Tuesday, April 27, 2010

China's Rise Will Be Checked By Its Neighbors, Not By The U.S.

Steve Walt has an interesting post on his blog about the future trajectory of China's rise, and what its impact will be. The basic point he makes is that China will continue to rise, and as it does, it and the U.S. will become natural competitors. China, Walt forecasts, will start meddling in the U.S. sphere of influence, will make it difficult for the U.S. to project power where it (China) doesn't want the U.S. to do so, will help in keeping the U.S. bogged down in intractable conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran), and wean some of America's traditional Asian allies away from it.

This follows the traditional structural realist argument, made most prominently by John Mearsheimer toward the end of of his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, where Mearsheimer argues that Sino-American rivalry is basically inevitable, and the U.S. should start preparing for that day now (for more nuanced takes on this, see this pair of academic pieces). So there is nothing new or surprising about this line of thinking.

Now, as a good Chicago student who privileges structure, you might think I am sympathetic to this argument, but I am not. For me, to horribly mangle a phrase, all structure is local.

What I mean by that is that China is unlikely to be given the freedom of maneuver in Asia that the U.S. was afforded in the Western hemisphere. The U.S. hasn't had to worry about its security in about two hundred years. It's had weak powers to the north and south, and two massive oceans to the east and west. This, in turn, has allowed it to accumulate power in far-off regions, and throw its weight around.

By contrast, China has Japan and Korea to its east, India to its south, and Russia to its north. These states are unlikely to allow China a free hand in the region; to the contrary, as China grows, it will face a balancing coalition from at least two of those states (probably India and one of Russia/Japan). Make no mistake, there are no Canadas, Mexicos, or Haitis in this neighborhood to politely stand aside.

In fact, China's rise is more likely to resemble Germany's in the late 19th and early 20th century than the U.S.'s -- recall that the U.S. had to do very little to check German aspirations. The real price of German ambition was paid by, first, the British and French (WW I) and then by the Soviets (WW II). All these European powers beating up on each other allowed the U.S. to grow basically unfettered, and by the end of World War II, the U.S. had more than 40% of the world's GNP.

I'm not saying we'll something exactly similar here -- for one thing, the presence of nuclear weapons precludes the possibility of great power war as seen on the scale of the two world wars. But it is important to note that by the simple virtue of geography, the American rise has been almost historically unique. For it to get locked into a sustained power competition with another state, that state will have to be given an empty highway in front of it to speed ahead, which China most definitely does not enjoy.

13 comments:

TLW said...

Wow Ahsan, I'm impressed!

Finally a "great powers and their evil perfidies" post!

That's generally the line taken when talk of a potential Sino-US rivalry comes up (numbingly often) on Pakistani blogs.

The point you've made about the US not facing a great power rival, (an idea that has been deeply abused by your fellow Chicagoans, the neo-Conservatives) is interesting but I have my doubts about it.

First off is, can the US sustain another round of defence rebuilding to counter China? Historical trends by the US indicate that potentially it can.

But for the sake of your argument let's say the US goes bust or turns radically isolationist.
The real question then is how a combination of Russia, Japan and India could tie down a rising China? Can these states even support the infrastructure to do so? I have my doubts on all three, especially if the US were ever to withdraw from South Korea or Japan.

My guess is that the US political and military influence in the North Pacific Asian states keeps them welded into an informally non-China alliance. If the US withdrew, both Japan and South Korea could turn into nuclear states and join China as equals.

If the US wants Japan and Korea to stay anti-China or neutral to it, America will have to remain in the North East Pacific.

Brett said...

In fact, China's rise is more likely to resemble Germany's in the late 19th and early 20th century than the U.S.'s -- recall that the U.S. had to do very little to check German aspirations. The real price of German ambition was paid by, first, the British and French (WW I) and then by the Soviets (WW II). All these European powers beating up on each other allowed the U.S. to grow basically unfettered, and by the end of World War II, the U.S. had more than 40% of the world's GNP.

Interesting comparison. I've heard that one made before, and not just in terms of security concerns. Like Germany, China is a relatively late but powerful industrializing state in a neighborhood of industrializing and industrialized states that finally got over internal weakness in the past 50 years.

