Is the US-China relationship the most consequential relationship for America in the world?

A screen displays images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, while broadcasting news about their recent call at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, China, July 29, 2022.
A screen displays images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, while broadcasting news about their recent call at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, China, July 29, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu.
Editor's note:

In this written debate, the authors address the title question with essay-length opening statements. The statements are followed by an interactive series of exchanges between authors on each other’s arguments. The goal of this product is not to reach any conclusion on the question, but to offer a rigorous examination of the choices and trade-offs that confront the United States in its competition with China.

Many U.S. and Chinese leaders have referred to the U.S.-China relationship as the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for instance, made such a case last November, the day after Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s summit in San Francisco. Is the Sino-American relationship the “most consequential” relationship in the 21st century for either country? How does this framing impact how the United States and China relate to each other, and to other countries, going forward?

To answer these questions and articulate the choices U.S. policymakers are facing, Ryan Hass, Patricia M. Kim, and Emilie Kimball, co-leads of the Brookings Foreign Policy project: “Global China: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World,” convened a group of leading experts—Graham Allison, Josh M. Cartin, Elizabeth Economy, and Susan Thornton—to engage in a written debate examining if the U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential relationship for America and the world. These experts also will participate in a live discussion on this question moderated by Evan Osnos on February 12. Their opening written statements and reactions follow below:

Graham T. Allison

The most consequential relationship in the world?

The invitation from Brookings’ debate organizers asked: “Is the U.S.-China relationship the most consequential bilateral relationship for the United States in the world?”

My answer is: yes. If not China, who?

China is:

  • one of only two nations that poses an existential threat to the United States.
  • the only nation that poses a systemic threat to the U.S. position as the global leader, architect, and guardian of the post-World War II international order.
  • the largest emitter of greenhouse gases—accounting for more emissions in 2022 than the United States and Europe combined.
  • the second backbone of the world economy: the manufacturing workshop of the world, the No. 1 trading partner of most countries in the world (including the European Union and Japan), and the supplier of most critical items (including everything green and clean) in global supply chains.
  • both a classic Thucydidean rival and America’s inseparable, conjoined Siamese twin.

An existential threat. In 2024, there are two—and only two—nations in the world that have nuclear arsenals that can literally erase the United States from the map. China is, therefore, one of only two nations that poses a genuinely existential threat—that is, one that threatens our existence—to the United States. It is one of only two nations with which the United States is required to survive in a relationship cold warriors described as MAD (mutually assured destruction)—a condition that creates an overriding shared imperative for both countries’ leaders to avoid a nuclear war in which their countries would be the first victims.

A systemic threat. With four times the U.S. population, an economy that has over the past generation soared to overtake the United States as the world’s largest in purchasing power parity terms, and its role as most nations’ No. 1 trading partner, the world’s leading manufacturer, and a serious competitor in most advanced technologies (including artificial intelligence), China is the only nation that could displace the United States as the world’s leading power.

China sees itself returning to what it believes is its rightful place at the center of the world—a position from which it was toppled two centuries ago when Westerners with technology arrived to imperialize and humiliate it. The United States is a colossal ruling power that created a remarkable international order in the aftermath of the deadliest war in history. That order has allowed us—and the world—to enter a historically unprecedented 79th year of a long peace—a period without great power war. This security and economic order has enabled more people to see greater increases in their well-being than at any equivalent period in history. And no population has benefitted more dramatically from this than the 1.4 billion people living in China! Americans have become so accustomed to being at the top of every pecking order for a century—what we call the “American century”—that this is now part of our identity. The American foreign policy establishment is rightly proud of what American leadership has accomplished, not only for the United States, but for the world, and is not about to retreat gracefully.

Are Xi Jinping and his colleagues serious about displacing the United States as the predominant power in the Pacific in the foreseeable future? I put that question to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and long-time prime minister of Singapore, who was the world’s most insightful China watcher until his death in 2015. I will never forget his response. With his piercing eyes widening with incredulity—as if to say, “Are you joking?”—he responded: “Of course! Why not? How could they not aspire to be number one in Asia—and, in time, the world?”

