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This article was featured in The Washington Quarterly, a magazine with a special focus on international affairs that covers topics including global security, diplomatic relations, and policy implications. Evan Medeiros is a convener of the U.S.-China Research Group on Managing Strategic Competition and a senior fellow with the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues.

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October 11, 2019

The Changing Fundamentals of U.S.-China Relations

Author: Evan Medeiros

This article examines the changing dynamics at the heart of the U.S.-China relationship. As this relationship enters its fifth decade and as China emerges as a global power, many of the drivers of this relationship are evolving and pushing it in a far more competitive direction, while some of the relationship’s traditional strengths are waning. Such periods have come and gone before. If we have witnessed anything about U.S.-China relations over the past 40 years, it is that the relationship is both competitive and cyclical, careening from periods of relative stability and cooperation to ones of frustration and antagonism.

In short, antipathy, distrust, competition, and volatility are not new to the U.S.-China relationship, but their relative roles in it may indeed be changing. This article examines two basic issues: the drivers as well as accelerants of competition and the buffers as well as stabilizers against it. The first and second sections survey the drivers and accelerants by dividing them into structural and cyclical to better appreciate their sources, manifestations, and implications. The third section outlines the changing nature of the buffers and stabilizers. A final section offers some general considerations for policymakers.

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