U.S.-China relations are growing more and more important from a global standpoint, even as they become increasingly difficult to manage.

The countries are the two largest economies in the world and the largest trans-oceanic trading partners. Yet their technological levels and military capabilities are also converging. And competition is intensifying, particularly in dual-use technology sectors with both civilian and military implications such as 5-G telecommunications and artificial intelligence.

As the United States approaches the 2024 presidential elections, concern is deepening throughout the Washington policy world about the course of U.S.-China relations.

Yet the perspectives of Congress and the White House are sharply divergent. Historical analogy provides important insight into how those perspectives diverge, and to how, in particular, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to manage its increasingly complex relationship with Beijing.

"Congress thinks we are in the year 1941," one well-versed White House policy insider informally said to me several weeks ago.

Its members feel, in short, that China is about to proactively launch a political-military crisis that could easily lead to war -- not with Japan, as in 1941, of course, but between China and the United States, over Taiwan.

Congress, in this view, sees Chinese military pressure on Taiwan since the visit of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island August last year, as a prelude to serious conflict -- either immediately or at least within four or five years.

The White House, however, uses a different historical analogy to characterize U.S.-China relations: 1914. In that fateful year, mutual misperception ruled. The world stumbled into an unexpected and unwanted conflict, despite high levels of economic interdependence and elite familiarity.

The problem was the dangerous, unanticipated consequences of changes in technology and relative economic power that few people, including leaders, consciously understood, despite longstanding hereditary elite ties.

The sovereigns of Britain and Germany, the central antagonists in the 1914 struggle, were actually cousins. Yet their nations still blundered into a conflict that killed nearly 20 million people before the battling powers ended their titanic struggle in exhaustion.

The historical dichotomy of "1941" consciousness in Congress and "1914" consciousness at the White House provides an instructive backdrop for thinking about the recent summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Filoli, California, and U.S.-China relations in the 2024 presidential election year that lies beyond.

Two contrasting versions are emerging. And they have a partisan cast, with Republicans adhering more to "1941," and Democrats to "1914." The bifurcation could easily bias U.S. politics toward hawkishness on China next year, but the recent summit itself fortunately helped to defuse that prospect.

Congress is heavily biased toward the "1941" orientation, in part due to its structure, and to its mandated role in U.S.-China relations.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, concluded just as the United States was shifting diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing, Congress gained increased responsibility for reviewing U.S. relations with Taiwan. It also came to play a central role in assuring defense arms procurements, intended to assure stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Given the responsibilities of Congress with respect to cross-Strait relations, it is not surprising that the Taiwan Caucus, which provides political support to Taiwan, has become the largest in the U.S. Congress, with 151 House of Representatives members, and 32 Senators.

The Japan Caucus, by contrast, has 68 Congressional members, and there is no Senatorial Japan Caucus. Even the Ukraine Caucus has one-third fewer members than Taiwan -- 110 in the House and the Senate combined.

With a powerful fund of support, encouraged actively by Taiwan, Congress has passed several important pieces of legislation in the past five years that strengthen Taiwan, and loosen constraints on U.S. governmental dealings with Taiwan -- the Taiwan Travel Act (2018) and the Taipei Act (2020) among them.

In 2000, Congress also created the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which holds critical hearings on Chinese political-military developments, and in January, 2023, the current Republican-dominated House of Representatives established the Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

Chaired by Republican Michael Gallagher of Wisconsin, this committee is a new and important catalyst for critical policy research and legislation on China.

Pelosi, who represents San Francisco's conservatively oriented Chinatown and neighboring districts in Congress, has been strongly oriented toward Taiwan for many years.

Republican leadership of Congress and the creation of the new Select Committee early this year have intensified this bias. The Taiwan orientation of the Congress was thus a major challenge that Biden confronted as he traveled to California for the Filoli summit, 40 kilometers south of San Francisco.

The White House, with its "1914" mindset, had its own set of challenges preparing for the summit. It saw Xi as isolated from serious international relationships, apart from his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, by the long COVID crisis and the Ukraine war, as well as the increasing domestic dominance of the Chinese Communist Party.

As a consequence, the White House placed high priority on high-level dialogue with Beijing, leading up to the summit, as a way to correct misperception.

Following Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and then Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, all visited China, while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Malta as well.

The ultimate prize, of course, was the summit with Xi, attended by an unusual panoply of top officials from both Beijing and Washington.

These included a rising D.C. power couple -- Kurt Campbell, White House Indo-Pacific coordinator, about to become Deputy Secretary of State, and Lael Brainard, his wife and director of the National Economic Council.

Washington paid great attention to protocol and venue, which the Chinese appreciated, shielding Xi from media unpleasantness with an elegant countryside venue, while raising his face.

The Chinese reciprocated by restoring bilateral military dialogues, and making domestically important concessions to the United States on restricting fentanyl precursors, thus helping to alleviate the serious national opioid crisis.

With a successful summit behind them, the "1914" misperception fears marginally defused, Xi and Biden returned to face their own more turbulent domestic politics in Beijing and Washington.

Kent Calder. (Kyodo)

Looking forward, a troubled economy, the uncertainties of the Ukraine war, and the stabilizing summit impact will likely inhibit China's Xi from "1941"-style adventures in the near term.

And for Biden, defusing "1914" misperception fears, coupled with the conciliatory attitude of the Chinese toward selected U.S. firms like Mastercard and Broadcom, compounds prospects for a relatively stable 2024 on the U.S.-China policy front.

Darkening long-term shadows hang over U.S.-China relations, to be sure. Yet the thunder and lightning remain visible only on the far horizon.

(Kent E. Calder is the director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.)

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