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The Cooperative Rivalry of US-China Relations

The US and China have entered a new phase in their relationship, but talk of a new cold war is misleading. The US retains the upper hand strategically, and, on a growing number of issues, neither side can afford to go it alone.

CAMBRIDGE – On a visit to Beijing in October, I was often asked whether US Vice President Mike Pence’s recent harsh criticism of China marked the declaration of a new cold war. I replied that the United States and China have entered a new phase in their relationship, but that the cold war metaphor is misleading.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union targeted tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at each other and had virtually no trade or cultural ties. By contrast, China has a more limited nuclear force, annual Sino-American trade totals a half-trillion dollars, and more than 350,000 Chinese students and three million tourists are in the US each year. A better description of today’s bilateral relationship is “cooperative rivalry.”

Since the end of World War II, US-China relations have gone through three phases that lasted roughly two decades each. Hostility marked the 20 years after the Korean War, followed by limited cooperation against the Soviet Union during the phase that followed President Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit.