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

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3.2 Assumptions

This discussion relies on making some assumptions about international relations. One key assumption is talking about what states do and their relations with each other. Another is to interpret states’ actions and policies in relation to their aims and what they gain from a particular relationship or event. These are all simplifications of reality. Nevertheless, let’s continue with our focus on states – the United States and China primarily – and what they seek to gain or achieve in their international relationships.

To begin this task it’s necessary to note a number of key things about what states are trying to achieve in their international relationships, what are sometimes termed state preferences.

  • Q: What is it states are seeking to achieve, what are their aims?

The governments who represent states may at times seek to achieve a range of different things through their external relationships: opportunities for their export industries, securing supplies of raw materials, developing larger armed forces, managing cross-border migration or crime, promoting particular values such as human rights or religion, and so on. In pursuing these aims, states face a complex world in which other states are also pursuing their own preferences. Because of this, they cannot pursue all their aims at once and certainly are unlikely to be able to achieve all their goals. As a result, they have to make choices as to which aims are most important: they have to rank their preferences and in all likelihood exchange the achievement of gains in some areas against losses in others.

Many analysts, including those working within the tradition of realism, argue that vital security interests will ultimately come top of political agendas because ensuring states’ own security is their primary responsibility. For example, if China’s or the United States’ key security interests are seen to be at stake in a dispute involving Taiwan or Japan, then this will become more of a priority than the benefits they might derive from economic relationships. Other analysts, including some working within the tradition of liberalism, argue that states pursue different combinations of aims at different times. Here, US policy towards China would see security concerns sitting alongside the pursuit of economic gains from beneficial trade relations. Understanding what states are seeking to achieve and how they rank their priorities is an important step in understanding the nature of their interdependence.