Yan Xuetong’s recent article1 is a smart effort to explain why, after 30 years of diplomatic relations Sino–US relations are still unstable, indeed becoming more so. He develops the concept of ‘superficial friendship’. While he does not explicitly say so, this appears to be a theory of excessive and failed expectations. That is, leaders on both sides mistakenly believe the relationship is more cooperative than it really is. Thus, when they receive negative signals from the other side, their expectations come crashing down; they react more strongly than they otherwise would have, had their expectations been more realistic.

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Some might argue that this sense of disappointment has been especially obvious in the Obama–Hu interaction. Unlike previous presidents, Obama came to power without bashing China in the US presidential elections. He proposed close...

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