It’s not China that threatens American leadership
By Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks To mark 60 years in charge, China’s Communist Party threw a lavish party last week, a triumphalist pageant with enough military hardware on parade to fill the nightmares of would-be “dragon slayers” for years to come. It was a reminder that China has developed advanced fighter aircraft, military satellites, ...
By Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks
To mark 60 years in charge, China’s Communist Party threw a lavish party last week, a triumphalist pageant with enough military hardware on parade to fill the nightmares of would-be “dragon slayers” for years to come. It was a reminder that China has developed advanced fighter aircraft, military satellites, the Dong Feng 21 missile (also known as the “aircraft carrier killer”), and has been working toward production of a first aircraft carrier of its own — an asset that would enable China to project naval power further from its shores than ever before. As if the visuals weren’t enough, the celebration included a 2,000-member military marching band.
So will China one day pose the 21st century equivalent of a Soviet-scale military challenge to America’s geopolitical dominance? That’s unlikely. China wants to extend its influence throughout East Asia, protect the commercial traffic that provides the oil, gas, metals, and minerals that feed China’s growing economic appetite, and project national pride. It will one day pose a broader military threat than it does now, but its economy has grown so quickly and its living standards have improved so dramatically over the past two decades that it’s hard to imagine the kind of catastrophic, game-changing event that would push its leadership to upend a profitable status quo and confront American leadership outside Asia. China’s leaders know their government won’t be ready anytime soon to bear a superpower’s burdens. Their primary goal is to bolster their political control by generating prosperity for the Chinese people. Why would it allow anything short of the most dire and immediate threat to its territorial integrity to ignite a military conflict that would sever its web of commercial ties with countries all over the world — and, in particular, with its three largest trading partners: the European Union, the United States, and Japan?
Beijing’s primary military concern is the risk of a direct or proxy conflict with the United States over Taiwan. But the Chinese leadership knows that no U.S. government will support a Taiwanese bid for independence, and why should China invade the island when it can co-opt most of Taiwan’s business elite with privileged access to investment opportunities on the mainland? Globalization has been good to China’s Communist Party, and wars are bad for business.
Certainly, China has ambitious military modernization plans. With 2.3 million soldiers under arms, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already by far the world’s largest. It has reportedly invested considerable time, effort, and money in cyber-warfare technology. Its total military budget probably doubled between 2003 and 2009 to about $70 billion. But that’s still only about 12 percent of what the United States now spends on its military each year — and an even smaller percentage if supplementary U.S. spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is included.
The problem for U.S. policymakers over the next several years is not that the unipolar world order will give way to a multipolar but to a non-polar system. In other words, it’s not that America has company on the global stage but that it must continue to carry so much weight on its own-and at a time when pressing problems at home will limit the American public’s appetite for ambitious foreign-policy commitments.
Over the past 20 years, U.S. analysts have scanned the horizon in expectation of potential challengers to America’s great power advantages. The European Union was already struggling to manage the latest round of expansion before the financial crisis gave EU leaders another reason to avoid potentially onerous new commitments abroad. Russia’s leaders may be unhappy with the geopolitical status quo, particularly when it comes to the balance of power within several former Soviet republics. But they’re far too preoccupied at the moment with the protection of domestic markets, banks, and companies from the worst effects of the financial crisis to embark on any long-term plan to build a threat to U.S. power outside its immediate neighborhood. India has market reform issues to manage and security worries flowing across the border from Pakistan. Within the Western hemisphere, Brazil appears to have no grander near-term aspirations than to promote stability in Latin America, jumpstart an economic recovery, find new ways to profit from its recent oil discovery, and to play a broader leadership role among developing states.
It’s not a challenge for dominance, but a growing vacuum of power that should worry Washington. The more important questions for the next decade are: Who will take the lead on building a new global financial architecture that reflects 21st century realities? Who will take the lead on multilateral efforts to address climate change? Who will create a new (and more credible) nonproliferation regime? Who will provide momentum behind Middle East Peace talks? Who will provide the leadership to ensure that G20 summits don’t simply turn into G8-style photo opportunities with a wider angle lens?
A decade from now, who will carry that weight?
Ian Bremmer is president and Willis Sparks is a Global Macro analyst at Eurasia Group.
Feng Li/Getty Images
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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