Incompatible Partners

The Role of Identity and Self-Image in the Sino-U.S. Relationship

Published in: Asia Policy, no. 13, Jan. 2012, p. 133-165

Posted on on January 01, 2012

by Lyle J. Morris

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Many scholars and pundits have concluded that the noticeable downturn in U.S.-China relations in 2010 was merely an intermittent low in the broader "high-low" dynamic that characterizes the relationship. This article argues that recent tensions can also be understood as part of larger, macro-level suspicions stemming from the disparate identities that pervade bilateral relations. Analyzing the historical processes that have helped shape these identities and using four case studies to illustrate this phenomenon in action, this article argues that China and the U.S. have produced incompatible self-images, which, when interfaced, work at cross-purposes with each other. These dueling identities, if unmanaged, have the capacity to undermine cooperative relations in the long term. However, both countries could mitigate the identity variable by acknowledging the historical and cultural barriers precluding greater cooperation, as well as by utilizing multilateral mechanisms to address issues of common interest.

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