China’s Rise: The Danger of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Touraj Riazi Analysis Leave a Comment

The phenomenon dubbed the ‘rise of China’ has recently and rightly infatuated the West as China’s growth has assured China (and many Americans) that the great power relation preoccupying the 21st century will be the Sino-American one. Despite entire ecosystems disintegrating to support the vast quantities of literature published in the U.S and China about the causes, meaning, and consequences of this relationship, a limited overview is all that is possible here. History informs us that when a rising power impinges upon an established power the outcome of the competition is settled by war. However, the fact that war is caused by the willingness of challenging powers to resort to force in altering the status quo does not imply confrontation is a necessity rather than a choice; it merely affirms the historical record of a human spirit receptive to, and capable of, identifying and acting in accordance with a set of perceived incentives. Those who deterministically conflate capabilities with conflict risk creating self-fulfilling prophecies whose outcome is detrimental to all involved.

Today China is the second largest economy in the world and talk of it overtaking the U.S by the middle of this century has led to much consternation in America. The fear that China will translate the fruits of its economic growth into military capabilities is often accompanied by the tacit presupposition that China’s interests are diametrically opposed to those of the United States and therefore a Chinese gain is synonymous with an American loss. Comments like those made by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who in July 2016 stated that a failure to ratify the TPP would hand “the keys to the castle to China”, serve to antagonize the U.S.- China relationship which has been a source of benefit to both sides. This attitude perpetuates the predilection on behalf of the United States of dealing with China in the traditional manner established powers deal with rising ones: zero-sum competition. Despite President Trump rescinding, by way of executive order, American participation in TPP, it would be a mistake to    set standards for Chinese participation in the economic liberal order so high that it becomes near impossible for China to satisfy. This risks creating an exclusionary economic free trade zone in which an anti-Chinese bloc is formed (for this is certainly how the Chinese will see it even if it is not intended).The responsibility for ensuring the economic aspect of their relationship remains a source of irenic intentions implies America must appreciate the current state of China’s development.

If China pursues alternate arrangements that conflict less with perceived Chinese necessities one could assume China will resort to military force to protect its alternate order. An example of China’s pursuit of alternative arrangements are China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road initiatives; it has heavily invested in both these projects which, in the long term, can transform into competitive trading arrangements. Chinas need for raw materials, food and energy means securing reliable trade routes is a security concern and relying on the American military to secure this, when its own becomes increasingly capable, makes it imperative for common economic understandings to emerge. Absent a common consensus on general rules, the deterioration of the Sino-American economic relation augurs a far deeper rift in other areas of their relationship. The harm of this could potentially circumscribe the incentives for diplomacy in solutions to other ongoing problems of which many exist in a relationship as wide ranging as the Sino-American one, such as the South China Sea.

China’s ‘century of shame’ has led it to express uncompromising positions on matters of sovereignty, the most portentous of which is the South China Sea dispute. As China’s military grows more capable of enforcing its declarations – such as no independence for Taiwan or its famous ‘9 dash line’- the less likely it is to shy away from rebutting American diplomatic initiatives buttressed on a navy that run counter to Chinese objective. China’s recent rejection of The Hague tribunal’s judgment that no legal basis exists for China’s maritime claims is an example of this. If America’s response to an inevitable relative decline is pursuing offensive strategies that are escalatory, on the basis of assuming the worst of Chinese intentions once they possess the necessary capability, the possibility of conflict increases while the chances of limiting it decrease.

Traditionally, the sheer incompatibility of greatly differing notions of legitimacy and interests permitted no reconciliation, rather it magnified the motive for dedicating efforts to total war. Existing structures were so tailored to the interests of the status quo hegemon that there was little realistic opportunity to incorporate any rising power into the structure without defeating its purpose. Globalization and nuclear weapons have so changed the world that there now exists a common set of problems which transcend the ability of any one nation to deal with them: environment, nuclear proliferation, energy and economy. Chinese officials have recognized this and some explicitly state that “China will not follow the path of Germany leading up to World War I… when [it] violently plundered resources and pursued hegemony”.

Therefore, applying historical precepts to the Sino-American relationship is fallacious because it is unlikely that there will ever arrive a point at which the cost of conflict and altering the liberal order will not exceed the cost it is paying now. Insistence on deterministic maxims can transform into self-fulfilling prophecies and hiding behind historical inevitability is tantamount to moral abdication. The most important point is that even if war were to occur both China and the U.S. would still confront the same task they are faced with today: the construction of a peaceful international order reflective of the participants’ sense of justice.


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