Which power dynamics characterize the US-Chinese rivalry and how do they influence its future trajectory?

An eclectic analysis with Causal Loop Diagrams

Term Paper, 2023

27 Pages, Grade: A-




2.1 Realism
2.2 Liberalism
2.3 Constructivism






The trajectory of rising US-Chinese tensions in the past decade, their future development into an ever-increasing rivalry or potential armed clash is a dominant topic debated in “International Relations Theory (IRT)” (Mearsheimer, 2023, Nye & Wang, 2023, Yuwei, 2021, Goldstein, 2015). By selecting a particular IRT, analysts determine perceptions and optimistic/pessimistic attitudes regarding state-related interaction patterns (Friedberg, 2005).

Here, the Western IRT discourse provides hard/soft power analyses which are criticized for a) being too parsimonious and fueling confrontative self-fulfilling prophecies (realism), b) projecting its Western-centric tenets onto a different cultural context leading to interventionism (liberalism), and c) being too optimistic about changing belligerent identities (constructivism) (ibid., Acharya & Buzan, 2010). While eclectic approaches try to mitigate these shortfalls, they still omit the extant Chinese IRT, mainly revolving around relational power (Qin, 2016, Ho, 2021, Kang, 2003). In turn, the different Chinese perspectives are equally criticized for a) possessing “little” generalization potential due to their “Sino-centric” nature, b) transporting an “anti-Western” agenda, c) legitimizing China’s “political actions”, and d) assuming a benevolent/ non-confrontative Chinese actor (Ho, 2021, 56, 59).

Thus, the paper aims to add an eclectic meta-perspective to the debate by bridging the different IRTs with a systems dynamics analysis that translates/integrates the power dynamics into ‘Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs)’ (Braun, 2002, Domingo-Almase, 2017). It does so to offer an informed answer to the research question of which power dynamics characterize the US-Chinese rivalry and how they influence the future trajectory of their relations.

The study distills a power category precedence dilemma ! Here, five interrelated CLD arche- types feed vicious cycles that decrease mutual relational power levels and make trustful/ intimate interactions impossible. In turn, these dynamics increase confrontational hard/soft power interactions. Subsequently, the absence of effective relational power cannot constrain either side from overemphasizing coercive hard/soft power interactions. Yet, these episodes don’t allow the recovery of relational power either. The unresolved dilemma will destabilize the relations on an amplified level in the predictable future and create significant risks for a nonconflictual social order and the countries’ national security.

These conclusions will build on a literature review of US-Chinese relations conducted with the Western (chapter 2) and Chinese IRT analysis lens (chapter 3). Subsequently, chapter four will cover a consolidated perspective of the power dynamics before chapter five concludes.


The paper cannot cover a discussion of all Western IRT nuances. The focus lies on main power dynamics from a realist (2.1), liberalist (2.2), and constructivist (2.3) vantage point, which are subject to paradigmatic dispute per se but also show convergent tendencies (Qin, 2016).

2.1 Realism

Departing from pessimist assumptions of anarchic world order in which states are constantly in conflict to struggle for survival and material power acquisition, the mainstream realist IRT suggests three dynamics relevant to the US-Chinese case (Friedberg, 2005).

a) Power Transition Theory (PPT):

The PTT puts China into the position of an economically/militarily rising power; globally ranked 2nd/3rd (GFP, 2023, LI, 2023a, TWB, 2023). With its growing hard power posture and its grand strategy of “great rejuvenation”, it seeks to offensively challenge/replace the US as regional hegemon, incl. the associated supporting multilateral arrangements/institutions (e.g., UNCLOS, Worldbank, IMF, Quad) (US DoD, 2022, III, Perlez, 2015, Sundquist, 2021). During the transition, the challenger resorts to expansionist/revisionist interests to obtain stronger influence. Particularly by securing access to resources (e.g., South China Sea/ SCS), markets, and sea-/landlines of communication beyond their boundaries (i.e., Belt-and-Road-Initiative/ BRI), incl. their protection with growing military assets (Heath, 2023, Friedberg, 2005, Glaser, 2004). Historical data shows that 11 out of 15 transition cases were followed by war (“Thucydides Trap”) which happened regardless of the regime type (Etzioni, 2016, Allison, 2017, n.p.). Though contested (Hanania, 2021), this aspect is also highlighted by Mearsheimer (2014), who is critical of China’s peaceful rise due to a comparison with US history.

