The future of the US - China Relations

Posted in China , United States | 20-Oct-05 | Author: Thomas Wiegand

Dr. Thomas Wiegand: "Taiwan will remain the most serious conflict."
Dr. Thomas Wiegand: "Taiwan will remain the most serious conflict."

Many political leaders and experts regard the relationship between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the most important in the world. The future development of the relationship between Washington and Beijing will shape the international system.

As history shows, the existence of an established and an emerging big power creates great difficulties. In the 20th Century, the inability to integrate new emerging powers into the existing international system caused two terrific world wars and a long standing cold war. The ultimate goal of the near future must be to avoid a confrontation between the two countries.


A good starting point for analyzing China-US relations is the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972. This document was released at the end of President Nixon's historic visit to Beijing. The document is remarkable insofar that it is frank about the differences between the two states but also stresses the reason why both governments decided to cooperate. Until the late 1960s - early 1970s, the relationship between the two states was dominated by hostility.

In 1949, Mao Zedong, paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party, declared the founding of the People's Republic of China on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This declaration was the end of a civil war that lasted 25 years and was carried out between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) headed by Chiang Kai-shek. At that time, the US was already involved in a fierce struggle with the Soviet Union for global dominance. Washington regarded each communist party as an ally of Moscow and therefore as an enemy of its fundamental security interests.

Washington massively supported the KMT in China. When Chiang was defeated on the Chinese mainland and was forced to retreat to Taiwan in 1949, Mao concluded that Washington would be Beijing's adversary. Therefore, the CCP leadership decided to ally itself with the USSR in order to get economic and military assistance from Moscow.

In 1950, the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung - backed by Moscow - decided to invade South Korea to unify the peninsula under communist rule. The US quickly decided to send troops to support South Korea.

When allied forces under American command after a counter offensive neared the Korean-Chinese border, Beijing warned the US government that it would intervene if Washington did not stop its offensive. When the allied forces did not retreat, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces crossed the border and began a massive attack. From 1950 - 1953, Beijing and Washington waged a terrible all-out war on the Korean peninsula.

In the years following the armistice, there was no normal relationship between Washington and Beijing. Washington supported the Chiang regime on Taiwan and other noncommunist governments throughout East Asia to counter the influence of Beijing and Moscow.

As Washington became increasingly involved in the civil war that was going on between North Vietnam, governed by a communist party and South Vietnam, ruled by noncommunist groups, Washington decided not to invade North Vietnam, as it feared that such an invasion would lead to Chinese intervention.

While US - China relations in the 1960s were virtually nonexistent, relations between Beijing and Moscow deteriorated massively. In 1969, Soviet and Chinese armed forces fought against each other at the Amur and Ussuri rivers. From Russian and Chinese sources that are now open to the public, we now know that at that time, the two communist giants were on the brink of a nuclear war.

It became clear to the world and particularly to the American government that the Soviet-Chinese alliance no longer existed. President Nixon and his security adviser Henry Kissinger regarded this situation as an opportunity to tilt the global balance of power in Washington's direction.

Nixon decided to contact the Chinese leadership to form an informal alliance to counter the growing Soviet power. Counterbalancing Moscow's power is the fundamental reason for the cooperation between the PRC and the US. The 1972 Communiqué was a clear indication of this fact. Without naming the USSR openly, Beijing and Washington declared that they would both oppose any third party that sought to gain hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

The communiqué also listed the differences between the two sides. The US and the PRC have totally different political and social systems. The most controversial point between both states dealt with their opposing views on the future of Taiwan. Beijing held the view that only the government of the PRC can represent the Chinese people. This includes Taiwan, which is regarded by Beijing as a renegade province. Beijing also stressed its conviction to use force to unify the mainland and the island. In contrast to the Chinese point of view, Washington stressed that it would only unification by peaceful means.

Despite these differences, both sides agreed to cooperate in order to contain the growing power of the Soviet Union. This informal alliance proved to be rather successful. The global balance of power shifted towards the US. Moscow never had the chance to reverse it.

In 1989, the communist systems in Central Europe collapsed. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated and no longer existed. This event brought with it a turning point in US - China relations; after the core reason for the partnership no longer existed, the fundamental differences started to be raised again.

