Will China Replace America? Observations from 2017

The following text was given at a talk in 2017, initially published on my legacy blog, Principia Politica, before the commencement of Trump’s trade war with China which continues to this day under the Biden administration.

In 1823, US President James Monroe asserted that North and South America ‘are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers’. But then he said that ‘we should consider any attempt on [the Europeans’] part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety’. Over the subsequent decades, the Monroe Doctrine gave the US the alibi to dominate the Americas for the sake of preserving the nation-state’s own territorial integrity. By 1898, as Professor John Mearsheimer notes, ‘the United States had become the first regional hegemon in modern history’. By hegemon, Mearsheimer means the only great power in a system of nation-states. A regional hegemon, in turn, is the only great power in a given region of the world. The Monroe Doctrine taught policymakers that domination of the Americas was the best way of maintaining security.

The poster to my 2017 talk on this emerging world conflict.

But the US did not stop there. After achieving regional hegemony, and realising that global hegemony was out of reach, American policymakers decided that they needed to prevent any other states from becoming regional hegemons. It was the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the US to dominate its own region whilst preventing other states from doing the same with their regions. Here lies the reason for Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Imperial Germany in April 1917: he wanted to prevent Germany from dominating Europe. This is also why Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany during the Second World War, despite the reluctance of his citizens and fellow politicians. George Kennan in 1947 recognised this fact in his recommendation that the US ‘contained’ the Soviet Union after the Second World War, since the Eurasian monolith threatened to challenge American power.

This is also why China will likely desire to replace the US as the dominant world power. Although still lagging behind the US GDP of $18.6T (as well as the EU’s GDP of $16.4T) China’s GDP rose to $11.2T in 2016. Thus China is the second most wealthy state on Earth. And China’s economic power is being translated into military power. China, in other words, is trying to intimidate other states in Southeast Asia into submission to its hegemonic embrace of the region, just as the US intimidated Mexico and the colonial powers into bowing to American hegemony in the 19th century. China is becoming a regional hegemon.

But if China follows the American pattern of great power politics, it will not be a true regional hegemon until it rids Southeast Asia of American influence. This may or may not lead to Sino-American military confrontation, but it will very probably lead to a steady worsening of great power relations. Perhaps more significantly, China’s rise will shift not only the regional, but also the global balance of power in China’s favour. 

Currently, the global balance of power lies in America’s favour, as it spent $596B on defence in 2015—more than double China’s total of $215B. But American power is being eroded. On 12 July 2016, for instance, an American-backed International Tribunal ruled against Chinese claims to rights in the South China Sea, in favour of the Philippines. Chinese state media had already said before the result that the tribunal risked ‘military confrontation’, since the arbitration would be ‘a farce’. Thus China rejected the tribunal’s ruling and has continued to militarise islets in the South China Sea in order to become a regional hegemon and a global great power. On 23 January, for instance, China asserted its ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over parts of the South China Sea. Beijing also emphasised that Secretary Rex Tillerson’s remarks that ‘the island-building stops’ risked ‘devastating confrontation’.

But President Trump is doing the opposite of what is in America’s interests. Instead of pressing forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and thus preventing China from dominating the region with its own trade deal, the President signed an executive order to withdraw the US from TPP, which would have involved 12 countries comprising 40% of global GDP. TPP would have allowed the US to dominate the South China Sea, thus preventing China from becoming a regional hegemon. But now that TPP no longer involves the US, China will be able to dominate the region through its 16-member trade deal comprising 30% of global GDP and 46% of the world’s population—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

In short, China is rising. Its path toward regional hegemony is, it now seems, unstoppable. But once it dominates South-East Asia, its next objective will be clear: the containment of, or even encroachment on, American global power. Thus the tables have turned: once the US was the only regional hegemon. Now China is about to become a regional hegemon, perhaps capable of doing to America what America previously did to the Soviet Union. Today, China not only has its traditional New Year to celebrate, but it also has the opportunity to replace America as the mightiest great power that the world has ever seen. The spotlight of history is shifting—from Washington to Beijing, and from Donald Trump to Xi Jinping. 

*Mearsheimer, J. J. (2006). China’s Unpeaceful Rise. Current History, 105(690), 160-162. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/2jHLiw8

*International Monetary Fund (2017). World Economic Outlook Database (April). Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/2qv2wnS

*Perlo-Freeman, S., Fleurant, A., Wezeman, P., & Wezeman, S. (2016). Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015 (April). Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1RBl7UZ

*The Global Times (2016). Power game decides post-arbitration order (5 July). Retrieved from: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/992320.shtml

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