Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on the Rise of China: Long Cycles, Power Transitions, and China's Ascent.
In this article, I concentrate on these two important questions and attempt to answer them with the aid of historical and theoretical lenses. Patterns of historical events are often repeated, but not in exactly the same way. We may not find a governing law in the rise and fall of great powers or global power shifts and may have to acknowledge the existence of irregularities, anomalies, and chance effects in these processes. We can nevertheless identify certain repeated patterns and general tendencies in international political change and draw out some policy lessons by applying those patterns and tendencies to the rise of China. The article relies on long cycle and power transition theories among others because these theories focus on the recurrent historical patterns of international political change and seek to explain the causes and outcomes of the change systematically. These theories are located in the realist paradigm in a broad sense, but as will be discussed later some liberal and constructivist elements (the democratic peace thesis and the role of ideational motives) can be combined with them.
This article is organized as follows. In the first section I explore the main arguments of long cycle and power transition perspectives and draw out some useful historical and theoretical insights from them. In the second section I apply those historical and theoretical insights to the ascent of China and its impact on the international political system. I examine whether China will be able to take global political leadership. In the third section I discuss whether the rise of China will ultimately result in an armed conflict with the current system leader, the United States. To address this question, I investigate recent developments in Beijing's foreign policies along with its new rhetorical signals and the influence of China's historical legacies on its national strategies. In this section I also discuss some policy lessons that are drawn out from this research. In the conclusion, I summarize the study's main arguments.
History, Long Cycles, and Power Transitions
According to long cycle theory (Goldstein 1988; Modelski 1987; Thompson 1990, 2006), one dominant or hegemonic power has exercised global political leadership in each historical period (one or two generations) since the rise of the modern state system. For example, if we follow the model of Modelski (1987) and Thompson (2006), the following is a summary of global political leadership changes in the modern period: Portugal (sixteenth century), the Netherlands (seventeenth century), Great Britain (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), and the United States (post-World War II era). In these long cycles, global or hegemonic wars between rising and existing or declining great powers play as global political selection mechanisms. These wars are repeated historical patterns that produce long-term structural changes in global politics by changing global leadership. A global or hegemonic war is normally followed by a period of relative peace and stability in the interstate system.
Long cycle theory also emphasizes the role of economic innovations in the rise of a new great power. These economic upswings are related to the rise of new leading industrial sectors, which provide the rising power with resources for global reach and military expansion predicated mainly upon sea power or naval superiority (Modelski 1987). This view is supported by historical studies that suggest a close relationship between economic wealth and military power or leadership in the interstate system. According to these studies, the unequal economic development of societies is one of the main causes of the rise and fall of great powers (Kennedy 1987, 2010). Long cycle theory looks at the quality as well as quantity of the economic capability of a rising power, that is, its long-term economic management and sustainable economic growth based upon technological and organizational breakthroughs (Modelski 1987; Thompson 1990). Along with geographical factors such as oceanic insularity, long cycle theory also stresses the importance of social and political stability. All dominant or hegemonic powers enjoyed a high degree of social solidarity and political stability during their heyday without any serious social violence like revolutions, military coups, or civil wars (Modelski 1987).
Power transition theory (Kim 1992; Kugler and Tammen 2009; Organski 1958; Organski and Kugler 1980; Tammen et al. 2000) is similar to a long cycle perspective in several ways. First, it focuses its attention on the hierarchy of the international political system and the role of a hegemonic state in world politics. Unlike balance of power theory, which contends that international order can be maintained when two or more great powers balance each other out, power transition theory shares the view of a long cycle perspective that international order is created when there is one dominant hegemonic power. Skeptics of the balance of power theory point out that balance-of-power systems have existed very rarely in the (long) history of world politics and most systems have ended up in universal empires (Kissinger 1994). Power transition theory follows this view, and the role of a hegemonic state in creating and maintaining an international order is one of its fundamental assumptions. Second, power transition theory agrees with long cycle theory that uneven economic developments are major driving forces behind political changes in the international system. Economic innovations and upswings are, as its argument goes, significant preconditions for the rise of a new great power given the enormous costs of military buildups, arms races, and military operations. When they are combined with a large population size, the ascent of the new power tends to look more threatening to established powers. Third, it conceptualizes repeated historical patterns in global political changes. It shares the long cycle perspective that a transition from one leadership to another in world politics is a very risky business because it can involve severe hegemonic competition and even large-scale armed conflict. Power transition theory, however, focuses more on this critical transitional period in international political history with more detailed and sophisticated explanations on this period.
