The current international political arena is a unipolar system with the United States as a hegemon power. Despite the United States unprecedented military, economic and technological advantages, a rising state has emerged to threaten to surpass its position. The biggest rising state that has started to question the U.S. hegemony is China. This exact power transition between the hegemon and the rising state is under the risk of falling into hostility. During the Cold War, the U.S. and China managed to cooperate against a common enemy, the USSR. However, following the Cold War, the Sino-American relations took another turn as China started to expand into a great power, replacing the USSR. In other words, the relations between these two significant states have been unstable. Therefore, whether the great power transition will be peaceful or hostile is a question of scrutiny in the contemporary global political arena. There are two opposing viewpoints regarding this topic. On one side, political philosophers argue that the United States and China can peacefully co-exist. On the other side, however, political philosophers argue that the United States and China will find it difficult to peacefully co-exist.
From the mid-1980s through the late 1990s, China’s economy has been growing 10 percent annually. Although this growth has been slightly slowing down, the World Bank still predicts Chinese economic growth to be 8.4 percent this year (2). As the renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington claims, “the external expansion of the UK and France, Germany and Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States coincided with phases of intense industrialization and economic development” (12). The sheer size of its increasing population, the rising productivity of its workers, growing manufacturing capacity and expanding economy are blatant indicators of China’s emergence as a great power. In his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), Paul Kennedy states that economic shifts have “heralded the rise of new great powers which one day would have a decisive impact on the military/territorial order” (22). The Chinese government strives to relate China’s economic growth and its geopolitical strength. And thus, Beijing has been pursuing foreign politics in this exact path. The Development Research Center and World Bank have predicted that China will be a first-rate military power and will rival America in global power by 2030 (82). Evidently, China’s rise poses threat to the American hegemony. Although the emergence of new hegemons has mostly been geopolitically destabilizing, there have also been exceptional cases, such as the peaceful power transition between Great Britain and the U.S in the late 19th and early 20th century. In order to figure out whether the Sino-American relations will follow the same path, we must examine the two sides of the controversial debate.
In order to examine first the claim that the U.S. and China can peacefully co-exist, we must study, describe and analyze the common grounds between the two powers. They both share common interests in containing North Korea’s nuclear program and in preventing South Korea and Japan from engaging in nuclear arms race (Mearsheimer 396-402). Since North Korea’s first nuclear testing in 2006, the United States, along with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia has been working actively to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weaponry and thus to ensure stability in Asia (Mearsheimer 396-402). In addition, while the U.S. and China may be competitors, they rely heavily on a secure and healthy global economy. Since both nations have a powerful stake in the stability of the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and the stable flow of critical commodities, China and the U.S. cooperate to counter terrorism. U.S. In September 2009, According to the data published by the U.S. States Department, the United States and China held bilateral counterterrorism talks in Washington, DC. (Country Reports on Terrorism). In addition, China and the US are both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and have supported several key resolutions to combat the threat of global terrorism and promote nonproliferation (Country Reports on Terrorism). Both of these great nations have similar views that stand in firm opposition to topics like terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Therefore, both powers seem to agree on many global issues; thus, political philosophers conclude that peaceful co-existence between these two states is possible.
Another theory, supported by Friedberg in his work “The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” holds that nuclear deterrence will keep relations stable (28-29). Both states possess large nuclear force and can deter each other from attack. During the Cold War, the fact that the USSR and the U.S. were in mutual possession of nuclear weapons served as an additional source of constraint on their behavior (Friedberg 28-29). This mutual deterrence provides a buffer against a general war and also a strong constraint on both limited war and crisis behavior. This implies that there is a high chance of the emergence of a proxy war between the two states, but the conflict will be civil and stable.
Economic interdependence is one of the most vital factors that has eliminated the possibility of war in the contemporary world. Liberal economists believe that bilateral economic relations create shared interests in avoiding conflict and preserving peace. The same argument is applied to Sino-American relations. Since the U.S and China depend so heavily on each other’s economies – America needs cheap Chinese goods, China needs America for export – This mutual dependence requires a warm atmosphere. Since the market reforms in China in the late 1970s, the economic relations between the U.S. and China have increased dramatically. From the start of the reform in 1979 to the end of the twentieth century, the value of trade moving between the two countries grew from $1 billion to almost $120 billion annually (Friedberg 13). In 2011, during the Obama administration, the Sino-U.S. bilateral trade reached unprecedented numbers of over $500 billion (Friedberg 13). Furthermore, in 2002, China integrated in the World Trade Organization, the biggest global, multilateral, intergovernmental organization monitoring and arbitrating international trade (Friedberg 13). Due to the fact that the current international order is defined by economic and political openness, China’s rise is apt to be peaceful.
It must be noted that despite the collaborative aspects like economic interdependence and agreement on global issues, the Sino-U.S. relations still face challenges that undermine their stability. In order to examine why the U.S. and China will find it difficult to peacefully co-exist, we must analyze the foreign relations between these two states. The U.S. and China are not the only participants in the global political arena. The members of the international politics are more intertwined within the allied systems rather than mere single actors. The United States is a part of the NATO Alliance and has strong military and economic ties with all EU countries and Japan (Beaursang 92-93). China, on its part, has been developing stronger relations with a group of countries that are commonly known as the BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Beaursang 92-93). Therefore, Sino-American relations are even more complicated and tense with the interfering states. China’s allies for economic as well as military reasons also include: North Korea, Iran and Sudan (Kynge 213-242). All of these three allies of China are considered – hostile by the U.S. For North Korea, China is the most significant ally as a supplier of foods, arms and fuel (Kynge 213-242). By supporting North Korea, China also benefits from having a bulwark against the U.S. military dominance in the region. Unlike the relations between North Korea and China, the relations between China and Iran are relatively new. China seeks to establish a new, stable and secure oil supply from Iran (Kynge 213-242). In addition to its economic gains, China perceives Iran as a potential ally in countering the U.S. power in the Middle East. While China sees it as a regime to be possibly dealt with in pragmatic terms The United States sees Iran as an extremist nation and the leading sponsor of state terrorism. The State Department labeled Iran as the most active sponsor of terrorism (Country Reports on Terrorism). Therefore, America might consider China’s relationship with Iran as divergent from China’s counter-terrorist policy.
