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Balancing Acts: Navigating US-China Relations and the Future of Global Diplomacy

Balancing Acts: Navigating US-China Relations and the Future of Global Diplomacy

There are only so many options for the future of the relationship between China and the United States. I’ve been able to identify three:

  1. One of the two countries makes the active choice to initiate a military campaign against the other.
  2. The two nations continue playing their ongoing game of chicken, hoping against hope to avoid an accident that leads to escalation.  
  3. China and the United States work diplomatically to establish guidelines for a working relationship in the midst of an economic and ideological rivalry.

In truth, these three options can be boiled down to two- either preserve the status quo and allow “the fates” to decide if and when a conflict takes place, or engage diplomatically to disrupt the trend of increasingly frigid relations between the two superpowers.

To the extent that we can imagine a clear endgame for each of the aforementioned paths, choosing between “brinkmanship” and diplomacy is just as much a logic problem as it is a diplomatic matter. The United States and China will work together diplomatically or the risk of conflict between the two nations will continue to rise until either accident or malice makes fighting inevitable.

It is not difficult to glimpse this “small piece of the future that has already come to pass”, and the horror of conflict between superpowers armed with nuclear weapons is unimaginable. As a consequence, this is a call for direct diplomacy, even when that means making difficult choices.

Reports suggest that China is making a massive investment in Cuba in exchange for the ability to use Cuban territory to host a spy base. Certainly this represents an escalation from the American perspective, but just as clearly it mirrors what the United States has done through increased weapons sales to Taiwan. Those of us with a Western bias, myself included, might be uncomfortable with this comparison, but that discomfort does little to hide the similarities. 

If negotiations fail, or fail to occur in earnest in the first place, the United States faces grim prospects regarding a conflict over Taiwan. Wargames regularly project that American forces would struggle to respond to the initial attempt to occupy Taiwan due to China’s proximity, and that the vast ocean between the United States and the conflict would stress the demand for both resources and reinforcements. 

Taiwan is an independent country, and an American effort to resist a potential occupation would, by every measure, be a defensive war. That first fact being established  such a conflict would come with the demands and difficulties of an offensive operation. This factor, more than any other, explains the outcomes projected by the war games mentioned earlier.

Even with this context in mind, the United States remains the most powerful nation in the world, there is little room to argue otherwise. Still, the period of unquestioned global hegemony experienced following the end of the Cold War is coming to an end- this much is equally obvious. Momentarily putting China to the side, nations including India, Brazil, and South Africia are on upward trajectories, and each rising power will want some measure of respect, and decision making autonomy, in accordance with their heightened global role. 

The United States will need to work diplomatically and collaboratively with these nations in order to maintain, and hopefully deepen relationships with these rising powers. Not only are strongarm tactics distasteful, but the would-be targets have grown too large for such tactics to be effective. Now is the moment to initiate a new era of American diplomacy that emphasizes the strength of the American economy and the virtues of democratic government.

This sort of diplomatic approach will likely come with a re-entrenchment of America’s military positioning, but that does not mean ignoring the national interest. Continued support for Ukraine, for example, allows the United States to work with partners around the world against expansionism. Still, a diplomatic mentality means not exacerbating Putin’s insecurities once the invasion has been rebuffed. 

Bringing the conflict in Ukraine to an end is only truly valuable if that resolution secures a lasting peace. This will mean asking difficult questions about continued NATO expansion- avoiding conflict with China will likely mean asking equally difficult questions.

Perhaps the key challenge for the United States in the coming decades, both regarding China and regarding the world’s many other nations, will be understanding when and where to emphasize the various tools in America’s famed Arsenal of Democracy. In order to avoid conflict with China and strengthen ties with other rising powers, the United States should prioritize diplomats over dominance.


Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association. The views expressed here are his and not necessarily those of the Association.