United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations

By establishing relations with China, the United States gained greater leverage in negotiations with the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

In 1949, guerrilla leader Mao Zedong Mao Zedong completed his long struggle to overthrow the nationalist government of China. Mao consolidated his victory by establishing a communist government on the Chinese mainland. The nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Taiwan, where they established a rival Chinese government. Both Chiang and Mao claimed to represent all of China. The United States officially recognized Chiang’s government in Taipei as the sole legitimate Chinese government. China;U.S.-China relations[U.S. China relations]
Diplomatic relations;U.S. and China
Taiwan Relations Act (1979)
[kw]United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations (Jan. 1, 1979)
[kw]China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations, United States and (Jan. 1, 1979)
[kw]Diplomatic Relations, United States and China Establish Full (Jan. 1, 1979)
China;U.S.-China relations[U.S. China relations]
Diplomatic relations;U.S. and China
Taiwan Relations Act (1979)
[g]North America;Jan. 1, 1979: United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations[03490]
[g]East Asia;Jan. 1, 1979: United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations[03490]
[g]United States;Jan. 1, 1979: United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations[03490]
[g]China;Jan. 1, 1979: United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations[03490]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 1, 1979: United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations[03490]
Brzezinski, Zbigniew
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;U.S.-China relations[U.S. China relations]
Deng Xiaoping
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;U.S.-China relations[U.S. China relations]

As the Cold War Cold War;China intensified in subsequent years, the United States sought to isolate and weaken the communist Chinese government, just as Washington had sought to contain the power and influence of the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1950’s, however, the nominal ideological affinity between the world’s two largest communist countries, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union, was unable to prevent a widening rift in their bilateral relations. In the 1960’s, the growing Sino-Soviet split led policy makers in Washington, D.C., to consider improving relations with the PRC as a way of isolating the Soviet Union, which was seen as the larger threat to U.S. security. In 1971, the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate held hearings on the possible establishment of official ties with the PRC and on admitting the PRC to the United Nations United Nations;China membership as the proper representative of China. The United Nations recognized the PRC that year, coincident with Taiwan’s expulsion from that U.N. seat.

A major breakthrough in U.S.-PRC relations came with President Richard M. Nixon’s state visit to Beijing in 1972. As a champion of the realist school of foreign policy, Nixon believed that the PRC’s ideological rhetoric and its disagreeable domestic behavior (including human rights abuses and intolerance of dissent) mattered less to U.S. interests than the PRC’s foreign policy. By establishing contact with the PRC, Nixon sought to give the communist government a stake in friendly relations with the United States. Nixon’s official visit opened the door to increased U.S.-PRC trade and a variety of military and security agreements. Nevertheless, the Nixon administration stopped short of granting the PRC full diplomatic recognition.

Ironically, it was President Jimmy Carter, noted for his self-professed commitment to human rights and morality in international affairs, who officially recognized the PRC. The political environment in which Carter found himself was fundamentally altered from the time of Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Nixon had resigned the presidency in 1974 in disgrace as a result of the Watergate scandal. Watergate scandal (1973) Mao had died in 1976. The leadership in the PRC came to be dominated by Deng Xiaoping, who promoted modernization, economic reform, and improved ties with the West. Although the PRC under Deng still was seen as a communist state guilty of continuing human rights abuses, it was considered to be an improvement over the Mao era. In addition, the PRC’s improving economy presented enticing trade and business opportunities to the United States. U.S.-PRC relations were continually improving.

Washington made overtures to Beijing on the subject of establishing full diplomatic relations. Although formal recognition was attractive to the PRC, the communist leadership steadfastly demanded of the United States three conditions: the termination of official relations with Taiwan, the removal of U.S. troops from Taiwan, and the abrogation of the U.S.-Taiwan mutual defense treaty. These conditions would be difficult for the pro-Taiwanese and anticommunist groups who forcefully, and often successfully, lobbied Congress.

Nevertheless, the Carter administration was motivated to reach an agreement with Beijing. As a result of a number of factors, including renewed Soviet military involvement in Africa and stalled arms control talks, U.S.-Soviet relations were worsening. Playing the “China card” therefore became increasingly attractive to the Carter administration. Behind-the-scenes negotiations continually sought a compromise on the various issues. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski held numerous and regular discussions with PRC officials in Washington, D.C.

