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The Mystery of Trade relations between China and U.S.

In these days there are a lot of discussion about the so-called Trade War between the United States and China.  Drinking coffee and reading the New York Times, I have found an article by Ana Swanson (July 5, 2018):

“A trade war between the world’s two largest economies officially began on Friday morning as the Trump administration followed through with its threat to impose tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese products, a significant escalation of a fight that could hurt companies and consumers in both the United States and China.”

Then she added:

“China’s Ministry of Commerce said in a statement that the United States ‘has launched the biggest trade war in economic history so far.’”

The allusion of China’s Ministry of Commerce to history casts my mind to history of trade relations between the United States and China, and when they began. Going backwards, I find that the American discovery of China took place after the American War of Independence (1775-1782) . Some attempts were performed in 1783 by several Boston merchants, but unsuccessful. The first American ship that landed in a China port sailed on February 22, 1784, under the command of Samuel Show, who later became aide of camp to General Henry Knox (1750-1806). The first American ship to reach a Chinese port put into Canton in late August, and Show and his crew found unexpected supports among both English and French merchants, who were eager to forget the recent wars. The Americans loaded their ship with a large amount of goods, particularly ginseng and then they sailed with a precious cargo of tea and arrived in New York harbor in May, 1785.

The discovery of China was an event which attracted national attention, and Commander Samuel Show received congratulations by the Congress and, at the same time, the task of establishing lasting trade relations with China.  American newspapers spoke at length of Captain Show’s eventful journey. After the success obtained by Show, other Americans began trading with China. In 1787 Thomas Reid sailed from Philadelphia returning in 1788 with a cargo that moved a business volume of half a million dollars. After T. Reid, Captain Dennison departed in December 1787 and returned in 1789. The United States began stable trade relations with China since 1790, when went to China several ships, such as the Asia, the Canton, and the Astrea, under the command of James Magee and T.H. Perkins.

In that time Canton was not regulated by a market authority and, generally speaking, more profitable business was made thanks to the opportunism of the Chinese customs officers.  On the other hand, we need to take into account that physical safety of foreign traders was not provided by any bilateral relationship with the Chinese Government and it depended entirely from the benevolence of Chinese customs officers responsible for monitoring trading practices in Canton.  Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that apartment houses reserved for foreigners were assembled in limited and subsidiaries areas, and the Chinese officers always filtered the relations between the Americans and the Chinese merchants.

During the next years, there was found a strong Chinese demand for sandal wood, and for other products of the South Seas.  These classes of merchandise gave rise to the modern economic relations that in spite of every difficulty have continued to exert a significant key role up until contemporary times.

But todays it seems that trade relations between the United States and China are not idyllic.

The tricks of fate, but they seemed to be made for each other. On the other hand, God moves in a mysterious way.



  1. S. Latourette, The History of Early Relations between the United States and China 1784-1844. New Haven. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1917, p. 29 and pp. 13-20.
  2. Askari, Case Studies of US Economic Sanctions, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, pp. 15 ff.

Image, Perception, and the Making of U.S.-China Relations, edited by Hongshan Li-Zhaohui Hong, University Press of America, 1998, p. 18 ff.






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