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

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3.5 Picturing Interdependence

It can be useful to depict these different forms of interdependence graphically as in Figure 9. Such graphs can be used to represent snapshots of international relationships in different areas and can also be used to outline possible outcomes from international negotiations. You do not have to use this kind of graphical representation to tackle these issues but some people find them a succinct way of summarising different kinds of relationships. See if you find it helpful.

Forms of interdependence

Described image
Figure 9 Forms of interdependence: positive, negative and zero-sum

Let’s work through this figure giving some examples of different forms of interdependence. Start by looking at the top right-hand quadrant. The vertical axis measures the benefits China gets from, for example, trade with the United States (gains increase as you move up the line) and the horizontal axis measures the benefits the United States gets (gains increase as you move right along the line). Any point in the top right-hand quadrant is positive-sum, and as both China and the United States are benefitting, the gains are positive for both. These are the win–win situations referred to above. As independent states, neither is forced to trade with the other so it would seem trade is beneficial to both states. In China’s case, burgeoning trade with the United States was a crucial component of the economic reform period. Even if the benefits from trade are as unbalanced as many in the United States claim, it remains in many analysts’ views a positive-sum game.

Now look at the bottom left-hand quadrant. Here both countries make net losses, both lose. These are lose–lose situations. You have seen already that security relations have the potential to descend into a negative-sum game. Both countries have allies in the region who can act independently and at times unpredictably. Both the United States and China could be dragged into negative-sum conflicts they might otherwise wish to avoid through such alliances. For example, both Taiwan’s development of long-range missiles and North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons create the potential for negative-sum conflicts should they lead to a wider conflagration.

The diagonal line on the diagram, running at 45° from top left to bottom right, depicts outcomes where gains by one state are matched exactly by losses of the other state: zero-sum outcomes. The case of climate change was mentioned above as one example when negotiations can take on a zero-sum character where a gain for China leads to a loss for the United States, or vice versa.

The section of the top left-hand quadrant above and to the right of the zero-sum line is also positive-sum, where China’s gains are greater than the losses of the United States, as is the section of the bottom right-hand quadrant above and to the right of the zero-sum line, where US gains are bigger than China’s losses. The sections in these two quadrants below and to the left of the zero-sum line are both negative-sum even though in the top left-hand quadrant China gains (US losses are bigger) and in the bottom right-hand quadrant the United States gains (Chinese losses are bigger).

Activity 3

Timing: Approximately 10 minutes

To check your understanding of the diagram in Figure 9, identify where on the diagram you would position some key moments from the history of China–United States relations. Make sure you can explain your reasoning for this. You might choose the Korean War, the Nixon rapprochement with China, normalising trade relations in 2000, or tensions over disputed territory in South East Asia or some other moment.

When you have finished this activity, check your answer


Some key moments like normalising trade relations or the strategic choices that led to Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, would seem to be fairly easily placed in the top right-hand quadrant, although note that political campaigning in the United States often presents trade with China in fairly zero-sum terms. Territorial disputes where one side’s gain of territory is at the other side’s expense is inherently zero-sum. Although US territory isn’t directly at stake, that of its allies like Japan, is. As discussed negative-sum interactions include warfare where neither side achieves its objectives within what they see as acceptable cost – the Korean War might be an example here.