This rivalry creates a classic Thucydidean dynamic that magnifies misunderstandings, multiplies miscalculations, and increases the impact of incidents and accidents that have historically ended in war. Of the 16 cases in the last 500 years in which a major rising power seriously threatened to displace a ruling power, 12 ended in war.

Inseparable, conjoined Siamese twins. What neither the United States nor China has come to grips with is the brute fact that the fiercest rivalry of all time is occurring in specific conditions in which neither can by itself ensure its most vital national interest: namely, its own survival.

If accidents, incidents, or third-party provocations drag the rivals into war (as the assassination of an archduke did in 1914), both could be erased from the map. President Ronald Reagan’s incandescent lesson—“a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought”—is, thus, a foundational truth in U.S.-China relations. In an analog that has been called Climate MAD, on current trajectories, unconstrained Chinese or American greenhouse gas emissions could so disrupt the enclosed biosphere in which we both live that neither of us could survive. In the financial arena, the United States and China are now so deeply entangled that a financial crisis in one could lead to a global depression for all. When, in 2008, Wall Street risk-taking caused a great financial crisis in the United States, only joint stimuli by both China and the United States prevented that from spiraling into a global depression. Cooperation is also required to contain transnational threats—the proliferation of nuclear weapons, pandemics, and global terrorism—sustain the benefits both countries’ citizens expect and demand from trade, and to advance science, technology, and knowledge.

F. Scott Fitzgerald defined the test of a first-class mind as the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time and still function. Success in managing the most consequential relationship in the world will require the United States and China to find ways to live with two contradictory imperatives: to compete in the greatest rivalry of all time while cooperating where each nation’s survival requires it.

Josh M. Cartin

History is not kind to superlatives

Short answer: no. In the near quarter-millennium since the United States’ founding, one would be pressed to identify a single interval during which China constituted the United States’ “most consequential” relationship. For most of the United States’ existence, China has been aloof, insular, or in prolonged or intense states of internal disarray or near implosion. In the 75 years of the People’s Republic of China, the bilateral relationship has alternated among hot hostility, cold suspicion, and, subject to constraints imposed by radically different political systems, pragmatic engagement. Asserting that at any given juncture China’s situation or direction served as a decisive threat to or enabler of U.S. power invites debate. One possible exception is China as a source or reservoir for novel pathogens that have at least twice found their way onto U.S. shores to wreak havoc on the population and economy, with a few near misses, and likely more to follow.

Suppose the answer were “yes.” The factors that would impute supreme consequence to China for the United States are exclusively or overwhelmingly negative: China as a preeminent threat to this vital U.S. interest, or that conception of U.S. identity or national destiny. Not to say there has been a shortage of efforts to identify elements of positive consequence. It has been fashionable to say that the United States “needs” China’s cooperation to address transnational issues like climate change and pandemic disease. While China’s world-beating carbon emissions do confer a high degree of responsibility, climate change is a collective problem that requires the cooperation of other major emitters like India, whose consequence over time will rise relative to China, as the latter’s economy cools and transforms and population declines. On the matter of pandemic disease, China’s record of cooperation has been so poor, and is deteriorating further, so as to risk consigning it to the category of permanent liability.

China is and will be negatively consequential for the United States; the question is whether to a superlative degree. Those who perceive a second cold war would assert that if in 1945-1991 the United States regarded the Soviet Union as its “most consequential” relationship, then the same status must now be assigned to China. The analogy is seductive but falters in its particulars: U.S.-Soviet rivalry was extensive, global, constructed upon rival military alliances and competitive social ideologies, excited by dozens of proxy wars, and bounded by assurance of mutual destruction. Such was the nature of an existential threat to the United States in the 20th century. China is not there yet, and while it would be imprudent to ignore the signals, it is not certain that China’s threats will materialize into something of existential consequence for the United States.

