U.S. Must Accept China’s Economic Rise

Sean Para, Columnist

The U.S. is no longer in a league of its own among the world powers. The end of the Cold War ushered in a prolonged period of undisputed American hegemony, but the emergence of China as the second-largest economy in the world and an increasingly crucial hub of the global economy — coupled with China’s enormous investment in its military — signals the end of uncontested American dominance. The International Monetary Fund recently made the renminbi, the currency of the People’s Republic of China, an official world reserve currency alongside the American dollar, the Euro, the British pound and the Japanese yen. The emergence of new great powers is a phenomenon that can be seen throughout history. The U.S. should and must accept that its influence on the international stage is waning for the first time since 1991 and deal China into the international system rather than try to oppose or control it.

The beginning of the 20th century presents an analogous situation to the rise of China. By 1900, Britain was the preeminent world power and had been for the better part of a century. The rising powers, on the other hand, were the U.S. and Germany. Both countries had seen huge economic growth in the past half-century and were seeking to cast a larger shadow on the international stage. However, Germany’s aggressiveness, coupled with the desire of Britain, France and Russia to contain the titan emerging in the heart of Europe led to two disastrous world wars and the collapse of the Eurocentric world system that had dominated since the Age of Exploration. The United States took a different path — it was accepted as a major power by Britain, France and the older European powers. It did not embark on expansionist wars in the same way Germany did; instead, it sat out of World War I until the end and fought the major battles of World War II far from its home territory. The result of these divergent trajectories was that by 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union stood in a league of their own. As the first “superpowers,” they were capable of exercising influence and deploying military force around the world — not only to create a formal empire, but to direct events in countries all around the world. Germany, on the other hand, was devastated by having lost two global wars. While there had been a consortium of great powers that  dominated global affairs before the world wars, after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union existed in a league of their own. China is the first country to attain this level of power since then.

Both the U.S. and China have much to learn from the global drama and power struggle of the 20th century. China should understand that it is not necessary to use force to become a superpower — economic influence beats out military might over time. It is easier to achieve political dominance through economic heft coupled with the threat of force than aggressive wars of conquest. The U.S. was an influential economic power long before it was a military one, as China is in modern times. The U.S., for its part, must realize that China does not represent a threat to its existence. Instead, it is possible to deal China into the club of preeminent powers, as Great Britain and France did with the U.S. in the early decades of the 20th century. There can be peaceful coexistence between the U.S. and China.

We live in a very different world than the one our predecessors did a century ago. The global economy is more interconnected than ever. A war between the U.S. and China is extremely unlikely, given the two countries’ intertwined economies. Nonetheless, China has become increasingly assertive in East Asia, attempting to create a zone of influence in the South China Sea. It has recently constructed artificial islands to buttress its military claim to the sea region. It has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to counter the American-led IMF, which has been a central facet of the global financial system since its inception after World War II. These developments are natural as China seeks to assert itself on the global stage and in its region in particular. The U.S. should accept these developments while seeking to retain influence in East Asia by continuing alliances with other countries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The U.S. has and continues to balance against China. Furthermore, it does not recognize China’s claims or unilateral construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. It nevertheless recognizes China’s increasingly important position in East Asia and has begrudgingly accepted China’s new development bank. These actions will hopefully prevent China from acting aggressively in East Asia, at the same time muting rather than stoking conflict. Much can be gained by working with China. The two countries can cooperate peacefully on issues such as climate change and seek mutually beneficial economic growth. There is no need for overt conflict between the two powers.