Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America has enjoyed the status of being a hegemon in a unipolar world, a world shaped in America’s image. Now, that power is being contested with the rapid rise of China. Liberals believe that China’s rise will be a tranquil one as they are engaged in so much bilateral trade and mutual investments, a situation beneficent to both America and China.
This is due to China’s embrace of capitalism where it slowly began accepting market-based reforms by implementing market capitalism with Chinese characteristics. These reforms were instigated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Internal reforms were also implemented, creating the conditions necessary for generating wealth such as low tax, low regulation and the right to own private property.
Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist revolution was unprecedented and largely occurred when China embarked upon a policy of free trade in 1978. According to a Congressional Research Service report, total China-US trade increased from $2 billion in 1979 to $636 billion in 2017. Additionally, the report referred to China as "the United States’ largest merchandise trading partner, its third-largest export market, and its biggest source of imports."
This indicates the scale of China-US interdependency and cooperation which is so extensive and ingrained that Niall Ferguson has referred to it as ‘Chimerica’. It is therefore highly unlikely for China to do anything that could potentially disrupt this harmonious and mutually beneficial structure, particularly by engaging in a dangerous and costly war. External reforms were implemented where Deng Xiaoping advised China with regard to protecting its national interest, consolidating its power and increasing international interaction.
China is also a member of several international institutions, with its membership of international organisations more than doubling between 1977 and 1997. ASEAN was constructed in 1967 by China’s regional neighbours as a means to contain its perceived threat. This proved unfounded as China gained access to the organisation in 1991. ASEAN's trade with China has increased 13 fold since 2000, totalling $514.8 billion last year, and is forecast to reach $1 trillion by 2020. This indicates China’s expanding influence in the region where it is no longer perceived as a threat, but rather, a country to do business with.
China is also a member of international bodies, joining the IMF in 1945 and the UN in 1971. Additionally, China obtained membership of the WTO in 2001, after fifteen years of negotiating, and this is especially significant as it demonstrates China’s willingness to join a symbolically capitalist institution.
According to a Gallup poll, 55 per cent of Americans view China as an ally or a nation friendly to the US. China is a state which seeks to comply with international institutions and regulations and is, in effect, reaching out to the world. Its narrative of a peaceful rise indicates that it does not wish to be a rogue state or an enemy, but rather opts to engage with the world by means of mutual competition and cooperation for mutual benefit – where both sides achieve a ‘win-win’ result.
Liberals believe that democracy will take root in China which will be initiated by its rising middle class which will seek rights and protection of their political and economic interests as well as protection under the rule of law. China’s middle class has topped over 300 million which could grow to 700-800 million, larger than the entire population of the US. China will have to deliver as it requires widespread public support in order to nurture its fantastic growth. If the Chinese economic growth falls too low or stagnates altogether, the social and political stability of the regime could be contested by means of public discontent. China therefore needs to maintain growth, create new jobs and appease the Chinese public in order to consolidate its position.
Realists view that inevitable competition and possible war are likely to take place because China, as a rising power, will seek to dissemble US authority, thereby challenging the status quo and replacing it with its own world order. This is due to China’s impressive economic and military growth which could result in it seeking to extend its power beyond its national borders.
Such a situation will inevitably lead to standoff between China and American influence in the Pacific and South East Asia which could have even deeper implications of a hegemonic war. This is reflected by the alliances which have sprung up and are being consolidated in the region. America has sought to encircle China and balance their influence in the region by forming strong ties with India and Japan.
America feels that China could become an existential threat to its interests and global supremacy. John J. Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, has stated that China and America will vie for influence and military competition will ensue, resulting in a reoccurrence of the events that took place between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China is trying to perpetuate its rise to power, therefore America will become obliged to cut China off at the knees as it did with Nazi Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union.
China’s rise is likely to be tranquil as it is evident that Chinese military growth has not swelled so much as to pose an immediate threat to American dominance. China still has a long way to go, particularly with regard to its economic growth – which is slowing – as well as endemic corruption.
In contrast to the realist view, it is highly unlikely for conflict to erupt. Political and economic inter-dependence being divided by the Pacific, and nuclear weapons which ensure mutually assured destruction, should enable both countries to uphold world stability and harmony.
The American presence in the region is likely to have a burden on American-Chinese relations, as is the ongoing trade war, but there are positive signs where regional countries are behaving with more restraint due to globalisation – therefore, a dangerous and costly war appear unlikely.