By Ming Lee
The relationship between two of the world’s largest economies, China and the USA, can be regarded as the most important and most complicated bilateral relationship in both contemporary international politics, and history.
In the Trump era USA, an already deteriorating relationship plagued with issues regarding trade and technology, has been exacerbated by conflicts arising from the Covid-19 crisis. In light of the persisting antagonism, it is important to remember that this was not always the case, and that Sino-US relations have a long and complicated history, with the power to greatly influence our contemporary global economy.
In the post-war era, relations had a rocky start, with the US continuing to support what remained of the Republic of China, Taiwan, despite the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under a communist regimen. Early disagreements between the two superpowers were prominently witnessed during the Korean War of the early 1950s. Supporting opposing sides, the US backed South Korea while North Korea sought alliance with China.
Yet, China’s relations with the non-Soviet Western World were evolving, as China began establishing diplomatic relations with many European nations. On 9th May 1950, Sweden became the first Western country to establish official diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and Sino–Swiss relations officially began in the early 1950s. The beginning of China’s expansion of diplomatic nations witnessed a French, and later Canadian, ambassador exchange.
A pivotal moment in diplomatic relations came in the form of President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, following the Sino-Soviet Split, marking the beginning of a strategic Cold War strategy that would shield China from potential Soviet aggression. Yet, the partnership was not to last. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a strategic relationship of this nature was rendered unnecessary. Meanwhile, China’s military budget rose by an annual average of 11% between 1996 and 2015.
China’s power and global influence has since grown exponentially, and the power dynamics between the US and China have necessarily changed. Whilst difficult to imagine now, the US retained an albeit small trade surplus with China during the 1970s, but by 1985, Chinese imports were almost double that of the reciprocal US exports. Fast-forward to 2016, China had become the second largest trading partner of the US, behind only Canada, and the US’s largest trade deficit by a huge margin.
Even with the protests of Tian An Men square in June 1989, China had seldom been challenged since their rise in global power. Yet, since the Trump administration, however, the situation has changed: the subsequent China-US trade war threatens the equilibrium of the world economy. As the US accuses China of conducting unfair trading practices and using 5G to conduct intellectual property theft, China views the US as undermining the Communist Party regime and attempting to curb their economic growth, tensions between the countries have never been higher.
After a year and a half long trade war, which witnessed the imposition of tariffs by both countries totalling hundreds of billions of dollars, the countries finally agreed to a “Phase One” ceasefire deal in January 2020 with China pledging to boost US imports and strengthen intellectual property rules, and the US agreeing to halve some of their tariffs.
Dominating contemporary headlines, the seemingly catastrophic trade-war seems like a small dent in the Sino-US ties when compared with the new conflicts that have arisen amidst the Covid-19 crisis. With the spread of the virus originating in Wuhan, China found itself on the receiving end of a political blow, as allegations of restricting information and attempts to conceal the severity of the virus arose, reigniting tensions between China and the US, which do not seem to be improving any time soon. Both countries have been critical of each other’s poor handling of the Virus, and tensions heightened with Trump accusing World Health Organisation’s outlook of being too “China-centric” following repeated allegations of a conspiracy, accusing China of releasing the Virus from a Wuhan laboratory.
A global crisis demands global outlooks; we are in a time where unity is needed now more than ever, especially between the world’s two largest economic powerhouses. Void of cooperation, the global pandemic will prove more difficult to contain and combat.
Yet, in the midst of such animosity and hostility, we must question, what will happen to Sino-US relations from now on? Should we look towards the glimmer of hope, that the countries may embrace the cooperation witnessed in the ceasefire deal, to improve both economic and social outlooks regarding the coronavirus crisis, or is it possible that this spiralling conflict could lead to the next Cold War?
Image Source: Econvue