Timeline: Major events in US-China relations since 1949

As US and Chinese officials meet in China, Al Jazeera examines the nations’ relationship over several decades.

The Chinese and US flags fly on a lamp post along Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol in Washington during then-Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit in January 2011 [File: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters]

The United States’ second-highest diplomat will meet with China’s foreign minister on Sunday for talks amid mounting tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The meeting between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China, comes just days after the two countries traded barbs and imposed tit-for-tat sanctions.

While tensions remain high, a senior official in US President Biden’s administration told reporters on Saturday that “frank and open discussion, even – perhaps especially – where we disagree, is critical to reducing the potential for misunderstandings between our countries, maintaining global peace and security, and making progress on important issues”.

Here is a timeline of major events in the history of US-China relations since 1949.

1949: Separated at birth

Although they were ostensibly united against occupying forces during World War II, China’s nationalist and communist factions renew hostilities upon Japan’s surrender in 1945. The US Department of State issues the China White Paper, stating its intention to stay out of the Chinese civil war as it neither should nor could influence the outcome.

Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists eventually retreat to the islands of Taiwan and Hainan, leaving communist leader Mao Zedong to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland in 1949. US diplomats meet with Mao but, put off by his intention to cosy up to his ideological bedfellows in Moscow, choose to recognise Chiang’s Republic of China government as the sole legitimate government of China.

1950: Korean war

The end of World War II left the Korean Peninsula divided along the 38th parallel between a Soviet-backed North and a US-backed South. The North Korean People’s Army invades the South in June, prompting a defence from United Nations forces led by the US. Later that year, China enters the fray after southern forces near its border. Three years and millions of lives later, the two sides agree to an armistice agreement that puts a demilitarised buffer zone between the two Koreas – along the 38th parallel, where the war started.

1953-1958: Taiwan Straits crisis

Despite stating in January 1950 that the US would not intervene in Taiwan Strait disputes, the outbreak of the Korean War that June, and possibly the capture of Hainan by communist forces in March, prompts US President Harry Truman to declare it in US interests to keep the Taiwan Straits “neutral”. Truman sends the US Navy there to prevent either side from attacking the other, effectively starting US protection of the island.

The US lifts this naval blockade in 1953, and the following year Chiang Kai-shek deploys troops to the Kinmen and Matsu islands – just a off the mainland coast – where communist forces shell them. The US and nationalists sign the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty and the US joint chiefs of staff recommend the use of nuclear weapons on China. This brinkmanship leads to the negotiating table and a nationalist withdrawal from a few islands.

In 1958, the mainland resumes its bombing of the islands, preventing the nationalist garrisons from being resupplied. Fearful this is a precursor to an invasion of Taiwan, the US aids the islands’ resupply and again discusses the use of nuclear weapons. Things eventually cool down into an arrangement that sees both sides shelling the other on alternate days; the deal remains in place until the US normalises relations with China in 1979.

The USS John Finn transits the Taiwan Strait on March 10, 2021 [Jason Waite/US Navy/Handout via Reuters]

1964 – China gets the bomb

Driven by the US’s previous threats to use nuclear weapons, Mao pushes for China to develop its own nuclear deterrent. In the early 1950s, China had struck a secret deal with the Soviet Union to exchange uranium ore for nuclear know-how. However, the two later fell out over Nikita Krushev’s plans to discuss arms control in a bid to peacefully coexist with the West, and Beijing goes it alone without Soviet assistance.

In October 1964, China detonates its first nuclear device in a dried-up salt lake in Lop Nur in its remote Xinjiang region. Three years later, they successfully detonate a hydrogen bomb.

1969 – Sino-Russian border crisis

Chinese and Soviet differences in dogma blow up into conflict when Beijing orders troops to take over Zhenbao Island on the countries’ eastern border, with fighting also breaking out on China’s northwestern border in Xinjiang. The seven-month conflict sets the scene for ping-pong diplomacy and US President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit in 1972.

1971 – Kissinger’s secret flight

After a friendly encounter between competitors at the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, a delegation of US players is invited to tour China, which had been off-limits to Americans since the Korean War. The visit goes well and paves the way for Pakistan to broker a secret visit to China by US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger later that year, where he meets with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

1972 – Nixon goes to China

At this time, the only things China and the US have in common are their leaders’ pragmatism and a common foe in the Soviet Union. During Nixon’s seven-day visit to China, he meets with Mao and, along with Zhou Enlai, signs the Shanghai Communique – the document that forms the bedrock of subsequent US-China diplomatic ties and provides a mechanism for the two sides to tackle thorny issues, such as Taiwan. Both countries set up liaison offices in the other, a precursor to full diplomatic relations.