By the end of 1978, a breakthrough had occurred. On December 15, the White House announced that full diplomatic relations with China would be established on the first of the new year. It formally acknowledged “the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” It also recognized the People’s Republic of China as “the sole legal Government of China.” As a small concession to Taiwan, the United States proclaimed that “the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” All this largely had been kept secret, and even much of the Congress had been kept in the dark.

Shortly thereafter, Deng Xiaoping was officially received in Washington, D.C. In their joint statements, the leaders of the United States and the PRC emphasized a shared anti-Soviet perspective. Despite scattered protests, most notably from Taiwan, the establishment of official ties between the United States and the PRC was widely applauded by governments around the world as a move that squared diplomacy with reality.

Within the United States, however, the Carter administration came under heavy criticism for “selling out” Taiwan. Making good on his promises to Beijing, Carter sought to replace the U.S.-Taiwan mutual defense treaty with the Taiwan Enabling Act, which did not guarantee Taiwan’s security and which would replace the U.S. embassy in Taipei with an American Institute in Taiwan to represent U.S. interests. Senator Barry Goldwater Goldwater, Barry challenged the president’s right to terminate the mutual defense treaty without Senate approval. Although Goldwater failed in that effort, the final bill passed by the U.S. Congress in the spring of 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act, provided several concessions to Taiwan. It expressed an intent to ensure that Taiwan receive enough defensive arms to protect itself and guaranteed that the lack of formal diplomatic relations would not disqualify Taiwan from various aid programs.


The establishment of relations between Washington and Beijing consolidated the tripolar diplomacy that was begun under Nixon. U.S.-PRC relations remained largely cooperative, although by no means was the PRC pulled into the political orbit of the United States. In fact, when the Soviet Union and most other communist countries implemented radical reforms in the late 1980’s and renounced communism altogether a short time later, China remained a committed communist state. Aside from a few anomalies like Cuba and Vietnam, in the mid-1990’s the PRC was the only globally significant communist state in existence.

Despite continued human rights abuses, including the mass murder of student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, U.S.-PRC relations have remained relatively steady, with Washington regularly granting Beijing “most favored nation” trade status. China;U.S.-China relations[U.S. China relations]
Diplomatic relations;U.S. and China
Taiwan Relations Act (1979)

Further Reading

  • Daley, John Charles, moderator. The Future of Chinese-American Relations. AEI Forum 29. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1979. Brief booklet presents comments from Senators Barry Goldwater, Alan Cranston, and Bob Dole and Congressman Jonathan Bingham on the then-developing normalization of relations with China. The forum that produced this work took place about eight months before the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
  • Garrett, Banning N., and Bonnie S. Glaser. “From Nixon to Reagan: China’s Changing Role in American Strategy.” In Eagle Resurgent? The Reagan Era in American Foreign Policy, edited by Kenneth A. Oye, Robert J. Lieber, and Donald Rothchild. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Scholarly article discusses the U.S. rapprochement with the PRC, including the establishment of official ties. Includes extensive footnotes.
  • Garson, Robert. The United States and China Since 1949: A Troubled Affair. London: Pinter, 1994. Chapter 6 examines the normalization of relations between the United States and China between 1972 and 1979. Includes notes and bibliography.
  • Gregor, A. James. The China Connection: U.S. Policy and the People’s Republic of China. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1986. History of U.S. involvement with China focuses on the establishment of the PRC, China’s foreign policy, and the PRC’s rapprochement with the United States. Presents a skeptical view of China’s predictability and the coincidence of interests between the United States and China.
  • Harding, Harry. A Fragile Relationship: The United States and China Since 1972. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1992. Smooth historical narrative presents discussion of the normalization of relations between the United States and China in chapter 3. Includes informative appendixes.
  • Kirby, William C., Robert S. Ross, and Gong Li, eds. Normalization of U.S.-China Relations: An International History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. Collection of essays by a multinational group of scholars draws on archival materials made available only decades after the normalization of U.S.-China relations.
  • Starr, John Bryan, ed. The Future of U.S.-China Relations. New York: New York University Press, 1981. Collection of essays written shortly after the establishment of full diplomatic relations presents a variety of perspectives on normalization. More analytic than historical.
  • Xia, Yafeng. Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.-China Talks During the Cold War, 1949-1972. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. Provides good background on the tensions between the United States and China during the period from the PRC’s establishment to Nixon’s meeting with Mao. Includes photographs, maps, bibliography, and index.

People’s Republic of China Is Seated at the United Nations

Nixon Opens Trade with China

Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China

China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses

Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair

United States and China Sign Trade Deal