Anthony A. LOH

President Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, 29 February 1972, in the era of Ping-Pong diplomacy. NATIONAL ARCHIVES.

After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, relations between China and the United States were nonexistent until 1972. Since then, dealings have been complex and frequently changing; Chinese viewpoints of the United States often have been fueled by suspicion and distrust.

China, a cradle of human civilization and the birthplace of the dominant East Asian culture, is a large country with a rich, long history. Although China had trade and diplomatic relations with the United States in the nineteenth century, the focus here is on relations between the two nations since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, and on Chinese perspectives on the United States from that date forward, with emphasis on the contemporary period after 1989. PRC-U.S. relations since the 1990s have become progressively more complex and have proceeded on two tracks, one of comprehensive engagement and one of strategic competition. The PRC-U.S. relationship will probably be the most important bilateral relationship in the world during the twenty-first century.

History of Relations with the United States

The history of relations between the PRC and the United States can be divided into four periods. In 1949, the Communists won the civil war against the Nationalists (Guomindang or GMD) and took control of mainland China; the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. During the first period (1949–1972), U.S. relations with the mainland regime, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), were vituperative, estranged, and largely frozen.

The second period (1972–1989) began with the visit to China of U.S. president Richard Nixon (served 1969–1974) to meet with Mao Zedong, the chairman of the CCP. This led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries for the first time, with the two sides sharing a common strategic concern over the threat posed by the Soviet Union. PRC-U.S. relations were further normalized in 1978 when the two countries reached an accommodation on the question of Taiwan’s status. (In 1949 the Nationalists had insisted that, although located on Taiwan, they represented the legitimate government of all China, a claim the United States initially supported; the PRC for its part regarded—and continues to regard—Taiwan as a constituent part of China that should one day return to mainland control.) As part of that accommodation, the administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter (served 1977–1981) terminated official relations with the government on Taiwan. In 1978 the PRC, led by Deng Xiaoping, initiated economic reforms, and PRC-U.S. relations flourished in terms of trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges.

The third period (1989–2001) began with the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989 and ended with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. In June 1989 the Chinese government suppressed mass protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, as well as elsewhere in China, sparking the most severe crisis in PRC-U.S. relations since the 1972 rapprochement. Relations remained troubled throughout the 1990s. But the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton (served 1993–2001) viewed the PRC as a strategic partner and actively sought comprehensive engagement with it. His successor, George W. Bush (served 2001–2009), reversed that view, calling China instead a strategic competitor. Yet PRC-U.S. relations during the fourth period (from the September 11 attacks to 2007) improved significantly as President Bush sought Chinese help and support for the global war on terrorism and in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Perspectives on the United States

China views itself as a victim of nineteenth-century Western imperialism and power politics. For Beijing, the power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was another example of Western power politics, by which Beijing means a type of foreign policy distinguished by a pursuit of national interests and power with no regard for moral principles. Beijing views the West in general and the United States in particular from this perspective, and it has colored the PRC’s perception of the United States in almost every context. To Beijing, U.S. pressure on China to democratize, grant more access to Chinese markets, lower its trade deficit, and limit its arms sales, not to mention U.S. support for Taiwan and effort to maintain dominance in Asia, are all examples of U.S. hegemony (that is, U.S. desire to dominate). The unilateralism of the foreign policy of George W. Bush in the post–September 11 era further bolstered this view. Both hegemony and power politics involve the excessive use of military force in solving foreign policy problems, while hegemony involves the unilateralist use of it.

Policy analysts in the United States have a “China threat” thesis, which claims that the PRC’s economic growth, population size, increasing military capabilities, and political influence threaten U.S. national security. It assumes that the Chinese and U.S. political systems and ideologies are irreconcilable, and consequently predicts that there eventually will be a confrontation between the two countries. From Beijing’s viewpoint, the thesis says more about U.S. aggressiveness than about China; Beijing does not see China as being similar to the United States or other Western powers. To counter what it believes to be an unfair characterization of China, Beijing has come up with its own “Peaceful Rise” (heping jueqi) thesis. According to this, China does not threaten the United States because China does not have superpower military strength, China does not have a tradition of territorial expansion, and China does not have a single soldier overseas. Heping jueqi essentially maintains that China does not support or share the Western tradition of power politics and hegemony and therefore could not pose a threat to the United States.

Major Events Influencing PRC Perspectives

In its opinion, Beijing’s view of the United States as a hegemonic world power has been reinforced by a series of events and issues in the post–Cold War era (since 1989).

Iraq War (1991)

First, Beijing was astonished by the advanced technological wizardry of U.S. weaponry and by the rapid defeat of Iraq’s armed forces in the 1991 Iraq War. It jolted China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into initiating an aggressive program to modernize its military hardware (equipment) and software (technology, doctrines). NATO operations against Serbia in 1999 and yet again in 2003, when war in Iraq resumed, further shocked China.

