Forty Years of Formal—but Not yet Normal—Relations

Ties between individuals and institutions in the United States and the People’s Republic of China have become broader, deeper, and stronger during the four decades since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1979 and the relationship can no longer be described as fragile. However, it also cannot yet be considered a normal relationship, at least not from the perspective of American citizens, companies, and commentators on international affairs. The relationship between the two largest economies and military powers has many asymmetries. Chinese citizens and organizations have far greater access to the United States than Americans do to China and ordinary Americans increasingly perceive the relationship as unbalanced and unfair. The American business community, long the strongest supporter of U.S. engagement with China, has been alienated by Chinese actions and attitudes and, no longer, acts as a counterbalance to other constituencies dissatisfied with aspects of the relationship. The relationship is fractious but not destined for conflict. We have learned to solve or manage conflicts, but it is becoming harder to do so.