The Rise of China

Alex Farzan, Staff Writer

After many years of political, economic, and worldwide authority American dominance of the world is now in question. Other states are beginning to play a larger role in the world, and a newer world order may be emerging. China, in particular, is rapidly growing and is showing signs of joining America as one of the world’s superpowers. While many say that the rise of China and the development of a bipolar international system would lead to more peaceful interstate relations, others argue that international systems are more peaceful when they are unipolar. In the following paper, I will argue why the Chinese challenge to American hegemony is in fact the most important threat to international peace in the future, and that it is in our international system’s best interest for there to be continued American unipolar dominance of the world. I will also show that transitions from one hegemon to another will almost always lead to world conflict and war. Lastly, I will explain why a democratic hegemon is more likely to foster world peace and order than an autocratic hegemon, like China.

Ever since the middle of the 20th century, America has maintained the position of the world’s dominating superpower. If China were to challenge American hegemony in the future, our international system may face something similar to what happened during the Cold War: a bipolar international system. Some critics of the Cold War claim that it was a time of peace, and that the bipolar international system was an effective way to facilitate conflicts throughout the world. However, while it may have seemed peaceful to some, others speak against this claim and argue that the Cold War period was not peaceful by any means. As a matter of fact, the bipolar international system during the cold war stirred many conflicts and also encouraged the world to split into two sides: democratic America, and Communist USSR. True, the major powers of the world never engaged in war; however, as Professor Roeder presented in a lecture in his Political Science 12 course, “conflict between the superpowers was displaced to the periphery and was fought through proxies in the cold war.” Another negative result of the bipolar international system during the Cold War was the division that took place in Europe. “The US announced that it would support governments in Europe fighting against communist pressure, and Europe became divided- one side tied to Moscow, the other to Washington”(Roeder). Clearly, the bipolar international system did not encourage peace throughout the world, but rather created conflicts and divided states from one another. If China were to join America as a super power in the world and establish bipolarity, our international system may witness the same negative effects that the world experienced during the Cold War. This begs the question, “why is our international system better off under a unipolar balance of power?” Structural realists who argue that international systems are most peaceful when they are unipolar present a few reasons why our world is better off under the pax Americana. For one, the hegemon creates a stable international order and preserves peace throughout the world. “Since 1500, each of the major periods of long peace is associated with a hegemony of a single power”(Roeder). For example, during the pax romana the Roman Empire was the only hegemonic power in the world, and formed a long period of peace. Additionally in the 19th century, Britain was a hegemon and established a century of peace, known as the pax Britannica (Roeder). These examples show that in order for our international system to reach and maintain peace America must continue to be the world’s superpower, and any challenge to American hegemony by any other state, like china, would only interfere with our international system’s move toward peace.

Moving on, another possible consequence if China were to challenge US hegemony would be a transition of power from the current hegemony to the rising challenger. This also would be a threat to international peace in the future for many reasons. Primarily, history has shown that war accompanies the transition from one hegemon to the next. According to Toynbee’s balance of power theory in Jack Levy’s Theories on Hegemonic War, “a bid for world domination by the leading power evokes an opposing coalition of all the other powers in the system and a general war to maintain the balance of power… a burst of short supplemental wars then follows.” Professor Roeder presented examples in history when war accompanied the transition from one hegemon to another. For example, Louis XIV displaced Spain, at the height of the Spanish empire, and France became the dominant power in the 18th century (Roeder). This transition of power was a period of long and deadly war between Spain and France. Next, France was replaced by the new hegemon, England, in the 19th century Napoleonic wars. And lastly, the tragedies of WW1 and WW2 allowed America to become the world’s new reigning superpower. There is a basic model that further explains what takes place when a hegemon is challenged by a rising opponent: Country A (the US in this case) begins to be the predominant power, then it begins to decline. As it is declining a challenging power begins to gain power (China), then becomes the predominant power. In between the exchange of power lies a period of war. Evidently, war and conflict will spread throughout the world if China challenges American hegemony.

Lastly, there is one major difference between the United States and China that clarifies why China would be an important threat to international peace if it were to challenge American hegemony. America is a democratic state, while China is an autocratic state. David Lake points out the dangers involved when an autocratic becomes powerful in his article, Powerful Pacifists: Democratic States and War. While democracies in general are more peaceful in international relations, “autocracies will be more expansionist and, in turn, war prone” (Lake). This shows that if China’s autocratic government challenged American hegemony and looked to expand it’s borders and sphere of influence, war would be an expected consequence.

Hegemonic war is something our international system obviously wants to avoid. According to Jack Levy in Theories on Hegemonic War, “these wars have been the most destructive in history and account for a disproportionate fraction of the fatalities in international violence.” In order for our world to preserve international peace and order, it needs one, democratic state to watch over the entire international system- America. If China begins to challenge American hegemony, the entire peace of our international system will be under threat, and war will erupt.

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4 comments

  1. The California Review · ·

    Peace is not the highest virtue. The “end of hegemony = war” argument could be used to defend any hegemon, no matter how oppressive or sclerotic — I don’t know about you, but I’m glad the Roman Empire isn’t still in charge of things.

    Also, nuclear weapons have fundamentally changed the nature of war. You alluded to this in your discussion of the US and Soviet Union only fighting through proxies… but even that limited conflict was largely driven by the Soviet leadership’s interest in international Communism. China doesn’t care. Instead, it mainly wants access to natural resources, and for better or worse the US isn’t really contesting China’s actions on that front at all. So, the way things are going, I simply don’t buy your claim that China’s rise (assuming it doesn’t get sidetracked by internal problems) will lead to even Cold War levels of international armed conflict. I’m much more concerned about the Chinese autocracy’s treatment of its own people than the military threat they pose to others, despite having some reason (as someone with parents who were born, and currently live, in Taiwan) to be biased in the other direction.

    The real question is why the US still deserves to be on top. “Democracy > autocracy” does capture a lot of it, but there are other deep reasons, and I would appreciate some discussion of them.

  2. cory cook · ·

    What about the peaceful hegemonic transition from the UK to the US following WW 1 and 2?

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