Throughout history, the rise of a new power has been attended by uncertainty and anxieties. Often, though not always, violent conflict has followed. As Thucydides explained, the real roots of the Peloponnesian war in which the ancient Greek system tore itself apart, were the rise in the power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. The rise in the economic and military power of China, the world’s most populous country, will be one of the two or three most important questions for world stability in this century, and some think that conflict with the US is inevitable. But it is a mistake to allow historical analogies determine our thinking, Instead, we should be asking how China and the US can create a new great power relationship.
Many analysts also compare the rise of China to that of Germany at the beginning of the last century. The rise in the power of Germany and the fear it created in Britain was one of the causes of World War I in which the European system tore itself apart. This year China’s economy will grow by nearly 7 to 8 per cent and its defense spending will grow even more. Chinese leaders have spoken of China’s “peaceful development, ” but analysts like John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago have flatly proclaimed that China cannot rise peacefully, and predicted that “the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.”
Who is right? We will not know for some time, but the debaters should recall both halves of Thucydides’ trenchant analysis. War was caused not merely by the rise of one power, but by the fear it engendered in another. The belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes. Each side, believing it will end up at war with the other, makes reasonable military preparations, which then are read by the other side as confirmation of its worst fears. In a perverse transnational alliance, hawks in each country cite the others’ statements as clear evidence. One way to make East Asia and the world safer is to avoid such exaggerated fears and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Moreover, while China has impressive power resources, one should be skeptical about projections based solely on current growth rates, political rhetoric, military contingency plans, and flawed historical analogies. It is important to remember that by 1900, Germany had surpassed Britain in industrial power, and the Kaiser was pursuing an adventurous, globally oriented foreign policy that was bound to bring about a clash with other great powers. In contrast, China still lags far behind the United States, and has focused its policies primarily on its region and on its economic development.
China has a long way to go to equal the power resources of the United States, and still faces many obstacles to its development. At the beginning of the 21st century, the American economy was about twice the size of China’s in purchasing power parity, and more than three times as large at official exchange rates. All such comparisons and projections are somewhat arbitrary. Even if Chinese GDP passes that of the United States in the next decade, the two economies would be equivalent in size, but not equal in composition. China would still have a vast underdeveloped countryside, and it will begin to face demographic problems from the delayed effects of the one child per couple policy it enforced in the 20th century. Moreover, as countries develop, there is a tendency for growth rates to slow. China would not equal the United States in per capita income until sometime in the second half of the century, if then.
Per capita income provides a measure of the sophistication of an economy. In other words, China’s impressive growth rate combined with the size of its population will surely lead it to pass the American economy in total size at some point. This has already provided China with impressive power resources, but that is not the same as equal power. China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to American preponderance that the Kaiser’s Germany posed when it passed Britain at the beginning of the last century. The facts do not at this point justify alarmist predictions of a coming war. There is time to manage a cooperative relationship. As an important Chinese leader recently told me, “we need thirty years of peace to meet our development goals and come close to the US.” During that period we can focus on building a new type of great power relationship.
Some experts worry that Chinese leaders’ sense of vulnerability at home will lead them to appeal to populist nationalism to increase their legitimacy and that could cause China to behave rashly in a crisis. The fact that China is not likely to become a peer competitor to the United States on a global basis does not mean that it could not challenge the United States in Asia, and the dangers of conflict can never be completely ruled out. But basically, Bill Clinton was right when he told Jiang Zemin in 1995 that the United States has more to fear from a weak China than a strong China. Thus far, the United States has accepted the rise of Chinese power and invited Chinese participation as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Power is not always a zero sum game. Given the global problems that both China and the United States will face, they have much more to gain from working together than in allowing overwrought fears to drive them apart, but it will take wise policy on both sides to assure this future.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power.