A more interesting question is whether the United States can acknowledge China as a persistent, negative influence on and sometimes threat to U.S. vital interests, while not ascribing preeminence to its level of influence and threat. This would be consistent with the normal bandwidth of the relationship over the last 250 years and appreciates both enduring reserves of U.S. strength and China’s yo-yoing over the centuries between adventure and insularity. Whether China has now entered a periodic strategic spooling or unspooling, the country’s negative influence on U.S. interests will manifest “most consequentially” in two domains: first, the geographical domain of the Western Pacific; and second, the social domain of politics, and in particular, the changing nature of the relationship between government and the governed.

China wants the United States out of the Western Pacific or its presence much diminished. The pace, intensity, and manner in which China resources this goal and in which the United States responds will engender a dynamic of unquestionably grave consequence—given the potential for kinetic conflict. Conflict in the Western Pacific and the disposition thereof might not actually pose an existential threat to the United States—even in defeat the republic would likely still stand—but defeat would involve an epochal reorientation of a U.S. forward defense concept that has persisted since the end of World War II. A similar level of consequence could, however, be applied to a direct Russian military challenge to NATO in Europe, or an all-out Iranian assault on U.S. partnerships in the Middle East. Because it is the network of alliances and partnerships that undergirds the U.S. presence, defense strategy, and geopolitical identity in the Western Pacific and elsewhere, it begs the question of whether maintenance, nourishment, and invigoration of those relationships are “more consequential” to U.S. interests than whatever adversarial choices China might make. The perspective from which U.S. policymakers view this question of relative consequence—prioritizing relations with allies versus adversaries—has implications for how strategic resources—and political rhetoric—are to be apportioned.

There remains an underappreciated way in which China could turn out to be of unequaled consequence—something that resides at far greater depths than the strategic imaginings of China’s current leadership. It is the manner in which China’s political composition reflects and advances a certain “computational” evaluation of human life and aspiration—in which the individual is a functional cog in a social system programmed and operated from on high. China’s authoritarian impulses long predate the country’s adaptation of European communism, but the People’s Republic of China is endeavoring to distill a form of social engineering that in the high-technology era constrains to the point of suffocation the spark of individual human agency required for liberal democratic governance. This is a politics that holds appeal for the world’s dictators and kleptocrats, as well as segments of the United States’ own techno-elite. But it is a politics anathema to the United States’ founding proposition and an existential challenge to the wellspring of our national power. To whatever degree, China’s real consequence to the United States is not to be found in the geopolitical moment. It is in the challenge an empowered China might pose to the United States’ position at the vanguard of liberal democracy, and to U.S. confidence in projecting its template for enlightened governance into a future crowded with looming shadows.

Elizabeth Economy

The incredible, shrinking bilateral relationship

There are many ways to describe the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. For example, the relationship is the world’s most complex, most challenging, or most competitive. However, the relationship is not “the most consequential in the world for America.” Far more consequential is the United States’ relationship with its network of allies and partners in Asia, Europe, and North America. Unlike China, the United States’ allies and close partners share the same values, norms, and strategic objectives. They are the United States’ most important trade and investment partners. And state-to-state and multilateral engagements are extensive. Most importantly, they play the most consequential role in both advancing and constraining the United States’ ability to realize its most important strategic ambitions.

That is not to say that China doesn’t matter. Along with the United States, China is one of the world’s great powers. Washington has termed China its “pacing challenge” and “most consequential strategic competitor.” A June 2023 Pew Foundation poll revealed that 50 percent of Americans surveyed believe that China poses the greatest threat to the United States. China’s domestic and foreign policy choices are shaping the geo-economic and strategic landscape in ways that are both profound and antithetical to U.S. interests. It is working to de-dollarize the international financial system, end the U.S.-led system of military alliances, and undermine the international human rights regime. In the name of Chinese sovereignty, Beijing attacks the security of U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan, Taiwan, India, and the Philippines, among others. And it is providing an economic and military lifeline to Russia in the latter’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Its developmental model produces externalities that threaten U.S. national security in areas such as climate change, global health, and trade.

