China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China Is Signaling Its Desire to Improve Relations With the US. Is Anyone Listening?

Chinese officials’ World War II commemorations hold an important message for the modern day China-U.S. relationship.

By Aries Li for
China Is Signaling Its Desire to Improve Relations With the US. Is Anyone Listening?

A Chinese soldier guards a line of American P-40 fighter planes, painted with the shark-face emblem of the “Flying Tigers”, at a flying field somewhere in China, ca 1942.

Credit: e U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

American and Chinese officials sent very different messages as they commemorated the 75th anniversary of their shared World War II victory in early September. Speaking on the battleship USS North Carolina in Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 2, U.S. President Donald Trump insulted the Black Lives Matter movement as an adversary of the freedom and liberty that American soldiers fought to protect in the 1940s. Trump did not mention the United States’ wartime allies. Meanwhile at Pearl Harbor, Defense Secretary Mark Esper vaguely acknowledged the contribution of other nations in the victory, only to then call for unity against the perceived threat to the U.S.-championed “free and open” international order. Left unspoken was the country seen as that threat: China.

From these speeches, it would be easy to forget that the United States and China were allies during World War II. China tied down the majority of Japanese troops and restricted Japan’s ability to send more forces elsewhere in the Pacific theater. While conflicts between China and the U.S. rage in the present, the past holds lessons about cooperation and unity.

A few hours after Trump’s and Esper’s speeches in the United States, Chinese top officials sent friendly signals to Washington by praising the anti-fascist alliance that won the war. The statements to celebrate the victory of World War II from Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, indicate that the Chinese government desires to improve relations and cooperate on shared challenges with the United States, although China shows a strong determination to not cede on other issues deemed vital to its national security and interests.

In Xi’s commemoration speech in the afternoon of September 3 (the early morning in Washington), he recalled the Chinese patriotism, leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and the united front among the Chinese people that led to victory in World War II (known in China as the “World Anti-Facist War”). But Xi also credited cooperation with the Allies and other opponents of fascism. The Chinese people would forever appreciate and never forget, Xi explained, partners like the “Flying Tigers,” a term the Chinese commonly use to refer to the mercenary American Volunteer Group and the U.S. Army pilots stationed in China during the war. By praising cooperation of the past, the Chinese president seemed to signal a willingness to reduce modern-day tensions between the United States and China.

China’s signal to the current or next U.S. administration came even stronger in an article titled “Honor World War II with a Better, Shared Future,” published on September 3 in the American news outlet Defense One. Co-authors Cui Tiankai and Anatoly Antonov are the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the United States. While recalling their countries’ contributions to the victory, at the very beginning of the article, Cui and Antonov also “congratulate the United States, our ally at the time, and thank its ‘Greatest Generation’ for their sacrifice.” They mobilized memories of the World War II alliance to envision “a shared future for mankind” that includes cooperation in the fight against the pandemic and on other issues like economic recession, climate change, and terrorism. This article indirectly criticized the Trump administration’s abandonment of frameworks and organizations for international collaboration, but its main message was to call for future cooperation based on the past successful experience of the World War II alliance.

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In addition to top-level Chinese officials’ public recollections of wartime cooperation, Chinese news outlets also reported local commemorations related to the U.S.-China wartime alliance centered around the story of the Flying Tigers. If Beijing opposed the possibility of cooperation, it would not allow such commemorations to be reported on inside China and it would shut down or remove the memorials and museums dedicated to the U.S.-China wartime partnership.

Americans should not simply brush off such messages as Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Local reporting, the articles written by ambassadors, and Xi’s speech together signal that Chinese officials hope to reduce tensions, using conversations rather than confrontations to sort out differences with the United States. If Beijing wanted to maintain a hostile relationship with Washington, it would have avoided praising the wartime cooperation. It is undeniable that Chinese nationalism is rising, as many Chinese people call for a bold stance against threats made by the Trump administration. In this tense climate, the American policy community should pay more attention to the fact that China’s top officials are willing to publicly call for future strategic cooperation with the United States based on historical experience.

China has a long history of sending subtle signals to start new diplomatic conversations. In 1970, for example, Mao Zedong invited his long-time American friend Edgar Snow, the author of “Red Star Over China,” to stand next to him above Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace). By doing so, Mao conveyed to Washington and the Chinese people alike a willingness to explore a new relationship between the two countries. Chinese officials who remember the World War II alliance with the United States are sending signals again today, as tensions mount between the two nations. Unfortunately, neither the Trump administration nor Joe Biden and his advisers have showed any interest in these signals.

As the most important international relationship of our times, China and the United States ought to remember the past and look for ways to avoid conflicts and work together on shared challenges in the present and future. Both sides need to acknowledge that their interests do not always overlap, but confrontation and conflict harm all. Neither side can afford an all-out war, especially during the pandemic and ensuing global economic recession. As the United States focuses on the approaching election in November, there is little space for improving U.S.-China relations, especially as both political parties present China as a competitor or even an enemy. But Americans should be more attentive to Chinese expressions of interest in strategic cooperation.

Aries Li is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rutgers University, specializing in the history of U.S.-China relations and memory study.