Getting Out of Hand: How China Took the 21st Century

By Rachel Schoner

No superpower lasts forever: the Roman, Mongol, and British Empires were mortal and, in time, faced their death. The United States is no different. After the Second World War, it rivaled the Soviet Union as the two competed for the sole position of global superpower. The United States, victorious after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, stood alone and dominated international politics. Since the 1990s, its military and technological powers were unparalleled. It was the global hegemon. Until now.

China has reminded the United States of its superpower mortality. The media has recently blamed Trump for America’s decline, but China has been gaining on America for years. China has successfully translated its sheer demographic power- 1.37 billion people, roughly one-fifth of the world’s population- into economic power. It is not only the magnitude of China’s economy that has attracted so much attention, but rather its growth. In 1982, China produced only 2.2 percent of the world’s GDP when Deng Xiaoping implemented a series of sweeping economic reforms. Thirty years later, this number increased roughly seven-fold to 14.6 percent of the world’s GDP (Kliman in Foreign Policy: Is China the Fastest Rising Power in History?). China has begun to challenge the United States’ position as the world’s largest economy, thanks in part to its large population. The United States was the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power since 1871, a position previously held by the United Kingdom. In 2014, China overtook its spot. In 2013, China became the world’s largest exporter of goods, dominating trade relations. The World Bank projects China will soon overtake the US as the largest national economy. This rise was clearly before the election of Donald Trump.

China’s economy is growing quickly with no signs of slowing down, but is economic power enough to dismantle the world’s superpower? Economic power is not isolated from other important forms of power: military and political. Economic power can easily be translated into military might, as the United States did during the twentieth century. For the most part, China hasn’t taken this approach, with the notable exception of the South China Sea and clearly establishing regional hegemony. Rather, it has translated its economic might into political power. Its strategic use of foreign aid and trade dependence presents alternatives to American soft power and its favored international institutions.

China’s global, commercial relations have foreign policy consequences. Political science scholars (Flores-Macías and Kreps 2013) have found among developing countries in Africa and Latin America, the more states trade with China, the more likely they are to converge on issues of foreign policy. Countries that trade heavily with China tend to align with the rising power on United Nations General Assembly voting. This is bothersome for the United States because its interests often diverge from those of China, particularly on human rights issues. In recent years, China has increased its foreign aid- both development assistance and foreign direct investment- in strategic areas including East and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. With the overarching goal of its own economic development in mind (given its low supply of oil and gas reserves), China seeks to develop key relationships with countries with natural resources. Foreign aid had been dominated by the United States, able to include conditions to further its own interests such as human rights provisions. Economic assistance is a way to project power, establish favorable relationships, and garner a positive international reputation.

China’s foreign aid is a substitute for American assistance, so the West (including Europe) no longer has a monopoly on development aid. This choice presented to developing countries around the world challenges American dominance, allowing China to spread its influence. This challenge, however, is not limited to bilateral relationships as China has institutionalized global alternatives to the United States in multilateral institutions. China founded the New Development Bank along with the other BRICS countries. It has also used regional organizations — including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (not an official member) — to counter Western organizations.

Since the end of the twentieth century, China has been a major player in international affairs with its rapidly growing economy, large population, and regional hegemony. And there is no sign of slowing down. China is prepared to take the twenty first century and dramatically shift the order of world affairs, challenging the sole superpower. Many journalists point to Trump’s recent election as a signal of America’s decline, but China has been gaining (figurative) territory for years. Some blame Trump, focusing on his controversial denial of climate change and nontraditional personal demeanor, threatening America’s position as the world’s leader in both hard and soft politics. Headlines include: “Donald Trump seems happy to destroy the planet. Only China and India can save us now,” (The Independent, UK), “China Poised to Take Lead on Climate After Trumps Move to Undo Policies,” (New York Times), and “Trump leaves European leaders scratching their heads,” (The Washington Post). But President Trump did not hand the 21st century to China; it has belonged to China for years.

Political science literature tells us that individual leaders do matter, so presumably the shift from Barack Obama to Donald Trump could signify a change in American’s policy (see interesting work by Horowitz and Stam 2014; Chiozza and Goemans 2011). Trump’s political inexperience, business mindset, and brash personality may impact foreign affairs, but this is not one of those situations. Overarching foreign policy is sticky and not apt to change dramatically with individual leaders. China was already a rising economic power, and it was prepared to rival the United States in the twenty-first century, regardless of leadership. Former President Obama recognized the shifting power and proposed the Pivot to Asia, focusing on East and South Asia rather than Europe and the Middle East. This foreign policy pivot, however, failed. American focus continued to concentrate in Europe and the Middle East with the Syrian Civil War and migration crisis. Obama was unable to muster support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a step toward trade openness and cooperation with China, so Trump’s withdraw was no surprise.

What’s next for the United States and China? How should the U.S. handle its challenger? While China is a clear competitor, it is not currently viewed as a foe. And nor should it be. China presents alternatives to U.S. hegemony, but it is- for the most part- playing by the established (mainly by the U.S.), international rules. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, contributed thousands of peacekeepers to U.N. missions, and is actively trying to combat climate change in international talks. The United States may take a lesson from the United Kingdom’s transition out of global dominance. The U.K. faced two rising powers at the turn of the twentieth century: the U.S. and Germany. The latter dyad was riddled with conflict and suffered two world wars. The former dyad experienced a peaceful transition of power, becoming close allies with a special relationship. While power transitions have the potential for conflict, the U.S. may broker peace by accommodating China’s growing power and making a place for itself in future international affairs. China already has the twenty-first century, so the United States needs to decide how to handle it. The individual president may have some discretion here, viewing China as either friend or foe. Obama tried to partner with China with his Asian pivot and TPP negotiations while Trump has a much more negative view, alienating China and blaming it for America’s economic hardship. Trump is not handing the twenty-first century to China; rather, he is worsening U.S.-China relations which may have significant repercussions.

Since Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, China has disrupted America’s dominance in world affairs. Economic reforms in the 1980s propelled China to become the largest exporter of goods with commercial relations around the globe. This economic power has translated into regional military power and political power throughout the world, largely due to foreign aid. Donald Trump has opened more doors for China on the world stage- such as leading climate change action- but the twenty-first century was already firmly within China’s grasp.

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Rachel Schoner

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