But while China’s actions are highly consequential for the United States (as well as for the rest of the world), the bilateral relationship is not the most consequential. Instead, China’s behavior more often incentivizes the United States to prioritize its relationship with its network of allies and partners. In trade and investment, for example, harmful Chinese economic practices, such as economic coercion, trade-distorting subsidies, and military-civil fusion, have triggered a set of new and transformative U.S. economic initiatives, including supply chain resiliency, re- and near-shoring manufacturing, and creating a new regime around export controls and investment screening. These efforts’ success or failure relies not on the United States’ relationship with China but on Washington’s policy alignment with its close partners and allies.

Similarly, Chinese military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific has prompted the United States to bolster relations with its allies and partners in Asia and Europe. It has strengthened maritime security cooperation with its Quad partners, India, Japan, and Australia; fostered a new security arrangement, AUKUS, to support technology sharing among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines; and initiated a new trilateral security initiative with Japan and South Korea. In addition, with U.S. encouragement, NATO and individual European countries—such as France, Germany, the U.K., and the Netherlands—have become more deeply engaged in maritime security issues in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States has also forged new cooperative ventures with other advanced market democracies to create high-standard alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. These initiatives are designed to meet the global demand for infrastructure financing while maintaining robust governance standards around financing, labor, environment, transparency, and gender equality and equity.

The U.S.-China bilateral relationship has certainly had moments of great consequence for the United States. When the two countries’ interests aligned, the relationship contributed to containing the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, jump-starting global cooperation on climate change in 2015, and over the decades, providing low-cost labor for American firms and a bounty of low-cost goods for American consumers. There have also been moments when important interests appeared aligned but ultimately were not, such as on North Korea’s nuclear program.

However, over the almost half-century since the normalization of the U.S.-China relationship, the bilateral relationship has never realized the potential Washington imagined. The two countries’ values, norms, and interests have increasingly diverged, and the ties that have bound them together have increasingly frayed. Today, the United States and China support distinct political, economic, and security arrangements: China backs the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS bloc, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, while the United States underpins NATO, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and the G7. China is no longer the United States’ top trading partner, and bilateral trade has fallen off significantly; while U.S. exports to China have remained largely flat, in the first 11 months of 2023, China’s exports to the United States fell by more than 20 percent from 2022. The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai reported in September 2023 that 40 percent of its member firms were seeking to redirect investment originally slated for China to other countries. And China does not rank even among the top 10 countries as a source of foreign direct investment in the United States. Engagement by senior U.S. officials with their Chinese counterparts is limited in both scope and time. Americans are traveling and studying in China in dramatically reduced numbers.

This weakening of the United States and China’s connective tissue is only likely to accelerate given the priority both countries are placing on de-risking their economies and advancing radically alternative visions of world order. Ultimately, without a dramatic change in domestic political dynamics or a global crisis that creates a new sense of solidarity and collaboration between the two countries, the outcome will be a more fractured world in which scholars will raise the question not of whether the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is the most consequential for America, but of whether it is of any consequence at all.

Susan A. Thornton

China matters, for better or worse: Our choice

This question reminds me of the story of Secretary of State George Schultz receiving outgoing U.S. ambassadors and requesting that they “point to their country” on a globe in his office. Inevitably, the ambassadors would point to the country where they were headed on diplomatic assignment, wherein Schultz would move their finger around to the United States; “This is your country.” It reminds us that the ultimate goal of U.S. foreign relations is to defend and further Americans’ interests, and that the most consequential American relationship in the world is with its own citizens. And just to be clear, relations with or actions taken by any other single country will have little consequence for Americans in the world compared to our own decisions and actions. Our fate lies in our own hands.

But that said, there is no country on Earth other than America itself that has as much potential to impact—for good and bad—the lives of ordinary American citizens as China. Recently, it has become fashionable in the United States to talk of “peak China,” “un-investable China,” or “shrinking China.” India has surpassed China as the world’s most populous country and China faces a demographic crisis. China’s economic “long-COVID” has slowed growth from double-digit annual rates to low single digits. China’s leadership appears bent on ever-expanding controls and limits on political, economic, and social life, while corruption and arbitrariness continue to undermine its authority. These may all be true, and yet there is more to the story.

