In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section United States-China Relations, 1949-present

  • Introduction
  • Archival Resources
  • Reference Works
  • Academic Journals
  • Documentary Videos
  • Theoretical Perspectives on International Relations
  • Third-Party Perspectives on US-China Relations
  • The “Say No” Club
  • The Taiwan Issue
  • Resources Rivalry (Energy, Environment)
  • Human Rights

Chinese Studies United States-China Relations, 1949-present
Ralph W. Huenemann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0140


In broad-brush terms, United States-China relations since 1949 have passed through four phases. In the first phase, shaped in the United States by the residue of the World War II alliance with Chiang Kai-shek and the emergence of McCarthyism, and in China by Mao Zedong’s policy of “leaning to one side” (strengthening the alliance with Russia), relations moved quickly to the deep hostility of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The second phase lasted from President Nixon’s “historic handshake” with Mao in 1972 to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. During this period, Beijing and Washington cooperated closely on some geostrategic issues, based on a shared fear of the Soviet Union, but this collaboration was troubled by the unresolved status of Taiwan. The third phase was a deeply uneasy period. The fourth phase emerged with the rise of Donald Trump as America’s leader and Xi Jinping as China’s leader. In this continuing period, important policies in both countries have shifted dramatically; conflict between the two countries has become much more explicit. Although Trump is no longer in office, the conflict continues (though somewhat restrained) under successor President Joe Biden, and Trump may return to office in 2024. Not surprisingly, the complexities of US-PRC relations have given rise to an enormous literature, which can be characterized as comprising three concentric circles. At the core is the academic discipline known as international relations (IR), a subset of political science. A central subject in IR (the central subject for many IR scholars) is the struggle for power between nation-states, including the closely related topic of warfare: what causes it, how to prevent it, but also how to win it. This is discussed within IR as a topic for rational analysis—hence the term strategy science. The dark emotional drivers of nation-state friction (greed, racial prejudice, religious intolerance, hyper-patriotism, etc.) are mostly barely acknowledged, especially in descriptions of one’s own national interests. Surrounding the IR core are other academic disciplines, such as economics and history, which are also important in understanding US-China relations. Finally, but not unimportantly, there is the outer circle of nonacademic writings, both fiction and nonfiction. In brief, the IR discipline has important insights, but it also omits much, and it is important to keep this failing in mind when exploring the vast literature of US-China relations. Some commentators discuss US-China relations primarily in terms of bilateral issues (such as military rivalry, economic friction, and human rights issues). Others, however, focus on global issues (such as climate change, pandemics, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction). Topics of both types are covered in this bibliography.

Overviews of the Relationship

As can be readily seen from both the monographs and the anthologies reviewed in this section, the complex US-China relationship is shaped by many difficult issues. Arguably, these overviews should all be read. They are all important, either because they are emotionally appealing and influential or because they are logically appealing and persuasive, or both. Some of these authors suggest that the topic of US-China relations is emerging as the most significant issue in foreign affairs in the 21st century. This may be untrue, because conflicts in the Middle East may be more urgent and more tragic. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that US-China relations demand careful attention.

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