Illustration: Sun Ying
The approach of eight US presidents toward China beginning with President Richard Nixon has been similar, with only minor deviations. The fact that eight presidents have come to similar conclusions suggests that US national interests have driven us toward such a policy.
That policy has had certain consistent basic attributes. It pursues a relationship built primarily on shared interests rather than a focus on our differences on political values. It cooperates on international issues, with special focus on the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, and building ties of trade and investment, exchanges, and high-level dialogue.
The US has been integrating China more into the international community and its organizations. It has also been managing differences on the Taiwan question through insistence on peaceful resolution, the one-China policy, appropriate arms sales to Taiwan, and not militarizing the issue by treating Taiwan as a regional security ally.
President Obama has operated within this mainstream. I would summarize his policy as having three main foundations: Recognizing and respecting China's rise and its legitimate interests; insisting that its rise be within international norms and law; and ensuring that China's rise is stabilized by strengthening regional alliances and partnerships.
How is the relationship right now? I think it's in reasonably good shape. The Chinese are working well with us on North Korea and Iran. Taiwan has not been a source of tension, and does not promise to be for years. Since that is the one issue on which we theoretically could have a conflict, the positive state and trend of cross-Straits relations is very important, and gets undeservedly little attention.
On the South China Sea, China is in an active dialogue with other territorial claimants. Despite Chinese fears, the US has not pursued anything like a protectionist policy toward China. Our differences on human rights have been an irritant for China and disturbing to Americans, but not an obstacle for cooperation more than in the past.
The US and China are in a new era in the relationship, presenting different challenges. This is partly true because of the breathtaking pace of China's rise in the last decade, and the greater role that China is playing in the world.
But I find the notion that China has supplanted or will soon supplant the US leading role in the international community - a view I've heard more often in the US than in China - completely counterfactual. There is a very substantial gap in power, and in per capita income.
In US-China relations, there tend to be narratives that take on a life of their own. I have lived through several such periods during the Obama administration.
We were told that in the first year we were weak supplicants to the Chinese, to whom we owed $1.3 trillion and behaved accordingly.
In the second year, it was reported that relations were suffering a high degree of tension, because of US arms sales to Taiwan, the president's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and Chinese assertiveness in the region, to which we supposedly responded vigorously because we had learned lessons from our first year of alleged weakness.
Then miraculously, considering that the two countries supposedly were living in a high degree of tension, we restored military-military relations, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to China, and the US hosted President Hu Jintao for a successful visit.
Finally, in November 2011, President Obama visited Asia, and the legend of the "pivot" took off. To be sure, the "pivot" was mentioned by some administration officials, who used the term without defining it. It dismayed some Chinese and US scholars, who detected in it a new US policy of containment.
Triggered in part by the reaction to the "pivot," we have seen discussion of the so-called "security dilemma" between the US and China, namely the notion that we are each destined to see steps that the other side takes for defensive reasons as an offensive action.
Personally, I believe that the risk of a "security dilemma" is real. That is why in the last year the US and China began a Strategic Security Dialogue to explore the key security issues where we could face misinterpretation or conflict. But that is different from saying that mutual distrust is the highest it's ever been.
Indeed, my experience is that at the senior-most levels of our government, and I suspect the Chinese government as well, the challenges in our economic relationship consume more time, energy, and brain cells than the political issues.
Whatever one can say about the level of frictions and challenges in the economic relationship, and they are indeed real and substantial, "security dilemma" and "mutual distrust" - terms that derive from international relations theory and practice - are not the right analytic framework for understanding these problems.
The author served as President Barack Obama's senior advisor on China and Asia at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011. The article was adapted from a presentation that he gave to a closed-door meeting of Chinese and US scholars and former officials in Washington D.C. on April 20. firstname.lastname@example.org