U.S.-Chinese Relations Are Sinking

The trend line might not improve very much during Biden administration.

News Analysis By Matthew Nakamura

Last week the, U.S. imposed sanctions on more Chinese officials confirmed to have played a part in the suppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Soon after, Chinese spokesman Wang Wenbin warned America to stand down.

“We urge the U.S. to immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs, immediately withdraw so-called sanctions, and not go further down the wrong path,” Wang said, hinting at the ever-present tensions between the superpowers.

And yet, the economic decision made by President Trump is not an isolated event. These sanctions are just one more step in a series of historically damaging policies on both sides of the Sino-U.S. relationship. From the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, its leaders have been at odds with American politicians. Even more importantly, the emerging culture proved to represent many of the ideals U.S. society stood against.

A Rough History

From the outset, the United States disapproved of the Chinese nation.

That is, instead of supporting the 1949 Communist overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek, President Truman backed Chiang’s exile to Taiwan. It was a clear signal that the U.S. would favor Taiwan as a legitimate Chinese nation. In the following decades, the U.S. continued to support efforts against Chairman Mao Zedong’s regime.

In 1955, Washington threatened a nuclear attack on the Chinese mainland in defense of Taiwan. Four years later, the CIA begin arming the Tibetan uprising in response to the massacre of protesters in Lhasa. This wouldn’t be the last time military affairs would form a tense tightrope between Beijing and Washington.

Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan all attempted to rectify the situation between the two nations. The Nixon administration helped open China’s borders to American citizens in 1972. Carter and Reagan both worked to appease Chinese politicians, despite Washington’s continued sale of arms to Taiwan. In the end, diplomatic progress was limited by the basic conflicts they face. Whether it be political interests, economic concerns, or military involvement, the countries would continue to find themselves at odds almost at every corner.

Today, the conflicts of interest have grown to encapsulate many spheres, exacerbating the already-high tensions.

The South China Sea

The South China Sea continues to be a highly contested area. Despite countless military confrontations slipping through the cracks of mainstream media, frictions are on the rise. On one hand, China claims most of the body of water for itself. On the other, the US Navy remains committed to ensuring free maritime travel in the region. The People’s Republic has even gone as far as creating giant, man-made islands; that way, they can extend their legal claims to the sea.

In response, the U.S. has redoubled its military support in the region. Since 2009, U.S. aircraft sorties in the region have increased by 100 percent. Its surface ship presence also rose by 60 percent. With this amount of naval contact, atop the stress-inducing effects of the pandemic, the possibility for miscommunication and accidental aggression is at an all time high.

Human Rights Abuses

Some of the more prevalent issues circulating in mainstream media are the front-page atrocities committed by the Chinese government.

The encampment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang has lead to public denunciations of Xi Jinping’s nationalist dictatorship. “The Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities rank as the stain of the century.” This came from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after Washington officially blacklisted Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). In addition, the Trump administration put sanctions on a high-ranking Chinese official from the region, alongside the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement is one area where the U.S. has actively taken a stance; the flagrant police brutality and other human rights’ abuses has demanded attention from U.S. officials. After the unanimous passing of Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the Trump Administration began to take serious measures. This included a revoking of Hong Kong’s special customs status and more economic sanctions on officials.


Especially in the past decade, the U.S. continues to back Taiwan against mainland China with arms deals worth billions of dollars. The most recent deal, with arms costing roughly $1.8 billion, was approved by the U.S. State Department just a month ago.

The Chinese embassy, as always, admonished the United States. Its foreign ministry reminded the world that American arms deals with Taiwan interfered with Chinese sovereignty and national security.

The Asian nation has been sending warnings for years. Still, it may only a matter of time before the government finds substantive ways to enforce its national agenda.

Biden and the Future

Following the election, there is some discussion about what kind of foreign policies the Biden administration will employ.

It’s very likely that Biden will attempt to shift or remove entirely some of the policies which are characteristic of the Trump administration. One specific example is the ongoing trade-war initiated by Donald Trump in 2018. Another might be the way that the White House addresses COVID-19 in its relationship to China.

However, there are certainly foreign policies which Joe would be hard-pressed to revoke. Certainly, the U.S. will be obligated to continue rebuking human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. In these cases, conflict with the Chinese nation would always be worth it in the eyes of Washington.

Yet, Biden still hasn’t released a statement on his prospective changes to interactions with China. Might he attempt to deescalate the South China Sea military zone at the cost of limiting maritime activity for U.S. allies in the region? Maybe the former Vice President would even be willing to cut losses in Taiwan to soften China’s perception of Washington after Trump’s hard-line administration.

One thing’s for sure – when Joe Biden becomes president, he’ll have a seriously complex and incredibly tense relationship with China to address.

Photo Credit: Futureatlas

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