Deng Xiaoping once said that “the China-U.S. relationship can never be too good or too bad” because it is too important. In other words, meaning the leaders and people of both countries should be realistic about how close their bilateral relationship can be at any given point in time, and they should never let their disagreements get so out of hand that it threatens their general peace and prosperity. Although China recognizes America’s unique position as the world’s sole superpower (for the time being, at least), its political orientation and national pride dictate that it pursue its own political and developmental path. It has also pursued an independent foreign policy that it believes (and would like the rest of the world to believe) is ultimately aimed at achieving peace in Asia and elsewhere. Many countries in Asia, and the world, are highly skeptical about this so-called “peaceful development,” pointing to China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea as directly contrary to that objective.
China views itself and the United States as “different, but not distant” because Confucian philosophy advocates “accommodating divergent views.” President Xi has repeatedly said that the Pacific Ocean is vast enough to accommodate both China and the United States. He has proposed a new model of international relations aimed at avoiding confrontation and conflict, and respecting one another’s political systems and national interests, while pursuing joint win-win cooperation. That all sounds good on paper. The question becomes whether and how Confucian philosophy may become more consistent with current international law, whether both sides can reach an understanding about how China’s rise may coincide with America’s gradual decline as a global power, and how China’s neighbors will view ongoing territorial disputes in the future. Much will depend on how far all sides are willing to reach across the table and genuinely compromise.