After years of fighting the Japanese during World War II and the nationalist government in the Chinese civil war, communist China emerged victorious in 1949. But with dreams of becoming a secure and ideologically-pure nation, it soon began to rival with another nation that would last for the next 25 years: the United States.
The U.S. and China first confronted each other during the Korean War, when they supported the opposing southern and northern sides.
First, it was during the Korean War, when the U.S. supported South Korea, while China supported the north.
Then it was the Vietnam War, where the U.S. found itself again supporting the southern government, and the Chinese the northern.
By the 1970s, the U.S. started to pull out of the fight in Southeast Asia. China and the U.S. were no longer supporting opposite sides of a conflict, and U.S. President Richard Nixon decided a change in policy was in order.
Nixon sent his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, on a secret mission. While in Pakistan, Kissinger feigned illness so he could travel undetected to China. His mission: to open a dialogue between the two countries.
Kissinger’s visit was so successful that the two nations began to form a fruitful relationship. Today, Kissinger, retired from his former positions, said that the relationship has now become the most important relationship between nations in the world, he told via webcast to a crowd of about 40 DePaul students and staff last week in an event called “China Town Hall: Local Connections, National Reflections.”
“We didn’t so much discuss our differences,” Kissinger said of his first meeting in China. “We spoke of our objectives, and to see if the objectives could be harmonized.”
Although the U.S. and China continue to maintain an important relationship, its dynamic may be changing as China becomes one of the world’s most economically and politically powerful nations. Many expect China to one day surpass the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower, Kissinger among them.
Xi Jinping, the chairman of the communist party of China and de facto ruler, said he aims for China to be the sole superpower by 2049, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding.
In some ways, China is on track to obtain that goal. It possesses the second largest and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and increasingly projects heavy political influence across Asia and Africa. As of now, the U.S. owes China an estimated $1 trillion.
But William Hurst, a professor specializing in Asian politics at Northwestern who gave a lecture following Kissinger’s question-and-answer session, raised a finger to the claim of China striving to be the next superpower.
“China wants, rather, to be one of multiple powers in a multi-polar world,” Hurst said.
This view parallels the agreement European powers abided by from 1815 to the early 1900s, called the Concert of Europe. There would be cooperation, and likely contest, between many and equal great powers, unlike the Cold War’s rivaling two superpowers.
Meanwhile, Hurst said the U.S. does not subscribe to either view. Since the fall of the USSR, the U.S. has been intent to remain as the world’s sole hegemon.
The U.S. and China will fall down one of two roads, both Kissinger and Hurst pointed out. Either they can cooperate, and create peace and prosperity throughout the world; or, they can compete, and escalate issues that may lead to conflict. Both said they would prefer the former.
Leadership will have a large impact in the future of the China-U.S. relationship, Kissinger answered to a question tweeted by a student watching the live stream at universities across the nation. During his years working with the Chinese, Kissinger said he found that their leaders hold a perspective unique from their American counterparts.
The Chinese leadership make decisions while considering the reality that they are surrounded by possible enemies, a view created by many years of intervening powers into China’s domestic affairs during the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, the USSR’s decision to move armies to the border with China in the 1970s convinced the U.S. government to look to China as a new Cold War ally, Kissinger said.
On the American continent, on the other hand, the U.S. has managed to exist in relative security.
The U.S. and China have long cooperated on a number of issues, and that trend seems to continue, Kissinger and Hurst both said.
By the late 1970s, after the infamously-dubbed “ping pong diplomacy” and consistent diplomatic talks, the U.S. and China had formally recognized each other. By the 1990s, the two had become the world’s largest trading partners. Today, trade between them is estimated to value over $600 billion. In many ways, each country’s prosperity is linked, pushing them to cooperate.
North Korea’s war path to create an arsenal of nuclear weapons has concerned both the U.S. and China, Kissinger said. The rogue state’s actions have pushed its neighbors to rearm, destabilizing the whole region. In response to increasing North Korean missile tests, China hosted a summit in April 2016, inviting U.S. President Barack Obama to help solve the issue.
“The United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, stable and prosperous China, working with us to address global challenges,” Obama said at the summit.
Chairman Xi said during the summit: “It is a priority for China’s foreign policy to work with the United States to build a new model of major country relations, and to realize no conflicts or confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
The environment is another area where China and the U.S. have taken some measures to cooperate, Hurst said. As the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases, they both had an interest to lower emissions. But the threat of diminished industrial production has confined real progress.
Both China and the U.S. have endured repeated hacks in leading companies and government agencies. Hurst said there is great potential for the two governments to work together to end the unconventional method, but is likely to continue because of cyberwarfare’s widespread use.
“Both countries can recognize and really should recognize, and from all indications actually have recognized, that it is in their interests to cooperate,” Hurst said.
But there is one area where both Kissinger and Hurst said it was unlikely for the powers to come to any agreement in the near future: the South China Sea.
Since the 1980s, China has created small islands out of reefs in the South China Sea, claiming the area is part of its historical domain. More recently, the Chinese military has been building bases on these artificial islands, allowing them to patrol the sea and enforce the recent Chinese requirement that all foreign ships and airplanes in the area must identify themselves.
Chinese actions in the South China Sea have proved very concerning to neighbors the Philippines and Vietnam, who have started to build their own islands, Kissinger said. And the U.S. now has a contender to its claim that it can patrol all international waters, which includes most of the South China Sea. While the U.S. “pivot” to Asia has yet to materialize, the standoff nature of both sides could lead to confrontation and worsened relations.
It is Kissinger’s hope the U.S. and China can come to cooperate in the South China Sea, and further hold talks about North Korea and other issues.
“They should not act from a posture of superiority,” Kissinger said of China. “We should not act from a posture of teaching them how to behave in the international world.”