If there is any region of the world, any country in the world, toward which the United States has had a consistent grand strategy in the past forty-five years, that region is Asia, and that country is China. The strategy was to lure China into political cooperation by offering prosperity, and to hedge against failure with strong alliance relationships and regional military dominance. But the weight placed on different elements of U.S. strategy has been shifting for more than ten years toward efforts to contain China. The shift has been the result of pessimism in the West about our own economic prospects, coupled with concern about Chinese economic mercantilism, military assertiveness, and political irredentism.
Liberals in the West (in which I include myself) have long considered it an article of faith that prosperity produces democracy—that a Maslovian hierarchy exists in which as material needs are satisfied, people become more politically demanding of their government. The idea is that sustained prosperity is impossible without political liberalization. That good things go together, so an increasingly wealthy China will inexorably become a China more like us politically.
This is, of course, a flabby argument, equivalent to believing that the arc of history bends toward justice. Both are comforting sentiments that lack an evidentiary basis. History is replete with examples of states whose economic dynamism does not result in political liberalism — Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, just to take two sharp-edged examples. But as Tom Wright argues in All Measures Short of War, this idea was the fundamental policy reflex of the United States and other powerful states.
In defense of western policymakers, the impetus was consistent with their experience since 1945. Germany and Japan did become model western states, peaceful and prosperous, ensconced as contributors within alliances. Countries that emerged from Soviet control at the end of the Cold War likewise seemed to support the pattern, making tough choices to jump start their economies and reshape their political practices. Moreover, even where odds were longer, in Russia and Central Asia, the policy line held—less because of what was occurring in those countries than what was occurring in ours. It is in the West, and particularly in the United States, that the belief is deeply ingrained that by acting as if our creed is universal, we create the conditions for it to become so.
American policy toward China was expressed most succinctly by Robert Zoellick in 2005: “seven U.S. presidents of both parties recognized this strategic shift and worked to integrate China as a full member of the international system.” The consequence of the U.S. opening to China, and China’s opening to capitalism, has been a burgeoning economic dynamism of greater national magnitude and speed than ever before recorded, as Graham Allison’s Destined for War recounts.
We not only included China in the organizations that facilitate global interaction, we allowed their accession on concessionary terms. World Trade Organization rules were relaxed to facilitate market access. Intellectual property theft, counterfeiting, and currency manipulation were tolerated. Chinese efforts to “direct markets rather than open them,” and lock up energy resources were likewise indulged. We have been careful and slow in reacting to predatory Chinese fishing, construction of militarized islands in the South China Sea, and violations of maritime treaties. China has been allowed an enormous latitude to work its way toward compliance with the existing rules of international order.
We have, in fact, acted much as Great Britain did when the United States was a rising power in the nineteenth century: encouraging the United States that it could be wildly successful by the existing rules, cajoling them into cooperation, but enforcing the rules of order it established until convinced that the United States would play by the established rules as a responsible stakeholder. And in that hegemonic transition, the United States behaved much as China does today: flouting the rules where it could get away with it, asserting a zone of exclusive political and economic interest, using economic means to undercut relationships the hegemon had established, and bullying smaller regional actors into compliance with prejudicial rules.
There are, however, important differences from the British-American transition. The most important difference is that China’s neighbors prefer the existing order to China’s alternatives and remain voluntarily allied with the hegemon. While Americans complain volubly and often about what allies are not doing, we often overlook what a precious rarity it is to have established a consensual order. The secret of American hegemony is how rarely we have to enforce it, because the ideological, security, economic, and cultural attractions provide a centripetal magnetism. The genius of the postwar American order, as John Ikenberry argues in Liberal Leviathan, is that the rules the United States created are beneficial to others, creating a self-reinforcing hegemony.
China’s leaders seem to think the time is nigh to challenge the American-led order. The perceived reputational collapse represented by the Iraq war, the economic collapse represented by the 2008 financial crisis, the moral collapse represented by ferocious and febrile national debates, the military challenges of reduced defense budgets and competing priorities seem to have given China’s leaders confidence that American power is on the wane. Whereas a decade ago, China’s leaders talked of biding their time and a peaceful rise, they now talk of the Chinese dream and the need for accommodation of their power.
What made the British-to-American hegemonic transition peaceful is that for the crucial years in which the two countries were peers and competitors, the acknowledged similarities between them created space for policy compromises during crises. Beginning in the 1870s, both countries began to redefine their national identities. Those separate processes produced a Britain revelling in the peaceful expansion of its franchise, and a United States embracing the manifest destiny of its westward expansion. So Britain became a democracy and America became an empire in roughly the same time period. They looked alike to each other and different from every other power in the international order (and it merits remembering that the United States wasn’t the only rising power—Japan and Germany were already contenders as well).
