No country is more central to American economic anxieties than China. The nation represents serious economic competition — its rise looms on the horizon, challenging the United States’ status as the world’s largest economy, portending and reinforcing fears of American decline.
Those worries over China’s power began in the 1990s. After a decade of fears about the rise of Japan and Germany proved unfounded, Americans saw a growing number of factories shutter at home as manufacturing jobs moved to Asia and Latin America. Meanwhile, Chinese imports saturated their everyday lives.
The painful process of deindustrialization at the end of the 20th century decimated the U.S. middle class and left widespread anxiety in its wake. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan tapped into this sentiment, conveying nostalgia for an imagined period in American history: a time when the United States was the uncontested leader in global trade, before its economic predominance seemed under threat, before its jobs went overseas, before cheap commodities bombarded its markets.
To most Americans, the insatiable demand for Chinese products seems like a relatively recent phenomenon, a function of the post-1970s desire for cheap disposable consumer goods. Some leaders fear that American consumption habits will cause irreparable trade deficits. However, this view that American consumption of foreign goods has reached unprecedented levels stems from a myopic understanding of U.S. history, one where North Americans only began trading with Asia after pushing westward across the continent by the mid-19th century.
If we look at the long history of U.S.-China trade relations, we see that Asian trade has deeply affected North Americans’ lives since the 17th century. Colonists exhibited a voracious appetite for Chinese goods, especially tea, silk and porcelain. Indeed, European demand for alternative routes to Asia drove Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World. Spanish conquistadors subdued Mexico and Peru and enslaved indigenous people to mine silver, and Spanish navigators tracked the trade winds necessary to cross the Pacific to ship silver — all so they could buy sought-after Chinese goods.
Long before the United States became a nation, Asian producers and consumers economically integrated places like Boston, Philadelphia and New York into a larger world economy. Chinese commodities even struck at the core of colonial disputes during the American Revolution when Boston Tea Partiers dumped Asian tea into the harbor to protest British taxes.
Americans keenly responded to the demands of China’s markets and avoided the more abrasive tactics of their navy-backed British rivals. They traded with Native Americans for sea otter furs, Hawaiians for sandalwood, Mariana Islanders for sea slugs — whatever items China most coveted. Some American traders even donned Manchurian hairdos and silken robes. They courted Chinese merchants and went into business with them.
But China’s relations with the outside world changed rapidly over the 19th century, laying the groundwork for how many Americans view the issue today. In 1793, the Qing emperor refused foreign requests to lift restrictions limiting external trade, claiming his “Celestial Empire” had “no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians.” After two defeats in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, the emperor capitulated and ceded to most foreign demands.
Europeans transformed their calls for free and open access to China’s markets into outright military aggression and colonization. China’s “century of humiliation” followed with internal rebellions and foreign interventions tearing its social fabric asunder. This turmoil contributed to the rise of the Communist Party in 1949 and its decision to close the Chinese economy. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s Communist Party reformed the economy to expand China’s manufacturing base, Americans quickly began to devour the cheap exports that flooded world markets. This process accelerated over the next two and half decades.
In 2016, China’s economic rise became a topic of political debate, ending in the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an association ironically developed to counter China’s economic power. Under the Trump administration, the United States has imposed tariffs on various Chinese exports, including steel and aluminum. Tensions continue to grow as each nation threatens to impose additional tariffs on the other.
In the late 18th century, Americans secured favorable trade terms with Chinese merchants by being savvier and more innovative than their British counterparts. Their autonomy from Old World empires allowed them to strike compromises, form partnerships and exhibit flexibility with Chinese merchants. American traders stunned their British rivals by transporting cargo faster and more efficiently than their national monopolies. Within two decades, the China trade helped Americans establish economic sovereignty as a new nation.
Future American political leaders should follow that example and position the United States within a global market centered on Asia. The history of U.S.-China relations reveals both the problems with protectionism and opportunities that accompany versatility. Indeed, trade with China could again be the key to a prosperous American future just as many Americans believed it to be over two centuries ago.