If China becomes the world’s most powerful country, it won’t be satisfied being America’s number two.
Over at The Week, Think Progress’s Zack Beauchamphas a provocative piece arguing that “China is not replacing the United States as the global hegemon. And it never will.” Specifically, Beauchamp posits that “China faces too many internal problems and regional rivals to ever make a real play for global leadership. And even if Beijing could take the global leadership mantle soon, it wouldn’t. China wants to play inside the existing global order’s rules, not change them.”
The piece is well-argued and certainly worth a read. In particular, Beauchamp does us a service in combating the myth of the inevitability of China’s rise. He usefully points out that China’s economy faces a multitude of challenges that may prevent it from reaching the potential many currently foresee. He also points out that China faces powerful neighbors that won’t stand by idly if Beijing seeks to construct a new regional order, much less a global one.
Still, on balance, I think Beauchamp’s piece does more to confuse than to inform. The first issue is that even though he discusses the regional balance of power in the piece, his overall argument is that China will not be capable of replacing the United States as the “global hegemon.” Unfortunately, there are many who would claim that America is a global hegemon. However, that argument is preposterous under any reasonable definition of hegemony. It is true that in the post-Cold War (if not earlier) the U.S. has been the only power capable of projecting military power in any region of the world. But this has not allowed it to dictate the regional order of every continent as it largely can in the Western Hemisphere.
Moreover, even if America really is a global hegemon, this would just make it more unlikely that any rising power could replace it as a global hegemon. After all, America’s primacy in the post-Cold War era was only made possible because no other great power existed. Since China’s rise won’t stop the U.S. from being a great power, unless the two go to war and China wins, Beijing’s relative power will be far less than America’s at the end of the Cold War. And of course, America’s relative power will also be far less than what it enjoyed in 1991.
There are other issues with Beauchamp’s analysis of China’s relative power. For example, he notes that “one analysis suggests China’s GDP may not surpass America’s until the 2100s.” To begin with, while possible, this view seems to be decidedly in the minority among serious economists. Even if China’s economy crashes before 2018—around the time many believe China’s absolute GDP will surpass America’s—it still seems likely that it will find a more sustainable economic model before 80 years pass. And given that China has about four times as many people as the United States, it could easily surpass the U.S. in absolute GDP terms in less than 80 years.
But even if China’s economy doesn’t surpass the United States, this hardly suggests it won’t present a major strategic challenge to Washington. Consider that, according to Paul Kennedy, in 1938 Japan’s share of world manufacturing was just 3.8 percent while America’s was 28.7 percent and the U.K.’s was 9.2 percent. A year earlier, according to the same source, the U.S. national income was $68 billion while the British Empire’s was $22 billion. Japan’s, comparison, was just $4 billion. Yet, in the initial battles of the Pacific War Japan decisively defeated the U.S., England, and the Dutch across the region.
Similarly, the Soviet Union’s GDP was only ever about half as large as the United States, and many times much less than that. This doesn’t mean that America and its allies didn’t face a real strategic threat in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The more egregious part of Beauchamp’s case, however, is his contention that China does not seek to challenge the U.S.-led order. In his own words: “Even if this economic gloom and doom is wrong, and China really is destined for a prosperous future, there’s one simple reason China will never displace America as global leader: It doesn’t want to.”
He goes on to explain: “China is content to let the United States and its allies keep the sea lanes open and free ride off of their efforts. A powerful China, in other words, would most likely to be happy to pursue its own interests inside the existing global order rather than supplanting it.”
Beauchamp isn’t alone in holding this view, which has many faithful adherents in the West. In fact, not too long ago it was the running consensus in the United States, as well as the foundation of U.S. China policy in both the George W. Bush and the early Barack Obama administrations.
One place where this view has not been very popular is in China itself. Indeed, far from being happy to allow the U.S. Navy to keep its sea lanes open, Chinese leaders have been warning about their country’s “Malacca Dilemma” for over a decade now. They have also been actively trying to reduce America’s ability to cut off China’s energy and raw material imports. As they should be—it would be irresponsible for China’s leaders to allow their country’s economy to be at the mercy of a potential competitor if they have the realistic opportunity to allow China to secure its own shipping lanes. This is doubly true in light of the fact that the U.S. has been known to impose sanctions on many countries, including China itself after Tiananmen Square.
But the issue goes much deeper than that. In fact, it goes to the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy at home. At its core, the CCP’s claim to power is based on its ability to restore China to its past glory. Again, neither China nor its leaders have ever made any secret about this. For example, the CCP has always emphasized that it saved China from its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the Western and Japanese colonial powers.
Similarly, since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that, because of the CCP’s rule, the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is now within China’s grasp. As Zheng Wang points out, the term “rejuvenation is deeply rooted in Chinese history and the national experience.”
“As proud citizens of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ the Chinese feel a strong sense of chosenness and are extremely proud of their ancient and modern achievements. This pride is tempered, however, by the lasting trauma seared into the national conscious as a result of the country’s humiliating experiences at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism. After suffering a humiliating decline in national strength and status, the Chinese people are unwavering in their commitment to return China to its natural state of glory, thereby achieving the Chinese Dream.”
Thus, the CCP would lose all its legitimacy at home if it voluntarily subordinated China to the United States despite being the more powerful country. The CCP treasures its grip on power above all else, and therefore it should come as no surprise that it has already ruled out taking this risk.