For instance, while long cycle theory does not explain in detail when and why a rising power seeks to change the status quo and challenge an existing power, power transition theory strives to answer these questions. Power transition theory relies on two key concepts, parity and overtaking, to identify the structural conditions that raise the probability of a hegemonic war. According to this theory, parity occurs when a rising great power develops into a potential challenger by attaining more than 80 percent of a hegemonic state's economic resources, normally its total gross domestic product (GDP). Overtaking takes place when the rising power's economy grows much faster than that of the hegemonic power and the former is about to surpass the latter (Tammen et al. 2000). Parity and overtaking, however, do not lead to a hegemonic war necessarily, and empirical studies (Kugler and Lemke 1996; Organski and Kugler 1980; Werner and Kugler 1996) show that the chance of total conflict increases considerably when one more variable, dissatisfaction, is added. A rising power seeks to change an established international order and challenge an existing power militarily when it is dissatisfied with existing international leadership and the rules of the existing system created by the system leader (Tammen et al. 2000). According to Organski and Kugler (1980), status quo states are those that participated in drafting the present international rules, and they are satisfied when they perceive that they benefit from the present rules and order. On the other hand, an emerging power tends to demand more foreign policy roles and status in the international system, but it becomes dissatisfied when it perceives that the existing international rules and order do not meet its demands.
Long cycle theory sees that a hegemonic war is nearly inevitable, but power transition theory's view is that a hegemonic armed conflict may not be a prerequisite for global power transition. In other words, as Robert Gilpin (1981) puts it, global power transition can be incremental as well as revolutionary. Thus, a relatively peaceful power transition is possible as in the case of leadership change from Great Britain to the United States. The former chose a gradual accommodation rather than a direct challenge to the rise of America as a new global leader. This reveals that whether global power transitions will be peaceful or conflictual depends on the nature of an emerging power, its perceptions, and how it is related to the existing power culturally and ideologically. The historical records show that dissimilarities in culture, ideologies, and politico-economic institutions tend to aggravate the relationship between a system leader and a challenging power (Rapkin and Thompson 2003).
The importance of geography and domestic political stability to becoming a global hegemon has already been emphasized by long cycle theory. Additionally, the sophistication of military technology and the effectiveness of bureaucracy and military organizations could play a considerable role in winning massive and prolonged armed conflicts and exercising global political power (Kennedy 1987). Some power transition theorists like Woosang Kim (1992, 1996) add another important factor: alliance arrangements. According to Kim, when we compare great powers' national capabilities, we should consider allies' (potential) support to each great power as well as its "internal" military and economic capabilities. His empirical research reveals that a major war between rising and declining great powers is most likely when they have nearly equal national capabilities, which include their allies' support. Additionally, there should be further explanations of different types of states and their impact on the relationship between a challenging power and a system leader. By and large, we can divide rising states or powers into two different types: trading and territorial ones (Hugill 2005; Rosecrance 1986). The former's chief goal is the accumulation of wealth by expanding its international trade and economic exchanges on a global basis, often by the conquest of foreign markets (such as democratized Japan and Germany in the post-World War II era). On the other hand, territorial states or powers are not satisfied with economic expansion alone and seek to enlarge their land and maritime territories or spheres of influence by regional and/or global military expansion (for example, imperial Japan and Nazi Germany before and during World War II). The former is normally a status quo power and the latter tends to develop into a revisionist one that can pose a serious challenge to established powers.