b) Security Dilemma (SD):

In continuation of the PPT dynamics, analysts suggest that this fuels an SD for the US hegemon (Giltner, 2022, Friedberg, 2005). The fear-driven narrative emphasizes China’s intervention in the US global sphere of influence, “zero-sum interests”, the “efficacy of coercion”, and “the perceived blamelessness” of the US for Chinese aggressions [i.e., BRI, impeding freedom of navigation (FON) in SCS, military drills around Taiwan, Spy Balloon incidents] (Breuer & Johnston, 2019, 429, Hart, 2023, Lin et al., 2023, CSIS, 2020, Sutter, 2022). Subsequently, this triggered counter-balancing efforts by the US in terms of arms modernization (e.g., hypersonic missiles, missile defense), FON operations in the SCS, and the enhancement of existing coalition frameworks/alliances (e.g., ‘Security Partnership with Taiwan’, “Chip 4”, “Quad”, “AUKUS”) (NIC, 2021, Bush, 2016, Zhao, 2020, McFarland, 2023, Giltner, 2022, Freund, 2017, Cooper, 2023, n.p.). In turn, these actions led/lead to a Chinese SD where it seeks reciprocal reactions to balance the perceived loss of security and undue interference in its development path of a propagated peaceful rise (Friedberg, 2015). Here, the announcement of a nuclear/conventional military build-up in 2022, close encounters in the SCS, and confrontational wolf-warrior diplomacy (“sharp power” as “type of hard power”) speak for SD dynamics (US DoD, 2022, CRS, 2022, Wei, 2023, Nye, 2018, n.p.).

The paper argues that the PPT and SD resemble hard power balancing mechanisms within the systems archetype “escalation” (Braun, 2002, 8). Combined, they create “a reinforcing figure-8 effect” that predicts an increasingly vicious action-reaction pattern over time (ibid., Figure 1).

Figure 1: Reinforcement of Escalation

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: author, Braun, 2002

c) Stability-Instability Paradox (SIP):

Though disputed (Bailo & Goldsmith, 2021), the SIP offers a wider perspective on the escalation dynamics. It claims that (even two asymmetrically) nuclear-armed countries like the US/China would very unlikely engage in an armed conflict when considering the enormous political/economical costs as well as mutual vulnerability (Perkovich, 2022, O’Hanlon, 2022, Kapur, 2017, Huth, 1999). Generally, both mutually respect the nuclear deterrence effect, resulting in stability on a nuclear/conventional level by compliant behavior (ibid.). However, the rivals may face infrequent instability on a sub-conventional level by choosing a gradually defiant behavior (e.g., close encounters in SCS/ its airspace, shootdown of Chinese spy balloons over US territory, China’s military drills around Taiwan) (Tirpak, 2023, CRS, 2022, Wong, 2023). Though this implies very low risks of inadvertent conflict on the level of conventional war, both continue performing compellence strategies by testing their respective resolve to stop each other from interfering in their spheres of influence (Huth, 1999, Posen, 1982).

The outlined SIP dynamics fit the systems archetype of “shifting the burden” (Braun, 2002, 4). It suggests that defiant behavior patterns from both parties will viciously reinforce the side effect of protracted sub-conventional instability that impedes a fundamental diplomatic solution to the (still) non-violent crisis (HIIC, 2022, ibid., Figure 2).