The present situation and the conflicts between Beijing and Washington

Leaders with great responsibility for security and stability.
Leaders with great responsibility for security and stability.
The future of Taiwan

Taiwan is the flashpoint of the US - China relations. Washington and Beijing have completely different views about the political future of this island. While the US government repeats its stance that the future of Taiwan can only be shaped by peaceful means, Beijing emphasizes its opinion that Taiwan is a renegade province of China and the PRC has the right to unify both states through the use of force if Taiwan declares its independence.

The political and social developments that have taken place in Taiwan make the situation very difficult. Until the late 1980s, Taiwan was a rough one-party dictatorship. This party - the KMT - fled from the mainland in 1949 and declared itself to be the only legal government of all of China. For the CCP that was ruling the mainland, the Kuomintang (KMT) was a convenient enemy because Taiwan was governed by political leaders that came from the mainland and shared Beijing's point of view that Taiwan was a province of China.

In 1988, the situation in Taiwan changed dramatically. After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek who succeeded his father as political leader of Taiwan after the death of the older Chiang in 1975, Lee Teng-hui was appointed as the new president on the island.

Unlike his predecessors, Lee is a native of Taiwan. He was born in 1923 when Taiwan was part of the Japanese colonial empire and was educated in the Japanese school system. As noted by Willem van Kemenade, one of the best western observers of Taiwan, Lee does not have any sentimental or historical attachments to the mainland. Under Lee's political rule from 1988 to 2000, Taiwan underwent a historical change from a brutal one-party dictatorship to a liberal democracy.

At the same time, the members of the political elite of the island state who mostly were mainlanders were replaced by native-born Taiwanese. Like Lee, these people did not have any sentimental feelings toward China. Beijing feared that Taiwan was drifting towards a fully independent political status.

In 1996 only five years after the end of the Cold War, the biggest buildup of US armed forces since the end of the Vietnam War took place near the Taiwan Straits. The presidential election in Taiwan in that same year triggered this action.

In 1995, the PRC began a series of military maneuvers that included ground, air and sea forces. The government in Beijing intended to intimidate the Taiwanese people and manipulate the elections in order to prevent Lee from being elected. Beijing feared that after a possible election of Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan would drift further away from the mainland.

To counter Beijing's power projection, the US deployed two aircraft carrier groups near the Taiwan straits.

Although China's made a massive effort to influence Taiwan's election and prevent Lee Teng-hui from being elected, Lee became the first head of state in Chinese history that was elected in a democratic way. For Chinas leaders, Lee was a "splittist," - a politician who wanted to separate Taiwan from the mainland.

The election of Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan in the year 2000 must have been even worse for Beijing. Unlike his predecessors, Chen is not a member of the KMT, which ruled Taiwan for nearly half a century. Instead, he is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP is mainly comprised of native Taiwanese and openly advocates the formal independence of the island state.

To make matters worse from Beijing's point of view, Chen was reelected in 2004. Nevertheless, the Chinese government has been remarkably calm despite the political developments in Taiwan.

This changed when on March 15, 2005 in Beijing the National People's Congress (NPC) passed a law that allows the government to use military force to prevent Taiwan from declaring formal independence. This incident again demonstrated how sensitive the situation is between the two Chinese states.

Taiwan will remain the most serious cause for conflict between the US and the PRC. In addition, Taiwan is challenging Beijing in two ways. Firstly: Taiwan is a de facto independent country. If the PRC government would allow Taipei to declare formal independence, regions of the mainland like Tibet, Xinjiang or the coastal provinces of Southeast China like Guangdong might be encouraged to do the same and would break away from the capital. Secondly, Taiwan is a developed democracy and therefore totally different from the one-party dictatorship the rules the mainland.

Terracotta warriors - a symbol of a glorious past.
Terracotta warriors - a symbol of a glorious past.
The big power competition

Diverging views in Washington and Beijing over the political future of Taiwan will remain the most difficult problem between the two states. This conflict will be more serious than China's violation of human rights, the struggle over the massive US trade deficit or Beijing's proliferation of nuclear and missile technology to states like Iran and Pakistan. However, all these problems only conceal the fundamental reason that makes US - China relations so difficult.

