Global power transitions: U.S.-China

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By Brian Lai*

This is an opinion piece written for the Press Citizen in coordination with International Programs’ March 5 WorldCanvass program focusing on Asia.

China’s economic rise underlies the perception that disputed issues between the United States and China may lead to a cold war between the two countries. Most (though not all) economists predict that China will become the largest economy sometime in the future, with estimated time horizons ranging from 2020 to 2050.This transition away from U.S. economic dominance raises concerns that Sino-U.S. relations will be marked by tense competition and the possibility of war.

Power transitions have occurred throughout history, and the big question for most scholars is whether these transitions will be marked by conflict or cooperation. The two most commonly cited transitions are the U.S.-United Kingdom transition at the end of the 19th century and the German-U.K. transition prior to World War I, with the latter resulting in conflict and the former leading to over a century of cooperation. The question now is whether future U.S.-Chinese relations will mirror the cooperative pattern of the U.S. and U.K. or the process of conflict that ultimately entangled Germany and the U.K. in two world wars.

Those who suggest the path of conflict point to the myriad disputes between the U.S. and China. China is in the process of modernizing its military, and although Chinese military spending is a little more than 10 percent of America’s defense spending, it is increasing at a faster rate and that gap should close as China’s GDP overtakes the U.S. In addition, there are concerns that China is either preparing for or not preventing cyber-warfare attacks against the U.S.

The U.S. and China are also competing for influence across the globe — most notably in Africa and Asia — with both states trying to establish relations with India, Russia and Southeast-Asian nations. Most recently, Taiwan serves as a persistent military dispute, as American arms sales have drawn ire, and now sanctions, by China.

Other observers believe that cooperation is the more likely outcome, with supporters of this position focusing on two arguments.

• The first is the mutual economic dependence between the U.S. and China. The costs of conflict for both state’s economies would be too great, forcing them to manage their disputed issues in a peaceful way, promoting cooperation in the long term. According to this argument, conflict would only be pursued if the net gain is better than the costs of conflict, and economic losses would vastly outweigh any potential benefits of using force to settle disputes.

• The other rationale for a peaceful transition is the integration of China into the international community. Proponents of this argument claim that if China were satisfied with the benefits of belonging to the international community, there would be little interest in forceful change.

Such integration could occur through international organizations like the WTO or, more informally, by including China as a partner in addressing problems like Iran, North Korea and global recession. According to this position, integrating China should make their leaders more willing to work through the existing international order and make the forceful overthrow of that order more costly.

This transition is still at least a decade away, but the question for the U.S. is what to do in the meantime. Should the U.S. accommodate China in order to incorporate it into the international community or try to build coalitions to contain China?

Currently, we are doing both. We sell arms to Taiwan despite the fact that China is America’ second largest trading partner. We criticize China’s human rights and Internet laws but work with China in responding to Iran and North Korea.

However, this policy of cooperation and conflict is doing little to ease concerns by both Americans and Chinese that the other state is a threat. How America and China handle this power transition will likely define the shape of international politics for the next century.

*Brian Lai is an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. He will participate in the live taping of the University of Iowa International Programs radio and television program, WorldCanvass.

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