Competition or Cooperation: The Complicated Diplomatic Relationship Between China and the United States

Sino-American relations have long been fraught with complexity. Although fundamental economic, security, and foreign policy differences persist, there is a deep financial relationship between the world’s two largest economies. Currently, the United States and China share a common interest in the Asia-Pacific region where a unique dynamic—part cooperative and  part competitive—is on display.

As China’s military and economic power continuously increase, some scholars argue that the U.S. is concerned about China’s ability to diminish American influence in South Asia. A new study by Wu Xinbo explores the complicated relationship between China and the United States as it relates to their shared interest in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. and China have vested interests in the stability of both the Asia-Pacific and Chinese periphery regions, with particularly in the Korean peninsula and Afghanistan. With the collapse of the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, and the withdrawal of North Korea from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Beijing and Washington have begun collaborating to address denuclearizing the peninsula. Additionally, North Korea’s third nuclear test has hardened China’s once-mild attitude towards the matter and has led China to act more cooperatively with the United States. Secondly, the two countries’ overlapping interests and concerns over terrorism in Afghanistan has further increased their cooperation; as the United States attempts to assist Afghanistan militarily, China supports their economy through financing and labor.

The unrest in Afghanistan has impacted the stability of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and the possibility of the Taliban’s return to power led China and the U.S. to agree on an extensive collaboration during the fifth Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which addressed political stability and economic revitalization in Afghanistan. The presence of American and Chinese economic assistance, despite the significant withdrawal of U.S. military support in 2014, led to talks in July 2015 over the promotion of peace in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

However, the fact that competition and conflict exists between the U.S. and China is understandable and undeniable: China’s ascension as a global economic and political powerhouse has sparked some concern over the status of the U.S. as a global economic leader. Accordingly, America’s “rebalancing strategy” aims to constrain China’s increasing influence in the region. The South and East China Seas are a cornerstone of U.S. strategy aimed at instigating and stoking disputes between China and other Asia-Pacific countries, as well as geopolitically important areas in augmenting its own military presence. A second pillar in American strategy is the formation of strategic alliances to further alienate China economically. The U.S. partnership with Vietnam to establish Hanoi as a secondary regional hub and the fostering of closer ties with Myanmar to loosen dependence on China are both examples of this aspect of American strategy. More poignantly, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) undermines East Asian economic cooperation and seeks to place the U.S. on an equal footing with China in the region.

The United States’ aggressive foreign policy agenda has partly led to China pursuing several counterbalancing efforts across numerous fronts. Military efforts to safeguard its own territory are complemented by assistance to neighboring countries to enhance economic relations via regional treaties and partnerships. For the U.S., however, a potential unwanted consequence of China’s rebalancing strategy is the strengthening of its relationship with Russia in an effort to reestablish China and Russia’s predominance in the region.

As the power gap between China and the United States narrows, the U.S. faces an important policy conundrum of whether to intensify competition or to learn to live with Chinese growth. This dilemma presents both benefits and risks that must be weighed when deciding the future of strategic relations in the region.
Article source: Wu, Xinbo. “Cooperation, competition and shaping the outlook: the United States and China’s neighborhood diplomacy.” International Affairs, Volume 92, Issue 4(July 2016): Page 849-867.

Featured photo: cc/(c8501089, photo ID: 459470843, from iStock by Getty Images)

mwu34@uchicago.edu'
Minyue Wu

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