In the context of the transformation of the international system, foreign policy tasks, and national interests, formulated and implemented by the leadership of the United States and China, come into fundamental contradiction. The challenge put forward by Washington to preserve American global leadership collides with Beijing’s aspirations to stimulate the emergence of a multipolar world. Taking into account the main factors influencing the course of Sino-U.S. relations, three alternative policies were formulated. The first presupposes strategic competition with peaceful coexistence, which is the preferable option for both states and world politics in general. According to the second of them, China and the United States are moving toward complete separation and a new Cold War, which is the worst of the three since it significantly weakens each side’s positions and contributes to the destabilization of the world situation. The third alternative is to build a new type of relationship between the United States and China and a high level of interaction. This scenario, in comparison with the first two, seems to be the most unlikely. Thus, the United States and China are interested in further developing cooperation, although they will continue to compete geopolitically and economically.
In the modern world, the United States and China occupy leading positions in many representative indicators reflecting national power, the international influence of a state, and its role in the global agenda. According to McGregor (2019), they are the largest developed and developing states, the world’s strongest economies, the world’s leading defense and R&D spending states, and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Due to the high role that the United States and China play in world political and economic processes, U.S.-China relations can be recognized as the most critical interstate relations globally, setting the direction for the transformation of the international system.
Bilateral relations between China and the United States can be viewed as a set of interactions between two states at three interconnected levels – bilateral, regional, and global. The bilateral level is understood as the interstate relations between the United States and China. The regional level is the interaction of two states in different regions of the world, and the global level is their interaction in solving global and regional issues. Simultaneously, the interdependence of the United States and China, which determines their cooperation, manifests itself mainly at the worldwide level. Profound contradictions that define the conflicting nature of U.S.-Chinese relations are concentrated on all three levels. These include the contradictions between the United States and China on Taiwan and Tibetan issues, human rights issues in general, and a wide range of issues in the trade and economic sphere. The source of the U.S.-China contrasts at the bilateral and other levels is the difference in ideologies, value systems, and political and economic models of the United States and China, as well as the formation of the disposition of the United States and China as a superpower and potential superpower, which strengthens their strategic distrust of each other.
The diversity and depth of U.S.-China contradictions, long-term prospects for preserving their sources, the absence of a strategic basis for bilateral relations, and the development of regional and global rivalry predetermine the conflict model of modern U.S.-Chinese interaction. Thus, the analysis of alternatives to Sino-U.S. relations serves as a determining factor not only for their policies but also for the future of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the basis for the development and implementation of policies by most countries in the region.
Alternative Policy #1: Cooperation between China and the United States, Despite Some Antagonism
Both cooperation and strategic competition characterize these relationships. The basis of these relations is that China has become an economic center for the development of the global economy, which is politically independent of the United States. Boylan et al. (2021) note that today, China has a positive trade balance and has plenty of American currency reserves. For this reason, the United States is interested in China as a partner and will be forced to cooperate economically with China. Moreover, the growing economic interdependence between China and the United States means that America cannot punish China without seriously hurting itself.
In turn, in matters of military power, cooperation with solid and reliable allies and security partners, and de facto dominance in international economic institutions, the United States retains its advantage over China. Chinese leaders are aware of their limits and may be hesitant to challenge the United States directly unless there is an unexpected crisis at home or in the region that leaves China’s decision-makers hostage to domestic political calculations or nationalist sentiments. Furthermore, China is interested in maintaining the largest American sales market and attracting investments from the United States, which contributes to the Chinese economy’s high growth rates and the development of industries. Therefore, China will pay special attention to joint projects with the United States on innovation and the latest technology.
Moreover, the United States and China are nuclear powers, which is a deterrent to any armed conflicts between them. Despite the importance of the disputes over the South China Sea, this is not the principal contradiction between them. Thus, taking into account the degree of interest of both powers in cooperation, it can be assumed that even if there is a cooling of relations between them, it will be temporary.
The complex interdependence between China and the United States requires both countries to continue to support each other in a relatively peaceful, competitive coexistence. Sino-U.S. relations will be characterized by the mutual concession of either side’s forces and interests since neither China nor the United States can establish hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region or pursue their national interests without significant cooperation with each other.
Therefore, barring an unexpected major crisis, the relationship between the U.S. and China will look relatively similar to the current one. The equation of power becomes more favorable for China as it continues to grow. This trend will further exacerbate the strategic rivalry between the two countries but will not lead to a situation where both countries allow their relationship to spiral out of control. As a result, the future of the Asia-Pacific region will continue to be shaped by Sino-U.S. relations and their ties to other major regional powers such as India, Japan, and Russia.
Alternative Policy # 2: Severing Sino-American Relations
If China continues to develop, as it has been in the past three decades, subsequently, this country’s economy will become the largest in the world. Accordingly, China will have a much more significant military power that can challenge the United States in many ways. In this case, the United States will face a difficult choice: either accept China’s superiority in the Asia-Pacific region or take measures to harm China economically, diplomatically and militarily. According to Zhao (2019), the history of the change of power in the world, the corporate strategic interests of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, and the self-concept of American exceptionalism suggest that the United States is likely to choose the latter policy option, starting a new Cold War against China.
Such forecasts are based on various external and internal factors, including cultural-ideological, financial-economic, and military-political. Thus, the civilizational difference in the approaches to understanding world problems and their solutions between the United States and China is visible in global development projects proposed by them. De Graaff and Van Apeldoorn (2018) claim that if the Chinese project “Datong” is a project for a ” Community of common destiny” is intended for everyone, then the American project “Pattern” is to achieve the military-political superiority of the United States over the whole world. Gippner et al. (2017) assert that the AIIB project creates the “Four Great Benefits” for China, which will provide resources for the creation of free trade zones along with the Chinese model, spread Chinese standards overseas, accelerate the internationalization of the Chinese yuan, and create conditions for the establishment of Chinese order in the region. The implementation of this project will weaken the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Moreover, according to Shambaugh (2020), Central Asia is the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. relations. For these reasons, China poses the greatest danger to the United States, as its economy is developing faster, and along with the economy, the army is also strengthening.
Politically, the United States can influence the destabilization of China’s current regime as much as possible to transform the government or bring about the collapse of the CCP’s rule. In this area, the United States has much more advantages and tools than China. Zhao (2019) affirms that the United States can use the socio-economic and socio-political contradictions in Chinese society to foment public dissent toward the CCP-led regime. Perhaps this will provoke separatism in Tibet and Xinjiang to such an extent that China will have to devote a significant part of its resources to suppress any unrest.
In this case, other countries will be forced to choose either side, which will lead to the division of the world into two camps. According to Zhao (2019), a new and dangerous “cold war” may develop, which has a high risk of escalating into a “hot” war. If this reality comes true, the long-term prospects for peace and prosperity will be damaged. In terms of the world’s growing multipolarity, it will be a fragmented world that will undermine the sustainable development of many regions and countries.
Alternative Policy #3: a U.S.-China Condominium
According to Gippner et al. (2017), many Western scholars such as Arvin Subramanian, Hugh White, and Robert Ross advocate the condominium, a new type of relationship between the U.S. and China. In their interactions with American leaders, high-ranking Chinese officials also proposed building a new kind of relationship, which some countries perceived as the G-2 model. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, a die-hard realist, also advocated the creation of a G-2 model that would allow China and the United States to work with each other on a new level.
There is a possibility that China and the United States will better understand each other and learn to live and cooperate in the name of their national interests and peace and stability in the region. Although China and the United States tend to view their national interests as increasingly divergent rather than coinciding, both countries face serious threats. Maher (2018) notes that tackling global traditional and non-traditional security challenges such as climate change, food security, water security, cybersecurity, international trade, and anti-piracy requires close Sino-American cooperation. Moreover, both countries increasingly realize that each of them is capable of causing great harm to the other if a conflict breaks out between them. The U.S. can and probably will accept this reality as China rises, but to the extent that it does not threaten the strategic interests of the U.S., which is a superpower with global interests and obligations. This understanding will force the United States and China to coexist peacefully and share power.
