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Remembering the Past and Managing the Future

By Wu Xinbo

On January 1, 1979, China and the United States formally established diplomatic ties. At that time, commentators generally hailed this as a major historical event that would open a new chapter in Sino-U.S. relations and reshape international politics. That said, even the most imaginative observers never envisaged how profoundly important this relationship would become.

Indeed, as we review the tremendous accomplishments in Sino-U.S. relations at the historical juncture of the fortieth anniversary, we should congratulate ourselves on the miracles that have been created through joint efforts of both nations: the Chinese and U.S. economies have become highly interdependent; the two countries coordinate and cooperate on a wide range of international affairs; each year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students study in the United States and tens of thousands of U.S. students study in China, and millions of tourists enjoy visiting each other’s countries. The growth and expansion in Sino-U.S. ties over the past four decades finds no historical comparison in any other bilateral relationship.

The past 40 years also witnessed from time to time serious challenges; from the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 to the Taiwan Strait Crisis during 1995 to 1996, from the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade to the mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter plane and a U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft in international waters near China’s Hainan Island in 2001. Every crisis lead bilateral ties into a temporary nosedive and darkened their prospects, yet Sino-U.S. relations survived each hard hit and regained momentum, becoming only stronger.

To be sure, the unprecedented expansion of Sino-U.S. ties over the past 40 years should be attributed first and foremost to the ever-growing common and overlapping interests between our two countries. Yet, we should also give credit to a shared strategic vision and belief that this relationship is significant not only to both countries, but also to the entire world. Such a vision and belief propels both sides to relentlessly promote cooperation and collaboration, while rationally dealing with their differences and frictions. In this sense, we should thank those who have taken care of this relationship with their vision, expertise and hard work.

To commemorate the unforgettable history of bilateral relations over the past 40 years, we launched the “40 on 40 project” and invited 40 former government officials and scholars from both sides who have worked for or studied this relationship to share with us their thoughts and insights. Their stories provide a valuable lens through which we can have a better and more vivid understanding of interactions between our two countries.

As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Sino-U.S. diplomatic normalization, this relationship stands at a critical juncture. In the United States, voices are getting louder for an overhaul of the China policy and adopting a tougher approach to China, including the decoupling of the two economies. In China, people are talking more seriously about a U.S. containment strategy as a way to prevent China from challenging U.S. primacy. The unprecedented trade war between China and the United States is not only damaging the foundation of bilateral ties, but has also sent a chilling shock through the global economy. Like it or not, in the next 40 years, interactions between China and the United States will become more competitive and more conflict prone, and management of this relationship will be more challenging. As we navigate the more uncertain territory ahead of us, it behooves us to reflect on the experiences of the past 40 years. Just as the Chinese proverb says, “history is a mirror for our guidance.” We hope the thoughts and insights presented in the project will help us better prepare to manage this relationship in the future.

Wu Xinbo is a professor and dean of the Institute of International Studies, and a director at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.