Ray Leonardo previously worked in the defense industry.  He presently works as a graduate researcher in international relations with interests that include power transition, alliance structure, great power politics, and conflict.  He can be found on Twitter @rayrleonardo and writes for rayrleonardo.com.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  Assessment of the United States-China Power Transition and the New World Order

Date Originally Written:  July 28, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  September 11, 2017.

Summary:  The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) overtaking of the United States as the largest global economy will bring difficult and potentially dangerous consequences.  Continued peace will depend upon the PRC’s satisfaction with the current international system created by the United States, among others.  History and PRC foreign policy indicate the odds of a peaceful power transition may be lower than expected.

Text:  “…[T]he United States welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs[1],” was often stated by United States’ President Barack Obama during his multiple summits with PRC President Xi Jinping.  The United States has little influence in slowing the rapid economic growth of the PRC.  Most forecasters predict the PRC will overtake the United States as the largest economy sometime during the first quarter of this century.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the PRC is expected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2021[2].  Many scholars and practitioners in the field of international relations are concerned that the rise of the PRC will not be so peaceful and their concerns are backed up by theory.

History has shown that rising powers who challenge the status quo, and, or hegemonic nations often create a fertile environment for conflict.  Historical cases indicate that it is power parity (balance of power), rather than a dominated or disproportional relationship (hegemony), that increases the likelihood of war.  This research falls under the theory of Power Transition[3].  Power Transition theory is directly at odds with the often accepted Balance of Power theory, the latter of which states that a balance of power among nations leads to peace[4].  Various theories including nuclear deterrence have formed under the Balance of Power pretext, but the historical data does not back this theory.  Conflict is more apt to break out under conditions where states are about equal in relative power.

Research on power transitions shows that the potential for conflict is dependent on several variables, two of which include relative power and the satisfaction of the rising power[5].  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a common measurement for state power but measuring a state’s satisfaction within the international system is a more challenging task.  Regardless of statistical models, one can see through previous cases of great power transitions that conflict is most likely once the rising power has overtaken (regarding relative power) the previously dominant state.  Conflict is even more plausible when the rising power is highly dissatisfied with the current international system.  This is assuming, as is the case today, that the dominant state (The United States), has created an international regime that of which mirrors its own political and economic systems (Bretton Woods), but also mirrors the dominant nation’s socio-political philosophy and values.

Many factors play into a country’s satisfaction.  One can look at the PRC’s rapid economic rise as proof that they have found a way to be successful in an international system created by the West, particularly by the United States.  However, even as the PRC’s economics can be closely aligned with most of the world under the guise of “capitalism,” it must not be ignored that the PRC has very differing views on political systems, individual rights, and traditional western socio-political values.  The PRC government adopts a foreign policy that is textbook realism in so much that its use of force will never be used to promote “Chinese” or “eastern” values abroad.  The PRC has little concern for human rights domestically, never mind protecting human rights on the international stage.

Twenty-first century conflict in East Asia will be fought on water.  The PRC’s recent build up of artificial islands and claims to various islands in the South China Sea are constant and increasing[6].  This is due to many factors, most of which impact their economy and security.  The PRC’s actions show a consistent effort to leverage regional neighbors, particularly those who lay claim to various land masses throughout the South China and East China seas.  The PRC’s regional foreign policy is not surprising; however, the United States and its allies should be questioning how the future global policy of the PRC will look.  Will the PRC’s aggressive regional policy in the early parts of this century be thought of as a microcosm for their mid-century global policy?  The PRC’s aggressive policy toward countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia shows a strong dissatisfaction with the regional status quo.  The PRC understands the leverage that it has over many of its smaller neighbors and seeks to capitalize on it sooner rather than later.

There is no reason why U.S. officials should assume the PRC will peacefully rise through the international system without leveraging the power and control that comes with being the hegemonic nation.  The PRC will seek to advance their interests even as it may be on the backs of other smaller or even major powers.  With the PRC calling more of the shots regarding our international institutions, capitalist economies will still flourish, the bilateral and multilateral trade will continue to grow, but the principles and values that of which upon these institutions were built will continue to erode.  Human rights will take a back seat on the world stage, and over time few nations will care about the well-being of their trade partner’s people.


[1]  Office of Press Secretary, The White House (2015, September 25). Remarks by President Obama and President Xi of the People’s Republic of China in Joint Press Conference Retrieved July 25, 2017, from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/25/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-peoples-republic-china-joint

[2]  OECD Data (Edition 2014). GDP Long-term Forecast Retrieved July 25, 2017, from https://data.oecd.org/gdp/gdp-long-term-forecast.htm#indicator-chart

[3]  Kugler, J., & Organski, A.F.K. (1989). The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation. In Manus I. Midlarsky (Ed.), Handbook of War Studies (1st, pp. 171-194). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman, Inc.

[4]  Schweller, R. L. (2016, May). The Balance of Power in World Politics Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-119

[5]  Kugler, J., & Organski, A.F.K. (1989). The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation. In Manus I. Midlarsky (Ed.), Handbook of War Studies (1st, pp. 171-194). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman, Inc.

[6]  Ives, M. (2017, August 4). Vietnam, Yielding to Beijing, Backs Off South China Sea Drilling Retrieved August 4, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/world/asia/vietnam-south-china-sea-repsol.html