In sum, long cycle and power transition theories provide a schematic outlook on the rise and fall of great powers and provide some insights into repeated patterns of global political changes. The first insight is that uneven economic growth among major powers has been a major driving force behind long-term power changes in the international system. In addition, we should look at some other capabilities of both rising and declining powers like geography, domestic political stability, the sophistication of military technology, and alliance arrangements. Second, a transitional period can be dangerous as it can produce fierce hegemonic competition and even an armed conflict for hegemony. Third, when the emerging power is discontented with the present international rules and order, it tends to challenge the status quo, and the probability of hegemonic war increases considerably. Fourth, the nature or type of challenging state as well as its values and perceptions and how it is related to the existing system leader institutionally, culturally, and ideologically tend to affect the level of its dissatisfaction. In the next two sections, I discuss the rise of China through the prism of these insights.
The Rise of China as a New Global Hegemon?
Before 1980, China was not on the list of the top ten economies in the world in terms of total economic output. For the past several decades, however, China has been the fastest growing economy, and it became the number two economy in 2010, surpassing Japan. Although its growth rate slowed down to 6.9 percent in 2015, its average growth rate was around 10 percent between the 1980s and the 2000s, and its current growth rate is much higher than that of any other industrialized economy. Furthermore, China is the world's largest producer and trader of manufactured goods, surpassing the United States. China is also the largest creditor nation and the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves (as of 2014 worth more than $3.8 trillion). As of 2015, China's total GDP was around $10 trillion, approximately 61 percent of the total US GDP (see Figure 1). According to Goldman Sachs, China will become the world's largest economy by 2027 in terms of total GDP (Telegraph 2011). Along with its rapid economic growth, China has also pursued a military modernization program with double-digit growth in its military budget nearly every year. According to projections by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Beijing's military budget could match that of Washington by the end of the 2030s (Telegraph 2014).
Given the phenomenal economic ascent of China for the past three decades and its current economic (and political) status coupled with its large population (more than 1.3 billion), it is reasonable to claim that China has already become a great power and is arguably the number one candidate for a new global hegemon in the future. Along with its increasing economic power, China has expanded its global reach beyond East Asia, and we have witnessed its growing economic ties with major countries in Latin America and Africa. In particular, China has become the largest economic partner of Africa and a major investor and provider of economic aid to the continent. Currently, millions of Chinese citizens work in foreign countries, and this number is growing every year. According to one computer model (Subramanian 2011), if China's average growth rate is 7 percent and the US average is 3 percent, by 2030 the Chinese economy will account for around 20 percent of world GDP whereas the US portion will be less than 15 percent. A major economic crisis could disrupt China's continued economic growth, as happened to Japan in the 1990s. So long as such an economic crisis does not occur, it is reasonable to predict that China will be able to emerge as the number one economy by around 2030, given the past and current pace of its economic expansion.
However, total GDP is not the only important factor. As long cycle theory stresses, we must consider the quality as well as quantity of the economic capacity of an emerging power, such as its long-term economic management and the sustainability of its economic advance via technological innovations. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, the absolute economic size of the Ottoman Empire was larger than that of the Netherlands, but the latter exercised more political influence than the former at that time (Modelski 1987). China has grown fast mainly through the production of labor-intensive manufactured goods and their price competitiveness, but with only this strategy it will not be able to maintain ustainable economic growth. Indeed, labor wages in China have recently risen noticeably and there will be no more low-cost prouction advantage in the future, which means a significant slowdown of its future growth rate. Therefore, whether China will be able to maintain continuous or sustainable growth depends on hether it can achieve its industrial upgrading toward more highvalue-added sectors. If this successful industrial upshift occurs in onjunction with the continuous growth of total GDP, it will provide China with a fairly solid economic basis for becoming a hegemonic power, especially given the spillover effects of industrial upshift and technological innovations on military sectors.
