“Sino-American relations” is a historic process whereby China learns to become a world power despite its instinct for insularity and the United States adjusts to Chinese power despite its desire for global preeminence. This dynamic has been building for decades and is unlikely to be altered by either Xi Jinping or Donald Trump.

Still, after January 20, both nations will be led, for the first time since the opening in 1979, by men who view the relationship in fundamentally adversarial terms (this is overt in Trump’s case, implicit in Xi’s). Their distrust reflects real strategic, economic, and ideological incompatibilities as well as the attitudes of their citizens; since 2014, a majority of Chinese and Americans have had a negative view of the other country. In China, there is a widespread belief that the U.S. is in irreversible decline and seeks to contain China, while a growing number of Americans, particularly in the foreign policy community, are convinced that China intends to replace the United States as the primary strategic actor, or hegemon, of Asia.

The U.S. and China are trying to navigate an inevitable competition amidst deep mutual suspicion and domestic fragility. This unpalatable brew could be rendered toxic by the addition of nationalism on either side or by the flaring of tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the Baltics, or the Middle East. Foreign affairs bureaucracies in Washington and Beijing cannot function normally under these circumstances. Roadmaps devised by both sides to encourage cooperation and defuse tensions are of limited use. As a result, the threat of wild card events pushing the United States and China toward conflict is greater than it has been at any time in nearly 40 years.




Original remarks were published in English at The Diplomat and in Chinese at 钝角网