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Published on January 25th, 2016 | Total Views: | by Xiao Yuan

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Is the Sino-US Relationship an Inevitable Tragedy? by Xiao Yuan – 2015 China Focus Essay Contest Winner

The 2015 China Focus Essay Contest winners are Christine Jiang (姜美华) from UC Berkeley and Xiao Yuan (袁晓) from Fudan University. Their excellent essays answered the question, “What is the biggest cliche in US-China relations?” China Focus partnered with the UC-Fudan Center on Contemporary China to offer each winner $1000! Congratulations to our 2015 winners!

Below is Xiao Yuan’s excellent essay, “Is the Sino-US Relationship an Inevitable Tragedy?” Xiao Yuan is a Master’s candidate studying International Relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.


With the rise of China’s power in the world, the term “China threat” is becoming more and more popular among those who are anxious about China’s increasing development. The famous American scholar, John J. Mearsheimer, once claimed that China would introduce its own Monroe Doctrine in East Asia in order to prevent the US from intervening in its affairs in the area. He also believed that China would eventually become a more dangerous rival than those America was faced with in the twentieth century. (E.g. the Soviet Union) Not only Mearsheimer, but many other scholars also believe that a power shift between an established power and a rising power has always resulted in major military conflict.

On the issue of the Diaoyu Islands dispute, the US government affirmed that these islands were covered by America’s security treaty with Japan, which may draw it into war if military conflicts between China and Japan break out.

Unfortunately, since the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy was promoted, the prediction made by those scholars seemed to have been realized step by step. On the issue of the Diaoyu Islands dispute, the US government affirmed that these islands were covered by America’s security treaty with Japan, which may draw it into war if military conflicts between China and Japan break out. On the issue of South China Sea, China has claimed sovereignty of the whole sea area while the US emphasizes freedom of navigation, which may be seen as a strategy to balance China’s influence in this region. The Taiwan issue is also a potential conflict point between the two major powers.

Obviously, a confident China will challenge the leadership of America, but the latter is unwilling to transfer its power.

Therefore, politicians and scholars would like to use the ‘Thucydides trap’ to describe the current situation of Sino-US relations. This word refers to a situation in which rising powers that feel locked out by the old rules will try to change them whereas the top power will try to maintain them. If the challenger doesn’t displace the top power, the latter may provoke a war to stop the rise of the challenger. In the Sino-US relationship, China plays the role of challenger and the US plays the role of top power. The current international order was founded by the US and the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which made America the only superpower in the world. However, the 2008 financial crisis hit the American economy hard. By contrast, China kept its high-speed growth and became the world’s second largest economy in 2010. China’s economic power makes it more willing to reform the old rules which can not reflect the interests of emerging powers any more. Obviously, a confident China will challenge the leadership of America, but the latter is unwilling to transfer its power. As President Obama once said, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

So can we draw a conclusion that China is doomed to have a conflict against the U.S.? Can this tragedy be avoided?

They think that competition between China and the US will result in another destructive world war one day.

There are a lot of cases in history that can support the pessimistic answer. Japan in the Second World War is a good example. Before Japan launched its project to begin an attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, its power was rising most rapidly in East Asia which threatened the interest of the US and its allies. To punish Japan and contain its power, the US government cut off most exports of strategic raw materials to Japan, such as oil and rubber. As we all know, Japan is an island country and lacks all kinds of materials. If it wanted to further its expansion, these materials were critical. Although Japan was not willing to fight against America, it had to do so. If not, it would lose its power.

Many scholars predict what will happen in the future through the study of history. In their opinion, the modernization of China’s military, which is in connection with China’s rapidly growing economy, will increase China’s power over the coming decades. Some observers fear instability in Asia if the overall balance of power among states in the region shifts rapidly. They think that competition between China and the US will result in another destructive world war one day. The tragedy is inevitable.

To some extent, historical method is a classic research method in the field of social science. However, the fact is that the international system has changed thoroughly since 1945 and nuclear weapons force great powers to use their military might more carefully. So I think there are many positive factors existing to make the Sino-US relationship a constructive one.

The most obvious weakness of the “China threat” is that this point of view neglects the interdependence among most of the states in the world.

The first positive factor is globalization. For my part, the most obvious weakness of the “China threat” is that this point of view neglects the interdependence among most of the states in the world. With the advance of transportation and communication technology, it is more profitable to transfer some industries from the US to China, most of which are manufacturing industries. It both provides thousands of jobs in China and large number of cheap goods in America. And because of the huge population, China is also a market full of opportunities for American MNCs. In the past, the markets in the world were relatively separate so that one state might fight with another to gain the market or colony. Nowadays the world is a common market, and conflict is so costly, especially between China and America.

As the greatest countries in the world, China and the US must work together to solve a series of headaches.

The second factor is the springing up of IGOs. The UN is the most important IGO in the world. The United Nations Charter forbids all kinds of using force except self-defense, for the aim of the UN is to eliminate war in the world. It has established a regime to deal with problems and conflicts which are difficult to handle. Although some people criticize that the regime does not work in many situations, it is still a guarantee of world peace. In addition to the UN, many other IGOs also play a role in world affairs. Through these IGOs, states can develop a long-term cooperative relationship with one another and promote their common interests. As the greatest countries in the world, China and the US must work together to solve a series of headaches. If not, the two main tasks which are recognized as peace and development will not be fulfilled.

If one day China begins to confront America, the possibility of a military conflict breaking out is very low, for both sides know the result of such a conflict.

The third factor is the deterrence of nuclear weapons. The invention of nuclear weapons alters the attitude of human beings towards warfare. Before 1945, no one had ever seen such a destructive bomb that it destroyed a city in a flash. In a bipolar system, each side knows that their threat is from the other. They will deploy the fewest nuclear forces needed for an assured second-strike capability. It is called mutually assured destruction (MAD) because neither side can prevent the other from destroying it. We can find that during the Cold War, despite the fact that there were many wars, they were all the “proxy wars”, and direct military conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union never occurred. If one day China begins to confront America, the possibility of a military conflict breaking out is very low, for both sides know the result of such a conflict.

I believe that there will not be a military conflict between China and the U.S., but the possibility of disputes still exists.

I believe that there will not be a military conflict between China and the US, but the possibility of disputes still exists. Thankfully, leaders of both sides have realized this question and begun to control it (if can’t eliminate it). The conception of ‘new model of major-country relations between China and the United States’ is such a proposal that can avoid the ‘Thucydides’s trap’ and create a win-win situation, though each side has its own understanding of it. Only when China and the US find the most suitable way to cooperate and coexist with each other, the Pacific Century will come eventually.

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About the Author

Yuan Xiao is a master degree candidate in School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University. He received his dual B.A. degree in International Relations and Applied Mathematics from Xiamen University in 2014. He was the owner of First Prize Scholarship of Xiamen University, Scholarship of Shanghai Alumni Association and Award for excellent student leader of Xiamen University.



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