U.S.-China relations are increasingly complex and intertwined. Both countries have called for greater cooperation, yet this stands in stark contrast to recently intensified mistrust. Plans for the United States and China to focus on building a mutually trustful relationship are unrealistic at this juncture, given mutual skepticism of strategic intentions and unwillingness, on either side, to display strategic vulnerability. Alternatively, the best step forward is aiming for a constructive relationship based on interdependence and confidence wherein both sides can predictably pursue their rational self-interest.
Power politics between the two great powers is inevitably a zero-sum game; a rise in Chinese power is treated as running counter to U.S. interests, and vice versa, regardless of intentions. While Washington remains skeptical of Beijing’s ambitions in its “Peaceful Development” and Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is equally suspicious of the U.S.-led alliance system and regards it as a tool left over from the Cold War, designed to isolate and contain China. Tallying recent developments in the long list of contentious bilateral issues reveals a pattern of widening strategic mistrust that must be managed.
Image: The White House from Washington, D.C. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons