Could the United States and China be Rivalry Partners?

July 7, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaXi JinpingWarStrategyGreat-Power Rivalry

Could the United States and China be Rivalry Partners?

In the long sweep of history, when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: extreme danger ahead.

In the military arena, the rivalry is mostly zero-sum. The central truth about the military relationship between the United States and China is that they both have reliable second-strike nuclear arsenals. This makes any attack by one on its adversary madness—thus, MAD (mutual assured destruction). Nonetheless, larger GDPs can support larger defense budgets that will enable each to continue inventing and deploying new weapons, from cyber and hypersonics to drones in the air, on land, and undersea. Advanced weapons can threaten the other’s command and control systems, and the satellites that provide the eyes and ears for each military force. As the growth of Chinese military power shifts the balance along its borders in theaters like the straits between China and Taiwan, or the South China Sea, the credibility of U.S. commitments to maintain the status quo declines.

In the realm of technology, from advanced computing and 5G to AI and genomics, competition drives invention and innovation. But because it is also a key driver of economic growth and total GDP, it both funds and fuels advances in military strength.

Both nations are struggling to find a way to govern their own society. In the United States, where D.C. has become an acronym for Dysfunctional Capital, the challenge is nothing less than to reinvent a functional democracy. In China, as Xi’s attempt to revitalize the Chinese Communist Party as the Leninist mandarin vanguard that will lead a state capitalist economy, Lee Kuan Yew warned him that this was like trying to run twenty-first century apps on a twentieth century operating system. Thus, in this arena, most of the challenges each faces comes from within its own borders.

On the other side of the ledger, there are five arenas in which intense cooperation and partnership will not simply produce mutual benefits. In these arenas, neither state can ensure its most vital interest in survival without serious cooperation from the other. These include avoiding general warfare, specifically nuclear war; preventing the spread of the means and motives for mega-terrorism; preserving a biosphere in which citizens can breathe the air; containing pandemics; and managing financial crises to avoid great depressions (and their political consequences).

In the nuclear arena, since China now has a reliable second-strike capability, it is, in effect, America’s Siamese twin. However dastardly, devious, dangerous, and deserving to be strangled, if either kills the other, it simultaneously commits suicide.

In Thucydidean rivalries, the most frequent trigger for war is an extraneous event—a third party provocation or even accident like the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Both nations thus have a vital national interest in working together to prevent and manage crises that could drag them into general war. Their current cooperation in stopping North Korea’s nuclear advance illustrates how this can be done. But the Trump administration’s recklessness in emboldening Taiwan to take steps toward greater independence from China, and the current Chinese government’s demands to solve the Taiwan problem sooner rather than later, offer instructive examples of how risks can be increased.

Preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea or Iran, and in particular the transfer, sale, or theft of nuclear weapons that could be used by terrorists to devastate the heart of a great city, is clearly a deeply shared interest for both parties. And in counterterrorism, they have cooperated significantly, though China’s use of counterterrorism as a cover for repression of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang reminds one of the complexities.

Given the fact that every citizen on planet Earth lives inside a single biosphere, unless the United States and China—as the number one and number two emitters of greenhouse gases respectively—can find ways to restrain emissions or limit their effects, by century’s end, citizens could find the climates in both countries unlivable. The Paris Climate Agreement took a small step toward recognizing this fact and beginning to act to address the challenge. President Trump’s withdrawal from the pact and denial of the problem is hard to understand.

Pathogens like Ebola or swine flu do not respect national borders. Thus, cooperation to prevent the spread of germs on a globe in which, as JFK put it, “we all breathe the same air,” is necessary for each to protect its own citizens.


Finally, financial crises, like the events of 2008 that occurred after the collapse of Lehman Brothers producing a Great Recession and threatening a second Great Depression, can only be managed if the two largest economies in the world work together. In 2008, they did. As former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson—the key player for the United States in that event—has said, the Chinese cooperation in coordinating a Chinese fiscal stimulus was at least as important, and perhaps more important, than American action in what could have become a global depression. (And those who have forgotten the political consequences of the Great Depression of the 1920s should google fascism and Nazism.)

Could a rivalry partnership in a world safe for peaceful competition between diverse political systems serve as the starting point for a new strategic concept for managing the dangerous dynamic between China and the United States today? Rivalry, indeed intense rivalry, is inevitable. But if the brute fact is that neither can kill the other without simultaneously committing suicide, then intense coopetition is a strategic necessity. Creating a grand strategy that combines competition and cooperation will require a leap of strategic imagination as far beyond current conventional wisdom as the Cold War strategy that emerged over the four years after Kennan’s Long Telegram was from the Washington consensus in 1946. But that awesome undertaking can be informed by reflection on Kennedy and the Song Dynasty.


Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Image: Reuters