Taiwan Strait Crisis (1996)

In 1996 Washington dispatched two aircraft carrier groups near China after China lobbed missiles across the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to influence the presidential election. James Sasser, the U.S. ambassador to China, warned President Clinton that running a carrier group through the strait might trigger a Chinese military response. The carrier groups moved away, China quieted down, and the relatively conciliatory Lee Teng-hui was reelected in Taiwan. The episode, however, started Beijing thinking about ways and means to deter similar interventions by the U.S. military in the future.

Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (1999)

During the 1999 Kosovo crisis, U.S. jetfighters “mistakenly” bombed the Chinese emba
ssy in Belgrade. Washington apologized and paid a sum of $2.2 million for the loss of Chinese lives and damage to the embassy building. However, even today Beijing has not accepted the official U.S. explanation that it was an accident. From China’s perspective, the bombing was planned by certain right-wing elements in the Pentagon to humiliate the Chinese and to sabotage President Clinton’s attempt to engage China.

Cox Report (1999)

In May 1999 the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military and Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, led by Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), reported, among other things, that China used an elaborate system of espionage and exchanges to modernize its nuclear weapons capabilities, and that it stole U.S. data on thermonuclear warheads, missiles, and space technology. China’s State Council saw in the report a U.S. attempt to instigate anti-Chinese sentiments, to contain China, and to undermine PRC-U.S. relations.

Creation of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) (2000)

Experts abroad and at home discredited the Cox report, arguing that many of its statements were factually wrong, overly politicized, or simply lacked understanding of the true nature of some of the issues (specifically regarding nuclear science and missile technology). Nevertheless, the report paved the way for Congress’s creation of the U.S.-China Security Review Commission (later Economic and Security Review Commission) in October 2000. The USCC’s mandate is to investigate, monitor, and report on how PRC-U.S. economic relations might affect U.S. national security. The question of the PRC’s strategic intentions toward the United States is foremost for the USCC. Its annual reports provide data that allegedly attest to the “China threat.” The reports claim that the PRC leadership perceives Washington as a formidable adversary and an overbearing bully, but also as a declining power with exploitable military vulnerabilities. Beijing, however, sees the reports as further attempts by U.S. right-wing groups to demonize China.

EP-3 Spy Plane Landing on Hainan Island (1 April 2001)

On 1 April 2001 a U.S. navy surveillance plane, the EP-3, collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet, causing the latter to crash into the South China Sea and forcing the former to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island in southern China, where its twenty-four crew members were detained until 3 July 2001. The two sides disagreed on who was responsible for the crash and whether the U.S. plane had ventured into Chinese airspace. The crisis was defused and the crew released only after Washington said that it was “very sorry” for the death of the Chinese pilot and for landing on Hainan without permission. However, the incident served to reinforce Beijing’s perception that continued U.S. reconnaissance and surveillance of China, a hegemonic practice, reflected Washington’s determination to contain China.

The September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks and the Iraq War of 2003

Prior to the terrorist attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush saw China as a potential peer competitor; after the attacks, the “China threat” was temporarily overshadowed by the global terrorist threat. China’s president Jiang Zemin met with Bush (for the first time since the EP-3 collision) and offered help in the war against terrorism. By September 2003 the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, said that bilateral relations were at a thirty-year high, an assertion he repeated a year later (in November 2004) while acknowledging China’s help with the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear capability. However, at the beginning of the second term of George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continued to see China as a strategic competitor. Accordingly, Beijing and Washington continued to prepare for military confrontation over Taiwan and closely monitor each other’s long-term military capabilities and strategic intentions.

From Beijing’s perspective, then, bilateral cooperation on the war on terrorism and on North Korea is merely tactical. Writing in the People’s Daily, the former foreign minister Qian Qichen argued that Washington has gradually brought its post–September 11 strategy into alignment with neoconservative thought. First, Bush identified the “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address, which prepared the way for bringing regime change to other countries. Next, the president’s September 2002 National Security Strategy Report shifted U.S. strategy to one of preemption. Finally, in March 2003, Washington defied its allies, the international community, and domestic public opinion, and launched the war against Iraq. The doctrines of regime change, preemption, and unilateralism deeply troubled Beijing, since that meant that the United States could intervene anytime in Tibet, in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, or in Taiwan.

The Global War on Terrorism

Beijing believes that the United States is pursuing a kind of new imperialism under the guise of a global war against terrorism. It sees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as Washington’s attempts to use military power to push through its neoconservative agenda and establish a U.S.-dominated world order. Beijing sees this agenda as a direct threat because the neoconservatives argue that China will inevitably challenge U.S. dominance in Asia and that the United States must not surrender its position there to China. From Beijing’s perspective, the neoconservative vision of the “New American Century” is merely the latest version of hegemony and power politics.

