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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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1.1 Narratives of China’s rise

At the centre of this change is China’s relationship with the United States, which will be a key dynamic in the coming century. The turbulent relationship between China and the West in the past, and China’s rapid rise, make this a tense process of ‘agonised mutual adaptation’ (Shi Yinhong, cited in Foot, 2006, p. 83). In part this involves a complex policy agenda for China and the United States ranging across a number of difficult issues, from trade and investment to military security and human rights. However, while the details of each issue matter, judgements about the character of the relationship as a whole are also important. They provide strategists and analysts with signals about the nature of international relations as they unfold in the twenty-first century. Will what is now often referred to as the Group of Two, or ‘G2’, develop cooperation across a broad range of issues so as to provide the basis for an accommodation between the existing order and new powers? Or will they find that mutual suspicion and conflicting interests make for a much more conflict-ridden international order?

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Figure 1 The China–United States relationship will be a key dynamic in the twenty-first century

Contemporary commentators often make bold and far-reaching claims about China’s rise. It is often said that the rise of China (and of an ‘Asian century’ more generally) is a radical development with enormous consequences for international relations in the twenty-first century. China’s rise is also presented as a process of a closed society becoming more open and integrated into the international system. The relative position of China and the United States is sometimes presented as the latest in a permanent cycle in international politics of the inevitable rise and decline of great powers. Rival interpretations present China’s rise as bringing either ever greater cooperation or increasing danger of more conflict in international affairs.

The next section looks at whether the historical record supports any of these contemporary claims.