The US-China Power Transition: Stage II

by David Lai | June 30, 2016 | The Diplomat

China is assertive! This has been the talk in Washington for quite some time. The most-noted Chinese assertive acts are, of course, the newly proactive and at times tougher-than-before stands toward the United States. China’s upgraded and forceful moves in the East and South China Seas have also raised many eyebrows. Alongside those highly-contested turns are China’s self-assured pushes for change in regional and global affairs.

Why has China become assertive? In a fundamental sense, China’s change of behavior is not a planned act in a long march to overthrow the United States, but a natural outgrowth from its expanding national power. Its assertiveness is a manifestation of typical behavior at the second stage of the power transition ostensibly taking place between China and the United States.

At the moment, China is still somewhat perplexed about its own assertiveness and the consequences. The United States in the meantime is also struggling with the proper ways to deal with rising China. The nations in the Asia Pacific, and eventually the world, are watching attentively the unfolding U.S.-China power transition and will adjust their policies accordingly.

Power Transition

Power transition is set in motion by the rise of a previously underdeveloped big nation, dissatisfied with the existing international system and its powerful stakeholders. As its national power grows and expands, this rising “big fellow” has the impulse to make changes, intentionally or compulsively, to the rules of the system that purportedly works against its interests. Changes of this kind challenge the existing international order. If the challenger and the status-quo powers cannot come to terms with the changes peacefully, they often settle their differences on battlefields.

Thucydides was perhaps the first to observe that power transition carries the seeds of war. In his account of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC, Thucydides asserted that the growth of Athenian power and the fear generated on the Spartan side had trapped the two powerful nations into a war for 27 years.

While the power transition theory is still subject to scrutiny, the world is witnessing China’s rise, with its unprecedented scale, speed, and complexity. Given China’s precarious relations with the existing international order and its present leader, the United States, it begs the question whether a power transition is in the making and whether U.S.-China relations will fall into the same trap.

U.S.-China Power Transition, Stage I (1978-2008)

By many measures, the rise of China in the U.S.-led international system has indeed triggered a U.S.-China power transition. In retrospect, this power transition started when China embarked on its modernization mission in 1978. It caught world attention when signs of China’s rising emerged in the early 1990s and accelerated in the early 2000s.

In the midst of this titanic change, a “China threat” concern has also emerged to overshadow China’s relations with the outside world and for good reasons. First, China played no part in the making of the existing international order and sought its destruction for decades prior to 1978. China was in no position to challenge the U.S.-led system then, but instead desperately needed to become part of it, especially in the economic world. However, there was still deep-seated concern that a more developed China would find ways to topple the existing order in due time.

Second, China’s contemporary misfortunes aside, it has a resilient cultural, socio-political, and strategic tradition that is perhaps the only qualified match to that of the dominant Western civilization. For better or for worse, this China is a prospective threat to the West, for, as the late Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington put it, when China becomes more powerful, the Chinese will feel that they are entitled to remake the world in their image.

Third, rising China is controlled by an authoritarian party that refuses to accept widely, if not universally, shared democratic values and standards.

The Chinese, however, find the China threat allegations insulting. They argue that power transition is a Western experience and the Thucydides Trap should not apply to China’s relations with the United States. Yet Chinese leaders have nevertheless come to see that China’s rising power is generating forces beyond their control.

U.S.-China Power Transition, Stage II (2009-2050)

By 2009, the U.S.-China power transition had entered a new stage, stretching most likely to 2050.

What is special about this second stage? Among many other things, the narrowing of the gap in overall national power between the system leader and the rising power is perhaps the most defining factor of this stage. It gives rise to two typical behavior patterns in these two key players in power transition. On the one hand, the system leader develops a strategic anxiety, feeling more uneasy with the rising power and its consequential impact on the international order. The system leader still wishes to shape and manage the rising power. At the same time, although its supremacy has eroded, it still has the power to take a strong stand against the upstart, or even launch a preemptive strike to derail the rising power.

The rising power, on the other hand, has become more confident about itself and starts to act more assertively and uncompromisingly. During the first stage, when it is much weaker and in need of the system leader’s leniency for its development, the rising power had to put up with the system leader on many issues. Now, with added power, the upstart is no longer willing to take the pressure without significant pushback.

The rising power may hope to avoid confrontation. Indeed, if it is only a matter of time before the upstart surpasses the system leader, why ruin its cause with a fight? Yet the emerging reality may force the upstart to defy this cool-headed calculation; as the old saying goes, one’s intention is proportional to one’s capability.

For the above reasons, the second stage is a time for the Thucydides Trap to spring.

Game Changer: U.S. Strategic Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific

The United States has been concerned with the rising China since it showed signs of emergence in the early 1990s. However, “burning issues” elsewhere had kept the United States busy in other parts of the world and unable to develop a coherent response to China’s monumental challenge until the Obama Administration took office in 2009.

Obama’s response was the U.S. strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. By all measures, this is a typical move by the system leader at the second stage of the power transition. It seeks to preserve and strengthen the U.S.-led economic, security, and political order in the Asia-Pacific. It is a response to the shift of international geostrategic power and a game-changing act in U.S. foreign policy that relocates U.S. emphasis from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, although radical Islamic terrorists make trouble everywhere, they cannot overthrow the U.S.-led international order. Even the defiant Iran and North Korea are not in any position to do so. However, China’s challenge is systemic, and its growing power can affect the destiny of the Asia-Pacific (and the world, for that matter). Because of this, as a 2012 Department of Defense document put it, the United States “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”

Seven years into the rebalance, it is fair to say that the Obama Administration has made some headway. However, the gains have come at a heavy price—the United States has come to the forefront to confront China and the two big powers are rushing toward a premature showdown.

Game Changer: An Assertive China

While the United States was busy with the strategic rebalance, China was also making fundamental changes to its foreign policy approach toward the United States. The most significant one is China’s turn to assertive diplomacy, orchestrated by China’s assertive president, Xi Jinping.

Much like the Obama-Clinton “rebalance to Asia” drive, Xi Jinping rallies the Chinese with his “China Dream” drumbeat. Unlike the Obama team, which came to the White House in a nation exhausted by two costly wars abroad and hard-hit by the financial meltdown at home, Xi took the reins over a nation with more than 30 years of phenomenal economic development, as the newly-crowned second largest economy and No. 1 trading nation in the world, and an emerging frontrunner in many other world-class competitions. Confident in China’s ascendance, Xi tells the Chinese people that restoring China’s rightful place in the world is within their reach and urges them to “strive to do more” (“奋发有为”) in international affairs to facilitate China’s advance.

With these marching orders, China bids farewell to its long-practiced low-profile and reactive foreign policy (低调反应型外交) and turns to a proactive and agenda-setting diplomacy (主动筹划型外交). Thus, instead of responding to outside pressures and reactively seizing opportunities for its development, China has started to take the initiative in international affairs, set agendas on important issues of the day, and create opportunities for its continued national development.

These assertive orientations have given rise to “a great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” Examples include China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the push for a Chinese role in global governance, and yes, China’s increasingly assertive stance on maritime disputes. Read more…


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