20th April 2024 – (Beijing) In the arena of great power dynamics, few relationships bear greater consequence than that between the United States and China. As the world’s preeminent powers, their interactions reverberate across the global landscape, shaping the trajectory of political, economic, and social developments. Yet, amidst the delicate tapestry of their engagement, a dangerous narrative has taken root – one that frames their interactions as a zero-sum game, where one nation’s gain is inherently another’s loss.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs, a prominent voice in the realm of international affairs, has ignited a firestorm of debate by advocating for a strategy of containment against China. This perspective, rooted in the realist school of thought, posits that the United States must curtail China’s rise to preserve its global hegemony, echoing the adversarial dynamics of the Cold War era. However, this myopic view overlooks the intricate complexities of the modern world, where global challenges transcend national boundaries and demand collaborative, rather than confrontational, approaches.

The zero-sum game theory, which underpins the containment strategy, assumes that international relations are a constant battle for power among states, where one actor’s gain directly translates into another’s loss. While this framework may have held sway during the Cold War era, it fails to account for the profound shifts that have reshaped the global landscape in recent decades.

Today’s world is characterised by complex interdependencies that defy zero-sum solutions. The global economy is a prime example, where the United States and China are inextricably intertwined. China stands as the United States’ largest trading partner, and this economic relationship supports millions of jobs and contributes to economic growth and stability in both nations. Decoupling, a central tenet of the zero-sum approach, could unleash a cascade of economic disruptions that neither country could easily absorb.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the intricate nature of global supply chains, where China plays a pivotal role, particularly in the manufacturing of electronics and pharmaceuticals. A confrontational approach that seeks to isolate China could disrupt these intricate networks, leading to global shortages and inflationary pressures that would reverberate across borders.

Beyond economic considerations, the most pressing global challenges of our time – climate change, pandemic diseases, and cybersecurity – are inherently transnational in nature. They cannot be effectively addressed by any single nation alone, but rather demand multinational cooperation and the pooling of resources and knowledge. China’s active participation is crucial in global efforts to tackle climate change, given its status as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Similarly, in the realms of public health and cyber security, cooperative approaches are more likely to yield effective solutions than confrontational ones.

While the zero-sum approach may seem intuitively appealing to those who view international relations through a purely competitive lens, it is ill-suited to the complexities of the 21st-century world. Instead, a paradigm shift towards cooperation and engagement with China could unlock a myriad of benefits for both nations and the global community at large.

Economically, constructive engagement could enhance opportunities for American businesses in China’s vast and rapidly growing market, fostering mutually beneficial growth and avoiding the costs of decoupling. In the realm of innovation and progress, collaboration in areas like technology and scientific research can spur breakthroughs that benefit humanity, such as joint research on clean energy and environmental technologies that could help address the global climate crisis more effectively.

By working together, the United States and China can strengthen international institutions and frameworks that promote global stability and prosperity. This includes reforming institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization to make them more effective and representative of the current global order, ensuring that they remain relevant and capable of addressing the challenges of our time.

Crucially, a cooperative approach can help build a more stable and predictable international order, reducing the risk of sudden disruptions and conflicts that could have catastrophic consequences. This stability is not only beneficial for global economic health but also for the ability of nations to plan long-term strategies and foster sustainable development.

Amidst the clamour for containment and zero-sum gamesmanship, China’s own development strategy offers a compelling counterpoint. As detailed in a recent government report, China’s focus for 2024 and beyond is on high-quality development – a comprehensive approach that encompasses economic growth, job creation, defence and inflation control, as well as sustainable economic development and innovation.

Rather than seeking to outstrip or undermine other nations, China’s strategy emphasizes improving its own economic foundations and the quality of life for its citizens. This approach recognizes that true progress is not achieved through the subjugation of others but rather through a commitment to self-improvement and the cultivation of domestic strengths.

Moreover, China’s strategy incorporates fostering international cooperation and open economic systems, recognizing them as essential pillars for its development. The emphasis on attracting foreign investment and ensuring national treatment for foreign-funded enterprises underscores a commitment to mutually beneficial engagement with the global community.

In contrast, the containment strategy advocated in the Foreign Affairs article appears reactive and defensively postured, focusing on severing China’s access to technology and increasing U.S. defence capabilities rather than fostering domestic innovation and economic resilience. While national security concerns are valid, a strategy primarily driven by fear and rivalry is likely to be less successful in the long term than one driven by constructive competition and internal development.

As the United States contemplates its approach to China, it would be prudent to learn from China’s emphasis on self-improvement and innovation. Rather than viewing China’s rise as a zero-sum game, the United States could focus on bolstering its own technological, economic, and social frameworks, enhancing its education system, investing in cutting-edge technologies, and supporting public infrastructure to ensure global competitiveness without resorting to containment strategies that could lead to conflict or mutual economic downturns.

Furthermore, the United States and China could leverage areas where their interests align, such as climate change and global health, to foster cooperative engagement that yields positive outcomes for both nations and the world at large. This does not mean ignoring disagreements and competitive dynamics, but rather striking a delicate balance between competition and cooperation, recognising that in an interconnected world, the fates of nations are inextricably intertwined.

In an era marked by rapid globalisation and complex interdependencies, the notion of international relations as a zero-sum game is not only outdated but also detrimental to the pursuit of shared progress and prosperity. As both the United States and China continue to develop and shape the global order, it is through fostering avenues of mutual benefit and maintaining robust national capabilities that a balanced and stable international system can be achieved.