China is also the biggest trade partner of Sudan, importing oil and exporting arms. China’s interest in South Sudan is due to the fact that South Sudan in particular, has a big reserve of for unexploited oil; however, the country lacks the infrastructure. Perhaps, China plans to develop special routes that will transport oil to fuel the Chinese industries. The U.S. and South Sudan have political ties: The U.S. supports South Sudan, to operate against its militant religious movements (Kynge 213-242). Therefore, China’s entrance into the picture is seen to be violating the established ties between the U.S. and South Sudan.
On the other hand, as Yan, Chief Editor of The Chinese Journal of International Politics, points out, the U.S. has been supporting Taiwan, a Chinese province that broke off China when Communist People’s Republic of China came in power (1949) (282-283). Although the U.S. has agreed that Taiwan is a part of China, it still continues to maintain defensive (arms trade), social, and cultural relations with Taiwan under the Taiwanese Relations Act (signed in 1979) – a fact that still angers China (Yan 282-283).
Besides the existing allies that stand in between these two mega powers, China has started to indicate signs that point to its competitiveness with the U.S. Firstly, The Chinese government has been intentionally pegging its currency to make Chinese goods and services appear much cheaper relative to the U.S Dollar (Yan 276-277). Currency pegging is harmful and unfavorable to the U.S trade. Pegging Yuan to Dollars decreases the demand for U.S imports and increases demand for Chinese imports. In other words, China becomes a net exporter and correspondingly, crucially hurts the U.S domestic production and thus, its function as an exporter. Although there have been many protests on the American side, as well as the international side, to prevent China from pegging its currency, the policy is still continued with the fear of loss in foreign reserves. Without the peg, China’s economic rise would not have achieved such a high rate, since Yuan was nearly worthless before.
In addition, China has also become more active in the global arena. China has started to follow the American example, as it has started to expand aid and arms trade to states in Afric. In return, China acquires secure supply of strategic materials and hydrocarbons essential to satisfy the increased internal demand for raw materials and energy (Kynge 213-242). These evident signs cannot be neglected and ignored, since they clearly support the claim that China is in fact attempting to compete with the U.S.
As indicated above, the Sino-U.S. relationships can be characterized by both cooperative and competitive elements. There is evidence that substantiates cooperation at one extreme, but not enough strong evidence to substantiate unrestricted competition and conflict at the other extreme. Today’s world is characterized by international integration, or the replacement of national institutions by supranational institutions. Larger institutions, like multinational corporations, have subsumed states, subordinating their authority, as well as their national identity. In other words, compared to the significance that states carried before, in today’s world, they have become irrelevant. The global entities operate on a practically virtual territory. In addition, the global economy is bigger than the economy of the U.S., China, India or any other state (Banning 408-415). Thus, this type of a system cannot tolerate the disruption of its equilibrium or any dysfunctional military and nuclear confrontations. The eruption of a hot conflict between the U.S. and China would imply a world war and would directly upset the stability of the world system (Banning 408-415). Thus, the interest of large corporations is to maintain some form of collaborations between the U.S. and China up to the point of making them work together to secure global security. In other words, this exact globalization, or so-called increased interdependence, decreases the chance of conflict.
In order to debunk the limitations and weaknesses of the claim that the U.S and China will not peacefully co-exist, we must consider the following arguments. In Globalization and the BRICs: Why the BRICs Will Not Rule the World for Long, Beausang emphasizes the influence of BRICS in the international, a recent initiative, has been expanding to confront the Western Bloc (92-93). Although China is the strongest among the group and the association itself is quite strong, it is still not as powerful as the western block. Therefore, direct confrontation between these two blocs is not allowed. In addition, China is the biggest arms trader in the world, and perhaps there is a competition between China and the Western countries in terms of arms sale. However, it is incorrect to argue that China has been establishing arms trade for political reasons, because arms sale is politically neutral (Banning 408-415). Those in charge of selling arms do not use any political judgment or criteria. They are simply interested in the maximization of the arms trade. Likewise, the Chinese government’s decision to artificially play around with the currency is a technique with which the Chinese try to keep their exports attractive and not an intentional political plan to provoke conflict with the U.S. In short, a war between the U.S. and China is certainly avoidable. The collective interests and integration prevent a war.
After having examined both sides of the claims with their main arguments, the relations between these two states can be characterized to be more stable and peaceful, rather than volatile. Both sides should stop perceiving each other as rivals and should continue peacekeeping policies that will maintain peaceful co-existence. The collective interests, economic interdependence, and integration in international organizations make these two powerful states more of collaborators rather than enemies or opponents. Therefore, the chance of a direct conflict is very small and can be avoided in case both countries try their best to eliminate tensions and continue to strengthen their cooperative relations.