The core of the conflict between the United States and China is the fact that an established superpower is confronted with an emerging one. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US remains the sole superpower in the world. Since 1991, the international system has been dominated by the US. No other country in the world has the economic and military capacity to become a superpower that could challenge the US.

During the 1990s, a group of influential politicians and scientists in the United States started to argue that Washington should maintain and even strengthen its global hegemony. The members of this group called their effort "Project for the New American Century." In 1997, a document was published called "`Statement of Principles." After welcoming US victory in the Cold War, the Clinton administration was harshly criticized for not exploiting this unique position to secure US hegemony for the next decades.

In order to maintain Washington's global leadership, four proposals were made: First, a massive increase of the defense budget to carry out global responsibilities and to modernize the armed forces; second, to strengthen the ties to democratic allies and to fight regimes that are perceived as hostile to American values and interests; third, the promotion of political and economic freedom all over the globe and finally the fourth proposal to create an international system that serves American interests and security. Among others, people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Francis Fukuyama, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush and Dan Quayle signed this paper.

At the time, it became increasingly clear to many people that China was the only country that had the potential to challenge the position of the US. Since the implementation of economic reforms in 1979 in that country by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese economy has been the fastest growing in the world. If this development does not slow down, China will have achieved the largest economy in the world some time between 2020 - 2040 - even larger than that of the US.

Beijing's immense economic strength would have a deep impact on its political and military power. Western China experts expect that by at least 2050, China will be a superpower equal to or even superior to the US.

The confrontation between the US and China in the Taiwan straits during the presidential election on the island state made clear that Beijing was willing to enforce its interests by threatening the use of military power. During this crisis, Washington and Beijing acted very cautiously so as not to escalate the conflict to an open military confrontation.

The US learned that China has different interests and that Beijing does not fear the overwhelming American military superiority. Before this conflict, there were already many influential people in the US who regarded the growing giant on the other side of the Pacific Ocean with suspicion. After the confrontation, many influential Americans considered China to be a hostile power.

The very difficult and complex relationship between both states was complicated by the totally different political systems. The bloody repression of the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 by PLA forces probably had the deepest impact on US public opinion regarding China. The hope in the US and other western countries that economic reforms in China would be followed by political reforms and a liberalization of the system was unfortunately not fulfilled. The Chinese government proved to be a brutal, repressive one-party dictatorship that was willing to use extreme forms of violence to keep its power. It was no one other than Deng himself, the paramount leader of the country, who ordered the troops to crush the demonstration. It became very clear that Deng and his comrades had no intention of making political reforms but only economic ones.

Deng had indeed argued that only the complete reformation of the economy could guarantee the maintenance of the CCP's political power monopoly. Fueled by the immense growth of its economy, the PRC is gaining more and more political and military power. The question that is of the utmost importance for all US governments is how to deal with this emerging giant.

Roughly spoken, Washington has two options for dealing with Beijing. The first choice is to try to engage China in the international system and support the opening of the Chinese economy to the world. The supporters of this argumentation are convinced that China will become a country that is more open not only in an economic sense but also in the long term in a political sense. The Clinton administration pursued this course that it called "constructive engagement." President Clinton declared on several occasions that his government wished China to become a stable, prosperous and open society. He made it very clear that Washington's ultimate goal was to establish a democratic political system in the China.

The other option that was promoted by influential political figures and also scientists was to contain China. Unlike the Clinton administration, supporters of this option regarded China not as a strategic partner but as a challenger to US global hegemony. They perceived China as a potential enemy that had to be stopped before it became an equal superpower. All of those who signed the 1997 manifesto that calls for reestablishing of American power support this option of dealing with China. Some of these people now have influential positions in the Bush administration, for example Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Shortly after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, he spoke of China no longer being strategic partner but as a strategic competitor. Only a few months after Bush became president, on April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with a US navy plane that was on a surveillance flight over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot died in that crash and the American plane had to make an emergency landing on a Chinese airfield. The US crew was interrogated by Chinese authorities. A few months later after a series of difficult negotiations between the US and the Chinese government, the US soldiers finally were released and returned.

Many observers regarded this incident as the beginning of a global power rivalry between Washington and Beijing that could lead to a military confrontation. The Bush administration took measures to counter China's growing power. One step was the strengthening of the military alliance between the US and Japan.

