The U.S.-China relationship is fundamentally stable and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is so because the relationship is anchored in the two societies’ respective preoccupations with their own domestic problems, the United States’ draining commitments elsewhere, and the requirement for cooperation on transnational issues such as proliferation, global production chain security, energy, the environment, stabilizing the world economy, and many other positive-sum opportunities.
Having said this, the present essay highlights four sources of mutual strategic mistrust that, if insufficiently attended to by Washington and Beijing, will metastasize. These sources are: (1) defining the challenge of U.S.-China relations in such a manner that there is no “win-win” solution, (2) miscalculating U.S. and Chinese power, (3) desires in China to “change the game,” and (4) challenge and response dynamics. These four phenomena create a toxic mix that is corrosive to mutual trust and conducive to higher levels of future conflict if inadequately addressed in both nations.