After the 9/11 attack, the relationship between US and China has re-invented itself to become even more uncertain. Some scholars have hinted towards increasing convergence in their relations, leading to deepening cooperation, stability and peace, whereas others have talked about deterioration leading to fierce competition and perhaps even war at times. Following the lead from other global actors, both US and China in contemporary times and in some areas, have started seeing each other as a potential partners united by common dangers such as Terrorism, Proliferation of WMD and Climate change.

In order to form their views about relations between US and China, scholars mainly rely on arguments derived from two main theoretical perspectives- Realism and Liberalism. Not to mention, scholars even from the same school of thought might have contending views and this makes generalizations even more difficult.  Thus, each of the two schools might have two contending viewpoints- one which is highly optimistic and another, which is highly pessimistic. Aaron L Friedberg therefore asserts, “It may turn out that one of the four camps identified here is basically “right” and the others “wrong”, but it is also conceivable that the future will be shaped by a confluence of different forces, some mutually reinforcing and others opposed”.

Other Scholars such as Peter Katzenstein and Nobuo Okawara too have observed that “intellectual discourse in the field of international relations has come increasingly to be dominated by “paradigmatic clashes” in which champions extol “the virtues of a specific analytical perspective to the exclusion of others.” Driven by the desire to establish one’s supremacy, scholars of one school of thought may choose to belittle others, but again, according to Katzenstein and Okawara, this approach hinders the processes required to understand the convolutions present in the real world.


Having said that, we now start off with liberalism. liberal optimists believe in cooperation, peace, harmony and understanding. Also, with regards to US-China relations, these scholars emphasize on three mutually reinforcing causal forces – growing economic Interdependence in this era of globalization, the positive role of international institutions and the process of democratization.

Firstly, the US- China relations is affected by bilateral economic exchanges which arises out of shared interests and which essentially has gained momentum after the economic liberalization in China which took place in 1970’s. They believe that except few disruptions, economic factors will improve and solidify relations between the two powers and ward off any scope of conflict. Also, the increased participation in the international organization lends credibility and legitimacy to any nation and this is what is happening with China lately, which is expanding its presence continuously across various international organizations. The latter is known to cure some of the adverse impact of anarchy at the global level and also allow the status quo to be maintained and thus has utmost importance in maintaining order and reducing vagueness. Also, the end of cold war has prompted the rise of several regional organizations in East Asia (APEC, ASEAN, ARF AND ASEAN +3) which paved the way for enhanced understanding and communication between the nations (US and China) and sought to relinquish any scope for misunderstanding and distrust.

The third important area which liberal optimists prioritizes is their belief in Democratic Peace Theory. In this era of increased openness and free flow of information, regimes that seek to restrict their masses will be at shallow disadvantage and therefore they are hopeful of China entering into the “Zone of Peace” once it chooses to be democratic. In later case they expect China’s relations to stabilize with the USA.

Liberal Pessimists on the other hand acknowledges the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime and the adverse impact of its inclination towards continued increase in prosperity and appeals to Nationalism. These appeals to Hyper nationalism when combined with the transition towards democracy can be even worse.  According to Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “it is precisely when nations are in transition from authoritarianism toward democracy that they are most likely to initiate conflict with their neighbors” and thus if China follows the same route, its relations with the USA is expected to be bumpy if not distorted. It’s equally important to realise that Democracies aren’t always peaceful and thus any transition should be followed by mutual understanding and consent for any action.

Furthermore, Michael Doyle asserts that “the very constitutional restraint, shared commercial interests, and international respect for individual rights that promote peace among liberal societies can exacerbate conflicts in relations between liberal and non-liberal societies.” Therefore, since China at this point of time isn’t a democracy and shows no intention of being one in the near future, USA always sees it with suspicion and a measure of hostility. Not to forget their differences over Human Rights issues (Uyghur’s Crisis). And if this aura of suspicion continues, USA might just be ready to tender help to nations which it considers democratic against China in case of any aggression by the later (Taiwan Crisis).


Realists believe that it is the presence of international anarchy that compels states to wrestle for power and stature in international politics. According to them, States are interested in either maximizing its power (Offensive Realists) or its security (Defensive Realists) and this gives rise to Security Dilemma. Their strong tendency to give primacy to Material power in comparison to Discursive powers is what separates them from the crowd. According to realists, it is the power (Military) that defines a state’s interests and shape their relations with one another.

For realist’s pessimists, the most challenging issue of all in the US- China relations are China’s rising power along with its ever-expanding revisionist tendencies which may at times threaten the status quo and result in instability and chaos. As state’s capabilities and capacities widen, they tend to define their self-interest more vividly and also seek greater influence over whatever is happening around them. Robert Gilpin, another renowned scholar opines that “a more wealthy and more powerful state . . . will select a larger bundle of security and welfare goals than a less wealthy and less powerful state”.  As the rising powers (here, China) tend to place themselves into the international system, they continuously challenge the existing structures and therefore are more vocal about their aspirations (Chinese claim in the South China sea). On the other hand, the established powers may try to forge their attempts in some cases and in others may even try to appease them. Thus, according to realist pessimists, the US-China relation is going to be extremely volatile in nature.

On the other hand, Realists optimists, who are lesser in number, assert that even though China’s aims are expanding, its pace is going to be moderate and therefore any significant turmoil isn’t expected in its relations with other nations. They are also of the opinion that the USA today is far more powerful than China and because of which China will have to think twice before throwing any challenge before it in the international domain. It is extremely probable that Chinese leaders will have to bow down to USA’s supremacy so as to avoid any further conflict. Realist optimists also believe that it’s not necessary that China will also act like other emerging powers and henceforth be aggressive in its attitude. Instead, they believe that China today is more accommodative with regards to its intentions and claims. But this argument may be highly misleading as is evident from “Chinese Debt Trap Diplomacy” which has eventually pushed many countries on the verge of economic downturn.

Finally, realist optimists like Robert Ross and Michael McDevitt believe that geography will bolster the stability in ever-growing US-China relationship as the United States is a maritime power and hence its interests and sphere of influence are centered offshore in Northeast and maritime Southeast Asia and will likely remain so and China, on the other hand, is and has always been predominantly a land power because of which Central Asia and continental Southeast Asia will be its “natural” spheres of influence. Thus, there should be little purpose or occasion for the US and China to engage in direct conflict if the difficulties relating to these areas can be effectively managed.