Officials from China are currently in Washington for the Seventh Round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The two days of talks began yesterday at the U.S. State Department, and are vitally important to arrest growing levels of distrust between the Washington and Beijing, writes Evan Osnos for The New Yorker.

Can U.S. - China Relations Be Saved?

Public suspicions on the rise

A pivotal moment has been reached in the most important relationship in the world, and the U.S. public has grown increasingly suspicious of China. Around 50% of Americans reported a favorable view of China for the past decade, but that proportion has declined to 35% in the past three years.

On the surface at least, the relationship should be lauded for recent improvements. The economies of the two nations are increasingly interdependent, and China has allowed its currency to appreciate, ending criticism from the U.S. that it was undervaluing the yuan in order to ensure its exports were cheaper than its rivals.

Fears that China exerted too much power over the U.S. thanks to huge holdings of America’s foreign debt have been assuaged. Not only has the U.S. Treasury increased its own holdings, China has reduced its investment to the point that Japan is now the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.

Issues remain despite progress

Despite these positive developments, there is an increasing sense of anxiety about the potential for future conflict. “Our respective fears are nearer to outweighing our hopes than at any time since normalization,” said David Lampton, a China scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.

China is concerned by the Obama administration “rebalancing” to Asia, while cyber espionage is an important issue for both sides. China stands accused of multiple cyber attacks on public and private entities in the U.S., as well as a huge breach in which the personal data of millions of federal employees was stolen.

Other issues have surged into the consciousness of the American public to a greater extent than before. China’s historic claims to the South China Sea were largely ignored for years, but Beijing’s recent construction of a string of artificial islands has provoked calls for the U.S. to protect free passage through the strategic waterway.

Long-term problems enter public consciousness

The campaign to improve China’s human rights record has also come into the spotlight, as a new law threatens the involvement of foreign organizations in China. However the recent flashpoints cannot be blamed entirely on Beijing.

The formation of the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was opposed by the U.S., but Washington was ignored by Britain and other allies, who joined the bank anyway. Opposition to the formation of a rival to the U.S.-dominated World Bank did nothing to disprove the claims of Chinese hawks, who believe the U.S. is ideologically opposed to the growth of China.

However each of these policy disagreements is part of a larger, historic change. Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged Washington to form a “new type of major power relationship” with China.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution, believes that Xi refers to a “relationship between equals, each of whom respects the fact that the other has its own system and interests.”

Greater flexibility needed from both sides

So far the U.S. has rejected what they say as an attempt to change the status quo. A fundamental difference in thinking pits the U.S. and its transactional model of diplomacy against the Chinese desire for greater respect, but the further depletion of reserves of good will can be stopped by talks such as those currently underway in Washington.

The talks could pave a way to agreements to be made during Xi’s visit in September, and provide an opportunity for both sides to lay the foundations of greater cooperation. Lampton believes that both sides will have to make a sacrifice in order to maintain peace.

While the U.S. should do more to recognize China’s “legitimate aspirations for a voice in the international system,” Beijing would do well to take some “maritime disputes off the table.” Such an approach would involve greater sensitivity from the U.S. in recognizing controversial actions, such as island building in the South China Sea, and legitimate expressions of growing international clout, like the new banks.

At the same time China needs to demonstrate a deeper appreciation of the profound implications of its emergence in the international sphere. Both sides need to appreciate their weaknesses and maintain communication, in order to reduce the possibilities of misreading the actions of politicians trained in completely different schools of thought.

Both U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang have underlined their commitment to avoiding confrontation at the latest round of talks. There is hope yet for the relationship, assuming that greater cooperation can be forged on a variety of issues and both sides demonstrate a commitment to better understanding the motivations of their counterparts.