U.S.-China Ties Remain Strong Amid Rising Disputes

I have just returned from several days in Beijing, where I joined seven other Brookings colleagues in a series of meetings with academics, entrepreneurs and senior government officials for conversations about the state of U.S.-China relations. Nearly all of our conversations addressed the sharp and surprising downward turn that the bilateral relationship has taken in recent months, with mounting tensions spanning a wide range of issues from maritime disputes to cyber security.

Conversations often turned to the “New Type of Great Power Relations,” a framework for U.S.-China relations that, since last year’s meeting between Presidents Obama and Xi, has become a kind of mutually endorsed shorthand for the type of bilateral relationship that will be necessary if both countries are to work together effectively on the world stage in the coming decades. But it remains unclear exactly what such a relationship would entail, and how—if at all–it would differ from both the current model of bilateral relations and the relationships that China and the United States enjoy with other countries.

I also detected a clear gap in perceptions: Many with whom we spoke in Beijing expressed concerns that Washington is either encouraging its allies in the Asia-Pacific region to pursue maritime territorial claims against China or, at the very least, profiting from the sharply increased regional tensions that these disputes have generated. This could not be further from the truth: As several of my colleagues asserted, the United States is deeply concerned about the potential for disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea to escalate into more direct conflict. Of course, perception gaps in the United States are also quite concerning. Despite the unprecedented levels of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, the vast majority of Americans now see China as posing a threat to the United States. While members of the senior leadership, as well as the Chinese public, argue that China has been on the defensive in these disputes, Americans increasingly see an aggressive and increasingly powerful China as the prime driver of regional tensions. And while many in China presume the United States is not ready to accept China’s rise as a global economic superpower, the surprising reality is that a majority of Americans believe—mistakenly—that China is already the world’s largest economy. This visit also made it clear that both sides have been too quick to view the other’s actions as part of a grand strategy.

In addition to our private meetings, we also participated in several meetings at Tsinghua University, including a public event hosted by the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy exploring what China’s rise means for the international order. Here, one of my colleagues put the U.S.-China relationship in a global perspective, arguing persuasively that the United States and China should not expect a bilateral relationship free of conflict; rather, we should recognize that cooperation is possible even where disagreements exist. In the South China Sea, for example, the United States and China may have different views on specific issues, but both sides have a shared interest in regional stability and security and are working together to rally international support on major issues like climate change.

Our scholars also met with entrepreneurs, economists and senior economic officials. They generally held a more positive outlook, and our conversations reinforced the fact that our economic ties remain strong. However, across a wide range of issues from security to the economy, there was a consensus that both sides should work to patch up disagreements in advance of this fall’s APEC meetings in Beijing.