The upbeat tone at the biannual bureaucratic gathering last week on U.S.-Chinese ties known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) did not mask the troubling reality: the U.S.-Chinese relationship is more at risk than any other time since 1989, as Beijing’s assertive actions on disputed territories in the South China incrementally changes the status quo. And about the only certainty is that this elaborate bureaucratic exercise checked all the boxes on issues from climate change to currency manipulation, yet the relationship will continue its downward spiral. The core issue of whether the world’s two largest powers can find a modus vivendi remains unanswered.
The trajectory of U.S.-Chinese relations—whether they become predominantly cooperative, predominantly competitive, or remain a mix of both indefinitely—will likely remain a key question around which much of the global order of the twenty-first century will revolve. And to a considerable degree, the answer to that question turns on whether a framework for strategic stability is possible.