Organski’s Theory and American-Chinese Relations

Essay, 2008

9 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Organski’s Theory and American-Chinese Relations

The realist school of thought in International Relations has brought forth a wide range of specific theoretical approaches. Power transition theory, which was created by A.F.K. Organski in 1958, is such a realist theory, telling us about the emergence and probability of major international conflicts and wars among powerful nations. Not only until the end of Cold War were realist approaches flourishing widely, but also currently – as in this case Organski’s theoretical work is gaining in importance due to a quickly soaring China.

But before applying the theory to American-Chinese relations with a particular focus on current economic and military developments, I will first sketch the approach briefly. Subsequently, I suggest some policies the USA could take into consideration in order to deal with a rising China in an appropriate manner at present and in the future.

Power Transition Theory

In a nutshell, power transition theory explains the major trends of international politics in the (current) era of industrialization with regard to the nature of war. Its author Organski opposes to the existing balance-of-power-theories, claiming that parity between two powerful nations probably leads to war.

According to him power transition takes place in three stages, noting that power increases arise from within a country, being set off with incipient industrialization processes through changes in population size, political efficiency, and economic development (= main determinants of national power, Organski 1968, pp. 338, 340, and 344f):

1. stage of potential power ( power at a low point)
2. stage of transitional growth in power ( great and rapid power increase power transition occurs in this stage exactly)
3. stage of power maturity ( power increase slower or declining)

Furthermore, states are classified hierarchically into five categories – metaphorically arranged in a pyramid from top to bottom – beginning with one dominant (= strongest) nation, followed by a few great powers that have the potential to rival the dominant power, again followed by middle / small powers, and dependencies (Organski 1968, p. 365).

Organski argues that states grow unevenly, with the posterior ones growing faster than earlier industrialized nations. Through a power transition later industrializing nations approach and maybe even overtake the dominant country, which generally results in war, and finally leads to global shifts in power distributions. This is a recurring pattern. But not always is war the last and only option. He points to other important preconditions which make war more or less likely: e.g. population size, speed of industrialization, or the rivalling nation being (dis-)satisfied with the established international order (Organski 1968, pp. 362, 370).

The Theory applied to American-Chinese Relations

“The rise of China, which is now in the stage of transitional growth, promises to be equally spectacular” Organski already mentioned in 1968, when the country was yet many years ahead of a really strong transitional growth in power (1968, p. 342). With regard to its huge population size as one of the main determinants of national power it is definitely beyond question that China as the world’s most populous country (more than four times the size of the US) has a great potential for a power transition, which in turn might rise the potential for conflict.

Now, 40 years later, the 1.3 billion people nation has taken off – with incredible speed. The country is about to become a great power, and in compliance with Organski’s power transition theory a challenger, being on the way to catch up with the United States as the current dominant power. Surpassing the USA in the near future seems fairly realistic – at least economically.

Several other prerequisites increasing or lowering the likelihood of conflict coincide with actual economic and military developments in emerging China. Subsequently I outline some of them.

Economy and Politics

Another main determinant of national power is economic development. Since the introduction of market reforms in 1978, China has gradually opened its economy, thus becoming more integrated into the existing economic order. In the last decade the Chinese economy has rapidly grown at an annual average growth rate of about 9% (11.4% in 2007 compared to a stagnating 2.2% of the “mature power” USA). In absolute 2007-numbers the US-GDP amounted to 13.86 trillion USD, while China’s GDP was 7.04 trillion USD, thus becoming second strongest economy in the world after the USA (in 2004: 11.73 trillion USD vs. 1.66 trillion USD! see CIA World Factbook 2008, Hornig and Wagner 2005).

With regard to political efficiency, which is another main determinant of national power, China began with economic reforms and is now about to restructure some of its institutions – yet hesitantly. Even though China has a different understanding of democracy than the West, the country increasingly, but slowly supports local elections, judicial independence, oversight of Chinese Communist Party officials, and even more commercialization of the Chinese press, which could “shape China’s political future” towards more democracy (Thornton 2008).

Briefly, the chances for China to surpass the USA economically soon are quite high. The Chinese economy has grown remarkably in a short while, which according to Organski entails a great increase in power that in turn also might be converted into military power.


Regarding military capabilities, China is yet far away from US standard. Even though military expenditures for the world’s biggest force in manpower (2.3 vs. 1.4 million soldiers in 2007) have seen double-digit increases in the past two decades, the world’s most efficient army is far ahead: in 2008 Chinese military budget will increase 17.6% or 58.8 billion USD, compared to the USA with 11.3% or 481 billion USD (Lague 2008, DoD 2008a/b).

Nevertheless, China is about to expand its military presence in the region in order to secure influence (e.g. through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO]). But even if China approaches the US, a fact that might make war less likely is that both states are nuclear powers. Kugler and Lemke subsume that war in the nuclear age is seen by many theorists as rather unlikely because the availability of these weapons would dramatically increase costs if being used (Kugler and Lemke 1996, p. 24f.). Moreover, due to already existing US-alliances and partnerships in the region (e.g. with Japan, Taiwan, Australia, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, or NATO as a backbone) China would not only face the USA alone – which makes it harder to surpass militarily in all (Ikenberry 2008, Hornig and Wagner 2005).

In short, from a military point of view war in the near future seems rather unlikely due to the fact of nuclear deterrence and China lagging technologically behind.

However, the fundamental question concerning a probable war is, if China is dissatisfied with the current order. Presently, China seems rather content, being able to reach its economic goals within the existing order, and thus benefiting from it.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


Organski’s Theory and American-Chinese Relations
Free University of Berlin  (Center for Global Politics)
International Relations Theory
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Organski, American-Chinese Relations, America, USA, Amerika, China, power transition theory
Quote paper
Natalie Züfle (Author), 2008, Organski’s Theory and American-Chinese Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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