The Catch-22 in U.S.-Chinese Relations

The Future of Bilateral Ties

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a response from Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California June 7, 2013. Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters

When U.S. President Barack Obama arrived at the White House in 2009, his Asia team met with its Chinese counterpart and exchanged views on how each side envisioned the bilateral relationship evolving in the years ahead. Chinese diplomats offered their suggestion: by elevating the U.S-Chinese relationship to a so-called strategic partnership, U.S. officials would show respect for China’s rising status in the world and build trust among the peoples of the two countries. Only then could Washington and Beijing begin engaging and cooperating in new and more mature ways. The Americans saw the process in reverse. The United States couldn’t agree to change the definition of the relationship until the two countries began acting and cooperating like strategic partners.

In the nearly six years since these initial conversations, this catch-22 has continued to be an obstacle in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, which is now focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal to build a “new type of major-country relations” with the United States. When, at the no-necktie summit in California in 2013, Xi put forward the concept, he mentioned three foundational principles: no conflict and no confrontation; mutual respect, including for both countries’ core interests and major concerns; and win-win cooperation. The United States has long reiterated that the relationship should be based not on slogans but on the quality of the cooperation. Initially, however, Obama expressed a willingness to explore the proposal both because it came directly from the Chinese leader and because it aimed to address the historical tendency of destabilizing competition and war between rising and status quo powers. But China’s call for respect for core interests has been a showstopper in Washington, seen as an indication that what China really seeks is U.S. concessions on areas of long-standing disagreement between the two countries. 

This is problematic for U.S. leaders, first because China’s core interests—historically Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang—are nebulous and evolving. In April 2014, for example, China’

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