How the rise of China's economic and military power leads to conflict. The rivalry between China and the USA

Essay, 2018

7 Pages, Grade: 70


The Rise of China

Carolina Gerwin

Momentarily, due to a shift in the constellation of power, East Asia becomes the area of global prevalence concurrence and potential conflicts between great powers (Janning 2014, 125). Especially the rise of China plays a significant role in this development (Ikenberry 2008, 26). While power transitions are generally “fraught with danger” (Ikenberry 2008, 26), the rivalry between China and the United States of America make China’s ascendancy particularly dangerous (Janning 2014, 127). This raises the following research question: Can China rise peacefully?

In academia, opinions range from realists such as Mearsheimer stating that if China’s economy would continue to grow so rapidly, “the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war” (2006, 160), to institutionalists as Ikenberry emphasizing the institutionalisation of the international system and the benefits China enjoys by participating in it, reducing China’s incentives to challenge the current order (Ikenberry 2008, 24). Although I acknowledge that not all power changeovers inevitably provoke discord (Ikenberry 2008, 27), I agree with the realist perspective and argue that current developments imply that China’s rise leads to conflict, especially with the USA. The argument is based on four points: China’s expanding economic and military power, its hegemonic aims and the security dilemma.

As suggested by realists, due to the “persistence of international anarchy”, a state’s material and especially military power are crucial in determining the structure of the global system (Friedberg 2005, 17). The reason behind this is that the survival of the state is the primary goal of every country and consequently leads to power competitions between states (Mearsheimer 2006, 160) as there are “inescapable laws of nature compelling a recurrent struggle for power and survival” (Friedberg 2005, 16).

Regarding China’s economic power, Beijing has increased its power rapidly in recent decades (Friedberg 2005, 17- 18). Compared to other countries, China’s economy is growing fast, its GDP per capita continues to almost double between 2010 and 2020, and China’s economy will be the “major driver of global growth for the foreseeable future” (OECD Observer 2017). Consequently, the economic landscape of Asia has been reshaped by China’s boom, the US’ position in the region is challenged (Khong 2013, 161) and it is possible that China reclaims its “historic position as the world’s largest economy” (Friedberg 2005, 17). Furthermore, as China supersedes the US as the leading trading partner of most Asian countries, a shift in the strategic orientation of many of them away from the US towards China is likely (Khong 2013, 161-162), especially as the US has been weakened by the financial crises of 2008 (Rothermund 2011, 77). Therefore, the US’ position as the “natural leader of Asia” is challenged and Beijing’s economic growth has expanded its influence in politics and diplomacy (Khong 2013, 162), resulting in more power.

Proponents of a peaceful rise stress China’s dependence on global economic interdependence (Leon 2017, 10) and institutionalists therefore argue that because China is rising within the Western system, it can accommodate China’s rise peacefully in favour of the US (Ikenberry 2008, 32-33). However, this conclusion is dependent on China’s economic performance within the global system (Leon 2017, 11) and regarding the question whether the economic interdependence between the US and China is “great enough to ward off political- military conflict” (Khong 2013, 163), current developments point towards conflict. The problem is that the US and China confirm the observance that at least for major powers, political and strategic interests are apparently more important than economic interconnectedness (Khong 2013, 163). This is exemplified in the current trade dispute between Washington and Beijing about, besides others, President Trump’s threat of tariff increases from 10% to 25% of Chinese imports as part of his “America First” mantra and China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative and its “Made in China 2025” policy (Böge and Sattar 2018).

A further crucial point is that China’s economic growth translates into a shift in military power. China is not only on its way of becoming the largest economy in the world within the next decades, it has significantly modernized its military capacities too (Montgomery 2014, 115). Consequently, it is undeniable that China has become the military hegemon in Asia (Rothermund 2011, 82).

Nevertheless, compared to the US, China is inferior regarding most factors of military power, such as the defence budget, the number of aircraft carriers, and the effectiveness of its military (Montgomery 2014, 116). Nevertheless, I agree with White that what matters in the end is how effective states can use the military capabilities they possess (Khong 2013, 156). There are many points that confirm Christensen’s argument that besides China’s inferiority in military power and technology, Beijing can still “pose major problems for American security interests, and especially for Taiwan, without the slightest pretense of catching up” (2001, 7). Considering distance and terrain, US superiority is not as great as one would think (Montgomery 2014, 116) and “certain Chinese military capabilities combined with the political geography of East Asia, the domestic politics of mainland China, and the perceptual biases of Chinese elites” can constitute a serious threat for the US (Christensen 2001, 7). An example is the “’sea denial’ strategy” that makes it harder for the US to organise its sea and air power in Asia (Khong 2013, 156). Moreover, one has to consider that a conflict with China would be a major divergence from other discords for the US as Beijing can “seriously threaten its overseas bases, air and naval forces, and information networks” (Montgomery 2014, 117). Considering that China is already demanding territories in the South and East China Seas and is expanding its influence in Africa and Latin America, and is thereby challenging the status quo (Khong 2013, 159) confirms that due to its economic boom and military advancement, China is now a “power capable of shaping the Asian regional order and, potentially, the rules and institutions governing the international system” (Leon 2017, 9).

