President Xi Jinping made his second visit to the United States in less than a year in late March. His state visit in September 2015 exposed elements of both intensifying cooperation and competition in the bilateral relationship. While the United States and China will be looking to deepen cooperation on global issues where they share common interests, such as combating climate change and preventing nuclear terrorism, they will also need to work to identify more effective approaches to deal with North Korean nuclear proliferation and other international security challenges.

In an event hosted by the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, panelists examined how Washington and Beijing can better manage elements of competition and cooperation in the bilateral relationship over the next year and beyond. They also assessed the abilities of U.S. and Chinese policymakers to manage growing tensions while deepening cooperation in areas of common interest, particularly given the upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential election. This panel was the second in the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2016 and was co-sponsored by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. 

Discussion Highlights

  • Strategic Continuity and the U.S. Election: Panelists described the 2016 U.S. presidential election as a potential key moment for the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. Regardless of who is elected, it will take time for the new administration to assemble its foreign policy team and develop relationships with overseas counterparts. Other panelists pointed out that, despite the uncertainty surrounding U.S. foreign policy under the next administration and the heated campaign rhetoric on China, the past several administrations have ended up staying the course on China policy once in office. They added that China’s U.S. policy will also likely remain consistent with previously articulated positions, since Xi Jinping will be at the helm for seven more years.
  • Perception Gaps and Strategic Trust: Panelists asserted that the problem of strategic rivalry is the most important feature of U.S.-China relations today—both countries will have to address competing security interests in the Asia-Pacific to avoid a destabilizing arms race. Security concerns on both sides involving the South China Sea, cyber capabilities, and the shifting balance of power in Asia are exacerbated by limited trust between Chinese policymakers and their U.S. counterparts. Speakers did, however, identify measures such as the High-Level Joint Dialogue on Cybercrime, which was announced in December 2015, as positive progress toward building greater strategic trust. They also suggested that better coordination among different actors within both the Chinese and U.S. governments could result in more consistent diplomatic signaling and fewer misunderstandings.
  • Key Questions on the South China Sea: Panelists observed that disagreements between China and the United States over the South China Sea reflect differing interpretations of relevant international laws and norms. Some speakers argued that the United States and its allies in the region are concerned that China’s definition of the nine-dash line and the claims it represents remain very ambiguous. They further pointed out that China and the United States disagree on UNCLOS provisions about freedom of navigation and what foreign naval activities are permissible within another country’s exclusive economic zones and claimed territorial waters. However, panelists observed that despite China’s stated interest in resolving disputes through peaceful resolution, consultations to conclude a multilateral code of conduct have made little progress. They proposed that serious, sustained discussion on the South China Sea at the highest levels of government would be required to identify opportunities to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea and eventually resolve these disagreements.
  • Prospects for Managing South China Sea Disputes: Panelists acknowledged that there are tensions between China, other claimant countries, and the United States over the South China Sea, but they pointed out that peacefully settling the region’s maritime disputes is possible. One panelist observed that U.S. policymakers should pay closer attention to how China distinguishes between its claims to the Paracel Islands—which China has militarized and controlled for over four decades—and the Spratly Islands, where Beijing occupied maritime features later than other countries and has expressed openness to negotiations.
  • Opportunities for Cooperation: Panelists stated that although tensions in the South China Sea have garnered widespread public attention, the U.S.-China relationship should not be defined only by the challenges it faces. Positive examples of cooperation on climate change, the nuclear deal with Iran, and UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea demonstrate that common interests can help ensure that U.S.-China ties remain constructive, speakers said. They were hopeful that jointly addressing shared policy concerns may lead  to greater cooperation between China and the United States as well as multilateral institutions like ASEAN.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Chen Qi

Chen Qi is a resident scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. An expert on U.S.-China relations, global governance, and China's foreign policy, Chen runs the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center’s U.S.-China Track II dialogue.

Douglas H. Paal

Douglas H. Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International (2006-2008) and was an unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2002-2006).

J. Stapleton Roy

Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy is a distinguished scholar and founding director emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Wang Wenfeng

Wang Wenfeng is a senior researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and chief editor of the publication Contemporary International Relations. 

Yuan Peng

Yuan Peng, a research professor and doctoral adviser, is vice president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). His research focuses on American studies, Sino-U.S. relations, Asia-Pacific security, and China’s foreign policy.