Beyond the Brink: Escalation and Conflict in U.S.-China Economic Relations

CSIS Report

As the United States and China mark their 40th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations in 2019, the world’s most important bilateral relationship is increasingly defined by mistrust, competition, and uncertainty. After four decades of deepening economic integration, the talk in Washington today is about the extent to which the two economies will “decouple” over the years ahead. We drew on several different academic disciplines to help us model how an economic conflict between the United States and China could escalate and eventually de-escalate. Despite the challenges inherent in modelling economic conflict, our model was validated to a surprising extent by both our simulations and real-world developments. The project produced several findings that were both unexpected and relevant to policy, including that economic conflict is likely to be an enduring feature of the U.S.-China relationship for many years to come. Until perceptions of relative costs in the two countries shift, Washington and Beijing seem set on a path of continued escalation, no substantial trade deal, and at least partial decoupling of their economies. Reflecting on these findings, the report also provides recommendations for U.S. policymakers seeking to engage in successful economic bargaining with China.

This is a report of the CSIS Simon Chair in Political Economy.

This report is made possible through the generous support of the Smith Richardson Foundation and Alcoa Foundation.

Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics