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

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3.6 Power

  • Q: If relations between China and the United States are at least in part cooperative, what role does power play in the relationship?

This is a complex issue and you will only touch on it in general terms here. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s take an interpretation of power as the ability to get another actor to behave in a particular way or to agree to a particular outcome that they wouldn’t have done in the absence of the exercise of that power. This is often called coercive power.

Even in positive-sum, win–win situations where both parties gain, the actual division of the gains may be subject to bargaining between states. In such situations, the state that can gain most without cooperating will have the most influence over the division of gains from cooperation. This is because they can more credibly threaten to walk away from the relationship. In bargaining situations, this is known as the fall-back position: what any party could gain without agreeing to a deal. If a state can gain much without a deal they will be in a stronger position than a state that can gain little without it. Put a different way, the state that stands to gain most from any negotiation in relation to their fall-back position, is in the weaker position. As noted by Keohane and Nye (1977) (Section 3.1), most relationships of interdependence are asymmetrical, the ability to impose costs or realise benefits are uneven, and that allows some states to exert greater influence than others.

Power can also play a part in such situations if one party is able to impose costs or offer benefits to the other, thus creating an incentive for it to cooperate. The United States’ ability to get China to cooperate on issues like nuclear proliferation, say, may require concessions or threats of sanctions on other issues. Alternatively, if one state threatens to walk away from a deal over trade, or environmental protection, the other, more powerful state can impose costs on it in the form of sanctions of one kind or another. However, the exercise of power in these kinds of instances also involves costs to the powerful state. Deploying military force or imposing trade sanctions, say, involves costs to the party that is taking these actions. The ability to exercise coercive power in this sense requires a careful weighing up of costs and benefits.