The Complex Relationship Between the U.S. and China

Mason Rath, Staff Writer

Anyone who has been paying attention to the news lately has surely seen China make headlines. ‘Chinese balloon shot down by the government,’ ‘leaked documents show more information about Chinese balloon,’ ‘secret Chinese agency in New York shut down by FBI,’ and more have been plaguing all sorts of news sites as China and the U.S. continue to test each other’s patience. The back and forth between China and the U.S. are not new. In fact, they have been at odds with each other since the beginning of China’s rule by the People’s Republic of China.

In 1941, communist leader Mao Zedong overthrew Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government and placed his People’s republic of China in Beijing. Kai-shek and his people fled to Taiwan where he would be supported by his World War II ally, the United States. The U.S. picking sides against mainland China would put the two nations against each other from day one, paving the way for a bumpy relationship to follow. Conflict between the two would continue to escalate only a year later, when the Korean war broke out, with China taking the side of the communist Soviet Union and North Korea. Only 15 years after the People’s Republic takeover, China tested their first atomic bomb. The U.S. could no longer haphazardly dangle the threat of a nuclear attack over China, as China could now strike back. With nuclear threats fresh in the mind of both China and the U.S, they had to start to collaborate, and the first sign of this came when China’s ping pong team invited the U.S. team to play with them in their home country in 1971. This was the first real sign that the two nations might be able to get along with each other. Shortly after, China was given a seat in the United Nations, cementing the People’s Republic as the new, permanent China. Only a year later, Richard Nixon paid China a much-needed visit, where he discussed hard issues with Mao Zedong, and tried to set the stage for their two nations to have a more open relationship. In the following years, the issue of Taiwan came to be of upmost importance in discussion between the two. China had created a one China policy, decreeing Taiwan as not a real country, and as such the U.S. was not allowed to have political relations with Taiwan. President Ronald Reagan did his best to maintain support for Taiwan and to maintain relationships but was bound to the rules of the One China policy. Things seemed good and uneventful with China until 1989 when the Tiananmen Square massacre shocked the world. Students in Beijing gathered to protest government corruption and to push for democratic changes, but the Chinese military stepped in to stop the protest and killed hundreds of peaceful protestors. The U.S. quickly ended weapon sales with China and froze their relationship. Things between the two countries did not go back to being fully normal until the year 2000 when China was granted permanent trade status with the U.S. by Clinton. One year later, this led China to joining the World Trade Organization and surpassing Mexico as the United States’ number two trade partner behind Canada. By 2008, they would become the holder of the most U.S. debt of any nation, surpassing Japan. Only two years later they would finally become the world’s second largest economy, only coming in behind the U.S. The Council on Foreign Relations says that “China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy after it was valued at $1.33 trillion for the second quarter of 2010, slightly above Japan’s $1.28 trillion for that year. China is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s number one economy by 2027, according to Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill.”

In 2012, China had a massive change in its leadership, with around seven out of 10 major leaders being replaced. The most notable being the replacement of Hu Jintao as President, Communist Party General Secretary, and Central Military Commision chairman. Xi Jinping gave speeches on the “rejuvenation” of China. As president, Jinping wanted to tighten relations with the U.S, and he made this clear by meeting and collaborating with President Obama who also wished for cooperation between the two nations. The next President, Donald Trump, also attempted to keep relationships with China strong. This is until he placed massive tariffs on Chinese imports in retaliation to alleged theft of U.S. technology. The move was also partially meant to provide more jobs in manufacturing for U.S. citizens. China retaliated with tariffs on the U.S, starting a full trade war between the two that China protested as “trade bullying.” By May 2019, tariffs had over doubled on Chinese imports and China was retaliating with raising tariffs on 60 billion dollars’ worth of U.S. goods. Trump’s hope was that tariffs would force China to concede and make a deal that benefitted the U.S. Finally, in January 2020, the trade war ended, with the U.S. relaxing on its tariffs and China promising to buy 200 billion dollars’ worth of U.S. and honor Intellectual Property protections. Things were looking up for the two, but little did they know that in a matter of weeks the U.S. would completely shut down its borders to China.

