The China challenge
Since World War II, the United States has been the most powerful state in world politics. Many analysts view a rising China as the most likely contender to end the American century. One recent book is even entitled “When China Rules the World.”
Most projections of Chinese power are based on the rapid growth rate of its GDP, and China may pass the United States in total economic size in the 2020s. But even then, it will be decades before it equals America in per capita income (a measure of the sophistication of an economy). China also has other significant power resources. In terms of basic resources, its territory is equal to that of the United States and its population is four times greater. It has the world’s largest army, more than 250 nuclear weapons, and modern capabilities in space and cyberspace. In soft power (the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than payment or coercion), China still lacks cultural industries able to compete with Hollywood; its universities are not top ranked; and it lacks the many non-governmental organizations that generate much of America’s soft or attractive power.
In the 1990s, I wrote that the rapid rise of China might cause the type of conflict predicted by Thucydides when he attributed the disastrous Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece to the rise in the power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. Today, I think that is unlikely, though some analysts flatly assert that China cannot rise peacefully. Many draw analogies to World War I, when Germany had surpassed Britain in industrial power. But we should also recall Thucydides’ other warning, that belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes. Each side, believing it will end up at war with the other, makes reasonable military preparations which then are read by the other side as confirmation of its worst fears.
Fortunately, it is doubtful that China will have the military capability to make overly ambitious dreams possible in the next several decades. Costs matter. It is easier to indulge one’s wish list when a menu has no prices on it. Chinese leaders will have to contend with the reactions of other countries as well as the constraints created by their own objectives of economic growth and the need for external markets and resources. Too aggressive a Chinese military posture could produce a countervailing coalition among its neighbors in the region that would weaken both its hard and soft power.
The fact that China is not likely to become a peer competitor to the United States on a global basis does not mean that it could not challenge the United States in Asia. However, the rise of Chinese power in Asia is contested by India and Japan (as well as smaller neighbors such as Vietnam), and that provides a major power advantage to the United States. The US-Japan alliance, which the Clinton-Hashimoto declaration of 1996 reaffirmed as the basis for stability in post-Cold War East Asia, is an important impediment to Chinese ambitions, as is the improvement in US-Indian relations and Japan-India relations. This means that in the regional balance of power, China cannot easily expel the Americans. From that position of strength, the United States, Japan, India, Australia, and others can work to engage China and provide incentives for it to play a responsible role. Moreover, coping with important transnational issues such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism, organized crime, and cybercrime will require cooperation with China.
China aspires to play a larger role in East Asia, and the US has Asian allies to whose defense we are committed. Miscalculations are always possible, but conflict is far from inevitable. The legitimacy of the Chinese government depends on a high rate of economic growth and the top leaders realize that China will need many decades before it approaches the sophistication of the American economy. Where Germany was pressing hard on Britain’s heels (and passed it in industrial strength by 1900), the United States remains decades ahead of China in overall military, economic, and soft power resources at the global level.
In other words, the United States has more time to manage its relations with a rising power than Britain did a century ago, and China has incentives for restraint. Too much fear can be self-fulfilling. Whether the United States and China will manage their relationship well is another question. Human error and miscalculation are always possible. But with the right choices, war is not inevitable, and the impressive rise of China is a long process that is still far from signifying the end of the American century.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and author most recently of “Is the American Century Over?”