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

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2.3 United States: constructive engagement?

In an interesting mirror image of China’s debates, US analysts debate the character of the emerging relationship and the advisable courses of action to take in response to China’s rise: should China be seen as a potential strategic partner or strategic competitor (Bromley, 2009)?

One view, held particularly by those concerned about a decline in US power, sees China’s rise coming at the expense of the United States in terms of economic strength and competitiveness, military strength and political influence in the world. This is a zero-sum view (discussed in Section 3). The priority of this interpretation is for the United States to try to utilise remaining areas of US strength, including military power, to ‘contain’ China’s rise for as long as possible (Mearsheimer, 2010). In arguing that ‘China cannot rise peacefully’ realist scholar John Mearsheimer claimed:

it is not too late for the United States to reverse course and do what it can to slow the rise of China. In fact, the structural imperatives of the international system, which are powerful, will probably force the United States to abandon its policy of constructive engagement in the near future.

Mearsheimer (2001, pp. 401–402)

In fact, concerns about external challenges and fears about decline have been around for a considerable length of time in the United States. After the Second World War, the United States was the world’s leading economy, military power and the only state to possess nuclear weapons. Despite retaining its huge military advantage over all other states, others have joined the nuclear ‘club’. Perhaps most obviously, the United States’ relative economic leadership has declined as worldwide economic recovery and growth since 1945 has eroded its supremacy. In this context, China’s rise very sharply poses long-standing concerns about how to defend US security and national interests as power and influence are reduced.

While not denying the United States’ relative decline – ‘The United States’ “unipolar moment” will inevitably end’ (Ikenberry, 2008, p. 23) – other analysts see greater potential for ‘constructive engagement’ with China, pursuing cooperation and mutual benefits. In this view, China’s increasing integration into the world economy and expanding range of ties to countries around the world offer the opportunity to encourage a process whereby China is gradually incorporated into a Western-created international system:

China does not just face the United States; it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations. The nuclear revolution, meanwhile, has made war among great powers unlikely – eliminating the major tool that rising powers have used to overturn international systems defended by declining hegemonic states. Today’s Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join … If the defining struggle of the twenty-first century is between China and the United States, China will have the advantage. If the defining struggle is between China and a revived Western system, the West will triumph.

(Ikenberry, 2008, p. 23)

This line of argument emphasises two key points. First, that capitalist economic growth in other parts of the world was a key aim of US strategy in the post-Second World War period because such growth was seen to deliver mutual benefits. China’s economic rise here is in fact in line with US interests. Second, the United States and the West actively promoted key institutions of international politics – the UN, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank among them – which are seen to be of collective benefit to the international community, helping to foster peace, cooperation and order. In this argument, China has strong incentives to join existing structures of international politics, rather than seeking to overturn them.

The mix between a concern to defend US interests and ideals, and to pursue potential areas of cooperation with China, is reflected in some official US statements. For example, in a speech during a 2009 visit to Japan, President Obama stated:

in an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another. Cultivating spheres of cooperation – not competing spheres of influence – will lead to progress in the Asia Pacific. Now, as with any nation, America will approach China with a focus on our interests. And it’s precisely for this reason that it is important to pursue pragmatic cooperation with China on issues of mutual concern … That’s why we welcome China’s effort to play a greater role on the world stage – a role in which their growing economy is joined by growing responsibility. … So the United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances. On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations. … Of course, we will not agree on every issue, and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear – and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people – because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor.

(Obama, 2009)
  • Q: What are the key factors that analysts see as leading to cooperation or to conflict?

Such debates on both sides of the China–United States relationship reveal real complexity for strategists and policymakers. On the one hand, overall strategies – China’s policy of ‘peaceful rise’ or the US policy of ‘constructive engagement’ say – rest on general assessments about the overall character and future direction of the relationship and general views about the nature of international relations. On the other hand, the extensive and varied range of areas in which the two countries interact mean that any such generalisations are likely to be contested by those who wish to emphasise more specific areas of conflict or mutual interest.

In order to develop your understanding of these competing arguments, and to develop your analysis of the impact of China’s rise, it’s necessary to delve a little deeper. The next section introduces some key analytical tools that scholars of international relations use to examine different kinds of interaction and the prospects they hold for cooperation and conflict.