THE ROSTRUM DIALOGUES: Cooperation or Competition with China?

THE ROSTRUM DIALOGUES: Cooperation or Competition with China?

Welcome to the Rostrum Dialogues, a new series by The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs that encourages Fletcher students to engage in debate with each other over issues that are most relevant to international relations and foreign affairs today. Our first dialogue will focus on the United States’ relationship with China, and whether it should be based on cooperation or competition.


Lukas Bundonis is a staff editor at the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs and a first-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  Academically focused in security studies and international communication, Lukas is currently examining the intersection of national cybersecurity policy and strategic conflict.

Lukas Bundonis is a staff editor at the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs and a first-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Academically focused in security studies and international communication, Lukas is currently examining the intersection of national cybersecurity policy and strategic conflict.

Cooperation with China

Lukas Bundonis, MALD ‘20

If recent major news headlines were to determine how U.S.-China relations will proceed in the 21st century, the world might well be at war within a decade. Recent tête-à-têtes over tariffs, intellectual property theft, and regional military aggression have many in Washington questioning the value of maintaining an open, bilateral dialogue with China. However, the future of one of the most important diplomatic relationships in the world may find significantly more promise in cooperation than in competition. To that end, there are two arenas in which both China and the U.S. would directly benefit from seeing eye to eye.

First among these is drug enforcement. Opioid addiction is one of the most significant health epidemics currently affecting the American populace. In 2017, President Donald Trump declared it a public health emergency. China can trace its own drug epidemic to the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s when the British government pressured China to accept the illegal opium trade. Today, Chinese fentanyl, heroin, and other illicit substances flow unimpeded into overseas markets. A comprehensive, cooperative agreement between Chinese law enforcement authorities and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would allow both nations to better combat this challenge.

Second is spaceflight. While China has made significant progress toward its own manned spaceflight program, experts agree that its technical prowess is roughly equivalent to the Gemini-era capabilities of NASA in the United States. By the same token, the U.S. government has effectively allowed its own manned spaceflight program to become privatized, with companies like SpaceX now producing the bulk of American spaceship technology. If China and the United States were to model future cooperative space efforts on the relationship that the European Space Agency currently has with the Chinese Manned Space Agency, the arrangement could carry both nations’ astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond.


Qingchao Xu is a visiting scholar from China at The Fletcher School.

Qingchao Xu is a visiting scholar from China at The Fletcher School.

Qingchao Xu, Visiting Scholar

In the long run, the development of the U.S.-China relationship will be characterized with more cooperation, though competition will always be there. From the positive perspective, the are many potential common interests between the two countries. Therefore, there is a significant space for cooperation between the United States and China that has been left for the future.

In the area of economy, with the rapid development of science and technology, the emerging new types of economy, for instance, the internet economy, sincerely deserve embracing both by the United States and China. Compared to China, the United States seems to be more conservative in this sense, as the spread of electronic payment technology is much faster in China than that in the United States.

In the area of environmental protection, the cooperation between China and the United States in the field of clean energy was a success during Obama administration. To this day, dealing with the increasing environmental challenges such as black carbon in the Arctic region should be a cooperative frontier for these two countries.

In the area of cultural exchange, the bridging role of education connecting American youth and Chinese youth ought to be given more emphasis. Fundamentally, the dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship are based on relationships between Americans and Chinese. Positive relations are promoted by ordinary people and through public diplomacy. Given mutual respects to each other, across-culture and across-generation understandings is an impossible mission.

From the other perspective, the ongoing U.S.-led trade war targeting China will be recorded as a negative lesson in the future history of U.S.-China relations. According to the benefit-cost logic in the theory of economics, neither side will finally win in this sum-zero game. Likewise, according to the rational assumption, the state actor is predicted to cease its non-rational behaviors when its interests are damaged badly. Therefore, the temporary vicious competition between the United States and China won’t go far.


