Getting out of the zero-sum trap – Opinion


The 50th anniversary of former US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972 is an important occasion to reflect on the current situation of China-US bilateral relations. This visit had worldwide repercussions. It changed the course of the Cold War. This has contributed to the integration of the People’s Republic of China into the international system, especially the United Nations. But the formal establishment of Sino-US diplomatic relations did not take place until 1979, after the United States accepted the one-China principle. This step has spurred the process of reform and opening up and facilitated the access of American companies to the gigantic Chinese market.

Despite some differences, Washington and Beijing maintained a respectful and collaborative relationship until 2011, when the administration of Barack Obama announced that the United States would “pivot to Asia”, revealing the American strategy to contain the China. Under the Donald Trump administration, this policy of containment intensified with the United States launching a trade war and imposing sanctions on Chinese companies, such as Huawei. Recently, contrary to expectations of a “détente”, the Joe Biden administration has deepened sanctions against China, further deteriorating the relationship.

Over the past 50 years, China has overcome the shackles of underdevelopment and become the world’s largest economy by purchasing power parity and has made significant progress in technological and scientific fields.

The relationship between China and the United States is no longer asymmetrical, but has become equal. Currently, none of the major problems facing the international community can be solved without China’s participation.

This situation shocked the hegemonic power. The United States has always considered itself an exceptional country destined to lead the world. However, reality is dynamic, as Paul Kennedy stated in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: “The relative strengths of ruling nations in world affairs never remain constant, primarily because of the uneven rate of growth between different companies and technological and organizational breakthroughs that benefit one company more than another.

The rise of rivalries has fueled a great debate in the field of international relations, especially among those who consider a war between an established power and an emerging power inevitable. Even before the adoption of the so-called pivot to Asia strategy, conservative American political scientists had already suggested the inevitability of a confrontation with China. But this assumes that international relations only work on the basis of a “zero-sum game”, in which the development of one country must necessarily eclipse the position of another.

This logic is deeply rooted in realism, the main theoretical current of international relations, whose greatest exponent was Hans Morgenthau. In his view, the ultimate goal of any state is its survival, and its power must be used to defend its national interests against others.

Regarding this mainstream in international relations theory, British scholar Susan Strange states in her book States and Markets: “I think the literature on contemporary international political economy has, firstly, been overly dominated by American scholars and has therefore been permeated by many hidden and even unconscious value judgments and assumptions based on the American experience or on American national interests. The hypothesis of an inevitable conflict starts from this hypothesis.

The perspective that international relations works like a zero-sum game is implicit in Graham Alison’s book Destined for War: Can America and China escape from the Thucydides’s Trap. In this work, he reduces Western history since the 15th century to a pattern of behavior between established power and rising power in the context of a struggle for hegemony. In this diagram, war occurs in 12 out of 16 situations. For this reason, he notes that a war between the United States and China would be very likely these days.

However, in the fourth part of the book, Allison tries to identify points that could serve as a basis for both to avoid confrontation, especially because of their strategic weapons, in which a conflict does not would have no winner: “…If the United States and China were to fall into a war in which their complete nuclear arsenals were launched, both nations would be wiped off the map. Thus their most vital interest is to avoid such a war. Moreover, they must find combinations of trade-offs and restraints that avoid the repeated games of chicken that might inadvertently lead to this dreaded outcome.”

The mindset of the US government and Western analysts is trapped in a zero-sum game. They cannot view international relations as a win-win game or the United States as a peer among peers. For this reason, they ignored the Chinese proposal to build a “new type of great power relationship”, made in 2010 during the second China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Such a formulation proposed the path of shared gain and non-confrontation, not only between China and the United States, but also taking into account the interests of Russia and the European Union.

Unfortunately, nothing has progressed in the past 10 years, as the Western perspective of the zero-sum game shapes the warmongering mentality of Western foreign policymakers and imputes its own intentions and biases to other international actors.

Unlike the United States, China does not assign itself a civilizing mission, does not want to export its values ​​and its political system and has no official religion. In short, he does not seek hegemony.

A healthy China-US relationship is the only way to bring more peace, prosperity, health, security and a sustainable environment for all mankind. For this, it is necessary for the United States to abandon its zero-sum mentality.

The author is a professor of international political economy at the State University of Sao Paulo. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. Opinions do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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