The COVID-19 pandemic, originating in a market in China, sent the world into full lockdown. Many countries had to quarantine and with China as the source, many blamed them for allowing the virus to spread. Sophomore Adia Puri says that after the pandemic people tend to “blame a lot of things on China for no reason because after COVID, they just think a lot of bad things that happen are because of China.” While the two had to work together to combat the pandemic, their relations did not necessarily improve. Biden continued to support tariffs placed by Trump and was not lenient with China. In Biden’s first online meeting with Jinping in November 2021, they did not manage to come to any conclusions, but they at least created “guardrails for conflict.” At the 2022 winter Olympic games in Beijing, the U.S. refused to send officials along with their team, in a protest of civil rights violations that were taking place in Beijing. It would not be until November later that year that amends would be fully made, as Biden finally met Xi Jinping and finally made o progress in their relationship, looking to get along.

Despite reconciliation efforts between the two, the U.S. and China have not fully remediated the tension between the two. The downing of a Chinese balloon flying over the U.S. is the most obvious example of this. On January 28 this year, the balloon entered U.S. airspace and continued to fly over the country, collecting U.S. intelligence from military sites. China claimed that the balloon was an “unmanned civilian airship,” but officials were able to confirm the intercepting and relaying of sensitive information straight to Beijing. It would not be until Feb. 4 that the balloon would be shot down. “The Defense Department directed NBC News to comments senior officials made in February that the balloon had ‘limited additive value’ for intelligence collection by the Chinese government ‘over and above what [China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low earth orbit.” Regardless of what information the balloon obtained, the U.S. was shocked. The fact that China was willing and able to spy on U.S. military secrets was naturally disconcerting to many. Shortly after, the infamous leaked documents produced by air force pilot Jack Teixera would continue to send the nation into turmoil over government secrets being compromised. The Washington Post reports that, “another balloon flew over a U.S. carrier strike group in a previously unreported incident, and a third crashed in the South China Sea, a second top-secret document stated, though it did not provide specific information for launch dates.” China was yet again proved to be more involved in U.S. afffairs than the public realized. They were not reassured upon the news that on April 17, two Chinese agents had been arrested by the FBI. Henry Jianwang and Chen Jinping, two U.S. citizens, had been running an undercover Chinese agency, directly reporting to Beijing. The agency provided some legitimate services for Chinese citizens of the U.S, like Chinese driver’s license renewal. However, it also carried out the task of locating and silencing a Chinese pro-democracy activist. This has not been the only case of the FBI going after people working for China, as NPR reports that “In a separate scheme announced Monday, the Justice Department charged 34 officers in the Ministry of Public Security with creating and using thousands of fake social media accounts on Twitter and other platforms to harass dissidents abroad.”

With all of these examples of trouble between China and the U.S, it begs the question of why keep trying to cooperate with each other? Why not simply leave and let be? Senior Abigail Rucker says that because of ethical implications of convening with a nation that abuses the rights of its citizens “it probably is not right to ally with them because if there are civil right violations there, then it is not a very good look for us to support that. However, I think there is a line where we should not make relations so bad that we cause conflict.” Junior Alan Roy also agrees that part of working with China is that Americans have “become numb to some of the moral issues there.”  On the other hand, there are a lot of things to gain from having a strong relationship with China. Freshman William Chee explains that “China has a lot of resources and people, and manufacturing there is cheap because of cheap labor. They are also a strong military ally.” Chee also adds that having a bad relationship with China could be dangerous, as nuclear war is a large possibility. Clearly, whether the U.S. wants to work with China or not it cannot afford to ignore its biggest rival. In being opposition, China is also one of the U.S.’s greatest allies as the two economies have grown to depend on each other. In the end, despite the rocky history of the two, the U.S. and China have built a relationship that cannot be broken, as without it, both would suffer.