The United States and China: Gaming New Models for Great-Power Relations

July 21, 2014

Because an indefinite deterioration in U.S.-China relations would have such serious consequences for global order, policymakers and analysts in both countries are keen to develop a high-level framework that can prevent their competition from devolving into hostility. Earlier this year the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation published a major report—based on a high-level track II dialogue in Beijing last September—that justifies that pursuit. A CAP paper in the report explains that “[u]ntil the United States and China develop a shared vision for where they want the relationship to go, it is difficult to determine what mutually beneficial policy steps they should take now.” Another paper in the report, this one by three scholars at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, concludes that if they can

converge on some basic understanding of…the principles governing the global and regional order in transition, and on the responsibility each side should take during this transition, it would be relatively easier for Beijing and Washington to explore the cooperative areas and specific roadmap for policy collaboration between themselves.

This mutual search for a framework—whether one characterizes it as a “shared vision” or “basic understanding”—reflects the U.S.-China relationship’s exceptional importance: it is central to global order not only because they have the two largest economies and defense budgets, but also because their cooperation is essential to meeting the challenges of our time. The search also highlights the absence of an organic basis for building ties:

— The United States is less than 250 years old; China’s history spans millennia.

— The United States is undergoing demographic shifts that could render non-Hispanic whites a minority by 2050; China remains about 90% Han.

— The United States has two friendly neighbors and two security buffers (the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans); China has 14 neighbors, some of which are unstable, and most of which are concerned about its strategic intentions.

— The United States generally believes in the universality of liberal values and pursues a foreign policy that attempts to spread them; China also believes in the strength of its values, but it rejects their promotion as a form of interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

— The United States seeks to entrench today’s liberal international system; China asks why it should be beholden to a system it played little role in designing.

— Neither the United States nor China has any experience sustaining global order in partnership with another country.

Without a natural foundation for their relationship, the United States and China have had little choice thus far but to manage their dealings on an ad hoc basis and hope that these accumulated improvisations will reveal a concept in due course. There is much to recommend this approach, and as James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon argue persuasively in their new book, the potential dividends from creative, concerted incrementalism are far from exhausted. The trouble, as Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi explained in an influential March 2012study, is that strategic distrust between the United States and China is growing more rapidly than the countries’ ability to improvise.

As forcefully as the two countries insist they will avoid the mistakes of history, moreover, they confront a sobering record of power transitions. According to Graham Allison—who coined the term “Thucydides Trap” to describe the inbuilt tensions between leading powers and rising ones—11 of the 15 transitions that have occurred in the past 500 years have ended in war. A war between the United States and China would not only threaten their own economies, but also risk a global recession of far greater severity and duration than that which struck in Fall 2008.

The good news is that several novelties of the U.S.-China relationship act to stabilize it. While the two countries are competitors, after all, perhaps even rivals, they are not adversaries; indeed, they are constrained by a degree of economic interdependence that no other pair of major powers today exhibits. According to the Brookings Institution’s Tom Wright, one has to “look back to the period before World War I for cases of such levels of interdependence between great power competitors.” Unlike past pairs of leading powers and rising ones, moreover, the United States and China are both nuclear powers; more importantly, having witnessed the devastation wrought by two world wars, they appreciate how vital a role their mutual interdependence plays in circumscribing their conduct toward one another. Nonetheless, the differences between their strategic cultures, the limitations their military-to-military dialogue, and the difficulty they have had in ascertaining each other’s vital national interests, among other factors, make it unwise to dismiss the possibility of an armed confrontation. In a sobering essay last spring, Avery Goldstein warned that “the danger of instability in a crisis involving these two nuclear-armed states is a tangible, near-term concern.”

In view of the realities outlined above, the search for a high-level framework is both sensible and urgent. It gained momentum in November 2011, when, in an essay for Foreign Policy, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. At a February 2012 luncheon in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the United States and China to develop “a new type of relationship between major countries.” Since then Premier Li Keqiang, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and other top Chinese officials have actively promoted that phrase.The United States has also embraced it. Last June President Barack Obama expressedhope that his Sunnylands Summit with Xi would be “a strong foundation for the kind of new model of cooperation that we can establish for years to come.” Since then Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and other top U.S. officials have followed suit.

