Does China's Rise Threaten the United States?

By Zhou, Jinghao | Asian Perspective, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Does China's Rise Threaten the United States?


Zhou, Jinghao, Asian Perspective


Power Transition?

Since the Chinese government launched its reforms, the economy has been taking off with extraordinary speed for almost three decades. If the economy continues to grow at such astronomical levels, China will be in position to surpass the United States in the next few decades. China's rise has an immediate impact on every aspect of Western societies, both in opportunities and in challenges for other countries.

In world history, "There have been two great shifts of power on the world stage during the past five centuries: the rise of Europe following the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the United States after its Civil War."1 Power transitions usually come with international conflicts. Rising powers want to gain more authority in the global system, and declining countries are afraid of loss of their dominant position. Thus, conflict, even a war, between a rising power and a declining power is likely to happen. In this sense, Westerners worry that historical tragedies will repeat between the United States and China.

Many Americans think that China's rise is weakening Western societies and fostering fears in the United States and the Asia- Pacific region, while China is using Western capital to build up its strength.2 As early as 1997, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro in their book The Coming Conflict with China argued that war between China and the United States was a distinct possibility. In 2005, Robert D. Kaplan contended that whether or not there will be a Sino-American war is no longer a question. The only question, he wrote, is how the United States should fight China.3 John Mearsheimer warned that "The United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war."4 Fareed Zakaria goes further, saying that "When a new power rises it inevitably disturbs the balance of power."5 Susan L. Shirk, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, suggests that "China needs to reassure the United States that China's rise is not a threat and will not challenge America's dominant position."6

China is rising, I maintain, but China's rise does not necessarily threaten the United States. The typical power transition is not inevitable, because "not all power transitions generate war or overturn the old order."7 Whether or not China will threaten the United States will be determined not by China's economic strength but by the essence of China's political system. An economically strong China is not a threat, but the collapse of China would inevitably disturb the global peace, especially for developed countries. In March 2007, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said that Washington should not fear China's growing defense spending, should not fear that Beijing's overseas investments will destabilize the dollar, and should not even fear the successful anti-satellite missile test that the military undertook in January 2007.8

In order to see if China's rise threatens the United States, it is necessary to analyze the basic arguments of the China threat theory.

Is China a Threat?

The first argument has to do with China's economy. Without a doubt, China has become a great competitor of the United States in the economic arena. China's challenge is not only real, but serious. However, several factors must be considered when we discuss the development of the Chinese economy. First of all, new statistical analyses have raised questions about the actual size of the Chinese economy. In 2007, the World Bank reported that China's economy was nearly 40 percent smaller than previously determined. The new data are widely considered more reliable and accurate than previous estimates.

Second, the U.S. economy is currently about eight times the size of China's. Obviously, China will need a long time to surpass the United States. In addition, China has a population of 1.3 billion. When China's GDP is divided by 1.3 billion, it decreases in value. …

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