Recent turbulence in U.S.-Chinese relations stems from China’s umbrage at what it perceives to be the United States’ attempts to harm China’s core interests. Professor Thomas Christensen presents a distinct perspective on U.S.-China relations that emphasizes the dangers in interacting in an environment of mistrust and polarization.

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Summary

  • Sino-U.S. cooperation should be based on the pursuit of mutual interests rather than on a framework of mutual respect for “core interests,” as pledged in the 2009 Joint Statement.
  • There is a perception in Beijing that when China assists the United States with problems on the international stage it is doing the United States a favor, and thus it expects returns in kind. This is inaccurate since almost everything that the United States asks of China is directly in China’s own interest.
  • If the Six-Party Talks process fails permanently, many countries, including China and the United States, will suffer costs. The biggest losers will be the North Korean people, but second will be China, not the United States.
  • The Chinese government has been increasingly sensitive to a domestic political environment of heated popular nationalism, expressed in the media and on the blogosphere. China suffers from a stunted version of a free press, in which most criticism of government policy is from a hawkish, nationalist direction.
  • A cooperative U.S.-China relationship should be built around the pursuit of mutual global interests. The two countries have worked together successfully on several projects, including antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, and there is potential for further cooperation on issues such as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and counterterrorism, to name a few.

About the Report

Recent turbulence in U.S.-Chinese relations stems from China’s umbrage at what it perceives to be the United States’ attempts to harm China’s core interests. Strident rhetoric from within China has prescribed retaliatory targeting of alleged U.S. core interests. However, U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and stabilize the international financial environment are also in China’s own national security interests. A sustainable relationship should be based on the pursuit of mutual interests in building cooperation between the two countries. In addressing these topics, Professor Thomas Christensen presents a distinct perspective on U.S.-China relations that emphasizes the dangers in interacting in an environment of mistrust and polarization.

This Special Report was written in July 2010. The views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions. The USIP's Center for Conflict Management commissioned it as part of a series on the evolving U.S.-China relationship. This series will focus on avoiding crises and exploring opportunities for U.S.-China cooperation.

Thomas J. Christensen is professor of politics and international affairs and director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University. In 2006–08 he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs with responsibility for U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan, and Mongolia. Before arriving at Princeton in 2003, he taught at Cornell University and MIT. Dr. Christensen has served on the board of directors and the executive committee of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and as coeditor of the International History and Politics series at Princeton University Press.

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