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The conflict eventually petered out, with the opposing forces facing each other around the 38th parallel that currently demarcates South from North Korea. And the legacy of the stalemate has provided remarkable stability, until first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un, successive leaders in Pyongyang, have sought greater security for their regime by conducting repeated nuclear and missile tests. Yet Beijing has not forgotten that the United States tried hard to thwart the Communist triumph at home in the 1940s, and isolated the country in the two decades that followed by ensuring that Chiang’s government (by now in Taiwan) rather than the Communists occupied China’s seat in the UN Security Council.

Sino-US rapprochement, championed in the early 1970s by Chairman Mao and President Richard Nixon, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai, ended some of the enmity. It led to Washington’s formal abandonment of Taiwan and the establishment, in 1979, of full diplomatic ties with Beijing. Since then, the US-China relationship has “thickened” in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago, let alone in the 1970s. More than that, it has survived a series of crises and setbacks that might easily have provoked estrangement or even conflict again. Or at least it has until now.

Yet at the back of China’s mind is a feeling that the United States has still not reconciled itself to the presence of a Communist government in Beijing. It maintains, correctly, that Washington is ideologically opposed to CCP rule, and that it would like to see it “liberalised” or “reformed” to weaken and once again humiliate China for its own political and economic advantage. In this context, repeated US statements to the effect that a strong, stable and unified China is in its own interests make only limited headway.              

If Sino-American relations have been critical to both parties for decades, it is today surely the most important bilateral relationship in the world. This is so because of the vast range and significance of the issues at stake in the relationship, and the fact that many of them have a major bearing on the rest of the world, especially, though not only, the Asia Pacific region. A quick tour of the strategic landscape will reinforce the point.

Asia-Pacific is the most populous region of the world, the source, by far, of the largest share of global growth, home to the world’s busiest trade routes and sea lanes, and the source and destination of some of the largest investment flows. Yet it is also the world’s largest single theatre of strategic contention, for the most part between China and the United States or its allies. Both parties are deeply implicated in the region’s great unresolved issues: the crisis over North Korea; Sino-Japanese rivalry focused on but not limited to sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands; Taiwan’s determination to remain independent of China; and Beijing’s quiet but rapid build-up of military and other facilities on strategic islands among the huge and widely contested archipelagos in the South China Seas.

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