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The China Threat

Can the United States really make a peaceful hand-off of power to authoritarian China?


Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s optimism is laudable ("China’s Rise Doesn’t Mean War…," January/February 2011). That said, John Mearsheimer was right to say that there are few, if any, examples of preeminent global powers like the United States going quietly into the night. That is particularly true when an ascending power, such as China, advances diplomatic, political, and economic values antithetical to those that have informed the status quo global architecture. It is nonsense to suggest that "America’s peaceful overtaking of Britain at the end of the 19th century" — in which one democratic, Christian, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon country stood aside for another — provides a blueprint for China’s rise.

That’s not to say that World War III is necessarily in the offing. China’s military bluster, including the recent high-profile rollout of its new stealth fighter jet and its incipient aircraft carrier, should be taken seriously, but it can be managed. China remains a decade behind the United States in military force projection, battlefield management, and blue-water and space warfare capabilities. Similarly, China’s dramatic economic growth and mercantilist trade policies make commercial relations difficult, but not impossible. Even China’s large U.S. dollar holdings are less a U.S. liability than a mutual liability, as Beijing would suffer if the dollar lost value.

Indeed, the scenario of Washington and Beijing peacefully cooperating too easily assumes that China’s rise will be smooth. In truth, China’s constant struggle against chaos renders it inward-looking and unpredictable. It must deal with internal ethnic pressures, uneven development, an outmoded communist ideology that no longer defines national values or civil society, a ruling party in transition, and a widespread and potentially virulent nationalism. Beijing’s growth requirements force it to impose predatory trade practices on others; its need for energy and natural resources leads it to threaten its neighbors as well as regions further afield, such as Africa.

Most importantly, China’s example, though not threatening today’s democracies, is admired by most of the authoritarian world beyond the West. By legitimizing authoritarianism with its economic successes, China has made it more difficult for other countries to claim a democratic future. In short, China remains an existential challenge, not a partner or a friend, to America and the idea of the West.

Stefan Halper
Director, American Studies Program
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Joseph S. Nye Jr. replies:

I agree with much of Stefan Halper’s intelligent critique. I do not think that the U.S.-China relationship will look like the Anglo-American accommodation after the war scare of 1895, but neither need it look like the Anglo-German confrontation before World War I. My point was to be wary of misleading historical analogies.

As he says, and as I show in detail in my new book, The Future of Power, China is not about to equal American power for decades (if ever). The United States is not "going quietly into the night." But I think Halper overestimates the attractiveness of the Chinese model to others. In the past two years, as many Chinese have mistakenly succumbed to theories of American decline, their more assertive policies have undercut their relations with India, Japan, South Korea, and the ASEAN countries, and their costly efforts to organize a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo gained scant support. The "Beijing Consensus" is more appealing to authoritarian countries like Myanmar and Zimbabwe than significant emerging economies like Brazil and India. And few authoritarians have the capacity to implement a Chinese model of economic growth.

Unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, China is not an existential challenge to the United States, but rather a problematic state with which it can develop normal relations of competition and cooperation. My goal in the article was to warn against the exaggerated analogies off which hawks in both countries feed and which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

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