Perception of U.S. Military Encirclement (2004)

In August 2004 President Bush announced that the largest strategic redeployment of U.S. forces globally since the end of World War II would take place. While it remained uncertain how exactly the U.S. forces would be restructured, they were clearly reduced in Europe and moved toward Central Asia, Southeast Asia (Thailand, Philippines), and the West Pacific (Australia). In Central Asia, U.S. troops and warplanes were based or had flyover rights in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. In South Asia, Washington has developed closer military ties with India. From Beijing’s perspective, the United States’ maneuvers in these regions were, and still remain, attempts to encircle China.

Major Issues Influencing PRC Perspectives

In addition to the events discussed above, certain long-term issues affect how Beijing and the Chinese people regard the United States.

Human Rights

Beijing sees U.S. confrontation on issues such as human rights, Internet dissent, Falun Gong, and Muslim Uygurs as intervention in domestic Chinese affairs and as attempts to destabilize the Chinese government. It also considers the United States’ human rights rhetoric to be hypocritical. Finally, it sees the United States as a morally degenerate nation, and as such, the United States is not in a position to judge China’s or other nations’ human rights records; the implication is that the United States should put its own house in order first. In response to the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on human rights conditions in China, China’s State Council publishes an annual report of its own—entitled Human Rights Record of the United States—”to make known to the world the human rights violations” of the United States. When Bush remarked in April 2003 that the Chinese people will eventually want their liberty “pure and whole,” China’s Xinhua news agency countered that China will pursue its own path to democracy. It slammed the United States for assuming the right to be the world’s judge while havi
ng serious human rights problems at home, including prisoner abuse, discrimination against women, police brutality, and the exploitation of illegal immigrants. In Beijing’s view, the United States is equally hypocritical in its foreign policy—for example, in its imposition of arms embargoes on others for alleged weapons proliferation while ranking first in the world in terms of arms sale. In the wake of September 11, Beijing notes worsening U.S. violation of human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


After September 11, President Bush appeared to shift course on the issue of Taiwan in favor of the PRC, which, however, regards this shift unsentimentally. Bush pledged in March 2001 that he would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, and offered the island the biggest weapons package in a decade. But in December 2003, during a visit by PRC premier Wen Jiabao, Bush abandoned the long-standing U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan by making a statement opposing Taiwan’s efforts to change the status quo. In October 2004 Colin Powell remarked that Taiwan was not independent, and in a separate interview with the CNN news network, he referred to “an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking” (Kahn 2004). This was the first time a U.S. official ever spoke so unequivocally about PRC-Taiwan reunification as an eventual goal. But given the larger strategic competition between China and the United States, Beijing could view this shift in U.S. position only as inspired by the same realpolitik that had led to the 1972 rapprochement. This time the dictates of the war on terror rather than those of the Cold War provided the context for Washington’s policy decisions.

Trade Deficit, Currency Problem, and Arms Embargo

Beijing reasons that because of U.S. vested interests in trade with China, Beijing need not give in to Washington’s pressures on a number of issues. In 2003 the U.S. trade deficit with China reached approximately $124 billion (by 2008 it had risen to $266.3 billion). U.S. industry and labor groups complained that this was the result of China’s currency—the yuan—being undervalued. Beijing has permitted U.S. exports to China to rise faster than its imports from China, but it does not float the yuan. Such a move could cause liquidity problems, leading to a banking crisis that would hurt many U.S. companies with Chinese subsidiaries. For this reason President Bush turned down petitions to force a rise in the value of the yuan. Beijing is also confident that once the European arms embargo, imposed on it after the Tiananmen episode in 1989, is lifted, U.S. arms manufacturers will pressure Washington to follow suit.

Popular Perspectives on the United States

Surveys indicate that the ordinary Chinese citizen is ambivalent about the United States: A duality of resentment and admiration characterizes popular Chinese perspectives on the United States. Many Chinese admire U.S. economic dynamism, international status, and scientific achievements, but many also believe that the United States deliberately bombed their embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and that it was the U.S. spy plane’s recklessness that caused the crash of the Chinese plane in 2001. Further, a recent poll reported that 90 percent of the Chinese public believes that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) planted the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus in China in 2003.

In a 1995 poll of 1,050 urban residents, the United States was rated the “most impressive country,” and yet polls conducted among Chinese youth in 1994 and 1995 reported that the United States was also ranked first among the most disliked foreign countries. Some Chinese gloated at the humbling of the United States on September 11. Anti-American sentiments were particularly pronounced regarding the U.S. handling of the Iraq War. Half the respondents to a 2003 poll answered a resounding “no” when asked whether the United Nations should help the United States rebuild Iraq; 60 percent saw the quagmire in Iraq as one of the United States’ own making; and 76 percent said they admired France and Germany for standing up to the United States.

