In a relatively rare occurrence, early 2013 will see two newly mandated administrations setting up at the same time in the United States and China. If President Obama returns to the White House for another four years, he will do so with the knowledge that China’s new leaders will be in place for the entirety of his second term. If Governor Romney prevails in November, it is possible he will be dealing with the same Chinese leadership for eight years if he wins a second term. 

This offers a significant opportunity for the US-China relationship which, over the past year, has been freighted with more than its usual share of challenges, controversies, dust ups, and uncertainties, especially in the sensitive political and security arenas. It has seen Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese human rights lawyer, seeking refuge at the US embassy in Beijing, and Wang Lijun, the senior Chongqing official, seeking refuge at the US consulate in Chengdu. There have been increasing tensions in the South China Sea and accusations of Chinese cyberattacks against US companies and government systems. Adding to these challenges has been the US reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific and the deployment of China’s first aircraft carrier.

In earlier times, any one of these developments could have put US-China relations on ice and led to a deterioration across numerous aspects of relations between the two. However, overall, the relationship has weathered these recent storms well, with no obvious damage to ties.

What explains this? Is this a sign of things to come or merely a temporary pause in the US-China strategic competition?

Many observers in the United States suggest there is a growing maturity to the relationship, which provides a steadying ballast for navigating rougher waters. That may be: the two sides now hold some 60 different ministerial and sub-ministerial meetings a year; the top leaders of the United States and China meet frequently in bilateral discussions, often on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings such as the G-20 or the Nuclear Security Summit. Steadier relations, born of a growing familiarity and better management of expectations, and less prone to mood swings and overreaction, are surely welcome.

But there are other explanations as well. One reason is that both countries are fixated on addressing some tough domestic transitions. In the United States, the sluggish economy and looming fiscal challenges, fought over in the polarised political atmosphere of a presidential election year, are overwhelmingly the most important concerns of the leadership and citizenry. In China, the country is moving through a major political transition to install a new set of leaders, a process already marked by brittle apprehensions at the top even before it was disrupted by the Bo Xilai scandal. China’s leaders’ concerns remain focused on the management of domestic uncertainties in order to keep the party in power. Given these priorities at home, neither side sees anything to be gained in ratcheting up bilateral tensions.

In addition, the two countries are increasingly dependent upon one another, not only economically, but geopolitically as well. China remains the single largest foreign purchaser of American debt. The United States takes more of China’s exports—more than 17 per cent even during an economic downturn—than any other country. Beijing depends on American naval power in and around the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and in the Pacific, to help ensure the safe and open flow of resources and commodities which are China’s economic and political lifeblood. Washington turns to China for support in managing problems with third parties such as North Korea and Iran. In short, both sides need one another and have little interest to upset the comity from which both can gain.

At the same time, there is no denying that an underlying strategic mistrust persists in US-China relations. The militaries on both sides see one another as potential adversaries in the future, and dutifully prepare for that possibility. Military-to-military exchanges and confidence-building measures to mitigate such an adversarial relationship lack depth and regularity. Potentially dangerous run-ins between the two militaries—such as the collision between a US reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter in 2001 or the 2009 confrontation between the US naval vessel Impeccable and five Chinese ships in the South China Sea—remain stark possibilities.

More profoundly, significant segments of the two societies view the other unfavourably and with suspicion, generating a sense of zero-sum competition over the long term. These longstanding issues of mistrust between the two sides have only deepened as China has grown in economic and military strength and as Washington has worked to reinvigorate its alliance relationships and overall presence in the Asia- Pacific. These sentiments are readily seen in polling data. In a 2012 Gallup poll commissioned by the China Daily, almost 80 per cent of Americans surveyed said “lack of trust” was the biggest obstacle to improved US-China relations. Another Gallup poll released in early 2012 noted that in the US, favourable views of China had remained stuck in the low- to mid-40 per cent range for more than a decade.

Similar results are reflected in China. A survey carried out in February 2012 in seven major Chinese cities found that, by a large margin, “hegemonism” is the first thing to come to mind for Chinese respondents when talking about the USA. More than half of those surveyed in this Chinese poll felt that US-China relations were “bad” or “very bad”. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, favourability ratings of the United States in China have remained below 50 per cent for six of the seven years between 2005 and 2011, and stood at 44 per cent for 2011.

Thus, US-China relations, while maturing and deepening in many respects, with their respective political leaderships seeking to build more constructive ties, nevertheless appear to be strategically ambivalent at best and, at worst, at risk of veering into a more confrontational relationship in the longer term. In light of this, the coming year in US-China relations will be especially important.