After the American Revolution ended, a Philadelphia financier in 1784 sent the ship Empress of China for the first voyage of direct trade between the United States and China. In the 60 years following the Empress of China's voyage, relations among US citizens and Chinese were private and largely commercial. Nevertheless, Sino-American trade grew under the Chinese system that limited foreign traders’ access to a single port city, Guangzhou (Canton).
Formal recognition by the United States of the Empire of China, and by the Empire of China of the United States, came on or about June 16, 1844, when US Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Caleb Cushing presented his credentials and met with Chinese official Qiying to discuss treaty negotiations. Prior to this, the United States had dispatched consuls to Guangzhou as early as 1784—the first was Samuel Shaw, the supercargo on the Empress of China—but these had never been formally received by Chinese officials as state representatives. The two countries had acknowledged each other’s existence before 1844, but the negotiations and treaty of that year marked the first recognition under international law.
Diplomatic relations were interrupted on February 12, 1912, when, as a result of the Chinese Revolution, the Manchu Emperor abdicated his throne in favor of a provisional republican government. The United States withheld recognition of this new provisional government while awaiting the organization of a permanent government. Diplomatic relations were resumed on May 2, 1913, when the Legation in Beijing communicated a message from President Woodrow Wilson to President Yuan Shikai of China upon the convening of the National Assembly for the new Republic of China.
Diplomatic relations were interrupted on December 9, 1924, when the Legation in Beijing informed the newly declared Provisional Government of the Republic of China that the United States would maintain “de facto relations” with it, pending the establishment of a formal government. On July 25, 1928, following a period of governmental instability and the emergence of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China, US diplomatic representatives in China signed a tariff revision treaty with Nationalist officials. The Department of State declared that this act constituted full recognition of the Nationalist Government of China, with which diplomatic relations would be conducted.
As the PLA armies moved south to complete the communist conquest of China in 1949, the American Embassy followed the Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, finally moving to Taipei later that year. US consular officials remained in mainland China. The new P.R.C. Government was hostile to this official American presence, and all US personnel were withdrawn from the mainland in early 1950. Any remaining hope of normalizing relations ended when US and Chinese communist forces fought on opposing sides in the Korean conflict.
US policy toward China during President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration remained essentially what it had been during the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations — non-recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC), support for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government and its possession of China's seat in the United Nations, and a ban on trade and travel to the PRC—but the consensus that had once supported US policy was eroding. President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, preoccupied with Vietnam, resisted changes in US policy, but even Johnson privately acknowledged that the United States would eventually have to recognize the PRC.
US involvement in the Vietnam conflict heightened the concern of US policymakers at what they perceived as an aggressive Chinese foreign policy. At an August 1965 meeting between Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the emphasis was on containment. The central question, Rusk declared, was how to persuade the Chinese leaders that they were on the wrong track. Such steps as admitting China to the United Nations would send exactly the wrong message. It had required a trillion dollars in NATO defense budgets to stop the Russians in Europe, he said, and it would require a major decision by the United States and its allies to stop the Chinese. McNamara agreed, adding that the US government had not really faced the problem of generating sufficient power to “convince the Chinese of their error.” A 1966 State-Defense study defined Chinese objectives as regional hegemony and world revolution. The three options for dealing with the Chinese which it laid out were disengagement, containment, and showdown. The middle option was recommended.
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