• Toby Irwin

Becoming Top Dog: China and the United States

Power politics on the international stage is often understood in terms of how many centres of power there are. This relies on relative power distribution and clarifies whether the international system is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar in nature. Between 1945 and 1991 the system was bipolar, with the two centres of power being the United States and the USSR. The collapse of the latter allowed some scholars such as Francis Fukuyama to famously claim the international system was finally in a stable condition where US unipolarity, founded on western values such as liberalism and democracy, was immovable. However, the rise of China, and the US' response to this rise, has dispelled such claims to stability. The system is changing again and it is this subject of great interest to analysts: who will come out top dog between the United States and China as world hegemon?


Starting with the United States. It has been recognised for a while in Washington that relative power discrepencies between the two countries have been closing. Indeed, under one measurement China already has greater economic strength when measured by purchasing power parity (27.31 trillion USD vs 21.44 trillion USD). In addition, national debt is far greater in the United States than China. However, given the interconnectedness of the two economies, chances of foreclosing on debts are almost negligible. By and large, analysts maintain that the US still retains the economic advantage. However, with growth rates almost three times as rapid in China it is not unrealistic to suggest that China will eclipse its competitor within two decades. From the perspective of Washington, it has three choices vis-a-vis the Asia-Pacific. The first is to adopt a more confrontational stance, this being symbolised by Obama's 'pivot to Asia' doctrine. Unsurprisingly, this is unwelcome in Beijing and gives off an unmistakable aura of enclosure and containment. This stance is costly. In the short run, it means shifting massive resources to the area, largely in terms of hard power equipment, but also through economic leveraging: case in point being the trade war since 2017/2018. In the long run it relies on increasing participation of regional allies; a risky tactic in international politics. Another approach is to withdraw. Indeed, some believe that it best for the United States to completely withdraw from the region. One could interpret this perhaps in some remarks made under the Trump administration, though it is not a popular policy throughout most of Washington. It is generally understood that absolute withdrawal provides China with a free reign to act unchallenged. This is all the more disconcerting given China's 'tall man in the crowd' status, and the added complication that those smaller entities in the crowd rely on Washington under incumbent security arrangements.


For the United States, the challenge truly arises from finding the perfect balance between the two approaches: confrontation and withdrawal. Chinese rise is inevitable and a forceful approach to contain the rise would not only be unsuccessful in the long run but would alienate the United States and cast itself as an antagonistic, malicious actor. This is surely something to be avoided given that US presence in the region is often facilitated and maintained under the narrative that it is a force for good and stability. If Washington adopts a posture of aggressive behaviour it is not a far stretch to imagine traditional allies distancing themselves in order not to get involved in undesirable conflicts. One could perhaps already see this with Japan and Australia, both key allies for the US in Asia yet arguably largely in part shifting their priorities to accommodate China as a key partner. Amicable engagement therefore must be the modus operandi for the incoming administration in 2020/2021. But what does an amicable relationship even look like?


I believe it fair to break it down into two categories: formal institutions and informal. The former relies on organisations that the two states engage in currently. These are often, however, subject to the trends of informal institutions, such as norms of behaviour and expectations. Take for instance free trade as an excellent example. In recent years an increasingly protectionist United States has cast doubt on the utility of free trade. Meanwhile China has been the champion of free trade ever since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s which allowed such rapid economic growth. Formal institutions therefore, such as the WTO and IMF, may cede international leadership to China as a result in the collapse of commitment to the informal institution of free trade. Alternatively, China may deem itself powerful enough to establish its own formal institutions to champion the informal norms that it believe important to a global political system. Another example is tackling environmental degradation. At first glance one is inclined to think that the US, a Western state, is more concerned with climate change than its counterparts. After all, the US is already developed and thus is in a better placed situation to facilitate change (however one might interpret this, and to a varying degree, of course). China is a developing state and yet seems more poised to counter things like air pollution. Given that the US withdrew from the 2015 Paris summit and China has not gives off the impression to bystanders that China, at face value, is more concerned with these informal matters than the US. Naturally it is far more complicated than this, given that measurements for countering climate change per country are extremely difficult to measure, and that China's status as a legally developing state exempts Beijing from certain targets, though it would be unwise to ignore the implications of this sort of signalling on the international stage. To some, it seems that the US is ceding the moral and authoritative high ground on matters such as climate change and free trade, and thus inadvertently providing China with an easier rise than it otherwise could have achieved were it to engage amicably through existing institutions.


From China's perspective, surely the prime question is whether China is satisfied with the current institutional arrangements that it finds itself in. True, the international system is one built by Western states, but it is also a system which has facilitated the very rise to prominence of China. Instead of discussing whether China is intent on supplanting the United States, it might be a more useful term to simply suggest Beijing has a desire to be recognised as a great power. In doing so, one can interpret China's stance as not seeing the world in polarity-terms but rather in terms of status as a state of significance. Looking back to China's history. Beijing has historically enjoyed centrality to international affairs. The Tianxia concept, central to Confucian thought, has placed China at the centre of the material world: of all under heaven. Combining both the need for status and centrality, one might say that China's ambitions should be regional. Domination of Asia is not necessarily a negative force, though one might recognise that other states in the region are not necessarily for this arrangement, especially given many are US allies. It may be though that accommodation in Asia allows China to rise peacefully, not necessarily challenging US dominance, but facilitates its position as a central and recognised great power.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.




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