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China and the United States: Core Interests, Common Interests, and Partnership

Special Report 277, June 2011, U.S. Institute of Peace


In an era of increased economic interdependence and shared security issues, it is vital that China and the United States become genuine partners, based not on shared ideology or traditional geopolitical interests, but on the needs of global governance. This, however, requires both countries to respect the other’s legitimate core interests; if they do not, the resulting distrust and misinterpretation of intentions make cooperation less likely.

To date, China has emphasized protection of its core interests, while the United States has emphasized developing areas of common interest while maintaining its expansive approach to foreign policy. This difference in emphasis has set up both areas of friction and possibilities for greater interaction.

China’s interests in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang lies at the heart of its national security concerns and their management is considered fundamental to the country’s survival and development. As China has declared, continuing U.S. involvement with these issues is viewed as a challenge to China’s core interests. If the United States eases its policies toward China’s core interests, this could, in turn, encourage China to respect U.S. core interests and foster cooperation as China’s material power and international influence are both growing.

Developing common interests, meanwhile, can create more momentum for the two countries to manage and resolve their differences. Potential areas for successful cooperation include building a permanent peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula; helping to secure strong, sustainable, and balanced global economic growth; and bringing about a global arrangement on creating an international environmental regime.

With the unprecedented, large-scale global challenges confronting the international community, there is a growing need for China and the United States to cooperate. While China emphasizes respect for its core interests and major concerns, the United States puts a premium on bilateral cooperation in areas of common interest.

The challenge lies in understanding each side’s position and building a bridge between them. In addressing these questions, Wu Xinbo presents a distinct perspective on U.S.-China relations not commonly heard outside China. The Institute’s Center for Conflict Management commissioned this special report as a series on the evolving Sino-U.S relationship. This series will focus on avoiding crises and exploring opportunities for Sino-U.S. cooperation.