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Countries should opt to establish a ‘coopetition’ relationship

If the two countries can perceive their competition rationally, there is ample space to maneuver and avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap Zhang Baijia, former deputy director of the Party History Research Center of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and a current member of the academic committee of the Strategy and Security Research Center of Tsinghua University in Beijing

By Zhang Baijia Updated Apr.1

At present, China-US relations are facing unprecedented challenges since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. In past decades, as China’s rapid development greatly narrowed the gap in comprehensive national strength between China and the US, it led to the emergence of structural contradictions between the two countries. As a result, the foundation for mutual trust of the 1980s has been lost.  

As the US now regards China as a strategic competitor, and one that it has never encountered before, the China-US relationship will never return to that of the past.  

But although the competition between great powers can be very fierce, it does not have to be zero-sum. The US and China should prevent the escalation of hostility between the two countries and aim for competition and cooperation, or a “coopetition” relationship.  

First, the current situation of China-US relations is different from any other period in their history. It is also different from the relationship between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. There are close ties and interdependence between the two countries in a wide range of fields, which are intertwined with disputes and competition in other fields at the same time. To manage this complex relationship, the two countries can separate areas where they can cooperate and those where they will compete.  

Second, the two countries have different goals. While the US looks to maintain its global leadership, China aims to safeguard its development rights. If the two countries can perceive their competition rationally, there is ample space to maneuver and avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap. It is possible that both countries can achieve their goals in a win-win situation. 

Third, from a historical perspective, driven by technological development and economic globalization, the world is moving toward further global integration rather than fragmentation. At the same time, the solution to many global issues, such as environmental protection, climate change and global pandemics, requires global cooperation, especially between the US and China.  

For China and the US to form a new relationship of “coopetition,” in which healthy competition and cooperation coexist, they need to subdivide the areas of competition and cooperation. They also need to address a series of issues stemming from the structural problems between the two sides and establish new rules on the basis of reciprocity. This process will require the two sides to negotiate and compromise, which means that many aspects of the work may have to start from scratch. It will take a long time for the bilateral relationship to find a new equilibrium.