Is China Catching Up with the United States?

October 25, 2010

Recent relations between the United States and China have been wideranging, serious, mature and basically cooperative — in the sense that both sides want to see the relationship work. The U.S.-China relationship is one of deep interdependence, whether in trade, security issues, or a number of other aspects of international affairs. Each does better because the other is doing reasonably well, and if either nation runs into deep trouble, it affects both of them. Although there are significant disagreements, there are also common or compatible interests on major global objectives at a broad level. Both countries want a world that is basically stable and peaceful; both seek prosperity as a very high priority goal; both want the world to be able to engage more effectively in the fight against climate change; both feel threatened by terrorists and cooperate on counter-terrorism initiatives. Both leaderships want the bilateral relationship to go smoothly. Neither is seeking to cause a major problem for the other as a key objective of national policy.

In a sense, as President Obama has suggested, no bilateral relationship in the world is now more important than the one between the United States and China. Since early 2009, truly global issues have moved to the centre of the U.S.-China relationship for the first time: recovery from the global economic and financial crises and the related restructuring of the global financial system; nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran and beyond; climate change. It is certainly the case that these and other major global issues become potentially easier to manage if the United States and China can either cooperate in dealing with the issue, or at least act in a reasonably parallel fashion in their approaches to the issue. Conversely, every global issue becomes much more complicated and difficult to manage if the United States and China are fundamentally seeking to undermine each other in their respective approaches.

Related to this new understanding – that China has become a critical player in dealing with global issues – is a significant shift in perception that the gap in what might be termed Comprehensive National Power (CNP) — overall hard power, economic capability and reputation — has narrowed between the United States and China. This is a narrowing that has resulted primarily from the different track records and responses to the global financial and economic crises. The United States suffered enormous losses over the last two years. At the same time, China has fared better than any other major economy in the same period, and has emerged from the crisis with lower levels of government debt than any other major economy, meaning that it has more degrees of flexibility going forward, financially, than the rest of the world.

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This article first appeared in ETHOS (Issue 8, August 2010, pg 12-16), a biannual publication of the Centre for Governance and Leadership, Civil Service College, Singapore. For more information, please visit