We need to look at geography and domestic social (in)stability as well. In fact, China has considerable disadvantages when it comes to these two factors. Unlike Great Britain and the United States, China does not enjoy oceanic insularity. On the contrary, China shares its borders with so many countries, leading to many border issues and territorial disputes. For example, China has experienced serious border conflicts with India (1962), the Soviet Union/Russia (1969), and recently Japan and some Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam and the Philippines. Another disadvantage is domestic social instability caused by political independence movements in the western region (Tibet and Xinjiang) and prodemocracy movements as in the case of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and Hong Kong protests in 2014 and 2016. China has gradually opened its economic doors, but it still has a one-party system and individual rights and political liberty are not well protected. Moreover, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation are the focus of thousands of protests every year, as are displacements of houses and whole communities by industrial enterprises and transportation facilities. We cannot rule out the possibility that such political factors can cause serious domestic social instability and thereby delegitimize and sap the power and authority of the Communist Party.
Additionally, China has considerable weaknesses in alliance arrangements and demographics. Today China has many business partners as it expands its global economic reach, but it does not have many close friends or military allies. It is true that Beijing signed the Treaty of Friendship with Moscow in 2001, but as things stand it is premature to say it represents a Sino-Soviet alliance because of the lack of solid mutual trust and shared identity between the two powers. Moscow is concerned about the expansion of China's influence in Central Asia, and Beijing also has little intention to support Russia's expansion of its influence in the Far East (Feng 2015). On the other hand, the existing power, the United States, has many close allies in Europe and East Asia. Moreover, Washington designed and maintained global economic rules via institutional arrangements like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in which major Western European countries and Japan have played a leadership role alongside the United States. This means that China has to play within these institutional frameworks that Western powers dominate unless it overturns the whole system and creates new rules and structures. As Ikenberry (2008) suggests, this issue is not China versus the United States, but China versus the West (the United States + the European Union + Japan ...). Recently, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which many US allies like Great Britain and Germany have also joined. It is part of Beijing's efforts to develop an alternative system to current international economic and financial systems dominated by the United States. Demographics are another major weakness of China, particularly vis-avis the United States. Along with rising life expectancy and declining birth rates, the population is aging in China, which poses a significant challenge to the Chinese economy. Today around 9 percent of the population is over sixty-five in China, but if the current pace of aging continues, China will become one of the most aged societies in the world by 2030 (Huang 2013). As a result, China could move from a highly productive manufacturing nation to a much less productive health-care service society (Babones 2011). To add one more dimension, there is China's relative lack of soft power. English has become a global language, and democracy and human rights that have been promoted by the United States (and the West) developed into virtually universal norms and values. While the United States has been able to legitimize its system of leadership through effectively exercising its soft power as well as hard, as things stand, China's soft power is very weak. A Chinese model characterized by a one-party system and state-led development may be an example to follow by some late-developers, but it is not a universal model for the vast majority of nations to follow.
China might be able to become the largest economy in terms of total economic size, but viewed through the prism of theoretical and historical lessons, it has major weaknesses or barriers to overcome to become a global hegemonic power. Those include the lack of technological sophistication, a geographical disadvantage and many border issues, (potential) domestic political and social instability, the lack of true military allies, institutional constraints created by established powers, and demographic challenges. Some of those weaknesses or barriers look like very tough ones for China to deal with.
Power Transition: Incremental or Revolutionary?
