“THE rise of China,” international relations theorist John Ikenberry said, “will undoubtedly be one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century.” China’s dramatic economic growth and increasing prominence in international politics propel its ascendance. America’s pre-eminence has now met its rival. And Uncle Sam can already feel on his nape the moist hot breath of this dragon.
The realist perspective represents best the pessimist view on China’s rise. Realists’ pessimism stems from perspectives that go as far back as Thucydides who pointed out in The History of the Peloponessian War the danger that arises whenever the current superpower declines and a new one emerges. This view predicts that China, the emerging superpower, will be a potential troublemaker; or the US, the current one, would launch a preventive war against China to stem its ascendance before it becomes too powerful a menace to its interests.
Realist pessimists predict that China’s economic rise would provoke its leaders to define their national interests more expansively. Offensive realist theorist John Mearsheimer argued in Better to Be Godzilla than Bambi that China “cannot rise peacefully.” It will be drawn to “intense security competition” with the US, “and the more likely outcome of this confrontation is war.” This sees the future relationship between them as a zero-sum game.
Several factors feed this perspective. Chief of them is the specter of aggressive nationalism and anti-West sentiment haunting China, which are laid down in two best selling Chinese books. The first is China Is Unhappy, a book popular among Chinese youth. Published in 2009, it provides a litany of reasons why China is unhappy with the way it’s being treated by the West. It advocates that, along with its economic might, China must beef up its military strength and become more assertive against Western provocations. The same message is echoed in China Dream, a book written by Liu Mingfu. Published in 2010, it departs from the official “peaceful rise” narrative. It prescribes a national grand goal for China to restore its glorious past, which Liu believes requires toppling the US. It recommends that China must rise both economically and militarily, and it must be ready to prevail by any means necessary over its strategic rival.
Moreover, there are already signs that China is trying to contest US hegemony. It has been using its financial power to expand its political and diplomatic influence and thereby hedging against the excesses of US global dominance. It has been building its influence and prestige in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Besides these material bases, China also has an ideational base for its hegemonic challenge: a potential Chinese world order based on 1) Chinese traditional belief in benign hierarchical relationships; 2) a non-Western developmental model, which appeals to a lot of developing countries; and 3) an economic order rooted on Chinese Confucian tradition of seeking a datong society, which emphasizes social welfare and collective goods.
However, the primary pitfall of the pessimist view on China’s ascent is the tacit assumption that the current international system has been the same since Thucydides. Though an emerging power, China faces a different international order from that encountered by rising superpowers in the past. The current order is more integrated, accommodating, and rules-based. Furthermore, the aggressive and expansionist views contained in China Is Unhappy and China Dream hardly represent the intentions of China. In fact, China has kept on reaffirming its peaceful rise narrative. As Henry Kissinger argued in On China, peaceful development is the “genuine and enduring policy” of China because it is the policy that “best serves Chinese interests and comports with the international strategic situation.”
This doesn’t mean that conflict between the US and China cannot happen. Taiwan remains to be an issue that can trigger a military conflict, but this can be avoided by both parties if they stick to their position in their three previous communiqués, which state their commitment to the peaceful resolution of the cross-straits issue. However, there are other potential flash points, such as in the East China Sea, in North Korea (if it collapses violently, and China decides to send troops to restore order there), and the South China Sea. The US may be drawn to war with China because of its security guarantees with its allies such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Escalation of these conflicts into a full-blown war can be prevented if the US would play the role of mediator rather than instigator by using its influence to promote peaceful negotiations of these disputes. More importantly, war can be avoided if both American and Chinese policymakers would always keep the assumption that armed conflict between them would not only be disastrous for both of them but for the rest of the world.
Ikenberry is right that China’s rise and how the US would respond to it would be one of the greatest dramas of the 21st century. Ultimately, how that story will unfold depends on how China and the US perceive their rivalry. That rivalry would remain peaceful if they perceive each other more as friends who can sometimes disagree rather than enemies whose occasional agreement only serves as a tactic to a more sinister strategy: to cut each other’s head off.