US-China Relations in the 21st Century: Power Transition and Peace

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US-China Relations in the 21st Century: Power Transition and Peace, by Zhiqin Zhu. London: Routledge, 2006. xii + 226 pp. £65.00 (hardcover).

From Thucydides through Toynbee and Gilpin to Mearsheimer, scholars of international relations have long been concerned with the problem of the transition of power between existing hegemons and aspiring powers. Interest in this problem has come to the forefront again with the emergence of China as a great power that potentially could challenge the US. Whether one accepts China's view of its "peaceful rise" or the views of some realists in the US and elsewhere of a "China threat" is of more than just academic interest; E. H. Carr considered that how to establish peaceful change was the fundamental problem of international morality and international politics.

Debate continues over what the crucial factors are in determining how the transition to a new relationship between China and the US will take place. For the realists, the shift in the power structure is enough to impose substantial strains while, for others, the world has changed from one where the distribution of power largely determined outcomes to where structural changes are only part of the story; other factors such as globalization, interdependence, the relative decline in utility of military against other sources of power, and a recognition of the great costs for states involved in conflicts become determining. Moreover, the question of what is more important, capabilities or intentions, remains open as does the question of what influences intentions and how they might change over time.

There have been many attempts to draw lessons from history, whether from the "causes of war" perspective or from the particular experiences of recent power transitions. Germany and Britain at the start of the last century and the rise of Japan later in that century have been given particular attention in China, where for many these have been seen as examples pointing to the defeat of the aspiring power when it challenged the status quo. Zhu applies the lessons from the rise and fall of past great powers to China's rise. He asks a fundamental question: can the US and China manage a potential power transition peacefully?

His starting point is Organski's power transition theory. Organski stresses the importance of élite thinking and attitudes but Zhu, judging power transition theory to be unduly structural, links it with Waltz's three images, providing a wider decision-making environment beyond power structures and the élites. In particular, Zhu's framework brings in domestic, societal and individual factors. His basic proposition is that a peaceful transition will occur when there are positive evaluations of the bilateral relationship by governments, publics and élites in the two countries, operating within a friendly international system. This is a rather demanding set of criteria to meet but he develops his arguments around each of them carefully.

Beginning with a general review of the history of power transitions, Zhu examines three case studies in detail: British-German relations between 1871 and 1914; Anglo-American relations from 1865 to 1945, both of which he sees as largely supporting his hypothesis, one negatively and one positively; and the China-US relationship between 1990 and 2005 which he judges as also supportive positively but recognises it as still a work in progress. …