Figure 2: Reinforcement of Instability

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: author, Braun, 2002

2.2 Liberalism

The mainstream liberal camp holds optimistic expectations that nations can pacify their relations through three “mutually reinforcing causal mechanisms: economic interdependence, international institutions, and democratization” (Friedberg, 2005, 12). Yet, for the US-Chinese case this cycle seems too simplistic (Friedberg, 2015). Therefore, the author will construct a CLD that captures the shifting dynamics.

a) Economic Interdependence:

Generally, by increasing economic trade ties and the flow of foreign investments between two countries, the domestic decision-makers on either side would have a credible interest in abstaining from conflict escalation (Hass, 2021, Friedberg, 2005). This de-escalatory impetus is supported by a new trade record that reached USD 690.6 billion in 2022 and steadily growing foreign direct investment numbers since Deng Xiaoping’s rapprochement with the US in 1979 (ibid., Huld, 2023, Statista, 2023a, 2023b). However, the mid-term outlook for this mechanism will begin to fade, considering the coercive application of the economic hard power instrument within a bilateral “trade”/“technology war” that is linked to military modernization (e.g., US export restrictions for semiconductors, China’s protectionism/disrespect for intellectual property rights) (USCC, 2022a, Merino, 2023, Rosenberg et al., 2020, 37, Li, 2023, n.p.). In this regard, China vowed to prevail on the “economic main battlefield” and promised to “realize high-level technology self-strength and self-independence” (Li, 2023, n.p., Manak et al., 2023). Yet, the degree of decoupling seems “limited” as long as both countries act rationally and include the welfare of the regional partners in their strategic calculus (Mészáros, 2023, n.p.).

b) International Institutions:

In terms of promoting mutual interaction, understanding, and the chance to build confidence, international institutions, summits, and “quasi-official track-2” dialogues are believed to stabilize by drawing countries together under a commonly shared and accepted rule-based order (Friedberg, 2005, 14). For one thing, China joined a myriad of international/ regional governmental/non-governmental organizations since 1977, which allowed her to assume more responsibilities and integrate economically by joining the WTO in 2001 (USCC, 2022b, CFR, 2023, Friedberg, 2005). But, then again, the current Chinese trajectory is set for further tensions with the US as the “architect, defender, and beneficiary” of the current unipolar world governance model (CFR, 2023, Friedberg, 2005, 14). Here, China strives to remake the “global economic order” (e.g., BRI, AIIB), disregards international norms (e.g., UNCLOS in SCS), and aims to head “the reform of the global governance system” towards a “multipolar world” (e.g., UN Security Council reform, expanding SCO, BRICS) (CFR, 2023, n.p., Li & Bernal-Meza, 2021, 5, Wencheng, 2020, CRS, 2023, USCC, 2020, Mastro, 2021).

c) Democratic Peace Theory (DPT):

Building on the economic/institutional mechanisms, liberals suggest that within the grand scheme of integration, an inevitable spillover effect into the sphere of “political liberalization” and predictable rule of law will unfold to sustain economic growth (Friedberg, 2005). In the (contested) best-case scenario, this would lead to a democratization process in societies, making belligerent actions towards other democracies unlikely (ibid., Gibler & Miller, 2021). Yet, there are three pessimistic arguments for the US-Chinese case. First, despite China’s notable progress since 1979 (Yu, 2009), democracy-related political indexes covering the last decade pose a DPT counterfactual and point in the opposite direction, incl. a nationalist trajectory (e.g., EIU Democracy Index 2012: #142 à 2022: #156, Freedom House Democracy Index 2012/2023 “not free”) (EIU, 2012, 2022, FH, 2012, 2023, Bram, 2023, Friedberg, 2015). Second, the US track record of military interventions since 1949 counts for over 100 aiming at (among others) democratic regime change or containing adversaries (DoVA, 2021, Kushi & Toft, 2022). In comparison, China counts for seven interventions that revolve around territorial disputes along the Chinese border periphery and participation in UN-led peacekeeping operations (Heath et al., 2021, Babb, 2023). This speaks for China’s purported principle of non-intervention as long as its territory is not threatened and for the US as a potential bilateral conflict catalyst. Lastly, the continued disparate nature of the two regimes contributes to the production of a “vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing suspicions and fears” mainly fueled by hawkish domestic agents on either side who favor “confrontational policies” instead of accommodation (Friedberg, 2005, 33, Wang, 2023).

