Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.1 Interdependence, absolute and relative gains

Most analysts agree that the China–United States relationship is interdependent.

  • Q: What is meant by ‘interdependence’ and what are the different patterns, or forms of interdependence, that arise in international relations?

In some usages, the word ‘interdependence’ is taken to imply a relatively benign view of international relations; different states are interconnected in multiple ways (through economic relations, shared environmental concerns and so on) and therefore share mutual interests which they can pursue together. However, it is more accurate to say that interdependence means mutual dependence, where the ability of any state to pursue its aims is dependent not only on its own actions but on the actions of others. This is an important point to recognise because it highlights the fact that every country in the world has to actively manage its external relationships; the outside world is not something that can be ignored.

In pursuing their aims, states therefore have to take other states’ likely aims and actions into account, and they will expect other states to do the same. Such situations are described as ones of strategic interdependence. There is nothing necessarily benign or even-handed about such situations. Indeed, it is by looking at the different forms of existing interdependence that the relationships of power between states, and the potential and nature of cooperation and conflict in international relations, can be explored. As Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye put it in Power and Interdependence:

Interdependence, most simply defined, means mutual dependence. Interdependence in world politics refers to situations characterised by reciprocal effects among countries … [but] we must be careful not to define interdependence entirely in terms of situations of evenly balanced mutual dependence. It is asymmetries in dependence that are most likely to provide sources of influence to actors in their dealings with one another.

(Keohane and Nye, 1977, pp. 7 and 9)

So, because China and the United States are linked in so many ways in political, military, economic and cultural matters, they have to take each other into account and each is dependent on the other, but the degree of dependence may be very uneven and vary from issue to issue.