The U.S. and China are comfortable with the critical and influential roles they play in the international sphere, and domestic and international public opinion has always attached a large importance to the nature and positioning of their relationship; but opinions on this relationship vary widely. Recently, because the U.S. has been creating a tense situation in the South China Sea with its repeated actions and demonstrations of military strength, China has responded strongly against it. Though the situation is currently passive, both sides continue to toy with the thought of raising the stakes. When U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice visited China, she re-affirmed that “there is no more consequential bilateral relationship than the U.S.-China relationship.” Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that the U.S. does not hold a viewpoint on the South China Sea arbitration case (a false statement that no one believes). All of this makes it seem as if another layer of fog has been added to the already considerably complicated U.S.-China relationship. After all is said and done, how should one understand and characterize the U.S.-China relationship? Many people are pondering this question.

Some people think the U.S. and China are bound together for better or for worse, but those who agree with this viewpoint are few in number. On the day of the U.S.-China Track II Dialogues, the well-known U.S. expert, Harry Harding, said he feels the U.S.-China relationship is one of part enemies and part friends, or that we aren’t enemies but also aren’t friends. A few years ago, while speaking on the U.S.-China relationship, Robert Zoellick said China is “a stakeholder of great importance.”* The first time President Obama visited China, he said the U.S.-China relationship was the world’s “most important bilateral relationship.”** It seems as though these descriptions do not quite fit. Harding is much more pragmatic and has a clear opinion, but it appears he emphasizes the relationship between “enemies” and “friends” too much. Zoellick is a representative of the U.S. government and attaches importance to the U.S.-China relationship, but it seems he is downplaying the gravity of the situation. As for Obama, his words hold considerable weight, but the U.S. neoconservative school of thought perhaps does not approve of his viewpoint. Furthermore, perhaps, he has forgotten that China’s leader has said in the past that the U.S.-China relationship is “one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.” A few years ago, the American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski said the U.S.-China relationship is a “mutually dependent relationship,” but also that it is an “uncomfortable mutually dependent relationship.”** This statement is closer to reality and is still worth considering. He never explained why the relationship is “uncomfortable,” but everyone already knows why.

A well-known China expert, Mr. David Shambaugh, put it this way in one of his articles: “I have carefully studied and tracked the U.S.-China relationship through two centuries and found a repeating (unchanging) pattern: The U.S. has a missionary-like impulse to use its own image as a template to transform China, but each attempt always ends in failure.”** First of all, the U.S. doesn’t understand China’s current complex national condition. Furthermore, China refuses to comply with the aspirations of the United States. In my understanding, the blame for problems between the two countries should be put on the U.S. and its unrealistic hopes, not China.

What Mr. Shambaugh said merits the consideration of U.S. neoconservatives. I would like to add that not only is the U.S.-China relationship uncomfortable, it is also extremely unwell. The sticking point lies with America’s attitude: It simply cannot accept being number two and wants to lead the world forever. It ignores mighty historical currents that change with the times. These shifts do not occur as a result of people’s subjective willpower. Renowned expert David M. Lampton was correct in saying that after all is said and done, it is the U.S. that needs to reconsider the issue of its leadership role.

The author is a former Chinese APEC high official and former foreign ambassador.

* Editor’s Note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be verified. A similar statement was made by Zoellick in 2011, when he said, “China is a vital but reluctant stakeholder.”

** Editor’s Note: These quotes, though accurately translated, could not be verified.