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How does national confidence inform US-China relations?
Brookings
2024.03.20
This paper offers a different frame for evaluating the U.S.-China relationship. Based on a review of the relationship over the past 75 years, this paper argues that when both countries feel secure and optimistic about their futures, the relationship generally functions most productively. When one country is confident in its national performance but the other is not, the relationship is capable of mudding through. And when both countries simultaneously feel pessimistic about their national condition, as is the case now, the relationship is most prone to sharp downturns. Domestic factors alone do not dictate the trajectory of relations. They do, however, play a larger role in influencing the relationship than otherwise has been observed in much recent public commentary.
This model for evaluating the relationship yields several policy-relevant conclusions. It suggests the relationship is dynamic and responsive to developments in both countries, as opposed to being captive to historical forces leading immutably toward conflict. It highlights that the relationship has navigated frequent zigs and zags over the past decades and rarely travels a straight line for long. It also makes clear that there is not a market now for bold new thinking about managing the bilateral relationship. The current task for policymakers in Washington and Beijing is to navigate through the concurrent down cycles in both countries while keeping bilateral tensions below the threshold of conflict.