China and the United States: A Symbiosis

Both sides' policy makers are coming to see the relationship as interdependent.

The flurry of speculation and polemic that has characterized U.S.-Chinese relations in the past decade or so reached a new intensity with the leadership turnover in China earlier this year. As Barack Obama started his second term in office and Xi Jinping assumed power in March, renewed debates emerged about the future of U.S.-Chinese relations, still perceived as the two greatest competitors for hegemonic status in international affairs. However, the reevaluation of this critical relationship has in fact known successive rounds. With the shock of the recession, the economic “scramble” for Africa (both Xi Jinping and Obama visited Africa earlier this year with grand investment plans) and not least the agitation that China feels is instigated by the United States in South East Asia, the relations between the two countries have reached occasional strains. This relationship has also been punctuated by a few frictional episodes such as accusations of cyber spying against Beijing or inescapable dilemmas over environmental issues (both fearing that unilateral reductions of CO2 emissions would slow down their economies and reduce the leverage of one against the other).

Such moments added further conundrums to this critical relationship and scholars and policy analysts alike have been keen to propose their forecasts. In the field of international relations, the scholarly explanations for U.S.-Chinese relations are commonly divided among realists, liberals and constructivists, and ranging from pessimistic to optimistic scenarios. Realists predict inescapable security dilemmas and power balancing arising between the two countries, further complicated by regional dynamics and the possession of nuclear weapons by both. On a more optimistic note, the liberal argument stresses the economic interests and institutional connections between the two countries (including membership in international organizations) as enablers of trust and cooperation. The pacifying potential of economic interdependence as well as the a priori assumption that the two countries would act as rational actors are hypothesized as factors for cooperative and peaceful relations. Constructivists frame this relation in terms of the learning process the two countries undergo and the shifting norms that can occur with repeated interactions and elites’ socialization.

In this ongoing debate, practice often precedes theory, so the dose of optimism and pessimism about U.S.-Chinese relations varies as events unfold. However, the relations between the United States and China can be best described in the long run in the framework of symbiotic realism, which provides an analytical framework for international relations in an anarchic world of instant connectivity and interdependence.

Competition, the pursuit of interests and power have been perennial features of international politics and it would be hopelessly utopian to assume the opposite, even in a context of economic and financial interdependence. Yet, interdependence and connectivity do play a crucial role in shaping actors' behavior, compelling them to assess their foreign affairs with pragmatism. This is and will remain the dominant undercurrent in U.S.-Chinese relations, mirroring symbiotic relations. Symbiosis in nature refers to a condition of prolonged association between two or more organisms or species that is generally mutually beneficial. A distinct class of symbiosis, mutualism, refers to one party gaining from a relationship without causing serious disadvantage to the other. The nature of U.S.-Chinese relations subscribes to this description if only one considers the predominant dimensions of these relations: one country predominantly borrows while the other lends, one produces, the other consumes.

Nevertheless, mistrust, ideological incompatibly and competition endure in many areas of the relations between the United States and China. Moreover, emotionality pervades through both countries' foreign-policy discourses. Both the U.S. and Chinese strategic cultures, informed by their distinct cultural and historical baggage, infuse a sense of exceptionalism to their actions. The United States regards itself as a promoter of universal values and China takes pride in its long history and Sinic culture, coupled with a perception of humiliation by the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Virtuousness and emotionality thus arise as potential factors that complicate interstate relations.

However, according to the logic of symbiosis, it is highly unlikely that any of these factors could escalate to fracture their relations. Their level of interdependence compels them to focus on the big picture rather than get trapped in small dissensions and endless security dilemmas. This understanding has already gained traction in both countries. Not surprisingly, when Hillary Clinton described the “different kind of relationship” with China at a conference at the U.S. Institute for Peace in March 2012, the message was clear: “We’ve gone from being two nations with hardly any ties to speak being thoroughly, inescapably interdependent.” The evolution of this relation, now based on unprecedented connectivity, speaks for itself: “In 1972, our countries were connected only through a narrow official channel – one member of government talking to another. Today, the web of connections linking our nations is vast and complex, and reaches into just about every aspect of our societies. Our economies are tightly entwined. And so is our security.” As the United States rejects any disposition for zero-sum competitions, the Chinese leader has similarly ended a recent interview on a conciliatory note, stating that "the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China."

These positive exchanges might not be a guarantee for eternal peace. Nevertheless, the framework of symbiotic realism permits a set of safe assumptions of long-term relevance even though states interact in a context of international anarchy and are not always rational actors. Competition, antagonism and egoistic interests are bound to persist between the United States and China but in the particular context of their interdependence, these will be restrained for as long as the two giant powers remain locked in a symbiotic relationship.

In a world of increasing interdependence, symbiotic realism is not just an explanatory framework for U.S.-Chinese relations but widely relevant to global politics. It explains how divergences are accommodated, eliminating zero-sum calculations and making way for pragmatism.

Nayef Al-Rodhan is a philosopher, neuroscientist and geostrategist. He is Senior Member of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, UK, and Senior Fellow and Centre Director of the Centre for the Geopolitics of Globalisation and Transnational Security, at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland. Author of Symbiotic Realism. A Theory of International Relations in an Instant and an Interdependent World (Berlin: LIT, 2007).