When sharp conflicts of national interest struck, as in the 1895 Venezuelan debt crisis, Britain’s freedom of action was constrained by a public affection for America that considered a war between the two countries to be fratricide. Acknowledgement came later for the United States than Britain, but by the Spanish American War in 1898, the affection that shaped political leaders’ range of choice for democracies was deep-rooted.
That sense of sameness between Great Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth century bears little resemblance to the perceptions China and the United States hold of each other now. President Trump’s National Security Strategy highlights the return of great power competition, the National Defense Strategy is inscribed with concern about China’s increasing strength and the challenges it poses for the United States, trade policy is trending toward the United States restricting American markets while China rumors retaliation by reduced treasury buys and turns ever more predatory toward U.S. businesses operating in China.
The more assertive Chinese stance does seem to justify a continued rebalance of American effort toward greater acknowledgement of the threats China poses for the existing order and efforts to reinforce that order. If the United States continues to believe in the existing order, based as it is on rules and institutions the United States established, it should contest China’s rise on the terms China now seems to be indicating it will pursue.
But if the United States should elect not to contest China’s rise, a Cold War could be avoided because the United States would lose it. America would cede the contest without violence, abandon its allies, and learn to live in a world ordered and enforced by China. It is something we probably think too little about, what an order in which we do not, or cannot, set and enforce rules would be like.
My work on hegemonic transition strongly suggests that once established, dominant powers—rule setters and enforcers, which is what to be the hegemon means—reshape the international order into a macrocosm of their domestic political order. So the United States made the order of its time of primacy one where self-determination, free markets, and representative government were the advantaged characteristics. If you want to understand what the international order would be like in a time of Chinese dominance, look to their domestic political order: privileges rather than rights, power rather than law, fealty rather than alliance.
Whether the United States contesting China’s rise results in a new Cold War depends on two things: whether China continues to rise; and whether Francis Fukuyama and American policymakers prove right that China must liberalize in order to sustain its prosperity.
So a Cold War may be avoided because the Chinese bubble bursts: its banking system spectacularly collapses; the economy fails to navigate the middle-income trap and bogs down in transition from manufacturing to service; creative people flee the increasing authoritarianism, and the economy becomes incapable of momentum; corruption so corrodes the legitimacy of the political system that control becomes untenable, and China becomes just another poorly governed developing country; those excluded from the benefits rise up against political and economic elites; ethnic tensions erupt into civil war; its neighbors grow strong enough to impose intolerably high costs on China to continue pursuing its ascent; war may destroy the engine of its prosperity; high-tech surveillance turns the country into a dystopia of sullen prisoners… so many ways China’s intrinsic weaknesses could precipitate an end to its astounding success.
A Cold War may also be avoided by the experience of postwar liberalization holding, and the Chinese government giving way, slowly or abruptly, to representative government. China remains the great test case of liberal ideology: whether growing more prosperous would ineluctably cause a nation to become more politically liberal. That is, whether China would become more like us and the international order we helped usher into being. We have reached the point at which we can begin to draw inferences about what a powerful, prosperous China will be like, and it is not like us.
There are indications the Chinese leadership already considers their position precarious, though, so perhaps changes are occurring that will prevent the Chinese dream as envisioned by President Xi Jinping from manifesting itself. Chinese officials already rush to natural disaster sites, which shows that at some level they are accountable to their society. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was not only a useful way to penalize his challengers and enemies, but also serves to bolster the Communist Party’s popularity by showing them attentive to public concern about endemic corruption. His penchant for reviewing troops in battle dress may indicate his bringing that institution under his personal control—or it might signal their growing challenge to his authority. His announcement at the recent Plenary of lifting term limits on his leadership may showcase the breadth of his power—or it may leech what legitimacy the party has remaining from public trust, exposing the brittleness of his position. The most powerful Chinese leader since Mao may see the connection between prosperity and representative government and choose to slowly loosen his grip. But that’s probably not the way to bet your money.
If a Cold War is in the offing, we Americans would do well to remember that the strategy that helped us sustain our strength and independence through the long decades of U.S.-Soviet standoff was to use military force to freeze the existing order in place, husbanding our resources, attracting allies who share the burdens of security and whose own behavior incurs little risk of war, and working by cultural means to reach past governments and connect with people. Our own behavior is chewing into our margin for error and probably remains a stronger indicator of our fate than any choices made by China.
 Robert B. Zoellick, Deputy Secretary of State, Remarks to National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, New York City, September 21, 2005 “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility,” https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/d/former/zoellick/rem/53682.htm