Economy: The United States and China are by far ahead of the next tier of global players in economic power, and China is hands-down now and decades into the future going to be the center of precision manufacturing and a major innovation center. The two economies are complementary and tightly intertwined, for better and worse. These connections enable expanded markets, diffusion of innovations, and lower prices for consumers. They can also spawn problems, such as distorted labor markets, unfair competition, and even criminality, as seen in the Chinese role in the fentanyl trade.

China is the largest importer of both food and energy. It contributes around one-third of global growth annually, which is important to every economy, America’s included. Chinese growth may slow down but is starting from a much larger base so will remain a key growth source, as is the United States. The Mexican and Canadian economies are important for the United States, and the EU as a bloc is significant. Japan and South Korea are major players and others, like India, Brazil, and Indonesia, are growing fast. But China’s size, determination, and opportunities will preserve its “most consequential” status in the economic category for some time to come.

Science and Technology: The U.S. and Chinese scientific establishments are the largest and most advanced in the world and dwarf other players. In many areas, Chinese and American scientists have worked together on new technologies, such as medical breakthroughs and climate advances, which have major positive impacts on American lives. Chinese researchers are working with counterparts to trial promising new treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other deadly diseases, and if clinical trials can be streamlined, millions more lives might be saved. Clearly, as seen in COVID-19, China’s emergent pandemic disease surveillance and response can be crucial to American lives and livelihoods. And of course, climate change is an area where China’s decisions and actions as the largest greenhouse gas emitter will directly impact Americans and everyone else; moves by the United States, India, and others will also be important, but China has the most urgent work to do.

There are also the potential negative consequences of Chinese technology advances, particularly amid increasingly tense U.S.-China scientific competition. Some think that Chinese digital technology will be targeted against Americans; witness members of Congress calling for TikTok bans so that it can’t “corrupt young Americans and teach them to hate their country.” Or China may develop general artificial intelligence or biotech advancements that, inadequately controlled, could produce major harms. Or China might develop some other game-changing technology that it would refuse to share or that would drive major changes in America in response.

Military/Security: The U.S. and Chinese militaries are the largest, most expensive, and most advanced in the world, and while China is still behind the United States, the two are far ahead of all others. China’s continuing military modernization and its threat to take back Taiwan by force will be the biggest driver of U.S. military budget increases in the coming decades. Even if a war over Taiwan never comes, associated increasing U.S. military budgets will crowd out other federal government functions as resources are squeezed. If the war does come, it will certainly have a devastating impact on Americans, no matter the scenario.

The other security area that the United States and China dominate is digital communications and global internet infrastructure and innovations. The United States and China harbor the biggest internet tech companies and sectors, and while U.S. companies lead, Chinese companies are serious competitors. This issue crosses economic, science, technology, and security domains, and, as a result, has become very difficult for the U.S.-China relationship to manage in an era of strategic competition. These difficulties will likely impact every American with a smartphone at some point.

In short, America cannot escape “China impact.” China is big, capable, changing rapidly, and operating in all priority zones. Still, obsessing over what China does or might do is a mistake that will carry large opportunity costs for America that it cannot afford. China may be the most consequential “other country,” but we need to take responsibility for our own future, a future that will involve “China impact,” but that we can shape.


Graham T. Allison

I enjoyed reading the responses from my colleagues and was reassured about my own answer when reading Thornton’s thoughtful piece, but I was left somewhat puzzled by the responses from Economy and Cartin.

  1. The question posed by the organizers asks whether the U.S.-China relationship is more consequential for America than any other bilateral relationship in the world. Note: my response explicitly includes the word “bilateral.”

    If, instead, the organizers had offered a menu of multiple-choice answers that included collections of countries, anyone who answered “China” would expand that to “adversaries” and include Russia, Iran, and North Korea—essentially for free.