The recently-concluded Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the United States and China, their sixth such meeting, offered top officials from both countries yet another opportunity to promulgate the concept. In a letter to attendees, President Obama assured China that the United States is “committed to the shared goal of developing over time a ‘new model’ of relations with China defined by increased practical cooperation and constructive management of differences.” In remarks at the opening ceremony of the Dialogue, President Xi urged both countries to “keep the big picture in sight and grasp the general goal of boosting the new model of major-country relationship.”

While it is encouraging that U.S. and Chinese leaders are committed to cultivating a “new model” of great-power relations, there has not been much analysis of the forms it might take and the way in which those forms might operate in practice. Consider the following five potential “new” outcomes, ranked in ascending order of China’s long-term position relative to that of the United States:

(1)  The United States remains the world’s preeminent power, with China opting to play a subordinate and supportive role (a new outcome because the anticipated power transition between the two countries does not occur).

(2)  China continues to focus on fulfilling domestic imperatives. When the policies it pursues to that end bring it into strategic competition with the United States, it acts to reduce tensions (a new outcome because rising powers have historically posed deliberate challenges, not inadvertent ones).

(3)  China peacefully displaces the United States as the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific, but it does not contest U.S. preeminence elsewhere (a new outcome because rising powers have not historically restricted the scope of their ambitions at the outset).

(4)  China achieves and maintains rough strategic parity with the United States (a new outcome because the international system has never sustained indefinite bipolarity between rivals-cum-partners, only a 45-year period of bipolarity between declared antagonists).

(5)  China peacefully displaces the United States as the world’s preeminent power (a new outcome because a relatively poor, authoritarian country has never supplanted an affluent democracy).

Two questions arise: first, of all the possible “new” outcomes, including the five above, which would represent the most mutually acceptable compromise between the United States and China? Only time will tell. Second, which is the most probable along current trend lines? The fifth one certainly aligns with trends in global opinion. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, “a median of 49% across the 44 countries surveyed say that China will replace or has already replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower.” For reasons I tried to explain in an article last month, however, this outcome seems unlikely. The fourth outcome, while more likely, would probably not be a serious prospect for at least several decades, even given China’s turbocharged economic and military ascension. The third outcome is plausible, but China has facilitated an enduring U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific by attempting to alter the status quo through pressure and coercion. Were it to scale down that effort and instead double down on its attempt to integrate its neighbors’ economies with its own, it would be more likely to wrest the region away from the United States over time, or at least force the United States to work much harder to maintain its perch there. Given the scale and severity of China’s internal challenges, the second outcome is quite plausible. Finally, the first part of the first outcome is quite plausible as well; the stronger China becomes, however, the less plausible the second part becomes. Why would a country that believes itself to be exceptional limit its aspirations to supporting the policies of another country—one whose preeminence, importantly, it regards as an aberration from historical patterns? If I had to speculate, I would make two predictions: first, that China will eventually become the central power in its own backyard, with the United States nonetheless remaining a major actor there; and second, that while China will not eclipse the United States globally, it will play the central role in forcing global order to evolve.

Perhaps the presumption of a new model’s necessity is premature. Perhaps the United States and China will be able to sustain a tense but workable equilibrium, not because they have a flash of strategic insight, but because they realize they have little choice but to keep their relationship on life support. Last February Shell released a report in which it mulled two alternative futures: “mountains” and “oceans.” The former “is a world in which those occupying commanding advantage (at the top) generally work to create stability in ways that promote the persistence of the status quo”; the latter, “a world in which competing interests and the diffusion of influence are met with a rising tide of accommodation.” The authors explain that in the “mountains” world—one in which the United States and China are the preeminent powers, but in which Brazil, India, Turkey, South Africa, and other regional heavyweights occupy more prominent roles—“[c]ountries will simply have to learn to live with each other if they are to avoid the sort of competitive scramble that leads to mutual harm.” History will give the United States and China good marks if they can do so.


Ali Wyne is a regular contributor to War on the Rocks, a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).