The rise of China as an important player in the world politics has become a significant phenomenon in recent years. With China’s increasing enthusiasm toward regional cooperation in East Asia since the Asian Financial Crisis, the discussion on China’s rise and its regional strategy has raised growing concerns within the international community of states and especially among China’s neighbors. While some observers view China’s great activism in regional cooperation as a bid for regional hegemony, others consider it as promoting economic interdependence and mutual interests. Will China’s rise be more peaceful, or will it threaten the regional and global stability? Will China use its growing military power to assert its territorial claims, or will it be constrained by economic interdependence? Will a rising China challenge the rule of the international community, or will it comply with the current international regimes? These are among the most important questions that are raised recently.  

China’s extraordinary economic growth and active diplomacy are already transforming East Asia, and future decades will see even greater increases in Chinese power and influence. But exactly how this drama will play out is an open question. Will China overthrow the existing order or become a part of it? And the most important, what can the United States do to maintain its position as China rises? According to some observers the American era is coming to an end, as the Western-oriented world order is replaced by one increasingly dominated by the East. The historian Niall Ferguson has written that the bloody twentieth century witnessed “the descent of the West” and “a reorientation of the world” toward the East. While the focus of the American foreign policy is on the countries of the Middle East, China’s steady rise in economic and political influence is the single event that will reshape international politics in the 21st century. Sooner or later, American officials will turn their attention to confronting this issue. 

So the question is: why the other great powers including the United States fear China? China uses a competing economic model – “state capitalism” – that challenges the economic ideology of the West. In many ways, China also behaves in a mercantilist fashion, which gives the impression that it cares little about anyone else. It keeps its currency controlled so its exports can out-compete those from other countries, and it grabs natural resources wherever and whenever it can. Worst of all, the political ideology behind China’s economic ascent completely counters Western ideals about democracy and human rights. China is not just competing with the U.S. in world markets, but offering up an entirely different economic and political system, one that at times seems better at creating growth and jobs, even as it restricts much-cherished civil liberties. China is succeeding based on ideas that Americans despise.

The reasons for the American concern mainly arises from its hegemonic status in the world politics and the ideological incompatibility of China with the Western value system. China’s stunning economic growth has convinced the West that it is just a matter of time until China becomes a world superpower. But its ideological orientation makes China a revolutionary power that is threatening both to the United States’ status and global structure.

China has had a remarkable three decades of economic growth since it introduced market-oriented reforms in 1979. Within this past decade, average annual incomes have risen from less than $1,000 to middle incomes of around $6,000 or $8,000 when adjusted for purchasing power parity. But because of China’s sheer size — 1.35 billion people or one-fifth of the world’s population — it has become the second largest economy. China has been growing faster than America, which is to be expected for a country that is still “catching up,” so it would seem like the U.S. has been out-paced.

A combination of slowing population growth and rapidly accelerating economic output has obvious implications for national prosperity. During the three decades to 2010, China achieved perhaps the most rapid sustained rate of economic development in the history of the human species, with its real economy growing almost 40-fold between 1978 and 2010. In 1978, America’s economy was 15 times larger, but according to most international estimates, China is now set to surpass America’s total economic output within just another few years.

China represents an under-developed market that could benefit the U.S. as well as the rest of the world. Although still poor, cities like Beijing and Shanghai already possess a strong middle-income consumer base. Of course, the two countries will remain competitors. But as long as the competition leads to more innovation, greater efficiency, better jobs and higher incomes, both countries will benefit.

If China can maintain its domestic economic growth and international financial strength, then a “significant security competition between the two countries is inevitable.” Some even believe that this competition between the United States and China will bring about a second bipolar world; we will soon ourselves entrenched in competition between the two as a result of the security dilemma theory. China will not be the only state affecting the balance of power, the United States (and probably regional states) will seek to balance Chinese shifts.

Image source: Basil