China and the Future of World Politics - By CWP Alumni Jessica Chen Weiss

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2017
by dsuchens

In less than seven decades since its founding in 1949, China has transformed itself from an isolated and impoverished country to one that sits permanently on the United Nations Security Council, wields nuclear weapons, and possesses the world’s second-largest economy. If China’s economy and military capabilities continue to grow—perhaps eventually matching or overtaking those of the United States—what will follow? Will China’s return to great power status lead to international conflict and disrupt the U.S.-led order?

Structural trends and historical patterns give us some purchase on the forces at work but have difficulty illuminating the proximate factors and decisions that could escalate to crisis and even war. The details matter. Focusing on what lies over the horizon—when China grows even stronger or sees its trajectory dimmed by economic stagnation or political instability—risks neglecting the current opportunities and challenges that could shape the future context. Yet these broad questions and trends remain irresistible.

Can China and the United States successfully evade the so-called “Thucydides trap,” the war that resulted from Athens’ rise and the fear it caused in Sparta? 1 How will China’s evolving political and economic conditions affect the trajectory of U.S.–China relations? These are the forward-looking questions that explicitly or implicitly set the stage for these books, a small subset of the discussion of China in world politics. 2 Beyond these uniting questions, they take very different approaches. The books by Kliman, Coker, and Rosecrance and Miller look at past wars and power transitions for insight into the present. Christensen and Steinberg and O’Hanlon focus on the U.S.–China relationship, including policy recommendations for how to manage tensions and maximize cooperation. The Callahan and deLisle and Goldstein volumes describe different policy ideas and challenges within China that may shape its course in the years to come.

Amid the cacophonous debate over China’s future and the U.S. response, four themes resonate. The books reviewed here speak to three but leave the fourth—the impact of domestic politics in both countries—relatively underexplored. First, a variety of choices matter in shaping China’s trajectory and the prospects for peace, negating arguments that the “coming conflict” between China and the United States for supremacy in East Asia is inevitable. 3 Second, past patterns of conflict between rising and declining powers can serve as a cautionary tale, but the value of drawing specific parallels to historical cases is limited. Third, the devil is in the details. Apparently minor events and choices can have major consequences. Finally, domestic developments on both sides of the Pacific crucially affect the prospects for peace and conflict. As evidenced by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, U.S. priorities are not as fixed in support of the international status quo as many scholars and analysts once assumed.

Jessica Weiss Photo