Some authors in the contemporary literature on China and international relations have described contemporary Chinese policy with regard, in particular, to the United States as a form of “coopetition” (i.e., Shambaugh, 2013). Coopetition in Chinese-U.S. relations is thus, on the one hand, characterized by cooperation on the economic level, and, on the other hand, a growing form of competition on the geopolitical level. A possible limitation of this account, however, becomes visible when a realist perspective is used to approach this relationship: namely, cooperation on the economic level is ultimately only a temporary policy stance of U.S.-Chinese relations and could be easily discarded when such a policy is no longer beneficial to either of the parties involved. In short, whereas contemporary U.S.-Chinese relations may appear to be significantly defined by economic cooperation, from a realist horizon, this is only a temporary moment in the U.S.-Chinese relationship and, as transient, in no way defines this relationship itself.

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Arguably, from a Chinese perspective, this thesis is borne out by current questions of strategy in Chinese international relations, as well as questions of what China’s role in the 21st century is to be. For example, the Chinese intellectual Angang Hu (2011) stresses that all estimates of Chinese growth are traditionally underestimated as opposed to overestimated. To the extent that Chinese policy accepts this hypothesis, this entails that Chinese policy itself has no ultimate need for cooperation with the United States on the economic level. Chinese growth, in other words, minimizes Chinese dependency on particular countries and thus Chinese policy can grow in any number of directions on the economic level. In realist terms, China, to the extent that its growth continues, does not remain bound to particular relationships in order to preserve and grow its political power.

This motif is also repeated in questions of geopolitics currently facing China. The Chinese academic Ye Zicheng (2011) frames future Chinese geopolitical strategy in terms of two choices: either a growing geopolitical relationship with the United States, mirroring Chinese economic cooperation with the U.S., or an increased focus on the Eurasian continent. Zicheng (2011) argues for the latter position, in so far as he believes that this is the only way in which China can ultimately become truly sovereign, autonomous, and, by extension, a world superpower. This strategic decision is furthermore mirrored in questions of geopolitical energy independence, which sees China furthermore emphasizing its partnerships in Eurasia. (Marketos, 2008) Such ambitions, at the same time, are perhaps fully recognized by the U.S., as Muzaffar (2007) argues: he suggests that U.S. policy has always attempted to contain China, such that U.S.-Chinese economic cooperation is itself merely another attempt at such containment.

From this perspective, Chinese economic cooperation with the United States, despite its clear immediate benefits to both economics, must in the end be explained in realist terms. Such cooperation is only a temporary phase in Chinese policy (as well as U.S. foreign policy), a phase whose ultimate aim is to increase Chinese influence and power in the immediate region and the world.

  • Angang, Hu. China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2011.
  • Marketos, Thrassy N. China’s Energy Geopolitics: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Central Asia. London: Routledge, 2008.
  • Muzaffar, Chandra. “Containing China: A Flawed Agenda.” In J.A. Camilleri et. al. (eds.) Asia-Pacific Geopolitics: Hegemony vs. Human Security. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2007. 59-72.
  • Shambaugh, David L. “Tangled Titans: Conceptualizing the U.S.-China Relationship”. In D. Shambaugh (ed.) Tangled Titans: The United States and China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. pp. 3-39.
  • Zicheng, Ye. Inside China’s Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People’s Republic. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2011.