The phrase “US-China relations” is a mixed metaphor.  The People’s Republic of China is the national name for the civilization of China.  The United States of America is the national name for the civilization of America. In this essay we examine the roots of the mixed metaphor we are now so accustomed to using.

“America-China” or “US-China” Relations?

If you have been reading our publications for any length of time, you may have noticed that The Tai Initiative prefers to refer to “America-China” and “USA-PRC” separately at different times.  Is this just rebellion or a contrary spirit? No, it is for a specific reason, and sits at the core of our message. We are making an effort to move away from the long-standing habit of using “US-China” relations as the standard phrase in the international relations community.  Let’s examine why “US-China” is an inaccurate reference at best and in some ways even works contrary to the direction in which subnational leadership trends are leading us.

Note: the following points are almost entirely applicable only in the English language.  In Chinese, 中美关系 (zhong-mei guanxi) is a nearly perfect application of the meaning “China-America relations” of the sense in which this article deals with the topic.  However, in Chinese the distinction between civilizational (中国) and national (中华人民共和国 ) is currently much more difficult to discuss than it is in American English.

To better understand how and why we use the titles we do in contemporary American society and the “US-China Relations” field of work, we ought to walk a short tour through 20th century history.

Standing Up

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, the United States of America (USA) was mostly shocked at the revelation that the Republic of China (ROC), newly victorious in the allied fight against Fascism in the East, had not been able to maintain power over, and govern, the mainland.  Given the context of political and economic thinking in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was a strong tendency in American academia, government, and the military to refer to the PRC as “The People’s Republic”. It would be years before Americans regularly referred to the mainland simply as “China”. Sometimes the phrase used was even “Red China” or “Chi-Coms”, short for “Chinese Communists”.  These were fairly disparaging terms and are at the core of what today is called “Cold War Thinking”. Those terms are no longer used in the American federal government and certainly not anywhere within the broad assortment of US-China relations organizations across the country. Within the PRC there were likewise a list of disparaging terms used for the Americans, Western Thought, and other foreign influences.

There was no real relationship between the PRC and the USA even though there were many groups of Americans who still maintained a vision of “one day” achieving an open and mutually beneficial dialogue with mainland Chinese.  We know now that many Chinese similarly held such a view toward America through those decades. A deep dive into learning about the specific actions of many people on both sides of the Pacific during those hard decades is a treasure trove of discoveries one will not likely regret.

Then Came Change

The day finally came when Mao Zedong opened up his nation to dialogue in the process of being visited by Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon.  To overly simplify and summarize this period, Americans and Chinese alike were overwhelmed with happiness that a new era of relation building could begin, ongoing relations with the Republic of China notwithstanding.  Delegations of American officials began to travel, slowly at first, but more and more frequently as the 1980s drew on, in this exciting new exploration. Everyone associated with an interest in China knew they were participating in making history, small or large it did not matter.

I can say without reservation that in America a change in the vernacular began to appear.  Specifically in an effort to put hurts and fears behind us, America’s reference to “The People’s Republic of China” began to change.  We dropped the distinction of the Communist portion of the title and chose to merely say “China” as the accepted phrase.

This was supported by at least two major factors.  One, the fact that the American federal government no longer recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the government of China; after Nixon’s visit, the PRC was recognized as the official government of China, and our embassy began to operate in Beijing (and theirs in DC as well).  Two, there was a clear sense that by choosing to drop “The People’s Republic of” from the PRC name, we would be able to achieve a closer, more trusting, and mutually felt relationship. Through the 1990s, if an American official were to make a point of referencing the “PR” portion of PRC, that person was considered to be trying to make an ideologic argument, and few officials were ready to support such a campaign or agenda in those days.  By simply saying simply “China”, Americans were essentially saying “We are interested in dropping our Cold War thinking and getting to know you deeper”. In the Chinese language, this distinction was lost and today we see evidence that many Chinese officials were not aware of American efforts to build a relationship that truly went beyond the level of trade and commerce.

U-S-A!  U-S-A!

What about references to The United States of America?  The phrase “USA” had become a popular one around the world during the 20th century.  The phrase “America” was less so.  This was partly due to the fact that there are two continents named North and South America.  To refer to the USA as “America” during the ‘50s and ‘60s in the Western world (globally speaking) was in direct contrast to the post-colonial thinking washing over Western societies and policy makers’ minds in the wake of victory against Fascism worldwide.  Despite the complexities of the far-less-than-perfect USA foreign policies enacted during this time in the struggle against Communist movements in several countries (notably in Central and South America), there was nevertheless a strong current in The United States of America – socially speaking if not governmentally — to avoid becoming “like” our former colonial Western European brethren.  This is in small part evidence for the assertion The Tai Initiative makes that the American civilization is the world’s newest and youngest, that it is a new and distinct identity born originally from two parents: the West and Africa. Since America’s birth, the other world civilizations have likewise contributed to its growth, maturation, and power. Whether the USA will “always” be the national manifestation of the American civilization remains to be seen, of course, but world history tells us it will not.

Today it is hard to remember or notice that in the early 1980s the vernacular of workers in the field of what was then referred to as “Sino-American relations” began to adjust their terminology from “People’s Republic” to simply “China”.  This was a huge step. Shortly thereafter we began using the easily spoken phrase “US-China relations” and for the past three decades we have had no reason to question this term.

New Thinking Ahead?

But today we see – increasingly so in mass media of both nations — a need for new thinking about the America-China relationship.  Henry Kissinger has been saying for the past two decades that we need new thinking.  The Tai Initiative was formed to educate Chinese and Americans alike to consider the key to this new thinking is to see the existence of four distinct levels of relationship — civilizational, national, subnational, and individual – in our daily lives.

To say US-China relations is a mixed metaphor.  The People’s Republic of China is the national name for the civilization of China.  The United States of America is the national name for the civilization of America (a TI assertion, to be sure; we acknowledge that academia is far from settled on this assertion).  To use the “US” portion of “USA” is to emphasize the national part of that name. To use the “China” portion of “PRC” is to emphasize the civilizational part of that name. How interesting and ironic that in the English speaking world this simple phrase has been – in some way – the key to keeping us from challenging our assumptions about who we are, what nationalism means, and whether levels of relationship even matter.