Thinking Of A New Path

The Future of U.S.-China Relations

By Jake Rubenstein

The relationship between the United States and China is as interconnected as it is contentious. The two countries continue to advance their interests of becoming uncontested world powers, yet still face the hazards of conflict in the road ahead. Despite there being many fundamental aspects of Chinese and American statehood that urge conflict, there is a more harmonious path where the countries can form a mutually beneficial relationship and each forgo the unattainable idea of being an unchallenged global hegemon. 

The interests and goals of each nation can be identified through broader lenses of political theory. China adheres to Realism, acting on their impulse for power1 and prioritizing growth as a nation over interstate cooperation. The U.S. is more aligned with Liberal institutionalism and has therefore been ill-equipped to deal with the sudden rise of a nationalist power like China. Ideological differences also create tensions in a new era of global politics where culture clashes dominate the world’s stage.2 The historic dichotomy between the “Western World” and China’s “Far East” has created a split between the cultures and heritages of both countries. Each nation has deeply ingrained philosophical values that guide their government’s actions, with the U.S. valuing principles of democracy and the Chinese touting Confucian values that advocate moral strength and persuasion by virtue.3 China’s regional interests also show their frequent dismissal of liberal institutions and intentions to maximize their prospects of survival.4 They refuse to create any formal diplomatic alliances with friendly countries and do not participate in the new American practice of “exclusive multilateralism”5 in their quest for geopolitical consolidation.  

Even though diverging interests cause many to believe these nations are destined for war, there has yet to be a full-scale, armed conflict between the two. This can be explained using the doctrine of global Constructivism – Chinese and American interests are each influenced by shifting global norms,6 as evidenced by China’s growth from an agrarian society to a capitalist superpower in the 20th century. It’s clear that each country’s actions influence those of the other, all the while proving that the two can coexist as great global powers. 

A world order in which there are strictly two powers is not without its issues, however. The bipolar structure of today’s world creates a natural tension wherein the “status-quo” states – U.S. and China – often butt heads instead of reaping the benefits of cooperation.7 The U.S. regularly seizes the opportunity to impose sanctions and diplomatic restrictions due to China’s repeated human rights offenses against ethnic minorities and political dissidents. This fosters resentment of America within the Chinese government for meddling in their vision of uniformity.8 The strategic issue of Taiwan is perhaps the most contentious point of conflict between the nations, with a complex web of agreements and contingencies making it a powder keg for U.S/ China conflict. The island represents a democratic foil to China that makes its autonomy vital to the interest of the United States.9 China considers it to be a part of the greater Chinese state while the United States maintains an unofficial relationship with Taiwan to assist in maintaining its defensive capability.10 Although these factors increase the likelihood of conflict between the two states, there still exist paths of cooperation.  

Maintaining a standard of healthy competition between nations can serve both country’s interests as well as act as a barrier to quell potential conflict. Prioritizing “mutual respect” and peaceful collaboration would bring stability to the world order and lift many out of poverty.11 China understands that it cannot exist as a global superpower without at least acknowledging rules imposed by institutions like the UN and the WTO and will not reject such rules completely out of hand.12 The U.S. can leverage its power with international institutions and exert pressure on China to cooperate and achieve shared interests. Furthermore, China’s various border conflicts make it less secure in its position of power than the United States, which is surrounded by allies and oceans. These security considerations almost always trump economic considerations,13 making geopolitical security a priority for the Chinese government. The U.S. can also utilize its treaty ties with contentious Chinese neighbors as a bargaining chip to induce cooperation – strategically shifting their military presence in the Indo-Pacific can preserve a standard of respectful competition and thereby influence conditions for cooperation in the interest of the U.S.  

A specific point of cooperation agreed upon political thinkers of all creeds is that China and the U.S. can coexist peacefully as world powers because of their deep economic ties. Multilateral institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organizations provide coordinating mechanisms that can capture gains from cooperation which serve China’s interest of economic prosperity. This cooperation can be used as a mechanism of peace since “China and its trading partners depend on each other to keep prospering but also that prosperity in turn depends on peaceful relations among them”.14 The U.S. and China can each allow the other to both develop economically and maintain a peaceful relationship where they make money, not war. 

Neither the U.S. nor China can realistically stop the growth and the development of the other country nor become the global hegemon. There is space in the global order for two concurrent powers – the recent waning of U.S. hegemony has shown the legitimacy of a moral global order governed by a plurality of nations, rather than a single dominant country.15 The COVID-19 crisis has exhibited the power of global collaboration with the “decentralized enforcement”16 of global standards establishing common goals between states. A harmonious relationship between two concurrent powers upholds a standard of peace around the globe where competition is inevitable, but conflict is not.17 The U.S.’ focus should not be on containing China because of its rise directly threatening American prosperity, but rather aiming to benefit from cooperation on multiple fronts. 

Jake Rubenstein is a Student Studying International Relations at Tufts University

Image Couresy: Karolina Grabowska at Pexels

Works Cited

  1. Michael Beckley, “U.S-China II.” (Lecture)
  2. Samuel Huntington. “The Next Pattern of Conflict.” Foreign Affairs, The Clash of Civilizations?, 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 1.
  3. Mearsheimer, John. “Can China Rise Peacefully?” In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014, 30.
  4. Mearsheimer, 9.
  5. Xuetong Yan. “Becoming Strong.” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2021. 8.
  6. Michael Beckley, “U.S-China I”. (Lecture)
  7. Robert Jervis. “Cooperation under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 30, no. 2 (January 1978) 5.
  8. Jisi Wang. “The Plot Against China?” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2021. 8.
  9. Derik R. Zitelman and John Bolton. “Why Taiwan Matters to the United States.” Accessed December 17, 2021.
  10. Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “U.S. Relations With Taiwan.” United States Department of State, August 31, 2018.
  11. Wang, 13.
  12. Yan, 5. 
  13. Mearsheimer, 20.
  14. Mearsheimer, 32.
  15. Oona Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro. “Welcome to the Post-Leader World.” Foreign Policy (blog). Accessed December 10, 2021. 2.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Mearsheimer, 27, citing Graham Allison, Robert Blackwill (“Interview: Lee Kuan Yew on the Future of U.S.- China Relations.” The Atlantic, March 5, 2013. -china-relations/273657/)