As alleged by realists, while a state’s resources and therefore its power are growing, the interests of the country’s elites expand too (Friedberg 2005, 19). Consequently, the ultimate ambition of all major powers is to “maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system” (Mearsheimer 2006, 160). This usually leads to conflicts as rising powers are challenging the international system that established great powers have created and benefit from (Friedberg 2005, 19).

Regarding China, while realist optimists argue that its ambitions are limited and should not clash with US interests (Friedberg 2005, 26-27), I argue that this statement does not hold anymore and that China is no exception to the above-mentioned pattern.

Already years ago, scholars agreed that China aims at surpassing the US as the most powerful state in Asia and that it seeks (at least regional) hegemony (Khong 2013, 154; Mearsheimer 2006, 162). And Xi Jinping’s recent plan on making China the leading global power until 2050 (Stürmer 2018), confirms that Beijing is not only seeking regional hegemony in Asia, but absolute hegemony over the whole international system (Khong 2013, 168). As suggested by realist pessimists, due to China’s past and its experience of humiliation under foreign powers from the Opium Wars of the 1840s until the end of WWII, some Chinese might be even more ambitious to become the (at least) regional hegemon in Asia (Friedberg 20005, 20- 21). Taking into consideration that China had been the “preponderant force in Asia and the hub of a Sinocentric Asian international system” for a long time before its demise, this might be even more likely (Friedberg 2005, 21). As the US does not accept an equally strong country because it wants to remain the most powerful state in the world (Mearsheimer 2006, 162), China’s hegemonic ambitions increase the likelihood of conflict. Especially China’s aim at retaking Taiwan is dangerous as a crisis over the island could easily escalate and become a nuclear war (Glaser 2011, 87).

Furthermore, China’s rise has provoked a serious security dilemma between Washington and Beijing that is a major factor for the high probability of a future conflict. I agree that the struggle between the US and China is already taking place (Khong 2013, 154) as especially due to China’s rise, a “security dilemma- driven military competition” in the Asia Pacific area has been provoked and it has the potential to worsen anytime soon (Liff and Ikenberry 2014, 54).

The different interpretations of the US alliance system in the area and China’s military advancement illustrate this point: Due to China’s rise, the US has been busy with expanding its alliance system, next to its “traditional regional allies” such as Japan and South Korea, towards other parts of Asia since the late 1990s (Friedberg 2005, 23). According to the US and its allies, they intend at “maintaining regional stability and a status quo” (Liff and Ikenberry 2015, 66). However, despite US’ reaffirmations that the US does not intend to encircle or even contain Beijing with this network of allies (Friedberg 2005, 23), China views US alliances as “Cold War ‘relics’” and American attempts of containing China (Liff and Ikenberry 2014, 66). Consequently, Chinese leaders demand even further expansion of the military sector due to an “’increasingly severe’ security environment”, while the US and China’s neighbours consider China’ development as the major cause of the issue (Liff and Ikenberry 2014, 66). As a result, on the one hand, the relations between Beijing and its neighbours is getting worse, as its “growing military power, coupled with its rapidly expanding military capabilities and recent policies vis-à-vis disputed territory and features on its periphery” seem increasingly more aggressive (Liff and Ikenberry 2014, 56). However, due to that, the US and its allies in the Asia Pacific area, on the other hand, are balancing against the rising power for defense purposes which in turn appear hostile to Beijing, therefore creating a dangerous action-reaction effect (Liff and Ikenberry 2014, 57-58). The conflict is worsened by Chinese decision-makers because although they understand the security dilemma, they do not act according to it (Scobell 2012, 718). Therefore, Beijing’s initiatives such as the “promotion of a ‘New Security Concept’ and ‘peaceful rise/ peaceful development’” are rather an expression of China’s concerns about both its reputation to the outside world and its “image” inside the country than a response to the dilemma (Scobell 2012, 718). Consequently, the dilemma is becoming increasingly dangerous and “it is more likely that China could essentially become a revisionist power, convinced that the United States is intent on China’s demise” (Scobell 2012, 719). This can be seen for example by China’s hostile statements towards the US and “a series of proactive military actions” that counter China’s slogan of a “peaceful rise” and create a “spiral effect” (Scobell 2012, 720). Due to these points, I agree with realist pessimists who argue that even if one was of the opinion that Beijing’s ambitions are not hegemonic, it is still likely that the security dilemma leads to conflict between the two countries (Friedberg 2005, 22).


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How the rise of China's economic and military power leads to conflict. The rivalry between China and the USA
University College London
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China, rise of China, USA, economic power, military power, hegemonic aims, security dilemma, conflict, Wirtschaftsmacht, Militärmacht, Hegemon, Hegemonie, Konflikt, Sicherheitsdilemma
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Carolina Gerwin (Author), 2018, How the rise of China's economic and military power leads to conflict. The rivalry between China and the USA, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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