Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Next Great Power? China's Challenge to American International Dominance

With America's Iraq project on the ropes, I've recently noticed more articles in the press discussing America's waning global influence in international politics. Indeed, there's something of a revival of the "declinist" paradigm of international relations, a trend popularized in the 1980s with Paul Kennedy's book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

Well, there's another article of this neo-declinism genre in this week's Time.
The cover story looks at the rise of China, arguing that the 21st century may be the "Chinese Century," which is already evident in some ways with China's contemporary forward thrust across a range of issues in global politics:

You may know all about the world coming to China--about the hordes of foreign businesspeople setting up factories and boutiques and showrooms in places like Shanghai and Shenzhen. But you probably know less about how China is going out into the world. Through its foreign investments and appetite for raw materials, the world's most populous country has already transformed economies from Angola to Australia. Now China is turning that commercial might into real political muscle, striding onto the global stage and acting like a nation that very much intends to become the world's next great power. In the past year, China has established itself as the key dealmaker in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, allied itself with Russia in an attempt to shape the future of central Asia, launched a diplomatic offensive in Europe and Latin America and contributed troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. With the U.S. preoccupied with the threat of Islamic terrorism and struggling to extricate itself from a failing war in Iraq, China seems ready to challenge--possibly even undermine--some of Washington's other foreign policy goals, from halting the genocide in Darfur to toughening sanctions against Iran. China's international role has won the attention of the new Democratic majority in Congress. Tom Lantos, incoming chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and a critic of Beijing's human-rights record, told TIME that he intends to hold early hearings on China, on everything from its censorship of the Internet to its policies toward Tibet. "China is thinking in much more active terms about its strategy," says Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, who was senior director at the National Security Council Asia desk under President Bill Clinton, "not only regionally, but globally, than it has done in the past. We have seen a sea change in China's fundamental level of confidence."

Blink for a moment and you can imagine that--as many Chinese would tell the tale--after nearly 200 years of foreign humiliation, invasion, civil war, revolution and unspeakable horrors, China is preparing for a date with destiny. "The Chinese wouldn't put it this way themselves," says Lieberthal. "But in their hearts I think they believe that the 21st century is China's century."

That's quite something to believe. Is it true? Or rather--since the century is yet young--will it be true? If so, when, and how would it happen? How comfortable would such a development be for the West? Can China's rise be managed peaceably by the international system? Or will China so threaten the interests of established powers that, as with Germany at the end of the 19th century and Japan in the 1930s, war one day comes? Those questions are going to be nagging at us for some time--but a peaceful, prosperous future for both China and the West depends on trying to answer them now.
The piece is very balanced. I appreciated the following passage in the article, which notes some important caveats regarding China's bid for preponderance:

If you ever feel mesmerized by the usual stuff you hear about China--20% of the world's population, gazillions of brainy engineers, serried ranks of soldiers, 10% economic growth from now until the crack of doom--remember this: China is still a poor country (GDP per head in 2005 was $1,700, compared with $42,000 in the U.S.) whose leaders face so many problems that it is reasonable to wonder how they ever sleep. The country's urban labor market recently exceeded by 20% the number of new jobs created. Its pension system is nonexistent. China is an environmental dystopia, its cities' air foul beyond imagination and its clean water scarce. Corruption is endemic and growing. Protests and riots by rural workers are measured in the tens of thousands each year. The most immediate priority for China's leadership is less how to project itself internationally than how to maintain stability in a society that is going through the sort of social and economic change that, in the past, has led to chaos and violence.
Read the whole thing. The article includes some interesting data on China's growth, on military spending as a proportion of GDP, etc., although more attention might have paid to relative economic and military gains vis-a-vis the United States.

In the 1980s, when Kennedy was writing, people were talking about Japan being the leading 21st-century power. In the 1990s -- with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Japan's stagnation -- there then came a big round of attention to China's growth and its threats to international stablility -- one pessimistic book even argued for The Coming Conflict With China.

Talk like that tapered-off late in the decade, as it became increasingly clear that America had restored a degree of unrivaled mastery in international politics. I don't worry too much about America being surpassed any time soon as the world's unipolar hegemon, despite our problems in Iraq. For my earlier post on the future of American global preponderance, click here. See also, Avery Goldstein's International Security article on the rise of China, "Great Expectations: Interpreting China's Arrival."

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