The future of liberal internationalism will be influenced increasingly by the re-emergence of China as a major power on the world stage and by the way the United States is reacting to China’s growing influence. In this article, we discern three possible scenarios: one of inevitable conflict, one of gradual co-optation and a hybrid scenario of coexistence. We argue that in order to understand the development of the Sino-US relationship and the sometimes-contradictory outcomes and dilemmas this generates, we need to take into account the social and domestic sources of foreign policy within these two major powers, and the distinctive state–society models that they represent. Crucially, this includes how the domestic political economy is dynamically interrelated with the global political economic context. In our approach, foreign policy elites form a key nexus here and a vital prism through which to analyse foreign policy strategies. From this critical political economy perspective, we will describe how China’s re-emergence as a world power is partly shaped by its distinctive ‘statist’ state–society model, to then analyse US strategy towards rising China through the lens of the close nexus between America’s corporate elite and the state. In our concluding section we will return to the three scenarios. Based on the findings presented, and in light of the radical shift that seems to be occurring due to the Trump presidency, we will reflect on the likelihood of these scenarios, the future of the liberal world order and conclude with a research agenda.