There may not be many examples of condominiums between powers in world politics, especially between two great ideologically different forces, such as China and the United States. Still, this possibility cannot be completely ruled out. As long as there are doubts about the prospects for strategic cooperation between China and the United States, it is likely that both countries will seek to interact and cooperate as long as they see that the benefits of partnership still outweigh the costs. Since the economies of China and the United States are primarily interdependent, any break in their relationship will be very detrimental to either side’s interests and peace and stability in the region and around the world.
There is no predetermined answer to the question of what the Sino-U.S. relationship will be like. Whether they turn out to be beneficial or detrimental depends on many factors, including the policies followed by China, the United States, and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite all these uncertainties, some general observations can be displayed:
First, cooperation and strategic competition will likely remain the two main trends in Sino-U.S. relations. No matter how new and revolutionary international relations may be in the future, China and the United States need to work out ways to cooperate and stabilize their connections in the coming years. None of the countries has enough strength to neutralize its strategic competitor completely. Therefore, China and the United States will be both partners and strategic competitors.
Second, since foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, domestic policy is expected to influence Sino-U.S. relations significantly. Both China and the United States have internal problems that could pose major obstacles to stable relations with each other in the years to come.
Third, whether Sino-U.S. relations will be characterized by more competition or cooperation, their ties also depend on the region’s situation and the world. In an unpredictable world, many unknowns can affect relations between these countries, for example, the outbreak of a terrorist attack such as September 11, territorial or maritime conflicts or skirmishes between China and some U.S. allies, or even a crisis or collapse of the current regime in China.
It should be recognized that China has become a new economic center for the development of the global economy, which is politically independent of the United States. It means that China is becoming an increasingly important player in international affairs. According to McGregor (2019), China’s position in the world will undoubtedly affect its relations with the United States: America will view China as its main rival globally. It means that now China and the United States will forever remain geopolitical adversaries. All their relations – diplomatic, political, and economic – will be determined by their strategies, which will have to ensure: for the United States – the restoration of American global leadership and for China – the conquest of the place of a worldwide leader.
The spread of China’s economic interests around the world creates problems for the U. S. Therefore; the United States needs to support those countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and send their warships and aircraft there to protect trade routes. Moreover, China is defending its interests and positions in Central Asia and ousting the United States from this region. Thus, it is necessary to increase the American military presence and strengthen the U.S. influence in the region. It is vital for the United States to build up its military power and maintain economic competitiveness, moral authority, and participation in international political processes. Simultaneously, an essential condition for the development of bilateral relations is mutually beneficial cooperation in trade, science, technology, and innovation.
However, it is difficult to say with certainty what will happen soon because the possible outcomes are constantly changing by current actions and shocks such as a pandemic. Unexpected events can thwart even the most elaborate plans.
Boylan, B.M., McBeath, J. & Wang, B. (2021). US–China relations: Nationalism, the trade war, and COVID-19. Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 14, 23–40, Web.
De Graaff, N. & Van Apeldoorn, B. (2018). US–China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions? International Affairs, 94(1), 113–131, Web.
Gippner, O., Schmelcher, S. & Gabriel, J. (2017). Three scenarios for EU-China relations 2025 [PDF document]. Web.
Maher, R. (2018) Bipolarity and the future of U.S.-China relations. Political science quarterly, 133(3), 497-525, Web.
McGregor, R. (2019). Xi Jinping: The backlash, Penguin Random House Australia. Web.
Shambaugh, D. (2020). China and the world, Oxford University Press.
Zhao, M. (2019). Is a new cold war inevitable? Chinese perspectives on US–China strategic competition. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 12(3), 371–394, Web.