I have explored in light of historical and theoretical perspectives whether China is a candidate to become a global hegemonic power. The next question I will address is whether the ascent of China will lead to a hegemonic war or not. As mentioned previously, historical and theoretical lessons reveal that a rising great power tends to challenge a system leader when the former's economic and other major capabilities come too close to those of the latter and the former is dissatisfied with the latter's leadership and the international rules it created. This means that the rise of China could produce intense hegemonic competition and even a global hegemonic war. The preventive motivation by an old declining power can cause a major war with a newly emerging power when it is combined with other variables (Levy 1987). While a preventive war by a system leader is historically rare, a newly emerging yet even relatively weak rising power at times challenges a much more powerful system leader, as in the case of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (Schweller 1999). A historical lesson is that "incomplete catch-ups are inherently conflict-prone" (Thompson 2006, 19). This implies that even though it falls short of surpassing the system leader, the rise of a new great power can produce significant instability in the interstate system when it develops into a revisionist power. Moreover, the United States and China are deeply involved in major security issues in East Asia (including the North Korean nuclear crisis, the Taiwan issue, and the South China Sea disputes), and we cannot rule out the possibility that one of these regional conflicts will develop into a much bigger global war in which the two superpowers are entangled. According to Allison (2017), who studied sixteen historical cases in which a rising power confronted an existing power, a war between the United States and China is not unavoidable, but escaping it will require enormous efforts by both sides. Some Chinese scholars (Jia 2009; Wang and Zhu 2015), who emphasize the transformation of China's domestic politics and the pragmatism of Beijing's diplomacy, have a more or less optimistic view of the future of US-China relations. Yet my reading of the situation is that since 2009 there has been an increasing gap between this optimistic view and what has really happened. It is premature to conclude that China is a revisionist state, but in what follows I will suggest some important signs that show China has revisionist aims at least in the Asia Pacific and could develop into a revisionist power in the future.
Beijing has concentrated on economic modernization since the start of pro-market reforms in the late 1970s and made efforts to keep a low profile in international security issues for several decades. It followed Deng Xiaoping's doctrine: "hide one's capabilities, bide one's time, and seek the right opportunity." Since 2003, China's motto has been "Peaceful Rise" or "Peaceful Development," and Chinese leadership has emphasized that the rise of China would not threaten any other countries. Recently, however, Beijing has adopted increasingly assertive or even aggressive foreign policies in international security affairs. In particular, China has been adamant about territorial issues in the East and South China Seas and is increasingly considered as a severe threat by other nations in the Asia Pacific region. Since 2009, for example, Beijing has increased naval activities on a large scale in the area of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. In 2010, Beijing announced that just like Tibet and Taiwan, the South China Sea is considered a core national interest. We can identify drastic rhetorical changes as well. In 2010, China's foreign minister publicly stated, "China is a big country ... and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact" (Economist 2012). In October 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping also used the words "struggle and achieve results," emphasizing the importance of China's territorial integrity (Waldron 2014, 166-167). Furthermore, China has constructed man-made islands in the South China Sea to seek "de facto control over the resource-rich waters and islets" claimed as well by its neighboring countries (Los Angeles Times 2015). As of now, China's strategy is to delay a direct military conflict with the United States as long as possible and use its economic and political prowess to pressure smaller neighbors to give up their territorial claims (Doran 2012). These new developments and rhetorical signals reflect significant changes in China's foreign policies and signify that China's peaceful rise seems to be over.
A rising great power's consistent and determined policies to increase military buildups can be read as one of the significant signs of the rising power's dissatisfaction with the existing order and its willingness to do battle if it is really necessary. In the words of Rapkin and Thompson (2003, 318), "arms buildups and arms races ... reflect substantial dissatisfaction on the part of the challenger and an attempt to accelerate the pace of military catchup and the development of a relative power advantage." Werner and Kugler (1996) also posit that if an emerging challenger's military expenditures are increasing faster than those of a system leader, parity can be very dangerous to the international political order. China's GDP is currently around 60 percent of that of the United States, so parity has not been reached yet. China's military budget, however, has grown enormously for the past two decades (double-digit growth nearly every year), which is creating concerns among neighboring nations and a system leader, the United States. In addition to its air force, China's strengthening navy or sea power has been one of the main goals in its military modernization program. Beijing has invested large financial resources in constructing new naval vessels, submarines, and aircraft carriers (Economist 2012). Furthermore, in its new defense white paper in 2015, Beijing made clear a vision to expand the global role for its military, particularly its naval force, to protect its overseas economic and strategic interests (Tiezzi 2015).
