U.S.-Chinese Relations: How the Past can Shape the Present


With the recent elections in the U.S., the world sits in anticipation as the new administration takes over the global stage. None, more so, than China.

As the two leading global powers, China and the U.S have individually and collectively defined today’s political and economic environment. From the first exchanges, revolving predominantly around the trade of commodities, to the recent diplomatic meetings exploring opportunities for shared prosperity. As the future remains uncertain, a review of the history of the two countries may give a glimpse of how and when the two countries could collaborate and prosper.

The 1700s: Exploration through Trade

Experts focused on U.S. – Chinese relations date 1784 as one of the earliest accounts of interaction between the two countries. An American ship called the Empress of China carried local items – cotton, pepper, and ginseng, to name a few – across the Atlantic. The crew of this ship traded their goods in exchange for Chinese goods – tea, silk, and spice. This was the first account of economic trade that would eventually lead both countries to be top importers of the other’s local product.

The 1800s: Treaty of Wanghia

Trade has not only opened the doors to an exchange of goods but also the proliferation of opium. As a result of the first opium war between China and the United Kingdom (U.K.), the Treaty of Nanking or Nanjing was signed – granting the U.K. extraterritoriality and access to the treaty ports (namely China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea). Following suit, the United States and the Qing Dynasty China signed a similar treaty known as the Treaty of Wanghia. In addition to the terms granted to the U.K., American citizens would also be able to buy land, learn Chinese and pay fixed tariffs. This treaty became key in spreading American influence in Asia.

The 1900s: Friends or Foes?

With the increase in trade and travel came the desire from major global leaders to expand their claimed territory. At the time, the China and U.S. were at neutral terms – both focusing on their own domestic affairs. This changed in the 1930s when Japan engaged China in the second Sino-Japanese war. American novelists and news correspondents based in China reported on massive atrocities in the city of Nanking – from beheadings to the infamous culture of “comfort women.” To weaken the Japanese forces attacking in China and those supporting Germany and Italy in World War II, the USA gave millions in financial aid to China, suspended trade agreements, and began an oil embargo. Japan refused the demand of the U.S. to withdraw from China and pursued to attack the U.S. and its allies. This war ended with the surrender of Japan, Germany, and Italy in 1945. Barely 5 years later, The U.S. and China, once allies against a common enemy, soon found themselves back at war. This time, against each other.

The end of World War II marked the end of Japan’s rule over Korea. This paved the way for North Korea to start the Korea War. China joined in North Korea’s battle cry and the United States came to the aid of South Korea. This war and the Vietnam War marked the peak of Chinese-U.S. tensions over democratic and communist policies.

The 2000s: Economic Boom

 With a government stimulus package worth USD 585 Billion, China entered the past decade at the forefront compared to many of its counterparts in the global stage. This proved to be helpful for the U.S. as China continued to invest in the U.S. – exporting goods, purchasing property, and buying Treasuries. The U.S., in turn, also continued to support China as it grew to become a manufacturing hub for global companies (especially American-based) to produce products at a more competitive price. These two premises prompted both governments to collaborate over market policies, climate change, and the war on terror.

A look at the history of China and the U.S. shows that amidst conflicting political and economic ideals, the two nations have and will continue to align their priorities. This not only ensures their individual prosperity but also their collective control of the global economic and political stage.