in the century.
Between the end of the Korean War, and the 1970s, the United States and China had little overt interaction. The United States still did not fully recognize the current government in Beijing, after backing the Nationalists for so long in the pre-World War Two days. The United States did support Taiwan, however, Taiwan being merely an extension of the Nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan after their defeat at the hands of Mao. One major source of consternation in the United States (or at least the White House) was the Chinese nuclear testing of 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson was briefed on plans for conducting a preemptive strike against the Chinese test site. Johnson declined to take any action, and the People’s Republic of China became the world’s newest nuclear power in 1964. Had Johnson acted on the plans presented to him, then a nuclear war could indeed have happened, with the Soviet Union coming to the aid of their Treaty of Friendship partners. Indeed, the major reason for Johnson rejecting the proposal was related to the probably unfavorable Soviet reaction.
In the early 1970s, internal reforms in the People’s Republic of China were leading to a more open, less isolationist view. China extended diplomatic contacts, in search of reconciliation with the United States and other countries, such as Japan. This departure would eventually lead to the incredible economic growth of China in the later quarter of the 20th century, and also lead to increased tensions between the United States and China in many respects. When the United States finally recognized the People’s Republic of China diplomatically, President Richard Nixon traveled to China to engage in an historic meeting with Chairman Mao. Official diplomatic contacts between the two countries were formally exchanged in 1979.
In the 1980s, after the death of Mao, and major political shifts in the Chinese Communist Party, China began a large series of reform movements, modernizing everything from the economic system to military modernization, to the way the government itself worked. These reforms allowed the burgeoning industry of China’s coastal regions to begin producing goods for export to the United States. The extremely low cost of labor in China’s system allowed Chinese goods to be sold more cheaply than the goods imported in the United States from other countries, such as South Korea (which had been seeing a steady increase in it’s workers’ wage). The goods from China were supplanting the United States’ domestic industries, but an analysis of the data shows that America’s move away from cheap consumer product industry was already well underway by the time China began it’s program of export to the United States. By the end of the 20th century, the United States’ trade deficit with China would exceed one-hundred billion dollars a year, at an increase of between five and twenty percent a year.
The boost that China’s industry received from their sales to the United States and other developed countries allowed what almost seemed to be a kind of capitalism going on in what was, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the last major communist power. Even though China had not fully opened it’s doors to the West, it was allowing some of the more advanced Western goods, such as computers and computer technology into the country, (which is where the United States made a large portion of their sales to China). China’s trade practice of market protection, however, kept the United States from being able to fairly compete with domestic Chinese companies. Though the whole process spawned a new kind of middle class in China, that demanded access to advanced technologies, such as the telephone, television, and the Internet.
Politically, the People’s Republic of China has to do much to appease the Western governments, namely the United States. Accusations of continuing human and civil rights abuses are leveled at the communist regime, which shrugs them off by telling other countries to mind their own business, and keep out of their internal affairs. The plight of the Chinese worker, and how the middle class American benefits from their barely-compensated toil, has become a rallying cry for American-based activist groups, who boycott corporations that employ questionable labor practices in China (such as Nike, K-mart, Martha Stewart, etc.). The atrocities that are supposed to be committed in the Chinese province of Tibet (which was conquered by the Chinese in 1949) are yet another cause for Western activists to latch onto. Thus far, the only way these movements seem to manifest themselves in Chinese policy are by way of American foreign policy. When a human rights group protests in front of their congressman, that congressman fights to take a harder stance against China with whatever new piece of economic legislation. The threat of cutting of the billions of dollars a year that China is receiving from sales to the United States is a large threat indeed, and when the United States uses it against China, China is somewhat more accommodating to American requests for improved conditions in China.
The People’s Republic of China maintains a strict "One China policy", which essentially states that the Island of Taiwan, which has operated separately from mainland China for the past half century, is a part of the PRC, and thus subject to any policy that the Chinese leadership deems fit to impose. This severely conflicts with the American view that Taiwan is free and independent, and is the major source of tensions between the two powers. The United States has something of two policies regarding Taiwan; sell them advanced weapons to defend themselves, but acknowledge that Taiwan is indeed part of China. The United States pays only lip service to Chinese claims of domination over Taiwan, but in order to help preserve the peace, allow for the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China, provided it is acceptable to the people of Taiwan.
During the 1990s, China has engaged in several saber rattling exercises in the Strait of Taiwan, which involved live-fire naval exercises, as well as cruise missile shots over the island (a hostile move). These actions force the United States to deploy an aircraft carrier battle group to the region, in order to satisfy their commitment to defend Taiwan from undue Chinese aggression. The general United States policy to defend Taiwan has also lead to other foreign-relations hiccups, such as the detention of the crew of a United States surveillance aircraft for over a week. Another damaging blow to United States-China relations occurred in the 1999 NATO war against Yugoslavia, specifically the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in downtown Belgrade by a United States military aircraft. Other, long term, issues include the Chinese nuclear missile program, which currently is supposed to have missiles capable of reaching as far as the American East Coast, as well as the growing Chinese manned space program, which has drawn major inspiration from the successes of the United States of America, and the Soviet Union.
What does the future hold? China is already a major player in the East Asia region, and will soon become a larger player in the world at large. With China’s rapidly growing economy (with enormous potential for further development), China will only become more prominent in the economic world of the 21st century. Will their new prosperity trickle down to their workers? Will China become a more capitalist nation in order to compete in the world marketplace? Will the United States be able to exert positive influences on the Chinese government? Will there be a new Cold War? Only the future can tell.