The China Challenge | Thomas J. Christensen

Summary of: The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power
By: Thomas J. Christensen


Embark on a journey through the complexities of US-China relations with Thomas J. Christensen’s book, ‘The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power.’ The author examines the intricate balance between cooperation and competition between the two countries, addressing their differing viewpoints, economic ties, mutual benefits, and the influence of history, politics, and national pride. From the globalized interconnections to the domestic challenges each nation faces, this book is your key to understand the factors that impact their evolving relationship.

US-China Relations: From Strategic Economic Dialogue to Zero-Sum Game

The US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue was launched in December 2006, setting the context for the US to take a pragmatic approach towards China and encouraging the latter’s continued economic growth. However, some theorists within China caution against adopting Western systems, and the Chinese media tend to portray US policy towards China as an attempt to surround, split or westernize the country. Today, ongoing US-China relations are seen as a zero-sum game by international relations “realists” and “neoconservatives,” who believe that the US should never strengthen rival powers.

US-China Relations

The book explores US-China relations since 1978, highlighting America’s pragmatic approach to the Strategic Economic Dialogue. Rather than pushing for the reduction of China’s government’s economic role, the US advocated for more state regulation and oversight. China agreed to bring in US officials to improve safety and inspection institutions and implement more efficient corporate accounting practices to develop the stock markets. The US also encouraged the creation of a stronger social safety net to address the concerns of the aging Chinese population, who tend to save too much and consume too little for optimum economic performance.

Sino-US Relations: Beneficial Interdependence

The US and China enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship that is not zero-sum. While China’s military capability is strong, it is not a superpower. China can disrupt the US strategically through its institutional presence. However, due to systemic global linkages, a stagnant or collapsing China would adversely affect the US. Chinese leaders fear instability and focus on economic growth and nationalism to retain legitimacy. Thus, selling China’s leaders on working with recent enemies such as the US or former colonial powers in Europe is difficult. Despite differences like Taiwan or maritime disagreements, continued peace between the US and China is viable.

China’s Special Treatment

Despite its economic power and potential for global contribution, China faces significant political, social, and economic challenges, requiring special treatment from other industrial powers. The country may have a per capita GDP equal to that of Ecuador, but its societal issues require a unique approach. Despite having large foreign exchange reserves, over 100 million Chinese people still live in poverty, and they have yet to establish a robust social security system. Thus, China benefits immensely from peace and requires specific considerations from the international community.

China’s Reluctance to Contribute to the Global System

China has benefited from the stability of the current global system but has contributed little to it. Despite its strong economic ties with other major players, China shows little inclination to contribute to global stability and security. This reluctance is partly due to the government’s prioritization of state security over national security, as evidenced by its censorship practices. China’s heavy reliance on carbon fuels also poses a significant threat to global climate efforts. Overall, while global economic stability and security bring numerous benefits to China in the short and long term, the country’s pressing domestic concerns often hinder its ability to contribute positively to the global system.

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