The rise of China is an epochal development that could change the international system drastically. If China was primarily an agrarian, feudal, backward country in 1949 at the time of the revolution, it is radically different today. Decades of economic reforms under the tight control of the Communist Party has transformed the country into an industrial and technological powerhouse. It is only a matter of time before China overtakes the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy .
This economic rise has had strategic consequences as well. China, the world’s second-largest military spender after the U.S., has established itself as the mightiest force in the Asia-Pacific, with the clear ambition of becoming a global superpower. This rapid rise has upset the existing equilibrium of the global order, which has been largely centred around the U.S., at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
These events have historical parallels. The rise of imperial Germany in the late 19th century and the rise of the Soviet Union in the 20th century shaped the global order too. While the roots of the First World War can be traced back to imperial Germany’s quest to become a superpower, the Soviet Union challenged the U.S.’s hegemony after the Second World War, pushing the world into the Cold War. With China rising as the next superpower, these comparisons are often brought in, sometimes with alarming warnings.
The German example
Imperial Germany’s rise as an industrial and military power after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent unification of Germany disrupted the power dynamic in Europe, which was dominated by Great Britain and France. Germany’s quest for new markets (colonies) for its products, backed by the national big business and the financial oligarchy, heightened tensions between colonial powers. The economic tensions spilled into the military arena, with Germany adopting Weltpolitik (world politics, its expansive foreign policy doctrine). Threatened by a resurgent Germany, Britain and France joined Russia to form the Triple Entente. This, in turn, heightened Germany’s paranoia that its natural rise was being curtailed. To break this ‘maximum moment’ (where its natural rise had come to a stall), Germany was ready to go to war. The result was the First World War.
Similar to how imperial Germany’s rise upset Great Britain, China’s rise has upset the reigning superpower, the U.S. And similar to how Britain and France joined hands with Russia to contain Germany, the U.S. is doing its best, through alliances in the Pacific, to contain China.
Then and now
Yet, there are fundamental differences between the rivalries of the 19th and 20th centuries and those of today. The tensions between imperial Germany and Britain were primarily a result of the race for new economic territories between the colonial powers, which Lenin called “inter-imperialist rivalry”. Both countries were supported by their national industrial and financial oligarchies, or monopoly capital. Today, it’s not a competition between colonial powers. Both China and the U.S. are closely integrated into the global economic system. They are each other’s biggest trading partners.
Second, imperial Germany was ready to go to war because it thought war was the only way to break its ‘maximum moment’. But in reality, Germany’s rise was halted by the First World War. The country was humiliated internationally. Anger and discontent led to the revolution in Germany, the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War. On the contrary, China is still a growing power. In 40 years, it hasn’t fought a war. And the path to growth and development is still open for China.
Does this mean that the competition between the U.S. and China could lead to a new Cold War? It’s likely, but in a different global scenario. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the two pillars of the global system. There was no major third pole. Most countries, including those part of the Non-Aligned Movement, were drawn closer to either of these two blocs. The Cold War was the defining phenomenon of the post-war world.
Today’s situation is different. First, China is not seeking to build an ideological bloc against the U.S. Its focus is on its own economic rise and in reshaping the international order. Second, the world is more dynamic today. There are many regional powers on the rise: Russia continues to be a geopolitical hegemon in Central Asia and Eastern Europe with global ambitions; India is a rising big power in South Asia; and Turkey seeks to be a dominant power in West Asia. In effect, the U.S. and China are competing in a multidirectional world, dissimilar to the bipolar world which saw the Soviet-American rivalry.
The U.S. would still want to contain China, like it did the Soviet Union, as China represents the biggest challenge to the western international order. During the Cold War, the U.S. aided the redevelopment of western Europe, built trans-Atlantic military alliances, forced the Soviet Union into an arms race which hurt its economy, exploited the Sino-Soviet rift, and launched an anti-communist crusade across the globe. Now, it’s trying to build a strategic alliance in the Asia-Pacific, mainly with India, Japan and Australia, to tackle China, and has taken the battle into the trade and technological realms. But there are at least three problems with this new containment strategy.
First, an anti-China strategic alliance is yet to take shape despite the U.S.’s earnest efforts. Even India is wary of joining an American defence bloc aimed at containing China. This is largely because the global system is multipolar. There’s no NATO yet in the Asia-Pacific. Second, even the trade and tech wars launched by the U.S. are not meeting their declared goals. Earlier this year, after months of a tariff war, the U.S. and China agreed to sign phase one of a trade deal. China agreed to buy more American goods and the U.S. suspended upcoming tariffs, while core issues such as technology transfer remained unresolved. The U.S.’s attempts to isolate Chinese tech giant Huawei have also failed with most major economies, including India, the EU, and the U.K. deciding not to ban Huawei from rolling out 5G.
Third, one of the key aspects of the containment during the Cold War was the U.S.’s ability to exploit the rift in the Communist bloc. George Kennan, the author of America’s containment strategy, warned in 1954 against the “association of resources” in Europe and Asia against America. He was warning against a potential Sino-Soviet alliance. During the Cold War, it didn’t materialise, and the U.S. reached out to China. But today, the Sino-Russian alliance which Kennan had warned about is already in place. Today’s Russia is not the China of the 1970s. It is much more powerful and has trans-continental ambitions. It will not be easy for the U.S. to wean the Russians away from the Chinese. In effect, the U.S. is facing a rising China, far from its maximum moment, in a multipolar world. It’s an all new challenge.