Within a decade, President Richard Nixon was stepping onto the Tarmac at Peking's airport, ready to make a partnership of convenience with China against the common enemy, the Soviet Union. In 1979 the relationship was sealed when the US gave full diplomatic recognition to Peking, and severed official links with Taiwan.
These days, China and the US no longer have a mutual foe to unite them and the relationship is again under considerable strain. Yesterday, the official Xinhua news agency warned in an unsigned commentary that Sino- US relations were now "at their lowest ebb since the two countries established diplomatic ties 16 years ago". It thundered: "We would like to advise those Americans with an anti-China mentality to give up their anachronistic way of thinking and hegemonic psychology so that Cold War II can be avoided."
The commentary was directed against American magazines and newspapers which have branded China as the "new evil empire" and "a temperamental emerging superpower". Xinhua said these articles reflected ignorance and prejudice. "In their opinion, it seems that only the US has the right of development while China does not." Thus the US is portrayed as the bogeyman who blocks everything from China's entry into the World Trade Organisation to its bid to host the 2000 Olympics.
Xinhua's outburst draws on China's rich seam of nationalistic fervour which some analysts say is being mined to shore up the government's position ahead of the post-Deng Xiaoping era. Others argue that it simply reflects China's new-found confidence that it will be the next great superpower.
More immediately, the Xinhua blast was timed to coincide with the arrival today in Shanghai of the US Under-Secretary of State, Peter Tarnoff. He is the most senior American official to visit China since relations collapsed in June after the Taiwan President, Lee Teng-hui, was given a visa to travel to the US. Mr Tarnoff will be in Peking until Sunday in an attempt to put the bilateral relationship back on an even keel.
The US team will want to talk about the issues which divide Washington and Peking, including the detention of the Chinese-American Harry Wu, trade imbalances, China's nuclear tests, intellectual property disputes, and visa problems for American women coming to next week's international conference on women.
For China, however, the key to any improvement in relations is now Washington's policy over Taiwan. It is difficult for people in the West to understand the deeply-held conviction of mainlanders that Taiwan is a part of China. Xiong Zhiyong, of Peking's Foreign Affairs College, said: "The Chinese are really afraid Taiwan some day will declare independence.
" It is very difficult to explain this to people who do not have this sort of feeling. From when we were children, we learnt that Taiwan is part of China." Asked to suggest a Western analogy, he cited Canadian feelings over Quebec.
On the issue of Taiwan more than any other, the rhetoric which spews forth from the propaganda machine does actually mirror views held by a wide variety of Chinese. When the US announced that a visa would be forthcoming for President Lee, Chinese people "felt cheated", said Professor Xiong, who specialises in Sino-US relations.
When President Clinton last year separated human rights issues from trade policy towards China, the likely corollary was that Taiwan would be rewarded in some way for its progress towards democracy. Next year, for instance, will see the first democratic election of a Taiwanese president, a landmark contest in which President Lee yesterday confirmed he would take part. But the Chinese government is unable to accept that international relations are built on compromise as well as Peking's much-trumpeted "Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence" between nations.