The China-U.S. relationship for the 21st Century is being forged in a new, strategically interdependent world—a globalized world no longer characterized by the zero-sum strategic competition among the major powers that dominated the Cold War and preceding eras. The United States and China are not strategic competitors but rather face common strategic challenges that can be met only through cooperation of the international community, especially China and the United States. This strategic interdependence is likely to deepen in coming decades in the face of growing economic interconnectedness, increasing threats of environmental degradation affecting the entire planet, especially climate change, global pandemics and resource depletion as well as on-going threats to global instability resulting from terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


The new strategically interdependent world has created a win-win, lose-lose relationship between China and the United States. Whether they prefer to or not, the United States and China each has a vital national interest in the success of the other power, especially its economic success, and would be threatened by its failure. The current financial and economic crisis has dramatically demonstrated this strategic interdependence. The existential threat of climate change provides even more dramatic proof that we are in the proverbial “same boat” on a wide range of global challenges.

China and the United States need to move toward a new stage in their relationship beyond acting as “responsible stakeholders” in their unilateral policies to enhancing U.S.-China coordination and collaboration in designing and implementing policy responses to shared strategic challenges and threats. The goal of this U.S.-China strategic partnership should be to marshal the combined power of the United States and China to address urgent and long-term strategic challenges, including managing the global economy and building a sustainable, new financial and economic order; tackling climate change and effecting a global transition to low-carbon sustainable economic development; strengthening global governance and regional institutions; and addressing the wide range of threats to global security posed by terrorism, proliferation, climate change impacts and pandemics, among others.

Such U.S.-China collaboration would also mark a shift from a “balance of power” strategy aimed at maximizing national standing vis-à-vis other countries to a strategy of “pooling of power” with other nations to address common problems to enhance international security and prosperity. Pooling of power already can be seen in the deployment of Chinese warships to work with the naval forces of the United States, NATO and other countries to counter piracy against commercial shipping off the Horn of Africa.

Besides pooling of power, China and the United States need to pursue “catalytic power” to spur the global community to respond effectively to the 21st century strategic challenges. This catalytic power would be demonstrated by China and the United States cooperating effectively on climate change and clean energy to enhance prospects in the near term for an agreement at Copenhagen on reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and in the long run to accelerate a global trend toward large-scale deployment of clean energy systems and sustainable, low-carbon economic development on a global scale.

Any effort to build a comprehensive U.S.-China strategic partnership must acknowledge and address the obstacles to building such a Sino-American relationship. Chief among those obstacles is deep suspicion of each other’s strategic intentions and uncertainty about their futures—suspicions that surprisingly and hopefully are greatly diminished at the top levels of the two governments. These suspicions and uncertainties are reflected in—and exacerbated by—bilateral differences on specific issues that are primarily tactical.

Politically, the two countries are often at odds on issues such as human rights, democracy, Tibet and Taiwan. Economically, the two countries have differences over protection of intellectual property, currency exchange rates and other trade issues as well as different views of the causes and remedies of the global meltdown. Militarily, each side is wary of the other’s modernization efforts and activities and continues to view the other as a potential adversary, as most recently reflected in the South China Sea incident near a Chinese submarine base. Internationally, the two countries have disagreed on approaches to eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons program, development aid and business practices in Africa, and many other issues. Layered on top of the various disputes and deep mistrust is rising nationalism and protectionism in China and growing support for protectionism in the United States.

Although it will be challenging to build and sustain a comprehensive U.S.-China strategic partnership, it is both possible and essential to collaboratively confront the strategic challenges of the 21st century in the interests of both countries. Tactical differences on bilateral and international issues, which are common between the United States and its allies as well as between the United States and China, should be manageable within the larger context of shared strategic purposes and collaborative action. Moreover, avoiding the development of a globally competitive and adversarial U.S.-China relationship will be vital to prospects for international peace, stability and development as well as for best serving the national interests of China and the United States.

A good start to exploring the larger strategic context and begin moving toward a more collaborative China-U.S. strategic partnership was made at the first annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), convened in Washington, D.C. on July 27-28, with Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo leading the Chinese delegation and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner heading the U.S. delegation. The S&ED combined the Strategic Economic Dialogue and the Senior Dialogue begun under the previous administration and encompassed a wide range of issues of strategic importance to the two countries. These issues ranged from climate change, energy security and global economic management and financial reform to North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan/Pakistan and other regional concerns. U.S. President Barack Obama affirmed the at the opening of the meeting that “the United States and China share mutual interests,” and asserted that “if we advance those interests through cooperation, our people will benefit, and the world will be better off—because our ability to partner with each other is a prerequisite for progress on many of the most pressing global challenges.” Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo also noted the common strategic interests of the two countries, commenting that the recession had put the United States and China “in the same big boat that has been hit by fierce wind and huge waves,” and that the nations would “try to cross the stormy water together.”

Underlying the S&ED discussions was the more intractable challenge of overcoming mistrust of each other’s strategic intentions that pervades much of the thinking on both sides despite recognition at the level of the top leadership that the two countries face common challenges and that they need to enhance their cooperation if these challenges are to be successfully met. President Obama directly addressed these concerns when he noted that “some are wary of the future. Some in China think that America will try to contain China’s ambitions; some in America think that there is something to fear in a rising China. I take a different view. I believe in a future where China is a strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations; a future when our nations are partners out of necessity, but also out of opportunity.” The S&ED was significant step forward in building strategic trust between the U.S. and China. Much more needs to be done.

If the two sides can build on the dialogue and outcomes of the S&ED to begin a collaborative effort to develop common understandings of shared threats and challenges and develop policies to address them through parallel national policies, bilateral cooperative measures, and catalytic efforts to multilaterally pool the power of many states—then the United States and China can more effectively tackle the major strategic issues of the 21st century. Such a “joint responsible stakeholder” approach could contribute to overcoming strategic mistrust and build confidence in each other’s strategic intentions. The first S&ED was an important if modest step in this direction. Much more will have to be done by the two sides throughout the months and years ahead and in many fora if a truly collaborative relationship is to be developed between the two most important countries in the world whose cooperation is imperative if the worst dangers of the 21st century are to be avoided and its greatest promises are to be realized.

The U.S.-China relationship will be a critical if not decisive factor determining whether the world moves toward a cooperative approach to its common problems or devolves into an “each nation for itself” response to the current economic crisis and the other great strategic challenges of the century. A U.S.-China comprehensive strategic partnership will not be aimed at establishing a new “G2” condominium or “shared hegemony.” Rather, solidifying a collaborative Sino-American bilateral relationship will facilitate and even catalyze greater cooperation among China, the United States, Japan, Europe and the other powers of the G20 by not only bringing together the two most important powers to collaborate bilaterally but also by clearing the way for more fruitful multilateral cooperation and attracting other powers to join cooperative efforts. Some countries undoubtedly will be wary of closer U.S.-China ties, but the world community will also be reassured if cooperation and collaboration rather than rivalry and conflict characterize the relationship between the world’s two most consequential powers. Such a China-U.S. partnership would be a force for strategic stability, international cooperation, and global development and prosperity.

Banning Garrett is director of the Asia Program at the Atlantic Council.  This article was previously published in the Beijing Review.