US-China tensions escalating as the countries mark 40 years of ‘normalised’ relations

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You might’ve expected celebrations this year to mark 40 years since the US and China “normalised” relations.

Key points:

  • US normalised relations with Beijing in 1979 for the first time since China’s founding in 1949
  • At the same time, the US severed relations with Taiwan
  • Experts say China and the US appear to have lapsed into a “new cold war”

These kind of anniversaries are usually met with fanfare — a high-profile state visit, a joint communique.

Instead, Beijing and Washington traded threats in a bruising trade war and navigated a stoush over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies.

The superpowers are locked in an escalating rivalry, with the tech sector a pawn in their quest for global influence. Even if a trade deal eventuates, it’s unlikely to be a circuit-breaker in the tensions that analysts are calling “the new normal”.

But 40 years ago, it was a different story.

The moment that shocked the world

Jimmy Carter, right, sits next to Deng Xiaoping.

When Professor Chi Wang heard the news on December 15, 1978 that the US would establish diplomatic relations with China just weeks later, he was “shocked”. 

While the announcement came as a surprise for many around the world, it happened after months of secret negotiations and six years after former US president Richard Nixon’s ground-breaking 1972 trip to China in the hopes of changing the balance in the Cold War.

A joint communique was signed to normalise relations as of January 1, 1979. 

The agreement saw the US sever official relations with Taiwan and formally recognise the People’s Republic of China for the first time since its founding by communist revolutionary Mao Zedong in 1949.

Just over a month later, Professor Wang, then head of the Chinese and Korean section of the Library of Congress, stood waiting for Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as he touched down in the United States for the first time.

A woman rides a tricycle past a giant poster of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Professor Wang, now president of the US-China Policy Foundation, says Mr Deng told him his goal in pursuing normalisation was to improve the lives of the Chinese people.

“At the time, China desperately needed American relationships because after the Cultural Revolution [Chairman] Mao died and … China was in chaos,” Professor Wang says.

China’s 40 years of reform

China's 40 years of reform

China’s sweeping economic process transformed it from one of the poorest nations to the second-biggest economy in the world.

“[Deng] needed some outside help — not from the Soviet Union, not from Japan, not from any other country — the only country Deng felt [could help China] was America.”

“Deng loved America, there’s no question about it. He wanted to develop a good relationship with Americans.

“Deng wanted to tell Chinese people ‘we should be very careful in working with American friends, we want them to trust us so we can develop our economy’.”

Like Mr Deng hoped, the normalisation of relations kickstarted a long process of China’s opening up and economic reform after years of isolation during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s.

And with the end of three decades of official estrangement, the United States went on to support China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and continued high-level diplomatic exchanges with Beijing.

Tiananmen ‘crisis point’, Donald Trump and 5G battle

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO 0:30

The US imposed a plethora of sanctions against China over the Tiananmen massacre.ABC NEWS

UWA academic Jie Chen says the US-China alliance proved to be “very useful” for China’s post-Mao economic reform, which eventually led to China becoming an economic superpower.

But the relationship came to a “crisis point” after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacreand when Beijing lost its strategic value with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

China’s awkward anniversaries

China's awkward anniversaries

Two student-led protests reach milestone anniversaries this year. One is still remembered 100 years on — but the other has been erased from history.

“[The Tiananmen massacre] exposed China’s nature as a one-party repressive system under the worst possible circumstances,” Dr Chen says.

“While most people would have thought this China-America diplomatic honeymoon was coming to an end, it miraculously went on prospering after a very short suspension.”

After imposing a plethora of sanctions against China over the massacre, the US government eventually resumed economic trade relations with Beijing and “everything went on with business as usual”, Dr Chen says.

But while observers say the US has generally turned a blind eye to China-related issues in the past, Dr Chen says Donald Trump seemingly refuses to ignore the rise of China.

Satellite image of Chinese development on island in Cuarteron Reef

Michael Auslin, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says Mr Trump has captured “a fusion of concerns” from both sides of the political aisle and there has been widespread support for his pushback against China.

“China has made many promises that it hasn’t lived up to: economic promises, promises over espionage, cyber theft, not to militarise the South China Sea,” Dr Auslin says.

“It’s coming home to roost because China has in many ways acted in bad faith, and acted aggressively, and in ways that are harmful to its partners around the world, including the United States.

“The American political class has for so long turned a blind eye, they were always more interested in maintaining market access to China, or they bought Beijing’s line that ‘you can’t do anything to upset this delicate political relationship, so don’t try to get us to change our behaviour’, and that went on for decades and decades.”

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Is China an IP thief?

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But in recent years, Dr Auslin says the relationship has been tested by the trade war, the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea, and calls to blanket-ban Huawei’s 5G equipment.

“The United States has become willing now to arrest Chinese intelligence agents [on espionage issues] and get other countries to do the same,” he says.

“Trump is really trying to say ‘this is the new normal, we are not going to turn a blind eye to your bad faith actions, we’re not going to pretend that you’re not trying to harm us’.”

‘There is not much to celebrate’

The US flag is waving in front of the red and gold round symbol of China

Many analysts were quick to note the near silence around the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of US-China relations.

Just 10 years ago in 2009, for the 30th anniversary, a high-profile US delegation including former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger travelled to Beijing for festive celebrations.

Willy Lam, lecturer of Chinese political economy from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says “there’s not much to celebrate” this year due to the deterioration of relations which amounts to a “new cold war”.

Why is Huawei so controversial?

Recent arrests and targeting by foreign governments have sent stock markets plummeting. 

Professor Wang says that “China has become a bully” and is using its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to buy influence in developing countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Going forward, Dr Lam says he expects US-China relations will “become more fraught with uncertainty”, warning that the “blatant and indirect competition” in the South China Sea could flare up.

“Nobody knows when it will get better, but what is sure is that things will get much worse because of the geopolitical contention and the so-called technological warfare, including who will run 5G.

“We’re just seeing the beginning of this growing hostility on almost all fronts.”

One man smiles and another maintains a neutral expression as they look in front of where they stand

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There’s no going back to the US-China relations of 40 years ago: China is no longer looking to gain access to the international economic system, and the US is more likely to see China as a competitor than an ally.

While Dr Chen believes US-Chinese relations may need to be re-normalised, Dr Auslin says Mr Trump could already be trying to do so with his pushback against China.

“[Trump] is trying to re-normalise this relationship to quite frankly where it should have been in the beginning, but because American policy makers were never willing to hold China to account, China got used to acting in a way that was unfair, and not just with us, but with other countries as well.”

Xi likely ‘playing a waiting game’ ahead of US elections

Xi Jinping sits in a meeting

Dr Chen says he is “still optimistic with a sense of caution” that the relationship will work out.

He says Xi’s administration is probably playing a waiting game as the 2020 US elections draws nearer, with the emergence of Democratic candidates like Joe Biden who appear to have a softer approach on China.

However, Dr Chen says there is evidence that Beijing is concerned about the emerging bipartisanship on China despite some friendly rhetoric. 

“Under this so-called new normal, whether China can still play the old-style waiting game, that actually has be thought through more carefully,” he says.

“But overall, it is still the mentality in Beijing — President Xi is very conscious that when it comes to Donald Trump … it’s not certain whether he will be re-elected.”