It is easy these days to focus on internal issues in America, or, if looking outward, focusing on U.S. relations with Russia and the mounting tensions there. Yet, the world is much bigger, and America’s relationship with much of the world is changing. The most important among these changes is America’s relationship with China.
Relations with China have been brought into the spotlight recently via the United States Navy deploying the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, along with its accompanying destroyer, to conduct “routine” patrols in the highly disputed South China Sea. While naval operations around the area are no new event, the location, timing and sheer military presence that moving a carrier into what China considers its sovereign waters was no small implication.
Most importantly, this move is indicative of the changing relationship between China and the U.S. In order to understand these changes, it is important to first put modern relations into historical context and to understand what the relationship has been in the past. This story begins with Mao Zedong and the creation of the People’s Republic of China, which the U.S. did not recognize for a long time. They instead recognized the government that was defeated in China’s civil war and reduced to Taiwan. Tensions ran deep between the U.S., a then very anti-communist country, and the communist People’s Republic of China.
These tensions reached a head when U.S. troops pushed past the Korean-Chinese Border during the twilight of the Korean War, despite repeated Chinese warnings not to. What resulted was a Chinese counter-attack that pushed battered U.S. and South Korean forces into a full retreat. Battles do not for amicable relations make. Thus, after that clash, there were no official relations at all, and although war on China was never officially declared, it may as well have been.
After violent hostility between China and the U.S. died down, tensions escalated again during the Vietnam War, as China supported the communist regime there, both fiscally and militarily. Essentially, from 1949 to 1970 there was official and in some cases violent animosity between the U.S. and China. Indeed, both governments considered war multiple times and even nuclear war, according to recently unclassified documents from the time. Luckily, both considered the threat of nuclear war not worth the risk. Yet, for two countries to even consider nuclear options should highlight the depth of animosity between China and the U.S. for that period of time.
In both countries the public was encouraged to follow the official narrative of their respective countries, with anti-U.S. sentiments reigning supreme in Chinese propaganda, and the same being partly true of the U.S., who was busy splitting its time between Russia and China. In the late 60’s however, things were looking up. With the end of the Vietnam War, China felt less threatened by U.S. expansion in Asia and switched their focus to Russia’s growing influence and expansionism. Thus the door was opened to better relations.
Indeed, until the mid-to-late 90’s, relations remained relatively cordial, both states settling into a mild rivalry after the Vietnam War.
Yet, conflict between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (a complicated issue that is too large to unpack here), that also ended up engaging the U.S. military led to more conflict, reversing some of the leeway made in the previous years. Tensions would then rise and fall in the following years, but continued American involvement in Taiwan and Tibet has left China wary of the U.S.
In many instances, China has even stated they feel that the U.S. is trying to undermine its sovereignty and warned against it. Whether America is or isn’t trying to undermine Chinese authority in the East, which wouldn’t be either unwarranted or out of character, the reality is recent relations with China have been rocky. While both are deeply intertwined economically, they differ greatly culturally and idealistically. Combined with an increasing Chinese agenda of expansion into the South China Sea and increasing American intervention and hardline policy with China, you have the perfect storm for conflict.
President Donald Trump, who has already taken a hardline stance on China, and will be more aggressive in recognizing Taiwan, risks further antagonizing China, who already is unhappy with the U.S. This most recent Naval poke has led China to literally warn America, “China respects and upholds the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which countries enjoy under international law, but firmly opposes any country’s attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight,” said China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Gang Zhuang according to CNN.
Moving forward, it is important to understand that China has not shied away from military action in the past, and although tensions are nowhere near as high as they have been, the increased presence of U.S. military power will certainly not deescalate a wary and defensive China.
China is, however, part of an unfortunate trend. At the end of the day, America’s relationships with the great powers of the East are deteriorating. Whatever becomes of these new developments, it is clear that our relationship with China in particular is taking a turn, and it will be important to monitor what happens as tensions perhaps come to a head.