Sea power has special importance for an emerging great power. As Mahan (1987 ) explained cogently in one of his classic books on naval strategy, Great Britain was able to emerge as a new hegemonic power because of the superiority of its naval capacity and technology and its effective control of main international sea-lanes. Naval power has a special significance for China, a newly emerging power, as well as for both economic and strategic reasons. First, its economy's rapid growth requires external expansion to ensure raw materials and the foreign markets to sell its products. Therefore, naval power becomes crucial in protecting its overseas business interests and activities. Second, securing major sea-lanes becomes increasingly important as they will be crucial lifelines for the supply of energy, raw materials, and other essential goods should China become involved in a hegemonic war or any other major military conflict (Friedberg 2011). In light of this, it is understandable why China is so stubborn over territorial issues in the South China and East China Seas. In fact, history tells us that many rising powers invested in sea power to expand their global influence, and indeed all the global hegemons including Great Britain and the United States were predominant naval powers.
Another important aspect is that Beijing is beginning to voice its dissatisfaction with the existing international economic order and take actions that could potentially change this order. The Chinese economy has overall benefited from the post-World War II international liberal order, but the Bretton Woods institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have been dominated by the United States and its allies and China does not have much power or voice in these institutions. Both institutions are based in Washington, DC, and the United States has enjoyed the largest voting shares with its veto power. Along with other emerging economies, China has called for significant reforms, especially in the governing system of the IMF, but reform plans to give more power to China and other emerging economies have been delayed by the opposition of the US Congress (Choi 2013). In response to this, Beijing recently took the initiative to create new international financial institutions including the AIIB. At this moment, it is premature to say that these new institutions would be able to replace the Bretton Woods institutions. Nonetheless, this new development can be read as a starting point for significant changes in global economic and financial governance that has been dominated by the United States since the end of World War II (Subacchi 2015).
China's historical legacies reinforce the view that China has a willingness to become a global hegemon. From the Ming dynasty in the late fourteenth century to the start of the first Opium War in 1839, China enjoyed its undisputed hegemonic position in East Asia. "Sino-centrism" that is related to this historical reality has long governed the mentality of Chinese people. According to this hierarchical world view, China, as the most advanced civilization, is at the center of East Asia and the world, and all China's neighbors are vassal states (Kang 2010). This mentality was openly revealed by the Chinese foreign minister's recent public statement that I quoted previously: "China is a big country ... and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact" (Economist 2012). This view is related to Chinese people's ancient superiority complex that developed from the long history and rich cultural heritage of Chinese civilization (Jacques 2012). In a sense, China has always been a superpower regardless of its economic standing at least in most Chinese people's mind-set. The strong national or civilizational pride of Chinese people, however, was severely damaged by "the Century of Humiliation," a period between the first Opium War (1839) and the end of the Chinese Civil War (1949). During this period, China was encroached on by the West and invaded by Japan, experienced prolonged civil conflicts, and finally became a semicolony of Great Britain while its northern territory was occupied by Japan. China's economic modernization is viewed as a national project to lay an economic foundation to overcome this bitter experience of subjugation and shame and recover its traditional position and old glory (Choi 2015). Viewed from this perspective, economic modernization or the accumulation of wealth is not an ultimate objective of China. Rather, its final goal is to return to its traditional status by expanding its global political and military as well as economic influence. What it ultimately desires is recognition (Anerkennung), respect (Respekt), and status (Stellung). These are important concepts for constructivists who see ideational motives as the main driving forces behind interstate conflicts (Lebow 2008). This reveals that constructivist elements can be combined with long cycle and power transition theories in explaining the rise and fall of great powers, although further systematic studies on it are needed.
