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​Are world powers US and China cooperating or competing? The issue is the interpretation

Published on: 31-Oct-2018

​The US government has recently emphasised that they view the relationship between the US and China as primarily competitive, albeit with opportunities for cooperation. According to Matt Pottinger, a senior director of Asian Affairs on the US National Security Council: "We at the Trump administration have updated our China policy to bring the concept of competition to the forefront. It's right there at the top of the President's national security strategy."

While most observers have focused their attention on the direct implications of a change in posturing, my research suggests that we must also look at the hidden danger of potentially culturally induced misinterpretations, as Americans and the Chinese have fundamentally different understandings about the relationship between cooperation and competition.

Within the past decade, I had conducted a series of studies on how Americans and the Chinese view cooperation and competition, with the results published in Organization Science and Organization Studies, two top-tier management journals. My samples ranged from university students to white collar employees to senior managers.

The results of my studies found that Americans are more likely to view cooperation and competition as mutually exclusive, whereas the Chinese are more likely to view cooperation and competition as symbiotic. As a result, Americans are more likely to view any competitive act as inherently non-cooperative, whereas the Chinese are more likely to identify acts that are both cooperative and competitive.

For example, the Chinese are more likely than Americans to view efforts to outperform others as competitive and cooperative, as they view heightened efforts to raise the competitiveness of both parties to be good for the group in the long run. As a result, the Chinese are less likely than Americans to be concerned about whether efforts to outperform others may undermine cooperation.

Americans are consequently more likely than the Chinese to react to any competitive act by decreasing overall cooperation. This means that Americans who perceive competition in one area (for example, in the economic domain) will be more likely than the Chinese to lower their level of cooperation in another area (for example, in the environmental protection domain).

Compounding this issue is a cultural difference in how people view the relationship between cooperation and confrontation. Unlike competition, which involves attempts to gain a relative advantage over the other party and does not require direct engagement, confrontation involves an aggressive, direct engagement with the other party.

In the same set of studies, I found that although the Chinese are less likely than Americans to view competition as non-cooperative, they are more likely than Americans to view confrontation as non-cooperative and respond accordingly by lowering levels of cooperation. This suggests that an American attempt at confronting China on issues in one area (for example, in the economic domain) may trigger non-cooperation by China in another area (for example, in the diplomatic domain).

In fact, concerns about confrontation are already inherent in the Chinese reaction to the US government's announcement on the changing relationship, as evident by the reaction by Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, who stated that "we are committed to the principle of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation with the US". Implicit in this reaction is a lack of concern over competition, but a strong desire to avoid confrontation.

As two major superpowers, the relationship between the US and China is of the utmost importance to the world, with a ripple effect of any action permeating beyond the Asia-Pacific region. The relationship is also multifaceted, as the two superpowers must make decisions about the economy, security and the environment. Any misinterpretation of either a competitive or a confrontational act may therefore pose a great risk in further undermining cooperation across a wide assortment of issues. Avoiding such risks will require both parties to pay closer attention to their own actions and the interpretation of the other's actions.

The writer is associate professor of strategy, management and organisation at the Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University.

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