The relationship between the United States and China has not always been as lukewarm as it is today. The two nations used to be good bedfellows, especially in the 1940s when China groaned under the military oppression of Japanese soldiers. The United States was one of the countries that strongly stood up for China and demanded that the Japanese occupying forces leave Chinese territories without delay.

How China - U.S. Relations Reversed Over Time

China’s Victory Day

As the world marked the 70th anniversary to the end of World War II this month, the U.S. and China can look back to the rosy alliance they enjoyed during the war. While Japan allied itself with the Nazis and automatically became the enemy of the United States, China was glorified as a prominent U.S. ally and a fighter that promoted freedom for humanity.

At the beginning of the Japanese militarization of China, U.S. involvement in the crisis was solely restricted to diplomatic pronouncements that condemned in strong voice the atrocities Japanese soldiers were perpetrating on ordinary Chinese civilians. But in 1940, then-President Franklin Roosevelt stepped up his game and ordered that China be given credits to purchase military weapons so it could withstand its Japanese oppressors. Using its powerful propaganda machine, the United States made every American believe the Chinese were their friends and that they should do everything in their power to help them in their time of need. In fact, the U.S. movie industry jumped on the bandwagon with a popular film series titled Why We Fight, which was produced by Frank Capra and deliberately glorified the Chinese army as “forces of good.”

The relationship between the United States and China got stronger when the Japanese refused to denounce the Nazi regime and follow U.S. leadership. America imposed a full embargo on Japan as a result of this fallout. And when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan.

China – U.S. diplomatic relations

The diplomatic romance between the U.S. and China strengthened as Japan was alienated. Even the U.S. media went agog for China, and Time magazine showed images of China’s then-leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his wife Soong Mei-ling on two covers during the war. Both were praised for their efforts to crush their Japanese enemies in their territories.

Soong Mei-ling (also known as Madame Chang), who was educated in the United States, eventually became the loud mouthpiece of the Chinese people as she instructed her American audience on the plight of her people. She was featured in several interviews and on TV, spreading her message about the “Battle of China” to the American people who listened to her with rapt attention. There was obviously a feeling of sympathy for the suffering Chinese in the U.S. at that time. And this general empathy with the Chinese only made the relationship between the two countries stronger.

The U.S. Congress couldn’t be left behind in the race to help broadcast the Chinese people’s plight all over the world. So Madam Chang was invited 1943 to address U.S. lawmakers, making history as the first Chinese and the second woman of any nationality to do so. Her speech was enigmatic and loaded with powerful messages for them. She reminded them that Japan was an enemy as cruel as Germany and that the Chinese people had suffered greatly under their oppression. In her own words, Madam Chang said, “Let us not forget that Japan in her occupied areas today has greater resources at her command than Germany. Let us not forget that the longer Japan is left in undisputed possession of these resources, the stronger she must become. Each passing day takes more toll in lives of Americans and Chinese.”

Functions of United China Relief

This strong alliance between the United States and China spilled into every other area between the two nations. For instance, in 1941, attempts were made to go into the humanitarian aspect of the war, and United China Relief was founded. The primary function of the organization was to gather relief materials from sympathetic Americans and distribute them to families in China that needed them. These relief materials included clothes, money, food, medicines and other necessary items. United China Relief harnessed other groups to work together to raise funds and other items for war-torn China.

United China Relief undertook its own intensive research to discover the gravity of the Chinese people’s plight. The group found out that the war had shattered the lives of ordinary Chinese, and it launched a massive publicity campaign to inform the world about the situation. United China Relief used posters and advertisements in newspapers and magazines to promote its cause. It actually produced a documentary in 1944 meant to introduce Americans to their Chinese friends living thousands of miles away: “China once seemed almost as remote as the moon to us here in America … [But] our common struggle has brought its people close to our hearts. Today our soldiers and theirs fight together on many battlefields,” the documentary stated.

The 1941 documentary produced by United China Relief borrowed a powerful quote from Pearl S. Buck, a famous American novelist who was brought up in China and set some of her novels there. The quote read thus: “I believe that China is at this very moment a pivot nation: Who has her friendship will rule the future; who loses it will be lost,” she said.

But irony! The U.S. won World War II with the help of China but eventually lost its friendship with the Oriental country because of the resurgence of Communism in China immediately after the war. As America grew its democratic ideals and expanded them to many willing nations, Chinese leaders stuck with their Communist ideologies. These opposing political and social values now keep the two erstwhile allies dangerously apart.

China allied itself with the Communist Soviet Union and became a sworn enemy of the United States. The U.S. and China clashed in the Korean War, supporting North Korea, while the U.S. stood with the South Korea. The Cold War further kept the two countries on opposite sides of history: while the U.S. collaborated with the rest of the West on many fronts, while China sided with the Soviet Union.

The U.S. and China may never enjoy such a close alliance again. Nowadays, if they are not competing economically or for political influence, the two countries are facing each other again in the South China Sea. China has claimed sole ownership of the swathe of islands in the sea, areas that are also hotly contested by countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Cambodia. China has surreptitiously been building civilian and military structures on the disputed islands despite loud oppositions from the other countries laying claim on the same islands.

China has militarized the region, an issue that makes U.S. strategists uncomfortable because China can utilize its heavy military presence in the areas to terrorize other small countries. Hence, the United States has responded in the same fashion and sent its military arsenal to the region, with five navy bases situated in the Philippines. This action doesn’t sit well with Chinese leaders who think the U.S. is intruding in its private matters.