Potent partners, rocky relations


Diplomacy: Amid signs of a thaw, President Bush arrives in Beijing to reaffirm crucial U.S.-China ties.

February 20, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - When President Bush took office, he inherited the most important bilateral relationship in the world: the complex and contentious ties between China and the United States.

Bush arrives in Beijing tomorrow for a two-day visit as relations between the two powers show signs of improvement after last year's standoff over a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.

Bush's trip comes 30 years to the day after President Richard M. Nixon's groundbreaking visit here to meet Mao Tse-tung in 1972. In the nearly two decades that followed, China and the United States established a stable relationship. That began to change in 1989, with the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square uprising. And the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later removed the common enemy that brought the two countries together.

In the 1990s, China's rapid economic growth attracted world attention and emboldened its leaders to seek greater international status. The issue of the future of Taiwan, which Mao and Nixon had deferred, resurfaced as Taiwan emerged as a thriving democracy and its people increasingly lost interest in reunification with the authoritarian mainland.

Despite setbacks in recent years, Sino-U.S. relations have repeatedly rebounded because the two countries need each other. Beijing relies on U.S. investment to help drive its developing economy and American universities to train its best students. U.S. companies look to China as an enormous potential market while Washington seeks Beijing's cooperation to help maintain stability in Asia.

Here is a chronology of the challenging relationship between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one since the Communist Party came to power here 52 years ago.

Oct. 1, 1949: Mao stands on the rostrum of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and establishes the People's Republic of China. Defeated by the Communists, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops flee to Taiwan. Washington recognizes the Nationalists as the legitimate government of China.

June 25, 1950: With support from China and the Soviet Union, Communist North Korea invades South Korea. The United States and 15 other nations counterattack under the flag of the United Nations. To prevent North Korea's collapse, China enters the war and the armies battle to a stalemate along the 38th parallel. More than 33,000 U.S. servicemen and 400,000 Chinese die.

The Korean War ends, and China and the United States remain enemies for two decades. To check China's power, the United States stations more than 10,000 troops on Taiwan and secretly stores nuclear weapons there.

Feb. 21, 1972: Looking for help from China to end the Vietnam War and searching for a counterbalance to the Soviet Union, Nixon makes a dramatic trip to Beijing to meet Mao and move toward normalization of relations. The United States later signs the Shanghai Communique, pledging the eventual removal of troops from Taiwan and acknowledging that there is "one China and that Taiwan is a part of China."

Nixon's trip, replete with pictures of the president on the Great Wall, captures the imagination of the American public. Few realize that Mao's disastrous social experiment, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), is killing at least a million Chinese and crippling a generation.

Dec. 15, 1978: President Jimmy Carter announces that the United States will switch diplomatic recognition from the Nationalists on Taiwan to the Communists in Beijing. Notified hours before the announcement, Taiwan is furious. When then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, crowds pelt his car with tomatoes and rocks.

To ensure Taiwan's protection, Congress overwhelmingly passes the Taiwan Relations Act in early 1979. The act, which is deliberately ambiguous, states that any threat to Taiwan would be "of grave concern to the United States" and that the United States will maintain the ability to defend Taiwan.

Spring 1989: A million Chinese flood Tiananmen Square, demanding an end to corruption and a voice in how they are ruled. Chinese students build a replica of the Statue of Liberty in homage to American democratic ideals. On the night of June 3, tanks roll into Beijing and soldiers slaughter hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed protesters. The United States invokes sanctions.

1991: The Soviet Union collapses, removing the geostrategic bond that brought China and the United States together 19 years earlier.

Sept. 23, 1993: The affection of Chinese youth for all things American begins to change when Beijing loses its bid to play host to the 2000 Summer Olympics to Sydney, Australia. Chinese blame Congress, which opposed the bid based on China's poor human rights record.

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