In the first session of the Carnegie Europe Roundtable Series “China’s Global Rise,” Robert Kagan argued that China will become a threat to the West because it is positioning itself as a political power in the international arena. Such behavior follows a pattern established by other states who have sought to challenge global powers throughout modern history.

China’s Rise: Historical Perspectives

China’s official stance about its expansion in the world is to avoid confrontation. Beijing is confident about its global position. This pragmatic view, Chinese scholars hold, is a very particular approach that distinguishes China from Western powers and the former Soviet Union.

However, Kagan argues that China is not an abnormal rising power, but a very typical one, whose patterns of behavior can be found in the evolution of the United States at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the U.S. evolved from an economic power to a political one for two reasons. First, the U.S. economic rise made the country dependent on access to foreign markets, which enhanced its desire to control those markets. Second, this material growth was accompanied by a growth in the ambition of American decision makers. Growing powers, in fact, follow the same general pattern: an economic rise generates human ambition, which increases the need for more power.

As a consequence, rising powers inevitably collide with established powers or other emerging competitors. The U.S. rise had a happy ending: Great Britain ceded its hegemonic position after 1898. Their ideological affinity as liberal powers was central to this peaceful transition. History, however, also reveals rising powers that collided and collapsed: Germany, Japan and the former Soviet Union.

Future U.S.-China Relations

China’s proactive diplomacy is part of its strategy as an emerging power, a tool to achieve concrete goals. At present, four states are competing in Asia: China, India, Japan, and the United States. Peaceful coexistence between China and the U.S. is unlikely because there is no political affinity between the two countries. Rather there is a fundamental ideological conflict between the United States’ liberal democracy and China’s autocracy. This can be observed, for example, in the United Nations Security Council, but also in Asia, where strategic blocs are emerging. Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. has gradually strengthened relations with Japan, India, Australia, the Philippines and Singapore. On the other side, China has reinforced its military cooperation within the Shanghai Group.

Economic ties between western countries and China will not avoid a political conflict. Competition for commodities and raw materials is becoming stronger and can evolve into a source of conflict, as was the case for Germany and France before World War I. It was precisely these trade ties that strained relations between both countries at the end of the 19th century.

Questions & Answers

In the discussion that followed Kagan’s presentation, it was stressed that while China is forging alliances with pro-western states in Asia like Japan. Sino-Japanese relations are not well received in either country, suggesting that China’s attempted alliances are fluid.

It was also argued that changing dynamics in international relations have to be considered. States do not inevitably have to compete, nor be hostile to each other. States can influence the course of international relations. And models of integration can currently be observed in Asia. It is not an integration process in the sense of the European Union, but a cohesive cooperation at the national level in terms of trade and politics. 

In response to this constructivist argument, other participants pointed out that China is establishing its own international path and is gaining leverage in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and South East Asia, some might say against the interests of the EU. The EU model is not the only valid reference in the world and hard to implement in heterogeneous regions like Asia, where states do not share common political values. Japan, Russia, China or India are taking the opposite path of the EU states and returning to a traditional protective nation system.

Other participants questioned whether conflict between great powers in inevitable. Even if the EU is not replicable, they argued, there is at least the possibility that two or more antagonistic models can coexist without collision because of the synergies created. The economic interdependence of countries is at present higher than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. 
 
In response to a final question on whether China’s middle class will force a democratic transition within the country, Kagan said that Chinese citizens are not involved in politics. But in the long run the government might not able to meet certain demands of the society (e.g. in the areas of pollution or income disparities) and a political transition could be possible.