Middle Powers during Great Power Transitions

By Gilley, Bruce | International Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Middle Powers during Great Power Transitions


Gilley, Bruce, International Journal


China's rise and the future of Canada-US relations

What is the fate of middle powers during the transition of great powers in the international system? In particular, what happens to middle powers that are tethered to a declining unipolar power? Virtually every close ally of the United States is asking this question today against the backdrop of a rising China. The question is particularly acute for the middle powers of Asia that are aligned with the US - especially South Korea but also the Philippines, Taiwan, and Australia.

The reconfiguration of the economic and political environment resulting from the rise of China is less acute for Canada, whose external environment will continue to be shaped far more by the geographically contiguous United States than by distant China. Nonetheless, the new global context that is being created by China's rise has uncertain implications for Canada-US relations. China's rise will affect Canada-US relations and the way that Ottawa and Washington respond to China's rise will affect their foreign policies towards one another.

I will make the empirical claim that Canada is more likely to reassert its traditional close ties with the US in a period of growing tensions with China than to bandwagon with China. Canada has neither the structural nor normative incentives to bandwagon with China. This is especially the case because a rising China will reduce Canada's international influence far more than that of the US, adding to the need for Canada to leverage its relationship with the US.

The paradox that emerges, then, is that a successful integration of China into world order will likely weaken Canada-US ties by highlighting growing divergences within liberal internationalism. But this is true only in a narrow, technocratic sense. In a larger sense, such an outcome would reinforce the shared liberal commitments of both nations, commitments that ultimately underlie their strong bilateral relationship.

CHINA'S RISE AND LIBERAL NORMS

China's rise can be measured using both traditional "hard power" (material capabilities) as well as "soft power" (human and social capabilities) data. China's share of global economic output (13 percent in 2010 using the International Monetary Fund's purchasing-power equivalent-based estimates) has closed in quickly on that of the United States (20 percent in 2010), while its military spending (US$98.8 billion in 2009 using midrange estimates), while only 15 percent of the US level, exceeds the combined spending of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The "correlates of war composite index" of national material capabilities, which uses economic, military, and population data, gives China a 20-percent share of international power in 2007, compared to 14 percent for the US (in part because of its somewhat archaic emphasis on steel production). RAND gave China a 14 percent share versus 20 percent for the US in 2005, but predicted that China would close that gap by around 2015.1 An Australian measure concurs that China's power will surpass that of the US by 2015.2

China's soft-power capabilities lag far behind its hard-power capabilities, although this is normal for rising powers. Kim calculates that China's "structural network" power ranked only 24th in the world in 2000 (the US was first and Canada an impressive fifth) behind even South Africa and Poland.3 However, a common finding is that China's soft-power capabilities are improving rapidly. For instance, The Economist's index of innovation for 2009 ranked China 54th out of 82 countries, but forecast it would climb to 46th position by 2014, the fastest riser among nations. The shifting allegiance of middle powers like Canada may be one of the best indicators of a power transition in the international system.

Moreover, China is today widely perceived to be a rising power. Among the 22 countries other than China and the US in the 2008 Pew global attitudes survey, the mean country score of decided respondents who believed that China had already or would eventually replace the US as the world's leading superpower was 51 percent (versus 49 percent who believed it would not). …

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