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

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3.7 Relative gains

So far you have been exploring the forms of interdependence that arise when states pursue absolute gains. What does the picture look like if you change one of our assumptions and instead think about states pursuing only relative gains? In this situation, states evaluate their own gains not in absolute terms – are they better off than they were before – but in relative terms – do they gain more than the other party?

Some analysts argue that states will often forego quite substantial absolute gains because they are more concerned about their relative position vis-à-vis other states. In China–United States relations this might mean that potential benefits to each country’s economic growth might be sacrificed if one or both countries focused only on their relative gains. Or potential gains in one arena (trade, say) might be set aside because of concerns about the other increasing its relative position in another arena (the security field, say).

  • Q: Why might states focus on relative gains?

There are two main reasons put forward. First, realists argue that the primary goal of states in the international system is to ensure their own security and that they have to rely on self-help to do this. They will therefore be concerned about the distribution of power across the system as a whole. As Joseph Grieco puts it:

Driven by an interest in survival, states are acutely sensitive to any erosion of their relative capabilities, which are the ultimate basis for their security in an anarchical, self-help international context.

(1993, p. 127)

The consequence, Kenneth Waltz maintains, is that

even the prospect of large absolute gains for both parties does not elicit their co-operation so long as each fears how the other will use its increased capabilities. … a state worries about a division of possible gains that may favour others more than itself. That is the first way in which the structure of international politics limits the co-operation of states.

(1979, pp. 105–106)

Second, states will be concerned that interdependence, if sufficiently asymmetrical, will create a level of dependence on (or vulnerability to) other states that might allow those other states to dominate them by threatening to exploit their dependence. Both China and the United States have long-standing concerns over access to resources, especially oil supplies that relate to this kind of worry. Each fears this creates a vulnerability that could be used against them.

For both these reasons, realists argue that states ‘spend a lot of time estimating one another’s capabilities’ (Waltz, 1979, p. 131). Although focusing primarily on military capabilities, economic capabilities also come into the picture because they can provide the basis for developing a bigger or more effective military force.