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China running the world? Pew gotta be kidding me

July 16, 2011

One of the ongoing problems with managing US relative decline is the public’s overall lack of understanding about what that decline actually means about the global political system. One of the constant refrains of alarmists about American decline is that the absence of US hegemony will mean a world run by China and perhaps Russia as well. Well, even if everybody wants to rule the world, the world is not all that easy to rule.

Unfortunately, that is not what the Pew Global Attitudes Project polling data reflects:

In most regions of the world, opinion of the United States continues to be more favorable than it was in the Bush years, but U.S. image now faces a new challenge: doubts about America’s superpower status. In 15 of 22 nations, the balance of opinion is that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower. This view is especially widespread in Western Europe, where at least six-in-ten in France (72%), Spain (67%), Britain (65%) and Germany (61%) see China overtaking the U.S.

One could also headline this report, “Majority of population in 15 out of 22 countries do not understand what multipolarity means.” It is one thing to assume that the United States is in relative decline – by all indications, it is. The diffusion of wealth, military power, and socio-political influence to non-US and particularly non-Western states is a fact and it is something mostly beyond US control. The era of unstoppable global power projection and an absence of peer competitors is drawing to a close.

However, acknowledging this is completely different than assuming that China will be able to replace the United States. While China will undoubtedly overtake the US in certain quantifiable metrics, namely highest gross domestic product, it will still be a much poorer country than the US and face inherent strategic limitations to acting as the world’s sole superpower.

The United States has nearly a dozen aircraft carriers and a military force capable of projecting power nearly anywhere into the globe. Despite the inability of the United States to deal effectively with modern insurgencies and its often misguided military adventures, its unparalleled aerial and maritime forces are what it allows to even start those adventures in the first place. The United States was, after all, able to defeat a major regional power in the Persian Gulf, an ocean away. China, on the other hand, would have significant trouble launching an invasion of its own claimed territory in Taiwan.

Replacing the US does not just mean having a stronger economy, it means being able to fulfill the worldwide missions across the spectrum of conflict intensity the US does. It is actually worth questioning whether China could even get to that point.

The United States is a very lucky great power, because it inhabits a very safe neighborhood. There are no major competitors, nor states capable of mounting a serious military threat to US security. Additionally, the US is extremely far away from any other great power which could mount such a threat. It is much further away from Eurasia than Great Britain was from Europe, which means that it is more insulated from great power competition than its forbear ever was. Indeed, Great Britain never enjoyed the dominance over its peer competitors in Europe that the United States does today. It also has a continental resource base of immense size and access to an economic community (Canada and Latin America) that is virtually immune to foreign disruption.

Could we say the same for China anytime soon? China is in the most crowded zone of great power competition, Eastern Eurasia. It shares land borders with India and Russia, is within range of a US-aligned great power, Japan, and middle power, South Korea. Its maritime access to the rest of Eurasia faces potential choke points at the Southeast Asian peninsula and archipelago, and within range of Oceania – and even if it achieves dominance over those, it will have to compete with India for access to the Middle East and Africa.

Attempting to bypass these maritime obstacles would require first the pacification of China’s unintegrated rural and separatist hinterlands, along with unprecedented industrialization and development of Central Asia. It would need to do so with the approval of Russia, Iran, and India, any of which could severely impede its efforts to achieve a continental alternative to its inhospitable maritime conditions.

Relative US decline will only lead to multipolarity, where the US will continue to enjoy strategic advantages relative to China, provided that it remains the undisputed power in North America (and it will for a long, long time). Countries often prefer to balance with offshore or out-of-area powers against continental enemies, even if the offshore power is the strongest power in the system. This works against China’s favor and plays into America’s likely future status as prima inter pares in a more plural geopolitical system. China’s neighbors will be unlikely to acquiesce to its dominance and more able than America’s to resist it, particularly since American offshore power will prove more willing and able to balance against it than European powers were to balance against the United States in its early years.

Just because the United States was able to enjoy a unipolar moment does not mean China ever will. It was an odd, very contingent outcome of historical, geographical, economic, and military trends that China has much lower odds of experiencing. Unfortunately, in America and, it appears, in Europe and many other regions too, perceptions and public opinion do not reflect a very sophisticated understanding of global politics. This increases the likelihood that the US will undermine its posture in a bid to ward off “inevitable” Chinese (or Russia, or Islamic, or whoever’s) hegemony, or, that a number of countries pinning their hopes and plans on a new unipolar superpower are in for a rude surprise.





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