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Rising China Signals Historic Power Transition

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump stopped in Beijing to meet with his “friend,” Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the top of Trump’s agenda was persuading Xi to tighten the economic screws on North Korea, in order to compel Pyongyang to give up all its nuclear weapons. There is nothing inherently wrong with the leaders of great powers developing cordial relations with their counterparts—as long as they bear in mind the dictum of the great 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston, who famously said that great powers do not have permanent friends. Instead, they have permanent interests.

Warm personal relationships between leaders may matter at the margins of policy, but national interest always prevails over friendship in determining a state’s foreign policy goals. It’s unclear whether President Trump understands this, or, even more importantly, the reasons why Chinese and U.S. interests clash on some important issues—not least North Korea.

The Xi/Trump meeting did not lead to any breakthroughs on the North Korea issue. For one thing, President Trump is all over the ballpark with respect to North Korea. During his East Asian swing he effectively labeled North Korea a one-country “axis of evil,” warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that the U.S. possesses overwhelming military power and is ready to use it, called for Pyongyang to “come to the negotiating table” to solve the crisis peacefully, and said he wants to be friends with Kim.

President Trump is operating on two mistaken assumptions: that North Korea can be compelled to give up all of its nuclear weapons, and that China holds the key to forcing Pyongyang to do so.


China’s leaders have no interest in doing anything that could cause North Korea’s collapse. If the Pyongyang regime dissolved, the Korean peninsula would be reunified, and U.S. troops would be on China’s doorstep. Beijing will do everything in its power—including defending North Korea from a U.S. attack—to prevent this from happening.

Actually, it is the United States—not China—that holds the key to peacefully resolving the crisis without war. Washington needs to acknowledge that both China and North Korea face their own respective “security dilemmas.” To solve the Korea issue without war, the U.S. would need to assuage Beijing’s and North Korea’s respective fears. This would require a radical change in U.S. policy: removing American forces from the Korean peninsula.

That would dramatically reduce Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity and dramatically change the dynamics with respect to the crisis. Beijing would be able to apply more pressure on North Korea to reach a diplomatic settlement without fear that doing so would have adverse strategic repercussions. And if it no longer needed to fear the U.S. using military power to bring about regime change, the North Koreans would have incentives—especially if economic sweeteners are thrown in—to reduce, and limit, the size of their nuclear arsenal.

Of course, changes in U.S. military posture might solve one problem while creating another: Japan and South Korea would acquire their own nuclear deterrent capabilities. But this is going to happen sooner or later anyway because Japan and South Korea understand that at the end of the day the United States would not commit suicide by using nuclear weapons to defend its “allies.” That is, the U.S. will not—and should not—risk Los Angeles, Houston, or New York to defend Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei—or, for that matter, Berlin or Warsaw. The U.S. needs to reexamine its policy of “extended deterrence”—that is extending the American nuclear umbrella to cover its allies in East Asia and Europe.

When Xi and Trump met, there was an 800-pound gorilla in the room: the changing Sino-American balance of power. Over the past eight years, China has become the world’s leading exporter, trading nation, and manufacturing nation. And in 2014, the International Monetary Fund announced that, measured by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), China had leapfrogged the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment downplays the importance of China’s astonishingly rapid economic growth by claiming that “China can’t innovate”—notwithstanding that the compass, printing press, and gunpowder were invented in China. But we don’t need to go back to the ancient Chinese dynasties to see proof of innovation. Over just the past few years, China has taken the lead in quantum communications and green technologies (including electric cars), and built the world’s fastest supercomputer (with chips made in China) and world’s largest radio telescope.

Inside the Beltway, the conventional wisdom is that whatever gains China may be making economically and scientifically, the U.S. lead in military power is unassailable. But some serious American military analysts are rethinking the validity of that assumption. A recent RAND Corporation report (“The U.S.-China Military Scorecard”) talks about the “receding frontier of American military dominance in East Asia.” Other RAND analysts believe that by 2020—regionally, not globally—China will have caught up with the U.S. on most key metrics of military power.

Before our eyes, the tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting. We are in the midst of a truly world historical event: what scholars of great power politics call a power transition. Power transitions occur when the dominant (hegemonic) great power’s primacy is challenged by a rising great power.

The Sino-American relationship today is a textbook example of a power transition, and it bears many similarities to the pre-1914 Anglo-German rivalry that culminated in World War I. Power transitions are the most dangerous moments in great power politics because they invariably lead to war between the incumbent hegemon and the rising challenger.

The geopolitical question of our time is whether the United States will try to maintain an East Asian balance of power that is out of sync with the emerging power realities in the Sino-American relationship.

“May you live in interesting times” is an ancient Chinese curse. We are living in just such times. Avoiding a Sino-American clash in coming years will require U.S. policymakers to engage in long-term, sober, and innovative strategic thinking.

Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University. His essay on the parallels between the pre-1914 Anglo-German power transition and the current Sino–American relationship will be published in January 2018 in the edited volume Will China’s Rise Be Peaceful?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Rising China Signals Historic Power Transition"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On November 29, 2017 @ 11:09 pm

Oh, for the Good Old Days, when China was the Communist Menace, to be defeated, and we did not have to worry how its economy was doing, and what it meant to ours. And we did not have to beg them to help with North Korea..

Alas, those days are gone.

#2 Comment By Myles Hagar On November 30, 2017 @ 6:19 am

The rise of China has absolutely no relevance to “the key metrics of military power”. 20% of the global population there is well-fed, well-housed, well-educated and well-served by a competent government. There are no food banks or people living in cars in China. The best way to contain China would be to ban all products made there. Just try it. Everything you are now wearing and every item surrounding you, including your computer is ‘Made in China’. Military power is nowhere in sight.

#3 Comment By Nelson On November 30, 2017 @ 6:54 am

Inside the Beltway, the conventional wisdom is that whatever gains China may be making economically and scientifically, the U.S. lead in military power is unassailable.

The Soviets had a good military until their economy fell out from under them.

While not quite as bad as them, we too are making the mistake of going further and further in debt to maintain our military superiority when we’re not directly threatened. Overextending and overspending on the military is another sign that a power shift is about to occur.

#4 Comment By Fred Bowman On November 30, 2017 @ 10:18 am

All the US warmongers need to understand that if they challenge China or it’s interest, militarily, that all China has to do is close it’s exports to the US and this by itself will destroy the US and it’s economy. The US, by and large, has given up it’s manufacturing capabilities. Now try fighting a war on top of that.

Wouldn’t be long before shopping at Walmart would be equalivant to shopping at Neiman-Marcus.

Trying to fight a major war without a strong manufacturing base is a recipe for disaster.

#5 Comment By Mark H On November 30, 2017 @ 11:31 am

I believe DJT understands and respects, probably better than most of his critics, that nations act in their own interest. Freedom, even on the international scale is an arms reach short of your neighbor’s nose. China has been extending its reach into the South China Sea to test U.S. policy of freedom of the seas. They will get push back from the Trump administration .

#6 Comment By LouisM On November 30, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

I don’t think its that the US would not risk Seattle or Chicago or Houston for Seoul, Tokyo or Taipai. Its a different issue entirely in my opinion. Years ago the US was unchallenged in the Pacific and we could adopt a hegemonic leadership role. We had the naval carrier groups and the military and the technology. We like to think of our nation with great hubris and insular conceit. However, with all our great assets and at the peak of our great power, the US still struggled in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. If our conceit were justified then they would have been short military campaigns with demonstrations of our overwhelming superiority.

Today China has missiles with 1,000 mile range that could knock out our aircraft carrier groups and they have militarized the south china sea shoals. Yes, there is a rebalancing of power in the East Pacific but its not done. The US will still and more many years to come have strong allies among the Pacific nations but the US as hegemonic leader is over. Our allies will have to represent the front line balance of power with China. Japan and Korea will have to solve their depopulation problem. Japan, South Korea and Taipai will have to go nuclear. The sooner they do. The better for all. Kim in North Korea will be gone as soon as they do. He is too unpredictable a vassal state leader for China.

There are 2 absolutely critical non-military initiatives for the Pacific. Korean Unification and Taiwanese independence. These 2 initiatives will secure peace in the region. China may not like either but China needs this just as much for without it other pacific nations will fear the 1 ton elephant that China is developing into.

#7 Comment By Kent On November 30, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

China is the future. The United States has lost all of its ethical, intellectual and cultural leadership over the last 50 years. Libertarian economics has left the economy in a shambles and the once mighty middle-class on the cusp of poverty.

We cannot possibly win a war against China. Our best bet is to be like the British. Be the best friend of the new hegemon and hope we can at least keep some of our wealth.

#8 Comment By fabien On November 30, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

It’s not China you’ve to look after, it’s Russia. It still has a good nuclear capacity and unlimited natural ressources. As the third wheel of the chariot, it will ally with one of these two. This one will be the winner. China alone can do little to push the US away; no ressources.

#9 Comment By SteveK9 On December 1, 2017 @ 7:04 pm

Great power shifts lead to war … that may have happened in the past but that was before nuclear weapons. A war between China and the United States is unthinkable.

#10 Comment By Youknowho On December 3, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

So, China is taking the lead in green technologies.

Very much aided in the effort by Comrade Scott “Lysenko” Pruitt, who tries to silence all discussion of global warming in the US, and keep us in thrall to fossil fuels, so as to destroy the competition.