Competition with China

Nathan Heath is a first-year MALD at Fletcher specializing in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. He works for the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation and the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies. Nathan holds B.A.’s in both International Relations and Music from Wheaton College (IL).

Nathan Heath is a first-year MALD at Fletcher specializing in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. He works for the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation and the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies. Nathan holds B.A.’s in both International Relations and Music from Wheaton College (IL).

Nathan Heath, MALD ‘20

The U.S.-China relationship will be characterized by competition for the foreseeable future. This competition will likely take three forms: military competition to protect Asia-Pacific interests, scientific competition to develop an edge in military technology, and economic competition for international trade and investment opportunities.

The U.S. and China are both committed to protecting interests in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. commitments to allies such as Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines will require continued naval presence to challenge Chinese expansionism. In addition to protecting its own territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, China will continue to use its position as a superpower to protect North Korea, which it views as a critical ally, trading partner, and buffer to any U.S. military threat against Beijing.

Scientific competition will continue as both countries seek an edge in military technology. While the United States has maintained military superiority over China in a number of areas, new Chinese advances in areas such as anti-surface warfare, counterspace and artificial intelligence suggest that Beijing is chasing technological parity with Washington. A shrinking technological gap will spur the U.S. to pursue innovation in order to maintain the upper hand while simultaneously threatening a reduction in innovative partnerships with Beijing over national security concerns. 

Economic competition will continue as both countries push for dominance in international trade and investment. Despite hopes for a resolution of the U.S. trade war with Beijing, the standoff might continue as the Trump administration hopes to overcome a trade deficit with China and maintain credibility with a more protectionist voter base. A more solid prediction is that China’s Belt and Road Initiative will augment existing Sino-American economic tensions in the developing world, where rivalries for influence, profits, and divergent environmental and labor standards have fueled competition between the two countries.


Zihao Liu is a Class of 2020 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School. He concentrates on International Business Relations & International Security. He hails from Kaifeng, Henan Province, China, and holds a B.A. in History from Cornell University.

Zihao Liu is a Class of 2020 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School. He concentrates on International Business Relations & International Security. He hails from Kaifeng, Henan Province, China, and holds a B.A. in History from Cornell University.

Zihao Liu, MALD ‘20

In the foreseeable future, Sino-U.S. relations are likely to be characterized by competition. In the security realm, China’s continuing military modernization reflects Beijing’s view of the United States as its principle adversary. Many of China’s most notable accomplishments, such as anti- ship missiles and anti-satellite abilities, were specifically designed to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. This has alarmed the United States and has induced it to redirect its military focus on China.

Politically, the fierce Chinese nationalism discourse frequently attacks the U.S. and its role in the world, impeding any meaningful improvement in the bilateral relationship. Furthermore, the 2008 financial crisis, which dealt a much heavier blow to the United States than to China, convinced many in China that Beijing’s governance model is superior to that of the West and that the United States is in relative decline vis-a-vis China. This growing belief will encourage more assertive Chinese actions and policies that will generate push back from the United States.

On the world stage, much to America’s chagrin, China has steadfastly sided with Russia on numerous issues, including on Ukraine, Syria, and most recently on Venezuela. Economically, the ongoing trade war reveals the deep schism between China’s mercantilist approach and the market approach championed by the United States. It is unlikely that China will reduce state influence in its economy anytime soon, meaning that intrinsically different economic practices will remain. As a result of China’s Belt and Road initiative, competition between these two economic models is manifesting across the globe, making any compromise even more difficult.

Sino-U.S. relations could, and should, feature more cooperation than competition, and we should be clear that being competitors are not the same as enemies. Nevertheless, Sino-U.S. confrontations are caused by long-existing mutual suspicions and fundamental political differences that transcend the current trade war. Preventing these confrontations from escalating, therefore, should be the paramount objective in managing Sino-U.S. relations.


Image: Shanghai

Courtesy of Pedro Szekely / Flickr


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