How China and America See Each Other

And Why They Are on a Collision Course

The stage of the Great Hall of the People is reflected in a journalist's binoculars, October 15, 2007.
The stage of the Great Hall of the People is reflected in a journalist's binoculars, October 15, 2007. (Joe Chan / Courtesy Reuters)

Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations. Edited by Nina Hachigian. Oxford University Press, 2014, 272 pp. $21.95.

It has become one of the most obvious clichés in international politics: the United States and China have the most important bilateral relationship in the world. What is not so obvious is the nature of that relationship. Until recently, most observers were willing to settle for an accurate but inelegant description: that the countries are neither friends nor foes.

At first glance, this designation seems reasonable. The United States and China are clearly not allies. They share no overriding security interests or political values, and their conceptions of world order fundamentally clash. Whereas Beijing looks forward to a post-American, multipolar world, Washington is trying to preserve the liberal order it leads even as its relative power wanes. Meanwhile, numerous issues in East Asia, such as tensions over Taiwan and disputes between Beijing and Tokyo, are causing U.S. and Chinese interests to collide more directly. Yet the two countries are not really adversaries, either. They do not see each other as implacable ideological or security threats. And the fact that their economies are so deeply intertwined makes both countries hell-bent on avoiding conflict.

But the world has changed a great deal since the “neither friends nor foes” label was first slapped on U.S.-Chinese relations two decades ago. The remarkable expansion of Chinese power and the global financial crisis that ravaged the economies of the United States and Europe have accentuated the sense that the West is declining and the rest are rising. The gap between U.S. and Chinese power, which was already narrowing before the financial crisis, has since closed further. In 2007, the United States’ economy was four times as large as that of China; by 2012, it was only twice as large.

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