By and large, the dynamics of the three factors above over the past decades show signs of a creeping “accidental adversaries” systems archetype (Braun, 2002, 19, Figure 3). In 1979, the relations began with a “win-win” partnership mindset despite existing differences and were then infrequently overridden by action-reaction episodes perceived as unfair/harmful to the other’s interests. These seem to have been fueled by the underlying dynamic of a great power prisoner’s dilemma where both sides act rationally by first thinking about their own national interests (Mearsheimer, 2014). The reason, both actors do not know at which point in the relationship the other would change its cooperative stance (ibid). Additionally, the US seems to experience a “hegemon’s dilemma” of profiting from upholding the rule-based international order (leading to a decline of unipolarity) vs. profiting from a stable unipolar world order simultaneously (Beckley, 2011, 46). Finally, the relationship keeps viciously eroding due to ineffective conflict resolution, increasing mistrust, finger-pointing, and assertive communication episodes (Baculinao & Jett, 2023, Shirk, 2023).

Figure 3: Reinforcement of eroding Relationship #1

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: author, Braun, 2002

2.3 Constructivism

By building on socio-psychological mechanisms that confrontation patterns influence perception biases, attitudes, beliefs, interests, expectations, and ultimately the nature of future interactions in relations, the central constructivist tenet suggests that this contributes to a realist “self-fulfilling prophecy” (SFP) (Friedberg, 2005, Wendt, 1992, 410). Yet, constructivism promotes the (criticized) optimistic worldview that such dynamics are avoidable by gradually changing underlying ideational (soft power) factors of identities, strategic culture, and norms that form benign images as the base for further interaction (ibid., Mearsheimer, 1995, Nye, 2010).

a) China’s IR Culture:

The Chinese belief system stresses self-identity attributes of exceptionalism, patriotism, and the desire to be a peaceful and “responsible great power” following the path of “rejuvenation” to create a fair “new world order” (Kissinger & Fu, 2014, Ho, 2022, 308, 311, Xi, 2022, Leonard, 2023, n.p.). They are historically based on a Confucianist tradition of morality, tolerance, pacifism, collectivist harmony, the “maintain face” principle, and a formal hierarchy akin to family-like structured relations (Ho, 2016, 310, Qin, 2009, Dellios, 2011, Freedman, 2011). Almost equally important was the US capitalist influence since the beginning of the “open-door policy” in 1978 (Kobayashi, 1999, n.p.). Over the past decades, the US has been perceived as another “aggressive foreign power” trying to suppress/contain China’s peaceful rise, acting hypocritical when demanding China’s adherence to rule-based order, and, therefore, has to be struggled against (Friedberg, 2005, 38, Ho, 2022, Baculinao & Jett, 2023, Noh, 2022). Concerning this struggle, China’s strategic culture (expressing beliefs about conflict resolution and the efficaciousness of using force) generally follows a realist stance (Ghiselli, 2018, Friedberg, 2005). It purports the principles of non-interference, diplomacy, and defense of its territory, incl. the protection of its BRI project (Heath et al., 2021, Babb, 2023, Freedman, 2011). For this purpose, China stresses legal norms (e.g., Art. 2 UN Charta) or disregards them as illegitimate when perceived as incompatible with territorial claims in the SCS (Strating, 2022) or domestic suppression of human rights (AI, 2022).


Excerpt out of 27 pages


Which power dynamics characterize the US-Chinese rivalry and how do they influence its future trajectory?
An eclectic analysis with Causal Loop Diagrams
Nanyang Technological University  (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS))
International Relations in Northeast Asia
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
This essay is meticulously researched and referenced. The author has clearly explored a very unorthodox topic and mapped out the parameters of the theoretical discussions very well.
US-Chinese rivalry, Causal Loop Diagrams, eclectic analysis, Chinese International Relations Theory, Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism
Quote paper
Dr. phil. Mathias Jahn (Author), 2023, Which power dynamics characterize the US-Chinese rivalry and how do they influence its future trajectory?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1359674


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