From a Minimal Realist/"Balance of Power" perspective, that's good news - China has to be very careful lest its neighbors think its rise is too dangerous and ally with outside states and India to balance. I'm not sure that I entirely agree with the "balancing" perspective though, and I think there's some "bandwagoning" going on (look at how as China has risen, many of the neighboring Asian states have started to get cozier to it).

I'm not saying we'll something exactly similar here -- for one thing, the presence of nuclear weapons precludes the possibility of great power war as seen on the scale of the two world wars.

Definitely not when you consider that at least two of China's neighbors (Japan and South Korea) have the capability to build nuclear weapons relatively quickly if they needed to. That said, that hasn't prevented the Chinese from building plenty of "area denial" weapons (like submarines and anti-ship missiles), or investing in a modernization of the greater navy and armed forces.

But it is important to note that by the simple virtue of geography, the American rise has been almost historically unique.

Oh yes. The US was very weak militarily right up to the American Civil War compared to the major European powers on land (and the British at sea), but the distance and geography made it nearly impossible to subjugate with ease.

That also explains why on two occasions (the American War of Independence and the War of 1812), the US government attempted to invade Canada. They didn't like the idea of having a British stronghold across the border.

Umair J said...

So what you're implying is that for China to become a considerable threat to the United States (in terms of strategic influence) it will have to boss around the states in its own backyard. Which makes perfect sense, because that would be no different than the trajectory taken by the United States as well.

The US sphere of influence in Latin America was consolidated by the 4th decade of the 20th century. And i dont know if i should make this comparison or not but by the early 20's Argentina was like Japan in some ways (at least economy wise and regional influence wise).

What is more interesting is the relationship between China and Russia, given that both have a definitive agenda to flex their political muscle internationally.

Anonymous said...

http://www.cricinfo.com/ipl2010/content/current/story/457355.html

lol...

Ahsan said...

TLW:

On the question of alliances in Asia, I would say that to throw your weight around globally you need to be secure regionally, and have everyone in line. Other states in Asia will not, I don't think, stay in line for China the way Latin America/Canada has for the US.

Brett:

Good points. Recall also how the North bristled when the British did not unequivocally condemn the South in the Civil War. The British were hedging their bets, and frankly would've liked to see the South succeed from a balance of power point of view (but not a humanitarian/slavery point of view). In turn, this angered the North to a great extent. Similar logic of wanting no other great power in the neighborhood.

Umair J:

Yes, what I am saying is that it has to be able to boss around the states in its neighborhood, but the main difference is the supine nature of states in LA vs in Asia. Like I said, Japan, India and Russia are not Mexico, Canada and Haiti. China will face more of a fight for regional dominance than the US did, and thus will not be make a challenge for global dominance.

anoop said...

Very interesting. Makes perfect sense.

What if India gets too strong for the comfort of China? How will it react? Any comments?

Smci said...

I think the claim to universality in these models is problematic.

Clearly realism is more adept at forecasting the behavior of those states which logically can imagine using large conventional forces to hold off an invasion from a vastly superior military. Iran and North Korea come to mind. And it can also make a logical argument that states in these circumstances will make a headlong push towards nuclear weapons as a deterent.

On the other hand, to me atleast, Complex Interdependence makes more sense when it comes to counter-balanicing the US's polarity through China or say, Germany.

Realism is ultimately just too self-confining, insisting that the ultimate measure of a state's "power" consists of its conventional military capabilities and it's overall economic abilitites to expand and sustain them.

Walt's own article cites the growth of China's navy as an example of "balancing," which is a perpetual truth in International Politics.

On the flip side, Nye and Keohane could easily argue that the naval growth is simply a manifestation of the increasing resource depedence of the Chinese economy on African oil and Asian raw materials. How many 'zones' have China's rivals been denied access to? None.

To me, multiple administrations had the understanding that the realists world would be the defacto result if we continued down the path we were on, but we made a deliberate push to make complex interdependence the "structure" that major powers would be stuck in.

The rise of non-state actors therefore is simply the hiccups in transition from a realist's world of polarity and balancing, to a complex interdependent [idealistic?] world which minimizes conventional warfare.

The odd man out? Those states that have nothing to offer which one can depend on.

Zulfiqar said...

It is important for the great powers in the world to realize that another nuclear war will destroy the remaining sanctity of our planet. The world cannot afford a nuclear war, as it is already dealing with the issue of terrorism.

Anonymous said...

FUCK BARCA!!!

Brett said...

Thanks for the response, Ahsan.

