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Monday, 24 May, 1999, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
The US and China: An uneasy relationship
President Nixon meets Chairman Mao, 1972
President Nixon and Chairman Mao: Beginnings of rapprochement
As the millennium approaches, few doubt that China and the United States are increasingly important.

But if history is anything to judge by, establishing a solid, open relationship may be difficult.

Throughout the last 50 years, US-Sino relations have been uneasy, marked by a general lack of understanding on both sides.

Hostility and mistrust run deep and as the century draws to a close, relations are not being helped by the fall-out from allegations of China's concerted attempts to steal America's nuclear secrets.

'Imperialist enemy'

During its first two decades, Communist China was deeply hostile to the United States, considering it an 'imperialist enemy of the people'.

China's role in the Korean War led to a US policy of "containment" towards China. Increased US co-operation with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, through the 1950s also contributed to the problems and the stalemate that characterised relations in the 1960s.

But in the late 1960s and early '70s, President Nixon and his foreign policy team realised that the falling out between the two great Communist countries, China and the USSR, offered the United States a unique opening as well as a means to isolate the Soviet Union by joining with China to challenge Moscow.

Ping pong breaks the ice

The means used for developing contacts between the two countries was cultural. Through games of table tennis in 1970 and 1971, the two countries became used to one another.

Mr Clinton and Mr Jiang in 1997
That closer relationship led to President Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China.

During the visit Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué, which signalled the adoption of a 'one China policy', a policy to which it continues to adhere. The United States still acknowledges that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China.

During the 1970s relations slowly improved between the two countries through cultural interchange and a number of visits, including President Gerald Ford's trip in December 1975.

In 1979 there was a further move forward in relations under President Carter as the US established relations with the People's Republic of China and transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Soon after, Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. At a Texas rodeo, he appeared in a traditional American Stetson hat, creating a new more friendly image of China to the American public.

Legacy of Tiananmen

The 1980s saw some ups and downs with a number of disputes mainly centring on Taiwan although there were also visits like that by Ronald Reagan to Beijing in 1984.

In February 1989 President George Bush made a quick visit to China which proved difficult after he invited dissidents to a banquet and Chinese authorities responded by forcibly preventing one, Fang Lizhi, from attending.

But in 1989 nearly all of the work was undone with the events of June 4 in Tiananmen Square.

Images of student protests and tanks came to define the perception of China in the United States.

Human rights rose to the top of the agenda as sanctions were imposed on Beijing, a few of which remain to this day.

Clinton's policy

In his 1992 campaign Bill Clinton attacked President Bush for 'coddling' China's leaders and promised that he would pursue a tougher policy.

Zhu Rongji: Seeking better trade relations
But the Clinton administration's China policy has generally lacked coherence and seen a number of sharp turns.

Clinton initially pursued a policy that emphasised the use of economic leverage to actively promote human rights and democracy in China, especially through the annual debate in Congress about granting China 'Most Favoured Nation' trading status.

By encouraging contact, trade and economic development, it has hoped that China can be drawn into the world community.

But this policy has met with many critics especially in Congress from those who favour a tougher stance against a rising China.

A fireman carries a Chinese embassy member of staff out of the building in Belgrade
Belgrade embassy bombing: Soured relations
The president has been in a difficult position. China is poised to emerge as the world's largest market - and US companies want a piece of the action.

But with some of America's leadership suspicious of Beijing, blocks still exist on what kind of technology can be sold to China - a source of tension between the two countries.

The nuclear espionage controversy which has unfolded in Washington has soured relations.

But relations nose-dived further when Nato warplanes taking part in the Kosovo crisis accidentally bombed the country's Belgrade embassy, killing three members of staff.

Authorities in China did little to stop widespread protests - an event which pointed to a crucial factor in Chinese thinking.

China is deeply conscious of both its past as a great power and its later subjugation by foreign and colonial powers.

As a result, it is especially sensitive of any slight and any talk of the US trying to 'contain' China, such as over trade, in the same way as it tried to contain the Soviet Union.

There is plenty of room for continued misunderstanding and tension between the two countries.

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.


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