In the last years, Washington has encouraged Tokyo to build up its military capabilities more rapidly. The Japanese government under Prime Minister Koizumi is Washington's closest ally in East Asia. The government in Tokyo now perceives China to be a growing threat to Japan, so that many Japanese politicians call for a full rearmament of their country.

Given the fact of Japans aggression in the 1930s and 1940s on the Asian mainland - especially in China - the Chinese leadership but also the South Korean government regards such announcements with suspicion. Despite these fears, Washington and Tokyo are determined to develop their military cooperation.

Another measure taken by Washington to counteract China includes military and economic cooperation with India. From Washington's point of view, India is an ideal ally for two reasons. Unlike China, India is a democracy and given its vast population is an ideal demographic counterweight. It could be that the power rivalry between the US and China would have increased if a group of Islamic fundamentalists had not attacked the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, killing about 3000 people. That terrific attack shifted the total attention of the Bush administration away from China to the Middle East. Washington's most important task from then on was to fight the terrorists and the states that were backing them.

China very quickly supported US efforts to fight this enemy. Due to US involvement in the Middle East, its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and China power competition in East Asia has become less important for the moment. Nevertheless, this rivalry continues.

In the last years, Beijing has undoubtedly increased its influence. The six-party talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons program are the most remarkable event to demonstrate this fact. North Korea, governed by one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, is developing nuclear weapons. To deal with Pyongyang, Washington needs the support of China because Beijing is the only ally of North Korea and has the most influence.

China also is increasing its power in East Asia because of its economic strength. Many of Chinas neighbors regard China as a very attractive trade partner. Even some of the closest allies to the US such as South Korea now have bigger trade volumes with China than with the US. The US has undoubtedly been losing ground in East Asia in the last few years. The US government is looking at this with growing concern. It remains to be seen how Washington will act to regain its influence in East Asia when it again shifts its full attention to its relationship with China. An open big power rivalry would have negative effects not only for the Asia-Pacific region, but also for other parts of the world.

Shanghai - home of the rich.
Shanghai - home of the rich.
Proposals for constructive US - China relations

Before making proposals as to how both states could develop a relationship that is founded on cooperation and not on rivalry, the present status must be carefully analyzed. Without neglecting the differences, it is far more constructive to examine the common interests of both states.

Unlike 1972, when President Nixon with his historical visit to China started the first phase of intense cooperation between the two countries, no common enemy is exists against whom the two countries can ally. Although Islamic fundamentalism has the potential to cause great damage unlike the former Soviet Union, it lacks the real power capacity that can challenge both the US and China in a fundamental way.

Nevertheless, both countries cooperate with each other and with other nations in the world to fight this danger. Neither the US nor China has an interest in the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism all over the globe. However, this form of cooperation cannot be the fundament of a stable relationship between the two nations, because fighting against a common enemy is only a negative form of partnership. In comparison to this, the development of a stable and constructive partnership between Washington and Beijing calls for common positive interests.

Some of these common interests will be outlined in this chapter.

Economical cooperation

Economic cooperation between the two countries is one of the most important factors for building a partnership. When in 1979 the Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping decided to implement a total reform of China's economy, the CCP regarded three elements as decisive for the success. First of all, the planning system of the economy was carefully replaced by a more market-oriented model. Secondly, the system of prices that were fixed by political authorities was abandoned and substituted with prices that were determined by the open market. Thirdly, in order to gain access to foreign currency and technology, China was opened to investors from other countries.

As it was explained before, the reasons for these fundamental reforms were to prevent the economy from collapsing and to maintain the power monopoly of the CCP. The reforms were extraordinary successful, but the more China's economy grew, the more dependent the country became on foreign trade.

In order to maintain its phenomenal growth, China's economy must be opened still more. Some figures of China's trade statistics make this fact very clear. In 1993, China exported goods worth about US $90 billion dollars and imported goods with a value of $104 billion. In 2002, China exported goods worth $325 billion while it imported goods worth $295 billion. These figures show the importance of China's trade with the outer world for the economic well being of the country.