It is not always easy to differentiate popular and official Chinese perspectives on the United States. Government-regulated media is often used to forge public opinion, but public sentiments are not entirely the result of official manipulation. A freer press in recent years has led Chinese tabloids to market jingoistic stories. A 1996 anti-American book entitled China Can Say No was a sensational success; a number of similar works in this genre since have similarly fueled anti-American sentiments. Official and popular views tend to converge on the Taiwan question. When a (false) story circulated that the United States was planning a massive show of naval power off Taiwan, it spawned a firestorm in Internet blogs, where anti-American sentiments run high.

Any changes in Chinese perspectives on the United States will be determined by several factors that could influence them in either direction: first, if President Barack Obama favors treating China principally as a strategic partner rather than a strategic competitor; second, if neoconservative thinking in the United States does not continue to dominate U.S. foreign policy; third, if both the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Taiwan issue are peacefully resolved without American military intervention; and fourth, if the U.S.-led global war on terror diminishes the “terrorist threat,” which could return the “China threat” to the center stage of U.S.-China international politics.

Further Reading

Alexander, B. (1992). The strange connection: U.S. intervention in China, 1944-1972. New York: Greenwood Press.

Deng, Y. & Wang, F.-L. (Eds.). (1999). In the eyes of the dragon: China views the world. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Friedberg, A. (2000, November). The struggle for mastery in Asia. Commentary, 110(4), 17–26.

Funabashi, Y. (2003, December 19). China’s “peaceful ascendancy.” Yale Global. Retrieved February 16, 2009, from

Harding, H. (1992). A fragile relationship: The United States and China since 1972. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Hsieh, D. (2003, September 17). Chinese feel UN should teach US a lesson: Poll. Straits Times. Retrieved February 25, 2005, from

Hu, W., Chan, G., & Zha, D. (2000). China’s international relations in the 21st century: Dynamics of paradigm shifts. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Kahn, J. (2004, October 27). China praises Powell for warning Taiwan on independence. New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2009, from

Kristof, N. (2002, January 22). The new
China syndrome. New York Times, p. A-19. Retrieved February 17, 2009, from

Lampton, D. M. (2001). Same bed, different dreams: Managing U.S.-China relations, 1989–2000. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Noi, G. S. (2004, June 15). Chinese mood against ROC independence. Straits Times.

Pei, M. (2000, September–October). The inscrutable hegemon [Review of the books Gaochu busheng hanlengzhanhou meiguo de quanqiuzhanlue he shijie diwei (Lonely at the Top: America’s Post-Cold War Global Strategy and Status) and Gaochu busheng hanlengzhanhou meiguo de quanqiu zhanlue he shijie diwei (America’s Global Hegemony and China’s Fate)]. Foreign Policy, 92–96. Retrieved February 15, 2009, from

Plate, T. (2004, July 22). Press reports net “blockbuster.” Straits Times.

Qian, Q. (2004, January 19). US adjusts security strategy after Sept. 11 attacks. People’s Daily, p. 3. Retrieved February 17, 2009, from

Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. (1999). U.S. national security and military/commercial concerns with the People’s Republic of China. Retrieved February 16, 2009, from

Song Qiang, Zhang Xiaobo, Zhang Zangzang, Qiao Ben, Gu Qingsheng, & tang Zhengyu. (Eds.). (1996). Zhongguo keyi shuo bu [China can say no]. Beijing: Zhonghua gonshang lianhe chubanshe.

Suettinger, R. L. (2003). Beyond Tiananmen: The politics of U.S.-China relations 1989–2000. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Wang Jisi. (Ed.). (1999). Gaochu busheng hanlengzhanhou meiguo de quanqiu zhanlue he shijie diwei [Lonely at the top: America’s post–Cold War global strategy and status). Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe.

Source: Loh, Anthony A.. (2009). Perspectives on the United States—Chinese. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1754–1761. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A daguerreotype of white and Chinese miners hoping to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush at Auburn Ravine in 1852, when thousands of first-wave Chinese immigrants arrived to seek their fortune in Gum Shan, or “Gold Mountain.” CALIFORNIA STATE LIBRARY (DAGUERREOTYPE COLLECTION #912).

Mao Zedong and U.S. Ambassador Pat Hurley. The two were not fond of each other (to put it diplomatically). In a less than statesman-like moment Mao called Hurley “that turtle egg”; Hurley reciprocated by calling Mao “moose dung.” NATIONAL ARCHIVES.

A U.S. game with the 1972 Chinese Ping-Pong delegation to the United States. The Chinese team’s famous tour of the United States captured world attention. COURTESY OF NATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR UNITED STATES–CHINA RELATIONS.

Perspectives on the United States—Chinese (Zh?ngguórén kàn M?iguó ??????)|Zh?ngguórén kàn M?iguó ?????? (Perspectives on the United States—Chinese)

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