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

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6.2 Military

Even if it were conceded that there are large absolute gains to be had from cooperative economic relations, a counter argument suggests that consideration of military and security issues will temper any possible cooperation. The future of disputed areas of territory (including the future of Taiwan) is an example where state preferences on each side can be seen to be opposed and the interaction zero-sum. Shifts in the military balance in the region, including China’s expanding naval capacity and US military support for Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, also tend to be viewed in terms of relative gains. If these issues are seen in this light, and seen to be central to each states’ preferences, then any pursuit of potential absolute gains in the economic arena may be limited by a greater concern with security.

Others take this a step further still. In the United States, analysts such as Mearsheimer (2001) (see Section 2) argue that the potential threat that China poses means that the United States should seek to limit any relative gains China might make. The United States should use its power, including military power, to limit such gains and slow China’s rise. The entire relationship in this view should be seen in zero-sum terms. On the Chinese side, too, some analysts argue that the historical record suggests that the United States can never be trusted and will always look for ways to dominate China and frustrate its development.

It is true that the security field, especially in the South East Asian region, is one in which China and the United States watch each others’ moves very closely. It is also true that in military matters the United States retains a huge advantage accounting for nearly half of world military spending. Indeed, because of its advanced military industrial sector, the productivity of its spending probably far outstrips that of other states (Bromley, 2009, pp. 185–186). Nevertheless, any attempt by the United States to frustrate China’s economic development and military power would require a coercive exercise of power. As you have seen this also involves costs. Can the United States use its military capabilities to secure goals in the economic field? Conversely, can China use relative economic advantages to secure wider influence over the United States? Michael Cox (2010) has argued that too many writers assume that a shift in economic gravity is the same thing as a shift in power. Even if former US Treasury Secretary Laurence Summers described the economic relationship between China and the United States as a ‘balance of financial terror’ because of the depth of mutual dependence, do the costs of either side trying to exploit the other side’s vulnerability outweigh any potential gains? These are questions you will continue to consider when exploring the future of China–United States relations further.