The trade between the US and China deserves particular attention. In 2002, the US was China's largest trading partner after Japan. In the same year, the US was the most important export market and the fourth largest import supplier. Since then, the trade between the two countries has grown still further.

China no longer has the choice to cut its economic ties with the outer world. Two factors prevent this. First, China needs foreign technology in order to develop a highly sophisticated economy. Secondly, China needs enormous amounts of raw materials to fuel the thirst of its economy. If this trade would be interrupted for whatever reason, China's economy would face an immediate collapse. Such an economic breakdown would lead to massive political unrest and would threaten the power monopoly of the CCP. For this reason, the government in Beijing cannot dare to stop this trade. Each policy dealing with China should always be made with this fact in mind.

Therefore, all policy dealing with the PRC should deepen China's economic opening and integration into the world trade and political system. Another very important reason is demanding such a strategy. Despite all economic success, China's government is facing enormous problems. One of the most important difficulties Beijing must solve is raising the standard of living for the whole population.

In the western world and especially in the US, it is very often forgotten that in China only about 400 million of a population of 1.3 billion people are integrated into the economic success. This means the remaining 900 millions people are not participating in the economic miracle. Most of these people live in the inner provinces of the country, far away from the economic powerhouses that are located primarily on the coast. These people suffer from poverty, exploitation and brutal repression by corrupt local authorities.

To integrate this vast majority of Chinese into the economic system will be the most important task for the Chinese leadership in the future. If Beijing should fail to carry out this mission, the whole governmental system could be on the brink of collapse. This would be a catastrophe not only for China, but also for all of its neighbors too.

It should be the foremost interest of all Western states, particularly the US, to deepen economic cooperation with China and help Beijing to solve its problem of raising standard of living of the whole population.

Poverty - the ugly side of the coin "boom".
Poverty - the ugly side of the coin "boom".
Ecological cooperation

Today, economic cooperation cannot function without including ecological aspects. Due to the enormous growth of its economy, China has become one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas and other forms of air and water pollution. According to one United Nations report, some of the most polluted cities in the world are located in China. Driven by its immense economic growth, China is now the second largest consumer of oil after the US and one of the largest consumers of coal. All these combustibles contribute to the ever-growing air pollution. These environmental problems can only be solved through international cooperation.

Therefore, the US and other Western nations must help China to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. One of the most urgent tasks in this sector must be the development of renewable energy such as hydropower, wind energy and other forms to replace fuels like oil, gas and coal.

Reducing the dependence upon fossil combustibles is necessary not only for ecological but also for security reasons. If no measures are taken, the demand for controlling the access to regions where oil and gas resources are located could be a greater danger and could trigger a conflict between Washington and Beijing other than Taiwan. Cooperation for improving environmental conditions should become one of the most important tasks of an intelligent US policy dealing with China.

Security cooperation

When the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists in 2001, the US learned two lessons: 1) The US is invincible but not invulnerable and 2) The USA is a superpower but not almighty. To fight the war against terrorism, the US needs allies around the globe.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are extremely straining the US armed forces. The US cannot dare to wage a war against North Korea because US capabilities are already overstretched. Washington needs allies to achieve its security goals. There are spheres where China and the US have the same interests. Both countries do not have any sympathy for Islamic terrorists. Both countries have a vital interest in a stable Korean peninsula. Both countries did not want to cause military conflict. Washington must be interested in cooperating with China on security affairs.

China so far is probably the only country that can influence North Korea. It is also one of the very few countries that have close ties with Iran. Instead of trying to isolate and threaten Pyongyang and Tehran, Washington should cooperate with China to persuade those countries to abandon their nuclear programs. As a standing member of the UN Security Council, China can promote US initiatives in the world organization. Washington should stop regarding China as a potential enemy without neglecting the differences between the two states.

With regard to Taiwan, Washington should make clear that it would neither tolerate Chinese military action nor coercive methods to bring Taiwan under Beijing's control or any development in Taiwan to declare formal independence.

The US as well as all other Western nations should continue to watch closely the situation of human rights and religious freedom in China.

An intelligent policy with regard to China would support the integration of this country into the international political and economic community and would strive to build up a comprehensive cooperation between the countries. In the long term, only such a policy would help to improve the standard of living for all of China's people and promote political and religious freedom in the country.