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Sino-American Relations: What it once was, what it has now become


Sino-American relations have a short history. Yet, it is one full of heavy ups and downs that can roughly be separated into three paradigms: 1949-1970, 1971-2018, and 2019 onwards.

The first period is dominated by ideological conflict, as the US saw the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as another Soviet satellite state and a proliferator of communism. Similarly, the PRC despised the capitalist and the imperialist US, which continued to recognise the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan as the legitimate China.

Change was brought by the 60s Sino-Soviet split, as China challenged the USSR’s leadership. Khruschev’s criticism of Stalin’s rule, especially his cult of personality, offended Mao as he respected Stalin and built China based on his methods. This brought China and the US together against the USSR, the prioritised enemy. Rapprochement thus began with the 1971 Ping-pong diplomacy, paving way for President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, ending 23 years of zero formal communication.

Normalisation peaked following China’s 1979 economic reforms, a shift towards capitalism, and hints about democratic reforms, as hoped by the West. This was solidified by the rise of liberal institutionalism in US foreign policy after the collapse of the USSR. It adhered that China would become a capitalist democracy through its integration with trade and international institutions, thus amalgamating with the rest of the world. Hence, China was admitted into the UN in 1971 and WTO in 2001, and was elected to hold the 2008 Olympics as well as the 2010 Universal Exposition. Nonetheless, this tactic was a total failure, for China became more authoritative and hostile than ever even after its economic integration.

A consequence of all these changes is how the word “China” connotes the PRC nowadays, instead of the ROC as it used to. Indeed, this closely reflects Sino-American relations. For example, Taiwan removed “ROC” while enlarging “TAIWAN” on their passport cover to avoid being confused with the PRC, which implies an increasing yearn for de jure independence. Furthermore, CCP dissidents have been trying to undo the word’s denotation of the PRC and the CCP. This is crucial as CCP has been fuelling Chinese nationalism by indoctrinating the people by misdirecting US criticisms towards the party as attacks towards the people.

The CCP’s obscurantism policy was possible despite opening the country to trade by forcing traders to follow censorship rules, and filtering internet information with the “great firewall of China.” On the flip side, the “United Front” relentlessly works to impose China’s despotism in the West. Institutions such as the Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students & Scholars Associations, as well as other supposedly cultural exchange programs, are used to promote the “Chinese chronicle”. Likewise, media and influential figures like Lebron James and “Uncle Roger” are brought into telling China’s story as well.

In addition, China has been abusing free trade and reciprocity principles to its advantage, planting control through state-owned enterprises (SOE). Since Huawei and ByteDance, for example, are CCP controlled by definition, they serve as front organisations to mask CCP foreign influence instead of being pure commercial businesses. Espionage and infiltration operations in sensitive fields are also done through foreign agents recruited by “positive incentives” and “honey traps,” where Chinese spies often hide their CCP affiliation to disguise themselves as innocent students or researchers. It is safe to say that not only did globalisation and economic integration fail to democratise China, they actually enabled the CCP to exert their sphere of influence.

Having observed these actions, the US no longer sees China as an opportunity but as a threat, marked by the 2018 trade war and arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” speech by Secretary of State Pompeo on October 23, 2020, clearly denounces the ideological menace China’s economic imperialism and authoritarianism poses, indicating the US’s full embrace of a cold war doctrinal attitude. These words have been backed by bipartisan decisions, such as the “Clean Network Initiative” and bans on TikTok as well as WeChat, to sanction CCP members and decouple economic relations.

However, will the Biden administration and the democratic party maintain Trump’s hawkish stance? Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already endorsed his predecessor Pompeo's denunciation of the genocide of Uighurs in Xinjiang and prioritisation of rebuilding relations with Taiwan. Although some hoped that combating global warming together will ease the tensions, it is unlikely that this will be the case. Both Blinken and Climate Envoy John Kerry have explicitly stated that the fundamental issues with China “will not be traded for anything that has to do with climate.”

On the other side, President Xi called for international cooperation and multilateralism, warning about “arrogant isolation” during the World Economic Forum. This aligns with the general line Chinese diplomats have been taking, condemning the US for manufacturing another cold war. However, this is merely playing the game of “we didn’t start the fire,” since China wants to continue its neo-imperialist stance without being retaliated. As a matter of fact, the CCP has doubled down with their “wolf-warrior” diplomacy as the world decouples.

For the time being, although a turn towards confrontational policy is still uncertain, Pompeo’s “distrust and verify” principle prevails in US decision-makers, while their Chinese counterparts keep their “business as usual” stance embedded in mixed signals.

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