The rise of China is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, worrying and widely discussed topics in Foreign Affairs, and it will likely be the most important international relations story of the twenty-first century. Thus, in this article I will aim to give the reader a better understanding about the narrative that is out there about the rise of China and explain the possibilities of a new international order.
The process has been framed by academics, foreign policy practitioners, experts etc as the decline of the American power, decline of the West, the rise of China, etc. To speak about the decline of American power is very controversial. We, as human beings, can say with certainty and measure that we are in decline year on year, as most humans wont live beyond 100 years. However, to speak of US power being in decline is difficult to assess in as certain terms. As such, the term “the rise of the others” is more suited, as we can say for certain that China, India, Brazil and some other states power and influence is increasing.
Consequently, we can be certain that US power is in a relative decline. It still has undoubtedly the largest military in the world, and it is difficult to see this changing for many years, but we have seen a decline in US social status. A superpower requires support domestically and internationally, and lately, being a superpower has not really been a lot of fun for the Americans. During the cold war the US framed its foreign policy under the Cold War imperative, but since the end of it, US foreign policy has been on its own. America’s foreign policy has not been either successful nor perceived as legitimate by many states. We only have to look at the “War on Drugs”, the “War on Terrorism” and the US foreign policy in the Middle East which has been considered by many as disastrous and rightly so. After spending trillions of dollars, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are in a political turmoil among many African and middle eastern states, Isis has grown so powerful that it has declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria; the security council has been in deadlock over Syria, and although NATO acted timely in Libya, the third element of the Responsibility to Protect norm was completely forgotten, and currently the country’s power vacuum is proving fertile ground for militants and terrorists, which is obviously damaging the R2P norm.
- Tripoli: government appointed by the old parliament that challenged the legitimacy of last year’s elections
- Tobruk: internationally recognised government that was ousted from the capital not long after the 2014 election. Both backed by a loose alliance of militias focused on local interests
- Benghazi: the second city and headquarters of the 2011 Revolution, is largely in the hands of Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaeda
- Misrata: the third city and main port, is also loyal to the Tripoli authorities. Its militias keep them in power.
- Derna: home to Islamic State
But this question of what is better, an authoritarian government or no government at all, is one example amongst many where US foreign policy has been damaging its legitimacy as the world leader. Being a superpower comes with a responsibility and burden and the negative relations this brings leads US tax payers to question what they are paying for. Indeed, even US economic policy has been questioned and examined in detail since 2008, despite the fact it did not collapse (as many anticipated) and that the past several month dollar has been strengthening. Nevertheless, the Washington consensus has also come to an end. Gordon Brown noted at the G20 Summit in London in 2009: ”The old Washington consensus is over. Today we have reached a new consensus – that we take global action together to deal with the problems we face … A new world order is emerging and with it the foundations of a new and progressive era of international cooperation”. In my opinion, the United States has therefore been losing its right to exceptionalism. Previously it projected itself as a superior and preferable model in the world, but this is no longer the case and consequently its ability to present its agendas around the world has been seriously weakened (who would really want American healthcare?). Furthermore, the institutions that it has built over the years, have been challenged by the rising powers, e.g. establishment of the new development bank of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS).
The United States and the current rise of China have been often compared to the nineteenth and twentieth century examples of the decline of the British Power and the rise of Germany, and the World Wars as a consequence of that change in power distribution. Although parallels are quite significant what is not usually considered are the preconditions that led to this process and the preconditions that allowed the UK in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth century to emerge as the Superpowers. What often is not questioned is how peculiar this phenomena was. Barry Buzan has done excellent work explaining these developments. The change in the mode of production from agrarian to industrial has given the opportunity and an unprecedented advantage to the few states to exploit and gain the uncontested power. What we see today is closing of this gap. Simply, other states are catching up and the gap in power that was formed by this temporary condition is closing. This is why, as I argued previously, that the power of the US is not necessarily in decline, it is more that others are finally catching up. Considering that such a significant change in mode of production happens once in a millennium, we can argue that we are just in the beginning of the process and the current mode of production will last for centuries.
I therefore want to argue that the succeeding international structure will most likely be multipolar, but not in a traditional way. States won’t be competing to dominate the whole system, and they won’t be able to dominate it even if they wished to. Although, China has been very successful in increasing its GDP, pulling out hundreds of thousands out of poverty and advancing its military, it is still far behind the US. China’s GDP per capita is considerably low in comparison with the US and it will probably take many years before it can catch up to US standards in many aspects. Second, as I have already explained, material power alone is not enough to become superpower and it certainly requires the right social status. How can China build new institutions that will attract the others in the way the United States did in the twentieth century. China has a very extraordinary model and it is very hard to envision how they could project themselves as an ideal model to the world. Also questionable is how it would manage the sharing of its power? It would be extremely difficult, as China does not really have many influential friends on the international stage, while on the other hand the US has many friends and alliances and has been very effective in building them. Furthermore, the idea of being a world hegemon is really going out of fashion, while popular sovereignty, nationalism and self-determination, human equality and diplomacy provide widely accepted normative basis for the order.
Finally, the preconditions that allowed the US to emerge as the superpower are long gone, and while China is rising, other powers are rising alongside it. Thus, the most likely possibility is that the power gap that was formed by the industrial revolution will close by other states catching up and becoming great powers, but not superpowers. Accordingly, United States will start gradually losing its superpower status, and will have to come to a negotiating table with China and most likely with the other rising powers who will try to use their growing influence to reshape the rules and institutions of the international system to better serve its interests, and other states in the system, but if the transition of this process can be peaceful, how institutions might be reshaped is another interesting topic that I shall keep for another article.