Good points. Recall also how the North bristled when the British did not unequivocally condemn the South in the Civil War. The British were hedging their bets, and frankly would've liked to see the South succeed from a balance of power point of view (but not a humanitarian/slavery point of view). In turn, this angered the North to a great extent. Similar logic of wanting no other great power in the neighborhood.

The British government maybe - but not the British population. They were vehemently anti-slavery, which is why the British spent considerable time, effort, and money stamping out the international slave trade in the 19th century.

Ahsan said...

SMCI:

Wow, that's some awfully strong statements. Not saying you're wrong, but those are pretty bold claims. Do you really think that (absent a world with nuclear weapons) great powers today would have moved on from the likelihood of conflict?

Brett:

Yeah, I meant the government of course.

Anon138:

Go to sleep, Jose.

Smci said...

No that's not what I'm saying at all.

Nuclear weapons are important and they made it possible for complex interdependence to take place.

What I'm saying is that most of the IR theories out there aren't universal, they just deal with one stage of evolution in relations between different types of states.

My take is that state-to-state relations have layers that are represented by the different theories of IR.

That while categorical realist assumptions are at the heart,or first most-base layer of relations, they evolve through liberalism and/or constructivism to the point where the relations of most industrialized states can be categorized as "interdependent."

Whereas the US could never seriously fathom an outright war with China's million-man army, butressed by its nuclear ability to seriously damage the United States, that reality opened the door to complex interdependence.

"If we can't fight them anyway, let's create mutually beneficial trade links."

When that mentality sets in, as it obviously has on both sides of the ocean, a more complicated relationship spreads and takes hold. One in which the Chinese government can't possibly fathom being able to fund a war against the United States, whose public is a massive importer of its production and hence its bloodline. And vice versa, where the United States can't possibly fathom going to war with China, because one of the largest buyers of the new government debt that is necessary to bankroll such a war, is the object of the war itself.

Yes, the core layer is the realist notion of power and deterrence by means of arms. But you can't simply jump from complex interpredence one day, back to realist nuclear or conventional deterrence the next. You have to systematically peel back your interdependence as a deterrent. Then you have to peel back the institutional impediments to hostility. Then you finally arrive at the cold realist notions of power and deterrence.

Chinese investors holding 900 billion dollars of US Government debt and US markets importing over 200 billion dollars per annum of cheap Chinese goods is just as formidable a constrainer of the likelihood of conflict as are nuclear weapons. True, one would not be possible if it were not for the other. But that doesn't logically preclude for eternity the possibility of interpedence becoming a barrier in itself of conflict.

Smci said...

No that's not what I'm saying at all.

Nuclear weapons are important and they made it possible for complex interdependence to take place.

What I'm saying is that most of the IR theories out there aren't universal, they just deal with one stage of evolution in relations between different types of states.

My take is that state-to-state relations have layers that are represented by the different theories of IR.

That while categorical realist assumptions are at the heart,or first most-base layer of relations, they evolve through liberalism and/or constructivism to the point where the relations of most industrialized states can be categorized as "interdependent."

Whereas the US could never seriously fathom an outright war with China's million-man army, butressed by its nuclear ability to seriously damage the United States, that reality opened the door to complex interdependence.

"If we can't fight them anyway, let's create mutually beneficial trade links."

When that mentality sets in, as it obviously has on both sides of the ocean, a more complicated relationship spreads and takes hold. One in which the Chinese government can't possibly fathom being able to fund a war against the United States, whose public is a massive importer of its production and hence its bloodline. And vice versa, where the United States can't possibly fathom going to war with China, because one of the largest buyers of the new government debt that is necessary to bankroll such a war, is the object of the war itself.

Yes, the core layer is the realist notion of power and deterrence by means of arms. But you can't simply jump from complex interpredence one day, back to realist nuclear or conventional deterrence the next. You have to systematically peel back your interdependence as a deterrent. Then you have to peel back the institutional impediments to hostility. Then you finally arrive at the cold realist notions of power and deterrence.

Chinese investors holding 900 billion dollars of US Government debt and US markets importing over 200 billion dollars per annum of cheap Chinese goods is just as formidable a constrainer of the likelihood of conflict as are nuclear weapons. True, one would not be possible if it were not for the other. But that doesn't logically preclude for eternity the possibility of interpedence becoming a barrier in itself of conflict.