    Indeed, if the question were open-ended, my answer would focus not on relationships between the United States and foreign countries, but on relationships among fellow Americans. As we approach a presidential election in which our society is deeply divided between two candidates, each of whom argues that the other’s election will mean the end of American democracy, one can clearly hear echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s wise warning: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

    As I conclude in “Destined for War,” what the United States does within our own country will have a greater impact on Americans and our rivalry with China than anything beyond our borders. Thornton underlines this point in her proposition that “the most consequential American relationship in the world is with its own citizens.”

  2. In arguing against the significance of the U.S.-China relationship, both Economy and Cartin duck the reality of China’s existential threat. The brute fact is that China is one of only two nations in the world with nuclear arsenals that constitute genuine “existential” threats—meaning threatening existence. If, as a result of nuclear war, the United States were erased from the map, could anything be more consequential for Americans? Survival is a necessary condition for any other relationship to be of consequence for us. Uncomfortable as it is, as Reagan taught us, this condition creates an overriding shared imperative for the leaders of both countries to avoid a nuclear war, of which their countries would be the first victims.
  3. Cartin appears to be afraid to recognize China as the fiercest rival a ruling power has ever faced because that could lead to American accommodation. While that would be one possible response, an alternative (as the Biden administration has demonstrated) is to become more serious about our own competitiveness, establish a network of allied and aligned countries as a counterbalance, and become more strategic in our diplomacy.
  4. Is Economy teasing when she forecasts a future “in which scholars will raise the question not of whether the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is the most consequential for America, but of whether it is of any consequence at all?” I suspect so. But lest some reader be misled, in addition to the evidence summarized in my essay, I suggest they consider the near unanimity among U.S. national security experts in both parties (see the below extracts from both Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s National Defense Strategy, National Security Strategy, and National Intelligence Assessments).
Table 1

Josh M. Cartin

The overlap in the four answers is refreshing and reflects the notion that the U.S. policy community to an extent has coalesced around some fundamental understandings about China. Granted, agreeing that China is big, important, and threatening does not constitute penetrating, expert insight, but at least these answers were free of the vermillion-tinted delusion of years past.

Some noted the importance of the U.S. network of allies and partners, which is a clear, comparative advantage over China; or an absolute advantage given the tempestuous and rabid behavior of some of the all-weather, lips-and-teeth few China appears to have in its corner. Yet rather than celebrate this architecture of U.S. power and influence that our forebears constructed over decades, many Americans are too ready to slander our allies and partners as fence-sitters and freeloaders. Like it or not, those allies and partners will be part of whatever framework the United States comes up with to deal with China. Those who declaim the monumentality of China’s threat to U.S. global leadership and then denigrate one of the critical components that undergirds it are engaging in polemic disguised as policy analysis.

Getting our own house in order is something upon which most pieces agreed. Many of our “China problems” are actually “America problems,” and if better awareness of China’s challenges to U.S. interests lights a fire under efforts to make U.S. institutions fit for 21st-century competitive purposes, so much the better. We should have the wherewithal to precision-guide our responses in a way that maximizes strategic effect, minimizes collateral damage—not least to our own institutions—and which we can resource over the longer term. It is time to transition to the quiet and determined phase of U.S. China strategy, whereas the current discourse resembles a piñata party with blindfolded contestants shouting and waving sticks in every direction, creating wind but landing few blows.

Disharmony among panelists on the meaning of “existential threat” bears mention, as well as divergence on the notion of U.S.-China interdependency. The past is littered with the detritus of faded imperia and broken interchange among peoples. There is no such thing as an inevitable outcome of history, and believing that the United States is somehow locked into a status quo that may prove fleeting only constrains the hard policy choices we have no choice but to make.

Elizabeth Economy

There is broad agreement among all the contributors on one basic point: China is a big and influential global power that has the capability to impact the United States across every policy dimension: political, economic, and security—and much of that impact is negative. Beyond that unsurprising baseline agreement, however, there are some significant differences among the authors’ perspectives.

