Tensions between the United States and China have grown considerably during the last couple of years. While China bolstered its claims on disputed territories and engaged other states to form regional organizations separate from established Western dominated ones, the United States conducted a “return to Asia”, “rebalance” or “pivot” in order to reassure its allied partners. Following these moves policy-makers, think tanks and academics debated opportunities and challenges of new great power relations. This paper seeks to explain the U.S.-China conflict as a result of deeper ontological assumptions and distinct understandings of international relations. Both sides engage primarily in mirror imaging rather than empathizing. For the purpose of this paper mirror imaging is defined as information processing that bases the construction of meaning on one’s own, independent assumptions, theories and worldviews. Empathizing by contrast is information processing by using the lens (assumptions, theories, worldviews) of others when making sense of their behavior. Based on its findings the paper concludes that there are alternatives to the ways the conflict is constructed that could facilitate different ways of peaceful change. The paper first evaluates western political perceptions of the China-U.S. relationship. Secondly, it summarizes how western think tanks mapped the conflicts and how they affect American interests. Thirdly, it confronts this map with recent academic scholarship on sources of China’s foreign policy written by Asian area studies specialists. Fourthly, it uncovers hidden ontological assumptions and theories of international relations upon which Chinese scholars seem to base their analysis of American foreign policy, contemporary great power relations and policy recommendations for China’s foreign policy. Fifthly, the paper shows that these assumptions and theories indeed clearly show up in the recent Chinese academic literature on great power relations. Finally, it concludes that exploiting this finding can facilitate an outside the box of western theories understanding of China’s foreign policy, great power relations and strategies on how to cope with China’s assertiveness more successfully. The paper encourages avoiding to fall into the trap of mirror imaging and instead using empathy when interpreting Chinese foreign policy. Such an approach also helps reducing uncertainties of interpretation that still pervades Western policy statements and the think tank literature.