By Hugh White
The rise of China and India does not necessarily mean the end of today’s international order, but it does mean the end of America’s role as the acknowledged and unchallenged leader of that order. As their power grows, America must either compete with these powers for leadership, or share leadership with them. Either way the global order will change, and so will America’s role in it.
But the changes will be much bigger and more painful if America tries to compete with them for leadership than if it finds a way to accommodate them. The best way to preserve as much as possible of the liberal order America has built is to share leadership of it with India and China. The surest way to destroy that order is to fight with either of these great powers for control of it.
India and China pose the greatest challenge ever to America’s place in the world because they will both, on current trends, not just overtake but far surpass the United States in wealth over coming decades. This matters because ultimately wealth is power, so these two countries will become the most formidable America has ever had to deal with.
Today China poses the more obvious and serious challenge. There is no doubt that China does aspire to a leadership role. For the time being that challenge is not global but focused in Asia. However, Asia is so central to the world order that what happens there will shape the world and America’s role in it. It is not yet clear whether China is determined to dominate Asia itself, but we can be sure that it will not settle for less than an equal role with America in shaping Asia’s future.
How do these ambitions fit the new realties of power? China is already far wealthier relative to the United States than any country has ever been before, and that makes it in the long run a far more powerful competitor — and a far more dangerous adversary than even the Soviet Union was. China is America’s first genuine peer competitor.
On the other hand, China will never be strong enough to dominate Asia itself. India, Japan, Russia, and the United States itself will all be there to balance and limit its power. In purely military terms, China will be able to limit American power-projection in the Western Pacific, but equally America will be able to limit China’s too.
This new balance of power makes it foolish, and unnecessary, for America to try to retain primacy in Asia in the face of China’s challenge, as President Obama has proposed.
This policy is foolish because it assumes that in response China will either collapse or cave in. Much more likely China will push back, leading to escalating strategic competition and a serious risk of a major, even nuclear, war. That would be as disastrous for the United States as for China. And don’t rely on economic interdependence to prevent the disaster: both China and America are quite capable of sacrificing economic interests to defend what each sees as strategic interests.
Rivalry with China may be unnecessary because America’s most critical interests in Asia do not require it to maintain primacy. It is sufficient for the United States to prevent China dominating its neighbors by staying in Asia to balance and limit China’s power, while still allowing China a bigger role – and equal role – in shaping Asian affairs.
This best suits the rest of Asia too. No one in Asia wants to live under Chinese hegemony, so everyone wants the United States to stay in Asia. But no one wants to make China an enemy — so everyone wants America to stay in Asia if at all possible, on a basis that China is willing to accept. That means they too want America to stay to balance China, but not to compete with it for primacy.
The problem, of course, is that this model of America’s role in Asia’s future requires the United States to treat China as an equal. That does not sit easily with America’s traditional view of its place in the world and its relations with other countries — especially countries as different as China.
But America’s traditional view evolved during the era of the Great Divergence, when Western countries enjoyed for a long time the immense power bestowed by economic development, and America enjoyed this power most of all. Now the Great Convergence is driving the biggest shift in relative power in history. No one should be surprised that things we have taken for granted for two centuries quite suddenly stop being true.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.