Courtesy Reuters

Reconsiderations: A Decade of Sino-American Relations

While the past decade of Sino-American relations has been largely constructive, the ten years have not been on a steady incline. Rather, there have been two strong forward spurts, from spring 1971 through May 1973, and from May 1978 through early 1980. The relationship has also endured two periods of some acrimony and erosion: from the fall of 1975 to late 1976 and from mid-1980 to the effort to stabilize the relationship reflected in the communiqué on arms sales to Taiwan that was agreed in August 1982. In addition to the periods of rapid forward movement and retrogression, several periods are best portrayed through metaphors such as "plateaus" or "mixed pictures." Even the best periods were punctuated by moments of doubt and uncertainty, while the phases of deterioration were constrained by a common desire to limit the erosion and to preserve a more positive public facade than the private exchanges warranted.

The ebb and flow of Sino-American relations merits closer scrutiny to illuminate the forces at work. What produces a forward surge? What halts it? What initiates a downturn? What contains it? A historical review of the past decade, in sum, reveals the interests, objectives, and limits which have inhered in the relationship. The account reveals a subtle interplay among three factors: the state of play in the Sino-Soviet-American triangle, the Taiwan issue, and the domestic political setting in China and the United States.


Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger have detailed the subtle maneuvers in which both sides intermittently engaged from early 1969 through the spring of 1971.1 The story is by now a familiar one. Richard Nixon came to office privately determined to alter America's relations with China. Nixon's travels in Asia and conversations with world leaders such as Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s had convinced him of the increasing costs which the United States was paying due to its hostile relations with China, and he saw the opportunities which the Sino-Soviet rupture offered. He also came to office determined to reduce the ground combat role of

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