Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Power Shift? Or a Failed Power Transition?

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For about the last 15 years, much has been written about the so-called rise of China. Of these writings, a significant chunk has treated China's ascension as inevitable, a foregone conclusion. Put simply, given current power trends, especially economic and military power, many who study and observe world politics believe that China will one day shortly in the future rise up the great power ladder. The world will witness a power shift, from West to East, whereby the current unipolar international system led by America will morph into a bipolar (and possibly multipolar) one led by both the U.S. and China, with China eventually becoming the lead dominant power. To these writers, the rise of China is a specific, contemporary example of a recurring historical phenomena--that is, the rise and fall of great powers over time--and something that's unfolding before our eyes right now. 

This literature includes the writings by a number of scholars, such as Stephen Walt and Christopher Layne, and political pundits and journalists, such as Fareed Zakaria and Gideon Rachman. Zakaria has tried to finesse the issue of China's rise by claiming his work focuses mostly on the rise of emerging world powers like India and China, not the decline of the U.S. But given that he titled his most recent book "The Post-American World," it's clear where he stands on this topic.

For now, let's take a deep breath. In some ways, we've heard these fears and worries before. Indeed, they are reminiscent of the fears about cold war Soviet Union and late 1980s/early 90s Japan. Today, the chattering class is sounding the alarm bells about China. New decade, new fears about a looming threat from another part of the world.

To be sure, China has lots going for it. For the past 30 years, it's economy has been astounding, it's prolonged double-digit growth unprecedented. The country has made steady improvements and advancements in its military. And of course, China has embarked on a build-up of its military, especially regarding its power projection capabilities directed at Taiwan. China is an emerging hub for new technologies, especially green technologies. With several recent maritime disputes and diplomatic clashes with countries in East Asia, it's evident that China is becoming more assertive, and at times aggressive, in pursuing its interests in the region. Which is a clear sign that its leadership recognizes that the country possesses the power base to defend if not expand its interests.

But all of that doesn't necessarily mean China will catch up and surpass the U.S. in the global power game. Here are a few concerns. China's economy could overheat. Its economy can't continue to grow at 10% for the foreseeable future, right? After all, it's an export-led market that depends on a healthy and vibrant U.S. and European economies, China's two largest markets, and both are struggling and expected to struggle for the next several years. Economists have long suspected that the unemployment rates in China are far higher than what Chinese bureaucrats routinely report to the world. Like America and Europe, China also has a debt problem. With the large number of future seniors, China likely has a upcoming workforce problem. Most of the world's most polluted cities, not surprisingly, are in China; attempts to remedy this, according to experts, could cause a 2-3% annual drag on the Chinese economy. The shift to urbanization, the impending move of hundreds of millions of people, won't be easy and could prove to be traumatic. China frequently experiences protests and demonstrations, some of which are violent. Any sharp negative changes in the Chinese economy or political system could exacerbate this situation, thereby eroding the political and social cohesion of China.

And let's not forget about regional politics. China is situated in a region, broadly defined, that contains quite a few powerful countries. India, Russia, and Japan fall into this category. And there other countries in the region, those not quite at the same level as the big three, which are competent and capable and unafraid of standing up to China. Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, among others, fit this classification. A rising China runs the serious risk of triggering (perhaps both internal and external) balancing behavior by several, if not most, of the above Asian countries, for they will likely seek to prevent the possibility of being politically, militarily, and economically dominated by their more powerful neighbor. Such balancing might constrain China's ability to act locally, making sure it gets bogged down in regional politics/security affairs, and prevent it from having a sufficient global focus to challenge the U.S. for hegemony.

The purpose of listing these observations is to make the point that, while China is growing and may close the power gap on the U.S., it might not overtake America. We could witness a failed power transition. Remember, this is exactly what happened with the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the cold war, scholars tried to explain a series of events in which the Soviet Union imploded and parts of the old empire, including Russia proper, moved to thaw its heated relations with the U.S. and integrate themselves, to varying degrees, with the West. Initially, scholars embracing liberal and social constructivist schools of through got a head start on this endeavor. In their view, liberal institutions, and ideas and norms (like norms proscribing the acquisition and possession of colonies and large empires, as well as norms that banned great power wars) and progressive, open-minded thinkers like Mikhail Gorbachev were instrumental to opening up the Soviet Union and pushing it toward the West.

In response, by the late 1990s, another group of academics, those espousing so-called realist principles, attempted to explain what happened in the Soviet bloc in terms of material factors. And so scholars like Randall Schweller and William Wohlforth

The Soviet Union was bled dry and could no longer project power outside of its borders. As evidence, realists point out, among many other things, that overseeing and managing a large empire for a prolonged period of time was extraordinarily expensive; core-periphery relations were dysfunctional; politics in Moscow were rigid, unimaginative, and stale; the Soviet economy was badly mismanaged and rotting from the inside; its decade-long war in Afghanistan was costly. According to realists, Soviet officials could ignore realities only for so long before confronting the cold hard fact that the empire was an empty shell and they had to adjust to the changing circumstances under their feet.

Now, I'm not saying that China will go the way of the Soviet Union, that it won't reach power parity or superiority. It could, I'm not ruling it out. But we should not assume that China will reach these heights. Nothing is preordained. Much still must go right for the Chinese to climb the great power ladder. So let's keep this mind when we hear about the "certain" or "inevitable" rise of China.

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