As a young nation in the 1800s, the United States sought to promote friendly relations with China. Undoubtedly eager to capitalize on the exotic exports China had to offer, the United States welcomed the potential for increased commerce between the two countries and established a variety of different treaties with China in the mid-1800s. However, the great influx of Chinese citizens during and after the California gold rush, beginning in 1848, caused American attitudes toward the Chinese to become more hostile, eventually resulting in immigration restrictions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Toward the end of the 19th century and especially following the World Wars, the U.S. gradually opened its borders again to Chinese immigrants. The government also began to again encourage trade with China. Around this time, other colonial powers began seeking "spheres of influence" in China's territory, most notably Germany in Shantung, Russia in Port Arthur, and the UK in Hong Kong. The United States, however, was unable to secure any territory for itself. In order to compete with its European rivals, the United States negotiated an "Open Door" trade policy with the Chinese government that circumvented the trade restrictions imposed by the European colonial powers.
Also aiding American competition in the region was the growing disquietude among the Chinese. Most people were quickly becoming unsettled over the foreign imperialism spreading through the nation. This sentiment culminated in the infamous Boxer Rebellion. The occasion afforded the U.S. one of its first interventionist opportunities on the international stage, supplying military aid to the Eight-Nation Alliance formed to squelch the rebellion and becoming part of the subsequent peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol in 1901.
World War II caused America and China to strengthen ties in order to defeat a mutual enemy – Japan. The amicability was short-lived, however, as tensions arose over China’s adoption of Communism. China’s ideological, albeit indirect, support of the Soviet Union and their strong criticism of American involvement in Korea and Vietnam erased any semblance of friendship and alliance that still remained.
Meanwhile, the United States was equally unsupportive of China’s actions in Taiwan. Taiwan was governed by Japan until 1945. After a brief military occupation by the U.S., its political status came under dispute in 1949. After losing a civil war against the Communist Party, China’s National Party fled to Taiwan. The Communist Party subsequently established the People's Republic of China on the mainland, but of course the Nationalist Party refused to acknowledge the Communist government in Taiwan. Most Western nations, including the U.S., had been allied with the Nationalist Party's government during and after World War II, and thus also refused such an acknowledgement. Taiwan remains a thorn in the side of U.S.-Chinese relations to this day. In fact, there is some concern about a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
In 1971, the Nixon administration (Nixon made his famous visit in 1972) began to open channels of diplomacy with the Communist regime in China, which ultimately created in the reestablishment of full diplomatic relationships by 1979. Given that China was a Communist nation and this was in the midst of the Cold War, this reversal of relations was a monumental step. This new status even led to the U.S. acknowledging Chinese control over Taiwan in a joint communique. However, President Carter’s decision was short-lived. In April 1979 the Taiwan Relations Act was signed, guaranteeing U.S. support for Taiwan's democratic regime. Because of American support of Taiwan and China’s threat to the territory, the U.S. has been selling military equipment to Taiwan to aid in its defense, a fact which has been a source of ongoing friction between America and China.
Numerous matters besides the aforementioned problematic diplomatic relations have continued to create tension between the two countries. Among them are human rights violations by the Chinese government (e.g. suppression of free speech and political dissent, One-Child Policy, its treatment of Tibet), China's growing environmental pollution, U.S. trade deficits, the outsourcing of American jobs to China, safety issues with products made in China and imported to the U.S., accusations of Chinese currency "manipulation", U.S. debt held by China, Chinese support for the ruling party in North Korea, sales of weapons to North Korea, Iran and Pakistan and threats against the United States over international involvement in the Middle East.
Also, while China's defense budget is still significantly smaller than that of the United States, innovations in China’s weapons technology and its determined emphasis on military capability have created concerns of an impending arms race. Furthermore, with 1.4 billion people and an increasingly liberalized economy, China has been quickly on the rise. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has over 2 million soldiers, making it the largest army in the world. This incredible source of manpower has enabled China to become more innovative with its military. There have been several recent controversies over the so-called "cyber-warriors" of the PLA. U.S. officials have questioned their role in the slew of cyber-attacks against American corporations and government agencies. This has added to the strain of U.S.-China relations.
This topic page traces the complex relationship between America and China, its historical origins, development and changes, and the nature of the many economic, political and ideological issues shaping that relationship today.