US-China relations will remain on their current track after the US presidential election and Chinese leadership transition. Both countries are too heavily invested in the bilateral relationship and understand the dangerous consequences if it goes off the rails. Still, while institutional pressures and national interests will press for continuity, there is always a chance that miscalculation or deliberate provocation will push the two countries toward conflict.
There are reasons to be optimistic about relations between the US and China. The two governments understand that they have a special obligation to their citizens and the world to keep their relationship firm and forward -leaning. The scale of their economic interactions – in the trillions of dollars – is large enough to hurt each country badly if they are interrupted; they are truly interdependent. Their political interactions have been institutionalized in various mechanisms, the Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) prime among them, that give the two countries’ bureaucracies a stake in working out any problems. Both governments know that other countries in Asia want them to develop and maintain a good relationship and do not want to be forced to pick sides between the two.
In addition, there is continuity in Washington with the re-election of President Obama. His foreign policy team will change: expect a new secretary of state and assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, as well as secretary of Treasury; the Secretary of Defense may retire as well. And while filling those slots may create vacancies elsewhere in the administration as people change jobs, the policy line will remain the same. The “rebalance” to Asia will continue to be the strategic framework for US foreign policy, no matter who administers that policy.
In China, the new leadership looks set to continue the lines of its predecessor(s). Given the incredibly deliberative and massaged process that guides transitions in Beijing, it is hard to even imagine an administration taking power in China that would immediately change course on such an important issue. That would constitute a repudiation of and rebuke to the outgoing government that would put the lie to the infallibility of Chinese Communist Party rule. Moreover, new supreme leader Xi Jinping has strong ties to the US. He has played up the significance of a visit to Iowa when he was a young provincial official and his daughter is studying at Harvard University.
But there could be trouble ahead. While Mr. Obama is committed to building a strong partnership with China, his first term was marked by outsized expectations of what could be accomplished with Beijing that have since been scaled back. The administration recognizes that it was overly optimistic about what was possible and now seems more prepared to take a harder line when the two countries’ interests do not align. This is not the same as a hardline position. Rather, it is a somewhat chagrined acknowledgement that the relationship is more competitive than originally anticipated. (A similar adjustment is evident in relations with Iran and North Korea, although there were higher hopes for dealing with China).
Moreover, the US is committed to “rebalancing,” and that policy involves ongoing modernization of alliances as well as the forging and solidification of partnerships within the region. China objects to those moves, invariably dismissing them as “Cold War thinking” or attempts to “contain” China. That response reflects several concerns. On a tactical level, Beijing wants other countries to know that it isn’t happy and hopes to make the US appear to be the threat to regional stability as well as to drive a wedge between Washington and regional partners. At the same time, Chinese interpret such moves as attempts to deny them their rightful place in the region; regardless of what the US says, China considers it containment.
Whatever the explanation, Chinese are not happy about the US policy. This increases tensions and provides a new focus for dissatisfaction. It raises the bar for cooperation and compromise will become harder. I expect internal strains within China to increase over the next few years as it struggles to come to terms with its phenomenal growth. In this environment, there will be a readiness to focus on external problems to explain China’s difficulties or to distract a disgruntled public. In such circumstances, the US will be seen as a prime target. While no one in China will want to pick a fight with the US (or vice versa), miscalculation will magnify the chance of confrontation. Both governments must remain vigilant to this possibility and work at every instance to ingrain habits of cooperation and ways to reduce friction in this vital relationship. That will be difficult. Trust between the two governments is low. The challenge is to recognize the necessity of finding shared interests and ensuring that they prevail over slights, both real and imagined.
 This is not to say the administration was naïve. Hopes for change were understandable, and an attempt at outreach was required to muster an international consensus on harder measures.