The Magellan Exchange: How America and China Have Made Each Other

Posted on Fri., April 7, 2023

Andrés Reséndez, professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the Robert C. Ritchie Distinguished Fellow, discusses how America and China have gone from enthusiastic trading partners to strategic rivals in only a decade, the latest twist in a much deeper history spanning half a millennium.

The Pacific Ocean was the greatest obstacle to the movement of plants, peoples, goods, and ideas until the middle of the 16th century when humans finally beat a path across the water and forged a continuous connection, first through Spanish galleons and then by means of American sailing vessels and steamships. This dependable link across the Pacific has molded the American continent and China into what they are today.

Highly productive American crops enabled China’s rapid population growth as American corn and sweet potatoes boosted China’s share of the world’s population from 25% in 1500 to an overwhelming 36% by 1800. In turn, China’s demand for silver transformed colonial Latin America spawning mines across the region, while China’s desire for sea otter pelts from the Pacific coast of North America in the late 18th century accelerated America’s westward expansion.