As Chinese president Xi Jinping prepares for his first official state visit to the US in September, mutual distrust between the two countries is pushing both into increasingly adversarial positions, US and Chinese experts agreed at a recent conference, the World Forum on China Studies, held at The Carter Center in Atlanta, US. Indeed, the relationship is nearing a “tipping point,” according to David M Lampton, head of the China studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

These tensions are likely to increase the difficulty of achieving a proposed US-China bilateral investment treaty (BIT) that is expected to be discussed during Mr Xi’s visit. “For both sides to reach a BIT, negotiation needs a good environment,” said Guoyou Song, deputy director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “If there’s serious political tension between the US and China, it will not be helpful.”

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Both sides are currently entering phase two negotiations on the BIT, that include the exchange of 'negative lists' identifying industry sectors considered off-limits for investors from the other country. A summary comparison published by the US-China Business Council, representing some of the US’s biggest corporations, suggests more sectors are open for Chinese investment in the US than the reverse. Although Mr Song disagrees. “It seems like everything is included in the US list,” he said.

However, underlying the surface commercial or economic irritants in US-China relations, is a deeper question about the role of each country and its security in a changing world, experts from both sides agreed. Their unanimous view is that the US is unaccustomed and unwilling to have its global primacy challenged, while China seeks its own prestige and influence on the world stage. Each side is also uncertain about the other’s intentions, especially in connection with China’s construction of islands and expanding naval activities in the South China Sea. These opposing world views were highlighted when the US pressured its allies not to join the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proposed by China – a move the US experts derided and most of its allies rejected, including the UK.

“Chinese concepts may be very different from the old order, but China is putting them into place in areas where the old order cannot serve new challenges. It is not a challenge, it is a supplement,” said Renwei Huang, vice-president of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “China seeks a community of common interests and responsibility, and common and comprehensive security with the US.”

“Balance and stability in Asia should be our objective, not the primacy of either side,” Mr Lampton agreed. “The right proposed direction is to encourage more investment in each other’s employment generating enterprises, and to push for the earliest possible conclusion of a BIT.”