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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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.

Described image
Figure 10 Will relative gains for China in the security field undermine potential cooperation over economic matters?
DD313_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371