Visitors are seen in front of exhibits showing Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. Beijing Exhibition Center, 2019 [Jason Lee/Reuters]

1979 – One China Policy and the Taiwan Relations Act

Now led by Democratic US President Jimmy Carter, and a reformer, Deng Xiaoping, the two countries issue the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, normalising their ties. The US also endorses the One China Policy and transfers diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

China hawk and one-time Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater moves to shore up relations with Taipei and the US Congress passes the Taiwan Relations Act, which Carter signs into law after concessions are made. As a diplomatic workaround, it maintains commercial, cultural, and other relations through the American Institute in Taiwan, a non-profit incorporated in Washington, DC.

1982 – Reagan’s Six Assurances

Like the administration before him, US President Ronald Reagan manages to bolster ties with both sides of the Taiwan Straits. He issues the Six Assurances to Taiwan, which includes pledges to not mediate between both Chinas, honour the Taiwan Relations Act and have no plans to stop arms sales to Taipei. Later, Reagan’s zeal to contain an expansionist Soviet Union – then in the midst of its invasion of Afghanistan – sees him sign a third joint communique with China, reaffirming the US’ adherence to the One China Policy and increasing intelligence sharing between the two.

1989 – Tiananmen Square massacre

Chinese troops violently put down a peaceful student-led protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The crushing of the protests sees China become an international pariah overnight. US President George H W Bush halts arms sales to China and puts relations on hold.

1999 – Chinese embassy in Belgrade bombed

A US plane hits the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO air campaign against Serb forces occupying Kosovo, killing three journalists. NATO and the US apologise, but US-China relations sink to a new low. Chinese protesters throw rocks at the US embassy in Beijing, keeping staff trapped there for three days.

2000 – Trade relations normalised

China is granted permanent trade relations with the US under the US-China Relations Act. This status is a prelude to China joining the World Trade Organization the following year. As the world’s biggest importer and exporter respectively, US-China trade had been on an upward trajectory since diplomatic ties were established.

2001 – Hainan Island incident

A US signals intelligence plane collides with a Chinese interceptor jet as it performs “freedom of navigation” exercises over a contentious part of the South China Sea claimed by both China and Vietnam. The Chinese pilot ejects but is never found; the US plane makes an emergency landing on the Chinese island province of Hainan. Ten days and a carefully worded statement later, the 24 US crew members are released.

2008 – China is the largest holder of US debt

In late 2008, in the midst of the global financial crisis, China replaces Japan as the US’ largest foreign creditor, holding about $600bn in treasuries. This title has subsequently passed between the two Asian nations; as of January 2021, China holds just over $1 trillion, or about 4 percent, of the US’s $28 trillion national debt, second only to Japan.

2010 – China becomes world’s number-two economy

China edges past Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy in GDP terms, behind only the US. Goldman Sachs predicts China is on track to take the top spot in 2027.

2011 – US ‘pivot’ to Asia

The US moves to counter China’s growing assertiveness across the region, first by reaffirming its cooperation with Beijing and then by increasing its presence across Asia.

2013 – Sunnylands summit

In a bid to reset US-China relations, US President Barack Obama hosts China’s newly-anointed leader Xi Jinping in California in what is billed as the most important leadership summit since Nixon met Mao. Despite agreement over North Korea and combating climate change, the two sides could not reach an accord on cyberespionage and US arms sales to Taiwan.

2015 – US calls on China to halt South China Sea build-up

The US warns China to cease “any further militarisation” of a chain of artificial islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The region is disputed as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have territorial claims. With approximately one-third of global maritime trade passing through the region, the US has led western efforts to maintain “freedom of navigation” exercises there.

2018 – Trump imposes trade tariffs on China

In response to the alleged theft of US intellectual property, US President Donald Trump announces trade tariffs on Chinese imports, specifically targeting steel, aluminium, clothing and electronics. China imposes retaliatory measures on 128 classes of US imports. Washington later ups its tariffs in a bid to reset the trade imbalance between the world’s two largest economies.

2019 – Hong Kong protests extradition law, Trump signs munitions export ban

In February, protests flare up in Hong Kong after the region’s security bureau proposed a law allowing extradition of accused individuals for trial in mainland China. Unrest continues throughout the year.

In November, Trump signs the Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act, which requires the Department of State to annually certify if Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to retain its special US trading consideration. He also signs another bill banning the sale of tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong police. The following July, Trump signs an executive order ending the special status; China tells the US to stay out of its “internal affairs”.

July 2020 – China’s Houston consulate shut down; Pompeo blasts Xi

In late July, the US orders the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, alleging it is at the centre of a spying and intellectual property theft operation. China retaliates by ordering the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu.

The next day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, asking: “What do the American people have to show now, 50 years on from engagement with China?” He goes on to call Xi “a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology”, lists Beijing’s trade issues and human rights abuses, and ends his tirade with a quote from Nixon: “The world cannot be safe until China changes.”

2021 – Pompeo labels Xinjiang crackdown as ‘genocide’

On the last day of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says China “is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, China, targeting Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups”.

China responds by sanctioning 28 Trump-era officials, including the former secretary of state. Pompeo’s successor Antony Blinken later reaffirms Pompeo’s declaration, as does President Joe Biden in his first official call with Xi Jinping.

Source: Al Jazeera