Considering all this, China has always been a territorial power rather than a trading state. China does not seem to be satisfied only with the global expansion of international trade and the conquest of foreign markets. It also wants to broaden its (particularly maritime) territories and spheres of influence to recover its traditional political status as the Middle Kingdom. As emphasized previously, the type or nature and goals or ideologies of a rising power matter. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (territorial powers) experienced rapid economic expansion and sought to expand their territories and influence in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, during this period Japan's goal was to create the Japanese empire in East Asia under the motto of the East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. On the other hand, democratized Germany and Japan (trading powers) that enjoyed a second economic expansion did not pursue the expansion of their territories and spheres of influence in the post-World War II era. Twentieth-century history suggests that political regimes predicated upon nondemocratic or nonliberal values and cultures (for instance, Nazism in Germany and militarism in Japan before the mid-twentieth century, and communism in the Soviet Union during the Cold War) can pose significant challenges to democratic and liberal regimes. The empirical studies of Lemke and Reed (1996) show that the democratic peace thesis can be used as a subset of power transition theory. According to their studies, states organized similarly to the dominant powers politically and economically (liberal democracy) are generally satisfied with the existing international rules and order and they tend to be status quo states. Another historical lesson is that economic interdependence alone cannot prevent a war for hegemony. Germany was one of the main trade partners of Great Britain before World War I (Friedberg 2011), and Japan was the number three importer of American products before its attack on Pearl Harbor (Keylor 2011). A relatively peaceful relationship or transition is possible when economic interdependence is supported by a solid democratic alliance between a rising great power and an existing or declining one.
Some scholars such as Ikenberry (2008) emphasize nuclear deterrence and the high costs of a nuclear war. Power transition theorists agree that the high costs of a nuclear war can constrain a war among great powers but do not view them as "a perfect deterrent" to war (Kugler and Zagare 1990; Tammen et al. 2000). The idea of nuclear deterrence is based upon the assumption of the rationality of actors (states): as long as the costs of a (nuclear) war are higher than its benefits, an actor (state) will not initiate the war. However, even some rationalists admit that certain actors (such as exceedingly ambitious risk-taking states) do not behave rationally and engage in unexpected military actions or pursue military overexpansion beyond its capacity (Glaser 2010). The state's behaviors are driven by its values, perceptions, and political ambitions as well as its rational calculations of costs and benefits. Especially, national pride, historical memories, and territorial disputes can make states behave emotionally. The possibility of a war between a democratic nation and a nondemocratic regime increases because they do not share the same values and beliefs and, therefore, the level of mistrust between them tends to be very high. China and the United States have enhanced their cooperation to address various global issues like global warming, international terrorism, energy issues, and global economic stability. But these issues are not strong enough to bring them together to overcome their mistrust that stems from their different values, beliefs, and perceptions (Friedberg 2011). What is more important is whether they can set mutually agreeable international rules on traditional security issues including territorial disputes.
We should not yet conclude that a hegemonic war is inevitable between the United States and China. In this section, I have discussed the rise of China and the probability of a hegemonic war in light of general historical tendencies and structural conditions that can produce it. But international relations are not governed by a unilinear universal law, and there are historical cases in which there were no major wars between rising powers and declining powers (Allison 2017). This article has also missed many important variables including those related to individual leaders. The final decisions of foreign policies are made by top political leaders, and their personalities and beliefs play a considerable role in designing and implementing those policies. In fact, one leader can change the whole nation's path, especially in a nondemocratic country as Mikhail Gorbachev did when he started Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Thus, we should not rule out the possibility of radical changes in domestic and foreign policies by a new leader in China or its impact on the Sino-American relationship. Another important point is that China's values and perceptions are not totally fixed and what future course Beijing will take hinges at least partially on the policies Washington takes toward China (Glaser 2011). Beijing proposed a new model of great power relations based upon mutual respect and shared responsibility between the United States and China (Wertime 2015). Although its meaning is not yet clear, Washington may have to take it more seriously. Depending upon issues, Washington may have to take a more flexible approach to Beijing and should accept Beijing's demands if they are legitimate. For example, China has been underrepresented in the governing system of the Bretton Woods system and its demand for more of a voting share looks legitimate given its dramatically increased economic stature. Therefore, Washington has to accommodate China's enhanced economic and financial power with appropriate roles and status.
