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

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3.8 Zero-sum interactions

The obvious and most important thing to note about the pursuit of relative gains, so far as the potential for cooperation is concerned, is that it turns every interaction into a zero-sum relationship. This is because it makes the estimation of gains a ratio. As you saw in Table 2, if China’s GDP increases faster than US GDP then the gap between the two, the US relative advantage, has been lessened: China’s gain is a US loss. The same is true of military spending – if China can increase its military spending faster than the United States, it can reduce its inferiority in this area. In such situations, if states only focus on relative capabilities, then the scope for cooperation is very limited; states will only jointly agree to changes that maintain the existing relative position vis-à-vis the other.

Even many realists don’t maintain that states focus only on relative capabilities but that in sensitive relationships – facing a powerful and antagonistic rival, say – concerns about relative gains will feature more strongly in states’ calculations. In relations with states that are seen as less of a threat, such concerns may be given less weight and states may be freer to pursue joint absolute gains. Arguably, most international relationships are neither ones of pure conflict (zero-sum pursuit of relative gains) nor pure cooperation (pursuing mutual absolute gains) but a more complex mix of the two. And the balance between the two may change over time, as arguably is the case in China–United States relations.

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Figure 10 Will relative gains for China in the security field undermine potential cooperation over economic matters?