International ties

How China and America can become better friends

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-05-28 09:12
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The Wall Street Journal suggested in its summary of the second round of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, that the talks were part of what is "arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world."

Sino-Soviet experts have been arguing for some time now about the "relationship climate" between the two nations. They look for clues in the dialogues between our leaders to gauge whether the relationship is becoming icier or warmer. They dissect and parse language in order to "get at" the supposed underlying meanings.

As a former psychology teacher, I'm much more interested in understanding how the "most important bilateral relationship in the world" can be improved... What can our two nations do to, not only become better partners, but better friends?

Psychological science suggests that relationships between two countries can be understood in much the same way as relationships between two people. Indeed, relationships between two countries are built upon a series of interpersonal relationships.

In psychology, there's a phenomenon known as the "mere exposure effect." It basically states that the more we are exposed to something or someone, the more we come to like it, or him. There are caveats and qualifications to the effect that do not make exposure and liking perfectly correlative. However, in the context of Sino-American relations, the general idea is that relations will get better as the parties managing the relations interact more.

Understanding how our two nations can become better friends also entails looking at qualities that define friendship between two people. In that regard, psychologists have found that we are generally most attracted to those people with whom we share common interests. It is therefore imperative when our leaders meet, that they keep in mind that, while differences between the two nations are important and inevitable, it is the nations' similarities that should underlie relations. It is our common interests which bring us together; we should not let the differences tear us apart.

Think of other qualities that define our strongest friendships. A friend is a person we can call on when we need support. A friend is someone who can tell us what we don't necessarily want to hear, but also knows when it's better not to say anything. Most of all, a friend is someone with whom we want to spend time.

Any and all of those qualities of friendship can and should be applied to strengthening relationships between Chinese and Americans. Unlike during the Cold War when the relationship between the two superpowers, the former Soviet Union and the US, was defined largely in adversarial balancing terms, we should seek out a new superpowers' paradigm.

The US and China are not in a tug-of-war to try and wrest control of the planet from each other. Rather, we are two brothers or sisters who have been handed an enormous responsibility. We should acknowledge our differences and, where important to strengthening our relationship, try and iron them out. Most of all though, we should celebrate, appreciate, and develop our similarities in order to improve the lives of everyone.

The author is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and a former psychology teacher who now lives in Beijing and will be teaching law at Tsinghua University this summer.