Allison and Thornton are most closely aligned in their views. They argue that high U.S.-China interdependence and high China impact or potential impact on the United States means the U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential relationship for America. Allison’s depiction of China’s impact is starker and darker than Thornton’s; he presents China as both an existential and systemic threat. Thornton, in contrast, sees opportunities, as well as challenges, emanating from the relationship. But fundamentally, they are on the same page.

If “bilateral relationship” is defined simply as impact and interdependence, it is hard to disagree with Allison and Thornton. (Of course, it also begs the question of which countries would not name China or the United States as their most consequential relationship given the two countries’ relative economic, military, and political weight in the international system.) However, by implicitly defining “bilateral relationship” differently—as intentional engagement designed to realize actors’ interests—I arrived at a different conclusion. Namely, the most consequential bilateral relationship is that between the United States and its allies and partners.

Cartin’s analysis is the most surprising. Like Allison and Thornton, he uses interdependence and impact as stand-ins for “relationship.” However, he concludes that they are weak and not consequential, except in a few distinct policy areas (although he also suggests this may change given China’s growing challenge to U.S. democratic values and global leadership). In the meantime, it would be interesting to know what bilateral relationship he believes is the most consequential relationship for America today.

Ultimately, what makes the proposition interesting and potentially important are not the answers, but whether those answers take us in meaningfully different directions with regard to U.S. policy—a point Cartin also makes. Does one answer lead to a preference for doubling down on engagement with Beijing over deepening work with U.S. allies and partners to shape the international system? What would be the policy implications of Thornton’s initial answer: that the most consequential relationship for America is with its own people? The real issue under debate shouldn’t be whether the U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential but what it means for how the United States should prioritize its scarce diplomatic and economic resources.

Susan A. Thornton

It seems that all respondents have essentially affirmed the U.S.-China relationship as our most consequential bilateral or at least no one is arguing that another single country matters more. Where we seem to dwell and differ is on whether those consequences are likely to be overwhelmingly negative, which aspects of America’s future are likely to be most China-affected, and how to ensure that we are minimizing negative and maximizing positive impacts.

No respondent rules out the possibility of future U.S.-China conflict and all agree that such conflict must be avoided, highlighting the need for careful attention to the bilateral relationship; isolating China would thus be irresponsible, a point on which consensus has been generated with the help of U.S. allies over the last year. As Economy points out, other countries constrain or enable U.S. action depending on their own relations with China; they also tend to view U.S.-China relations as the most consequential bilateral relationship for themselves and the world. Allison further states that, while carefully managing relations to avoid conflict, the United States and China must further layer their engagement to enable not just conflict avoidance but active coordination and collaboration on the many areas where they are intertwined and are the two biggest players. This does make the relationship “complex,” but it does not make it less consequential for America; indeed, quite the opposite.

Cartin indicates that China occupies an exaggerated place in U.S. foreign policy and that a Thucydidean fear of Chinese usurpation looms overly large in the American imagination; I agree. As Cartin observes, China tends toward isolationism and is reluctant to involve itself in global problems. China’s strength lags the United States in most areas, and in some crucial areas it faces serious challenges. How China will cope with its ongoing economic transition and security vulnerabilities in an era of rapid technological change and diminished faith in authority is uncertain but will have major consequences for the United States and other countries.

Both Economy and Cartin make the point that U.S.-China cooperation has not lived up to the hype in recent decades, which is true. However, engagement brought many more benefits to Americans than the estrangement of the past five years. The deterioration in U.S.-China relations has stymied the needed coordination on major challenges where both countries carry the biggest weight in the system. If estrangement between the two grows, as Economy predicts, it will become much more difficult for the global community, including Americans, to meet economic, environmental, technological, security, and other challenges, as China’s weight in all these areas approaches America’s own. This failure will be incredibly consequential.


  • Footnotes
    1. Measured by PPP, the metric both the IMF and CIA agree is the best yardstick for comparing national economies.