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Competition, cooperation will define U.S.-China relations

Business leaders will need to take steps over the next decade to prepare for U.S., China relations largely defined by competition and how policymakers approach cooperation.

The likelihood of U.S.-China relations improving over the next 10 years is slim, meaning business leaders should prepare for a continued competitive environment between the two nations that could stabilize in time.

Ideally, U.S. and Chinese leadership will work to steady the relationship and not escalate to extreme measures such as war, according to experts speaking during an online panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution on Friday. However, U.S. and China relations will largely be defined by competition over the next decade, said Patricia Kim, a fellow in the Brookings Institution's John L. Thornton China Center and one of the panelists.

While there is recognition that a measured relationship with elements of competition and cooperation is in the national interest for both China and the U.S., both parties have "struggled to get to that kind of equilibrium in the relationship," she said. As a result, the competitive relationship could either become an increasingly debilitating rivalry or one that strives for a more constructive coexistence. The direction depends on both countries' leadership, she said.

"It's incumbent upon decision-makers and experts to put in the hard work to find ways to build a stable foundation for the U.S.-China relationship," Kim said. "My hope is that will put us on a better trajectory where we're at a more stable place a decade later between the U.S. and China."

Selective decoupling

The U.S. will likely continue decoupling from China in areas such as manufacturing and technology development, while other nations including the European Union play a mediating role between the two nations, said Conor Seyle, vice president of operations at nonprofit foundation PAX Sapiens and a panelist during the Brookings discussion.

PAX Sapiens released a report outlining four potential outcomes of U.S-China relations in the next decade that will help policymakers and business leaders prepare. The potential outcomes are:

  1. Neither country takes the first step to create conditions for effective cooperation, and contention on national security, economic issues and competition continues.
  2. Tensions escalate and result in war between the U.S. and China.
  3. The U.S. and China completely decouple and evolve into non-overlapping ecosystems, meaning both countries operate under different standards, institutions and systems.
  4. The U.S. continues to decouple from China but encounters overlap in some areas, including through third countries and international standards for technology development and economic ties.

Selective decoupling and cooperation will be the most probable future scenario, said Ren Libo, founder and president of the Grandview Institution, an independent think tank based in China. Ren spoke via translator during the Brookings panel discussion.

While conflicts between the U.S. and China will continue, Ren said he believes the relationship will become more stable over time as leadership learns to navigate the more unstable facets of U.S.-China relations.

"This is a new normal that we're seeing," he said.

Though U.S.-China relations aren't expected to vastly improve, third countries will play a significant role in balancing U.S.-China relations, as they likely won't wish to choose a side, Seyle said.

"There's a significant role for third countries, especially European countries, in deciding whether we end up in a future which looks more polarized … or one which is a little bit more complexly networked," he said.

Avoiding war between U.S., China

While there is a real risk of war between the U.S. and China as outlined in the report, Seyle said he believes it can be avoided over the next decade.

"The world that emerges in 10 years on the other side of that is not good for the U.S. or for China," he said of a potential war between the U.S. and China.

Indeed, neither the U.S. nor China wants a war, said Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University. Should the two countries go to war, it would be the first time two nuclear powers entered into such a conflict. The risk of destroying each nation is too high, meaning war between the U.S. and China should be "inconceivable on both sides," he said during the panel discussion.

Instead, Wilder echoed Grandview's Ren and said he believes U.S.-China relations will stabilize over the next decade.

"I think both sides will settle into understanding the kind of strategic competition between these two great powers that will set the course of world history," he said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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