Washington may have to employ another strategy alongside the one described above to effectively contain the (military) expansion of China by its consistent and substantial reinvestment in its military presence in East Asia. Washington has to make efforts to meet the legitimate demands of Beijing, but it may not grant the emerging power's undue requests. In 2010, in fact, the Obama administration publicly announced America's rebalancing to Asia or the so-called US pivot to Asia. This policy announcement is seen as Washington's intention to send China a clear message that it would not allow Beijing to expand its military influence in the Asia Pacific without restraint (Gerson 2012; Ratner 2013). Washington also might need to reassure its allies in the region that it would fulfill its security commitments. Some experts including Morrison (2013), however, point out the lack of real action or substance in this policy initiative. Although the US Department of Defense announced plans to locate around 60 percent of its warships in the Pacific region by 2020, it does not reflect a dramatic change in the deployment of its warships in the region. As of 2013, for instance, 55 percent of US cruisers and 57 percent of US ballistic missile submarines were deployed in the Pacific region. Thus, there will not be much of an increase even though the United States plans to base 60 percent of its warships in the region. Other critics (Lake 2016) point out that despite the announcement of Washington's pivot to Asia, the United States has not been able to constrain China's assertive and expansionist policies effectively in the South China Sea. Moreover, the new Trump administration decided not to pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an important economic pillar of the pivot.
The Trump administration might not follow all the policy initiatives of rebalancing to Asia, but given his anti-China rhetoric, President Trump will continue to maintain or strengthen bilateral security ties with its allies in the region to constrain Beijing's expansionist policies. To constrain Beijing's expansionism in the Asia Pacific more effectively, Washington may have to increase investment substantially in its major military capacities in the region. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, however, the United States has faced a lot of domestic pressure to cut down on its military budget. Even within the United States, there is an increasing concern about military budget cuts or shortfalls and their impact on US military capacity. In fact, the "Pentagon has long warned that military readiness has been cut to the bone by years of constrained budgets" (CNN 2017). This reveals that the relative decline of the US economy will be the principal impediment against achieving its security goal in the Asia Pacific. This fact confirms the historical and theoretical lesson that without global economic dominance it is very difficult to maintain global politico-military leadership, and economic changes are major driving forces behind political power shifts at the international or global level.
China will be able to become the world's largest economy, surpassing the United States, so long as a big financial crisis does not disrupt China's economic expansion. But historical and theoretical insights suggest that China has several obstacles to cope with to assume global political leadership, and some of the obstacles will be very tough for China to overcome. Even though it falls short of surpassing the system leader, the rise of a new great power can produce considerable instability in the interstate system when it develops into a revisionist power. It is early, at the moment, to conclude that China is a revisionist state, but we can detect several signs that signal China has revisionist aims at least in the Asia Pacific and could develop into a revisionist power in the future: Beijing's recent rhetorical and behavioral changes in its security policies, particularly in the Asia Pacific; its consistent and determined investment in the military sectors including its naval capability; its dissatisfaction with the Bretton Woods governing system; and the historical legacy of the Century of Humiliation and its role in China's national strategies.
Historical and theoretical lessons suggest a system leader should take a two-pronged approach toward the rising challenger. On the one hand, Washington must make more efforts to accommodate Beijing with appropriate foreign policy roles and status and to create more inclusive and legitimate international rules in order to limit the growth of Beijing's dissatisfaction. On the other hand, Washington may have to increase and upgrade its military capability in the Asia Pacific to limit the (military) expansion of the rising challenger in the region. Its success, however, will depend upon whether the system leader will be able to renew its economy. Historical and theoretical insights reveal that economic changes are principal forces behind global political power shifts, and we need to continue to take a close look at the relative economic performance of major powers and their use of economic resources for strategic purposes. A transitional period in international political history can be risky, but this period can be relatively smooth or even peaceful, at least in part, depending upon what policies are adopted by established powers, including the system leader.
Ji Young Choi is associate professor in the Department of Politics and Government and affiliated professor in the International Studies Program and East Asian Studies Program at Ohio Wesleyan University. He specializes in international relations history and theories, international and comparative political economy, and East Asian security and political economy. His recent journal publications can be found in International Politics, Pacific Focus, Journal of International and Area Studies, and Journal of Third World Studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Caption: Figure 1 The United States vs. China, GDP (USD in billions)
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|Author:||Choi, Ji Young|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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