The United States and China have found areas for cooperation on global issues in recent years, including on the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and global pandemics. Despite these successes, relations remain hindered by systematic mistrust and misunderstanding. In this podcast, Paul Haenle sat down with David Firestein, Perot fellow and senior vice president at the EastWest Institute, to discuss his recent report “‘Alternative’ Strategic Perceptions in U.S.-China Relations,” which analyzes fundamental misconceptions that are impacting bilateral relations.

Firestein argued that at the core of each major policy difference between the United States and China are strategic perceptions. From issues like North Korea and the South China Sea to policy initiatives such as the pivot to Asia, Firestein said that the two countries are looking at the same set of facts and interpreting them in different ways. One example, Firestein said, was that the United States perceives China as the only country in the world able to fundamentally change the status quo of the international system, while China views the United States as the only country capable of altering its political and social systems. Failure to acknowledge these differences in views has prevented the two countries from elevating the level of dialogue and fully cooperating. The United States and China don’t just need more engagement, Firestein argued, but engagement at higher levels on a broader range of topics to better understand their differences.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

David Firestein

David Firestein is the Perot fellow and senior vice president at the EastWest Institute.