Many times in history, a rising power has attracted the opposition of the established state in the same power system.
Athens in classical Greece; Carthage in Roman times; France under Napoleon; Germany under Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler; Imperial Japan during the 1930s.
All of them challenged the prevailing order; and, in every instance, the outcome was a major war.
The record shows few exceptions. Against the young and vigorous United States, Britain after the War of 1812 withdrew without further contesting the leadership of the Americas.
In 1989, the Soviet Union—contained by an alliance led by the US—imploded after four decades of a‘ Cold War.’
Now China and the United States are poised to re-enact the tragic drama.
Already the US uses China as it did the USSR during the Sputnik era: to rally Americans to greater effort to stay “Number One.” Meanwhile the Chinese Communist Party more and more uses nationalism to shore up its ideological appeal.
Limits of peacekeeping
Is it possible to incorporate both the “hegemon” and the “upstart” power into the power balance without their coming to blows?
The United Nations is sometimes able to restrain resorts to force by middle-rank powers.
But, until now, the great powers acknowledge no central authority above them. They maintain stability only by the “balance of power”—the opposing alliances of roughly equal strength they build among themselves.
Hence the search—initiated by Barack Obama and China’s new President Xi Jinping—for a “new great-power relationship” founded on less precarious footing.
Two through history
During the Pacific War, China the land power and America the sea power had allied against the rising Asian power, Japan. After the Sino-Soviet split in the 1970s, the two also coalesced against the USSR.
Henry Kissinger—who arranged President Nixon’s epochal visit to Beijing in 1972—believes the Soviet Union called off a pre-emptive nuclear strike on China only because Moscow was uncertain of how Washington would react to it.
But Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution turned the US-China entente upside down.
Starting in 1980, China began growing much faster than the world has thought possible.
Now only the United States is ahead in GDP terms, and even that may change before 2020.
Of course, China’s breakneck growth is taking its toll: popular restiveness is increasing.
Corruption, if “left unchecked, could terminate the political regime,” warned outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2012.
But American strategists see another Pacific rival rising, as Beijing builds a state-of-the-art military to match its economic muscle.
Already its foreign-policy spokesmen trumpet China’s arrival as a first-rank power, and claim its right to help set new global norms.
Great Wall reversed
For Washington, the US military presence on China’s peripheries may merely carry on its strategy of “forward defense” in the Asia Pacific since the 1890s.
But, viewed from Beijing, the string of US bases and alliances—from South Korea and Japan down to Singapore; eastward to Guam, southward to Australia and westward to India—do form a “Great Wall in reverse.” It is denying China an “ocean frontage” on the China Sea and access to the Pacific—the world ocean—and great-power rank.
So far, Beijing’s pressure on the China Sea islets is pitched only to test the solidity of this containing wall. But already it is revealing rifts in Asean and compelling Australian strategists to think on the alternative of “armed neutrality.”
In Japan, China’s assertiveness is giving conservatives the excuse to revisit the 1949 peace constitution. Led by the hawkish Shinzo Abe and stirring up kamikaze patriotism, the LDP swept last Sunday’s upper house elections.
Xi, who has stronger affinities with the military than his predecessor Hu Jintao, hints that China wants “strategic space”—the loosening of containment—most urgently in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, the shortest invasion routes to the Chinese heartland.
But Washington seems determined to hang on to every positional and technological advantage. And it seems willing to outspend any rival to keep up its lead. In 2009, the US accounted for 43 percent of global military spending.
Time for a strategic compromise
It is time for Beijing and Washington to enter into a strategic compromise to settle their geopolitical and economic differences.
There can be no stability, no prosperity, in the twenty-first century world without an understanding between them.
Given the horrendous nature of today’s military technology, war can no longer be “a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”
What would the components of this grand bargain be?
The Chinese leaders emphasize respect for each other’s “core interests and major concerns,” and “making room for China’s rising power.” They want recognition of China not just as an economic but also as a geopolitical power.
In the zero-sum world of great-power politics, making room for China’s rising power means somehow cutting back US power. “The US elite won’t like it, but they will have to accept it,” says Beijing academic Jin Canrong.
In January 2011, Hu Jintao and Obama offered the two sides a foundation for rebuilding their historical ties.
They affirmed jointly that the United States welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs; and China welcomes the United States as an Asian-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
Over time, an Asia Pacific power balance based on this understanding may take hold. But it will require patience and good will from both great powers. It will also need the middle powers to shift their weight to one side or the other whenever necessary, to keep the power system stabilized.
Meanwhile, as China’s naval power grows, we may expect more serious confrontations on key sectors of our great inland sea.
What prospects do the small East Asian states face?
For them, the imperative is to keep the strategic balance and not to be drawn irrevocably into any one great power’s sphere of influence.
Ideally, the smaller states—pulled together by Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Malaysia-Singapore and Manila—should balance whoever is the aggressive power.
I see the dangerous transition as occurring in the early 2020s. As China’s economic—military—and diplomatic potential matures, Washington will find it more and more difficult to keep the regional balance favorable to its interests.
A US retreat from its forward defenses opening on the China Sea to the wider expanses of the Pacific—to Guam, Midway and Hawaii—might then become prudent. The only immediate losers would be East Asia’s littoral states: they could become vulnerable to the demands of their powerful neighbor, in a kind of “Finlandization.”
Like Moscow in relation to Helsinki during the 1950s, Beijing might then want to dictate to them the limits of acceptable behavior in aspects of their foreign, economic, and even domestic policy.