The Rising China and the Ruling United States: Cooperation or Confrontation?

This article is a contribution from Mehdi Ghavideldostkohi, lecturer at Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

China’s extraordinary economic growth, military power and attentive diplomacy can be considered an epochal change in international relations. The “Rise of China” debate in the United States indicates that China would become a threat to the peaceful international order. Earlier this month, the director of the FBI said that China is the “greatest long-term threat” to the future of the US. Is conflict between a rising China and a ruling United States inevitable? 

Obviously, there is ongoing debate within American policymakers and academic scholars concerning the shift of the center of political and economic power from the United States to China, and how the United States should address China’s rise. Among many, the Harvard Professor Joe Nye expressed hope that the U.S. would have time to manage the rise of China without succumbing to the second part of the trap: overreaching because of fear.1 His Harvard colleague Professor Graham Allison has popularized the phrase “Thucydides’ trap”, which refers to the theory that when a rising power threatens a ruling power, the result is often war. In contrast to this realist approach, others suggest the principle of “China’s Peaceful Rise” and argue that a stronger China is not necessarily an aggressive power; in addition, policies designed to engage China and integrate it into the international system can prevent China from upsetting the status quo of world order.

As far as China’s foreign policy is concerned, in 2005, former Chinese president Hu Jintao began calling for the building of “a harmonious world” in international affairs, in which states act in ways that respect each other’s national sovereignty, tolerate diversity (in national political systems and values), and promote national development by equitably spreading economic benefits. Since Xi Jinping became president in 2012, Chinese diplomacy has been described as assertive in the wake of rising tensions in the South China Sea. 

President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

In America, the Obama administration reemphasized on the Washington commitment to the significance of the Asia-Pacific by claiming to ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the region but Obama had a risk-avoiding approach toward China, exemplified by his failures to address China’s coercive diplomacy towards the littoral states of the South China Sea.2 As mentioned, academic scholars in America, like professor Graham Alison, reject the idea of strategic partnership in China-US relations and suggests a “strategic adversary”. Alison argues that Thucydides’ trap offers the best lens available for cutting through the noise and news of the day to the underlying dynamic in relations between these two great powers. 

The advent of the Trump presidency in the United States represents a considerable change in US foreign policy. Trump envisioned a protectionist world of mercantilist states and the kind of international relationships he has envisioned would be based on unilateralism and bilateral arrangements, as opposed to multilateral agreements.3 Initiating a trade war against China, this new economic orientation in Washington shows that Trump has a pessimistic view of China-US relations and that China has become, arguably, America’s most consequential foreign policy challenge. 

Since Xi Jinping took power, China has developed a two-pronged foreign policy towards the United States: On the one hand, it has sought effective working relations with the USA, which are deemed necessary for its economic and technological development, and on the other hand, China opposes the American presence in the Western Pacific. 4 As China becomes further integrated into the international system, and the globalization process, there is the possibility that Beijing will seek to increase its diplomatic, economic and perhaps even strategic presence in more parts of the world, possibly engagingin more balancing behavior against the West. 5

President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, 2019. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

By the end of the first decade of the 21stcentury the United states may still have continued to be the world’s sole superpower, but its so-called hegemony, based on its dominance of what the late Susan Strange identified as the “four structures of power” (security, production, finance and knowledge ) had been undermined. 6 The rise of China and to a lesser extent India and a resurgent Russia has challenged American hegemony in international relations. It seems that the United States under Trump’s administration is aware of its negative features of foreign policy (interventionism and unilateralism in international politics) particularly in the Middle East. As China is seeking to expand its power and influence in the world and revise the old liberal international order, the United States is unable to reshape the order. 

Most Chinese scholars, for examples, professor Qin Yaqing and professor Qian Shengdan argue that “Thucydides’ Trap” cannot be used to accurately describe Sino-U.S. relations. At the American side, American scholars for example David Lampton notes that Sino-U.S. relations are very different from the historical Athenian-Spartan relationship.7 The United States and China are aware that they need each other in order to confront global problems such as climate change and defusing the North Korean nuclear crises. Historian Walter Russell Mead, a prolific author on U.S. foreign policy, recently wrote a Wall Street Journal column under the headline “ Americans are not ready for Cold War II” , and noted that the U.S. has failed to build a consensus on dealing with China, he says, in contrast to the unified American front against the Soviet Union.

All things considered, conflict between a rising China and a ruling United States is avoidable. Since China is not able to challenge the U.S. predominant in the world, the United States is very unlikely to fight China. It seems that the United States will follow acombination of engagement and containment, in order to respond to China’s rise. Correspondingly, a military confrontation with the USA is poison for China’s economic growth. Limitations and shortcomings in China’s regional rise, particularly China’s growing dependence on Middle East oil, will force Beijing to continue its “peace development” strategy. The United States and China will find a way to coexist under a bipolar system. 

Mehdi Ghavideldostkohi

  1. Coker, C. (2015), The Improbable War, (London: Oxford University press), p.107.
  2. Yahuda, M. (2019) The International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, (London: Routledge), 4th Edition, p 62.
  3. Ibid, p.7.
  4. Ibid. p.176.
  5. Lanteigne, M. (2016) Chinese Foreign Policy, An introduction, (London: Routledge) p.41.
  6. Yahuda, p.63.
  7. Ibid.