Zoe Leung, Jace White
The U.S.-China relationship is rife with mistrust, and the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship marks the resurgence of great-power politics in a multipolar international order.
U.S.-China relations are increasingly complex and intertwined. Both countries have called for greater cooperation 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.
Impinging on arguably the most important Chinese core interest, Washington continues to strengthen its diplomatic and military engagement with Taipei, notably through the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act, which enables all levels of bilateral official exchange. Just days following the act’s adoption, a State Department official, in meeting Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, remarked that U.S. support for Taiwan “has never been stronger.” The Chinese military has held live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait in protest of the United States playing the “Taiwan card” to contain China, yet Washington accuses Beijing of aggressively challenging the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, maintaining that deepening its ties with Taipei falls fully in line with policy.