How US involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is helping the rise of China to surpass America as the world’s leading power
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensifies, the biggest beneficiary will not be the USA and her satellites but China. Russia is not America’s peer competitor because of its declining population, limited technological innovation and small GDP ($1.7 trillion against America’s $23 trillion). However, China performs almost as well, and in some cases better, on all three elements of national power. As China continues to grow, the issue will be how it will behave and how the USA will respond. Some argue that growing interdependence of China and USA undermines potential for a conflict between them. But I think a serious rivalry between them is hard to avoid.
If China continues to grow economically and reaches a capita income close to that of the USA, then it and the USA will certainly become serious rivals. Security competition between them will be intense and extensive cooperation between them will be difficult to sustain. Of course trade may continue but the risk of war between them will increase. It would be better if this turned out differently. But statecraft needs to begin, not with wishful thinking, but with a clear eyed sense of real possibilities.
China’s strategic position is not favorable. It has 14 neighbours on land, eight at sea and has border disputes with many of them. This encourages nations in Asia to seek more cooperation with the USA. Yet the U.S. has for long been distracted by conflicts in the Middle East and now in Europe over Ukraine to effectively implement what the Barack Obama regime called “Pivot to Asia.” Essentially, China is eating America’s lunch.
First, looking at the present state of USA-China relations does not tell us much about the future. Why? Because how states define their interests and how they try to defend them is determined by their relative power. As states grow stronger, their vital interests tend to expand. So the present state of USA-China relations will change as China grows more powerful.
Secondly, the history of international relations teaches us that rarely do two very powerful states in the international system get along very well: Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, England and France, England and Germany, USA and the USSR. The reason for this is simple: each is the other’s greatest potential threat. Neither can be completely sure of what the other may do today or in the future. They become wary and suspicious of each other, become very sensitive to the balance of power – always looking for who is rising and who is falling in what field and the specific vulnerabilities and fragilities the other may have.
Since the USA and China are the most powerful nations in the international system, they are inevitably going to compete – for power, for influence, for allies, etc. Each will be looking for ways to get ahead or to drag the other back. They will look for allies, to gain advantage; if the other gets into serious trouble, the other will not come to their aid. This will happen not because either side’s leaders are evil but because they are trying to preserve their own security and because they don’t want to be vulnerable if the other side turns out to be particularly aggressive.
So we cannot understand China-USA relations from the vantage point of today but by projecting what is likely to happen in ten or twenty years. As China continues to rise, its GDP ($16 trillion) is closing in to that of the USA ($23 trillion) and in PPP ($26 trillion), it has already overtaken it. As it’s GDP per capita rises, its revenues will grow and along it, it’s defense spending will continue to grow; it’s dependence on the outside world will continue to grow and therefore it’s desire for markets for its goods and sources of raw materials for its factories. This means over time therefore China will need to develop capacity to shape events in many parts of the world and gain influence there. However, China’s influence will not be growing into a vacuum. It will be seeking to replace America.
How will this affect China’s strategy and how will the USA respond? China has a clear interest of establishing hegemony in Asia – the one akin to the USA position in the Western Hemisphere. China will desire to be the strongest nation in Asia with no major rivals in the region. Why? Because China will be more secure if the USA is absent from Asia and does not have a serious set of alliances with nations in that region. China would therefore be happy if the USA gets bogged down in conflicts elsewhere. The war in Ukraine is a godsent to Beijing. It is a very expensive distraction for the USA, making it difficult for Washington to sustain keen interest and effectively shape events in Asia.
So as it’s economy grows, China will develop capabilities to make USA activities near China riskier or costly. It will continue to press territorial claims in the South China Sea and try to build political and economic ties with her neighbours and try to dissuade them from alliance with the USA. It will also seek allies in the Americas because that may be profitable but also because it will force the USA to focus more energy and attention closer to home. The USA cannot object to this because itself has alliances with countries in Asia. As we can see today, China’s defense spending has been increasing; it has the largest navy in the pacific, it’s building many military capabilities and it has been more assertive in claiming rights in the South China Sea and the East China Sea etc.
The USA is not going to take this lying down. Why? Because its core grand strategy has always been to be a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere and prevent the emergence of any other regional hegemon in its own area. This makes America secure in its neighbourhood and thus free to intervene in other regions. If some other country was able to establish hegemony in its own region and therefore become secure at home, it would seek to intervene in the Western Hemisphere to achieve what America seeks elsewhere.
Yet the war in Ukraine is sucking America’s attention away from its core interest in Asia to a subsidiary interest in Europe. The sanctions on Russia are giving China an opportunity to implement an alternative international payment system to Swift and has initiated the shift from the dollar to other currencies as the world’s reserve currency. Today, America is bogged down by partisan polarisation at home, inflation etc. This makes it difficult for Washington to respond effectively to China’s rise.