The Master said: “To worship gods that are not yours, that is toadyism. Not to act when justice commands, that is cowardice.” The Analects of Confucius, 2:24
Will the rise of China necessarily lead to the decline of the West and the end of the liberal ascendency? Will China seek to integrate into the existing international order or seek to transform it? Does the rise of China – and Asia more generally – signal the emergence of a rival non-Western way of organizing the international system or simply the arrival of new stakeholders seeking greater authority and leadership within the existing international order? Most importantly, in grappling with these transcendent questions, we need to ask: what should the United States be doing to shape, manage, or simply cope with the rise of China?
Everyone agrees that the global system is transforming. The distribution of capabilities – of wealth and power – is shifting away from the North and West toward the East and South. The old Western order dominated by the United States and Europe is giving way to a world that is increasingly filled with non-Western rising states. In the view of many, the world is undergoing a “return to multipolarity.” The question is: what sort of order will take shape amidst these multipolar shifts in wealth and power? Will China and other rising states embrace the core features of the liberal international order or seek new rules and institutions? As Paul Kennedy argues, the “weights and balances” of the global system are shifting. What is less clear is how the global political order will look in the aftermath of these redistributed capabilities.
In this paper I offer a way of thinking about the rise of China and the policy challenges facing the United States. I make four arguments. First, the rise of China does create dangers for international conflict but these dangers are not inevitable and predetermined. Scholars have described these dynamics of conflict generated by shifts in the global balance of power as “power transitions” and the “problem of peaceful change.” The rise of Germany in the late nineteenth century, challenging British hegemony, is the classic case of how power transitions can lead to war. In seeking a strategic response to the rise of China, the Obama administration needs to place the current moment in the context of these grand problems of power shifts and global change, understanding the dynamics, dangers, and opportunities.
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