Today’s relationship between the United States and China is more varied, complex, and cooperative than the accumulation of headlines would lead one to believe. The news media and commentators spotlight points of friction; more books are sold about conflicts and potential conflicts than about peaceful relations; and the bread and butter of politicians and government officials is in identifying and solving problems rather than simply shepherding the normal course of events. That said, U.S.-Chinese relations remain under a cloud of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding. No relationship between large nations is totally untroubled, but that between the United States, the continuingly dominant global power, and the rising China is particularly unsettled. That situation is reflected in the way Americans have been debating China’s security intentions.
There is no consensus within American opinion regarding whether China seeks to join the existing international system or to transform it. There is also an important doubt, on which this paper will focus, whether China’s priority is to stabilize its neighborhood or to dominate it – or whether China sees that as the same thing. U.S. interpretations of Chinese intentions rely in part on reading what Chinese commentators write on the subject and in part on the assumptions the U.S. commentators bring to their analysis.