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New Century, Old Thinking: The Dangers of the Perceptual Gap in U.S.-China Relations

Authored by Colonel Susan M. Puska. | April 1998

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American angst over ?China? and how to deal with it has spurred a seemingly endless cycle of U.S. policy debates. Each disagreement or new revelation, such as the recent allegation that the Chinese tried to buy influence through illegal funding to U.S. elections,1 feeds another round of charges that U.S. leaders are either too ?soft? or too ?hard? on China. These charges are usually punctuated by warnings that these actions could lead to dire consequences for the United States in the future.

Although their deliberations are largely hidden, Chinese leaders also debate how best to manage the ?America problem.? Chinese policies toward the United States, as with U.S. policies toward China, have been inconsistent and contradictory, ranging from the current pragmatic decision to downplay differences between the two countries to the dangerously hostile confrontation over Taiwan in March 1996.

Since Tiananmen in 1989, U.S.-China state relations have been punctuated by one crisis after another. Between each crisis there have been brief, but exuberant attempts to make a ?breakthrough? which could once and for all set relations on a stable course. Events in 1996 and 1997 have been particularly illustrative of this U.S.-China bilateral roller coaster ride. These 2 years highlight the difficulties that thwart attempts to stabilize U.S.-China relations in the post-Cold War period. They also foreshadow the dangers and risks inherent in U.S.-China relations as the 21st century approaches.

The up and down cycles of U.S.-China state relations during the 1990s are only a subset of a boom-bust paradigm (Figure 1), which has characterized state relations throughout the last 150 years. Based fundamentally on historic U.S. superiority, in terms of the economic, political and military elements of national power,2 this paradigm has persisted almost uninterrupted until the present. The brief periods of the U.S.-China alliance during World War II and during the strategic anti-Soviet relationship of the 1970s have been anomalies within the dominant pattern.

Supporting and fueling this paradigm at each stage is a profound perceptual gap between the United States and China that is fed by at least three major sources: philosophical and cultural differences, historical experience, and ideological differences. This perceptual gap has helped give the boom-bust paradigm a life of its own in state-to-state relations between the United States and China, primarily because countervailing bilateral interests have most often either been lacking entirely or they have been insufficient to counterbalance it.

If this paradigm persists in U.S.-China state relations into the 21st century, it will likely continue to reduce options and opportunities for resolution of disagreements between the two countries. Over time, it could lead to a downward spiral in state relations, resulting in increasing levels of confrontation, hostility, and even war.

The perceptual gap has been a ubiquitous feature of U.S.-China relations since at least the 19th century; however, it has reemerged with a vengeance since June 4, 1989, within the changing context of successful modernization and economic development within China. Misperceptions do contribute to serious mutual miscalculations. For example, the United States miscalculated how China would ultimately respond to the Lee Tenghui visit to the United States in April 1995. When China conducted exercises in March 1996 near Taiwan, it also likely miscalculated how the United States would respond and what effect the exercise would have on the perception of China within the Asia-Pacific Region.

An understanding of the perceptual gap and of the potential for dangerous miscalculations is of vital importance to bilateral relations between the United States and China. Miscalculations of intentions and capabilities by either or both countries can play a critical role in precipitating confrontation. Often based on underestimation or overestimation, miscalculations historically have been factors in the outbreak of war.3 In the future, miscalculations by either or both countries on potentially explosive issues, such as Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan or the Spratly Islands, could push the United States and China toward long-term confrontation and conflict.

Fundamental to why the perpetuation of this paradigm is dangerous is the concrete change that is occurring in the power relationship between the two countries as China?s economy continues to modernize and grow in real terms. Although China?s presumed rise to great power, even superpower, status remains somewhat theoretical,4 China?s comprehensive power, in terms of economic growth, political influence, and (to a much lesser extent) military capability,5 has grown dramatically since the 1980s. At the same time, the United States, the only remaining superpower of the post-Cold War era, faces the prospect of decline at least in relative terms, as other powers, such as China or Germany, rise to level the international playing field over the long term.

The psychological impact of China?s presumed rise adds a volatile dimension to U.S.-China state relations. For China, the possibility of this change in power relations presents an intoxicating opportunity, which has eluded China for well over a century, to gain a dominant position within the Asia-Pacific region and the world. For the United States, such a change in the power relationship with China raises an uncertain, if not fearsome, specter of major change, even loss, in terms of international influence, prestige, and possibly way of life. This psychological dimension, I think, is at the heart of the current China threat and U.S. threat arguments in each country.

This paper primarily examines the psychological dimension of U.S.-China state-to-state relations. It argues that the primary reason for the lurching nature of bilateral policies (on both sides) is a corrosive perceptual gap between the United States and China, that the policy debates reflect, and which dominates bilateral relations in the absence of countervailing bilateral or strategic interests. The paper will examine this perceptual gap from cultural, historical and ideological aspects, and correlate it to the role perceptions and misperceptions played out in political-military aspects of U.S.-China relations. As a historical U.S.-China example, the paper will discuss the outbreak of the Korean War in terms of mutual misperceptions. In conclusion, it offers some suggestions to break the paradigm and help establish normal state-to-state relations between the two countries.


1. Roberto Suro, ?Hill Panels to Probe China Influence-Buying Allegations,? The Washington Post, February 17, 1997, p. A6.

2. The elements of power can be distinguished between . . . natural determinants (geography, resources, and population) [which] are concerned with the number of people in a nation and with their physical environment. The social determinants (economic, political, military, and national morale) concern the ways in which the people of a nation organize themselves and the ways in which they alter their environment.David Jablonsky, ?National Power,? Resident Course 2, Vol. 1, Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1993, pp. 50-82, quoted on p. 2-23, Non-resident Course 2, Vol. II.

3. See, for example, Jack S. Levy, ?Misperception and the Causes of War: Theoretical Linkages and Analytical Problems,? World Politics, Vol. 37, No. 1, p. 76-99.

4. China faces profound domestic problems, such as poverty, overpopulation, resource shortages, restructuring of unprofitable state enterprises, and internal instability (from Muslim and Tibetan minorities), for examples, that will affect China?s rise as a great power in the 21st century.

5. China?s military remains generations behind the United States and will unlikely be able to achieve parity with it within the next 50 years based on current projections. See Allen, Caldwell, Eikenberry, and Henley for these assessments.