Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The World Is Still Not a Dyad

. Tuesday, February 7, 2012

At the risk of redundancy, I'm wading back into the discussion of China's relative power growth vis-a-vis the U.S. that continues to occupy the IR/FP blogosphere. (I covered the last go-round here.)

Michael Beckley comes back at Eric Voeten, arguing that the answer to "Is American power in decline?" depends on how you define "decline". Beckley says that even if the relative per capita income gap between the two countries is narrowing, the absolute gap is widening, a useful point which is often lost in these discussions. Dan Nexon makes the point that Beckley is almost surely defining decline too narrowly, which is true even though Nexon's characterization of Beckley's argument is less generous than it could be.

But, again, all of this is quibbling over issues that, I think, are peripheral. Here's the question we need to answer before we can start really analyzing the roles of China and the U.S. in global politics: What are we referring to when we talk about American decline relative to China? I see two possibile answers:

1. The bilateral relationship: The ability of China to prevail in a conflict against the United States, or vice versa, or for one side to be able to significantly compel the other to take actions that they otherwise would not.

2. The systemic relationship: The ability of China to alter the geopolitical order that the U.S. has been cultivating since the end of WWII, or otherwise thwart the U.S.'s global ambitions, in a way that is different from the past.

It only makes sense to talk in circles about which statistic more accurately captures the relative bilateral gap between the U.S. and China if we're referring to the first of these. Yet I am quite sure that if I polled everyone involved in this discussion and asked them to offer up a subjective probability that the U.S. and China will war against each other in the next three to four decades, every single one of them would assign a probability very close to zero. This is true for several reasons. First, the presence of large nuclear arsenals in both countries which seem to have had, if anything, a pacifying effect on great power interactions since the Cuban missile crisis. Second, the U.S. and China are interdependent economically in large and growing ways, which also decreases the likelihood of conflict. Third, despite sharing many characteristics with previous imperial regimes the United States has no ambitions towards territorial expansion; neither, historically, has China. Neither have given any indication that this is likely to change. Nor is there any threat that a global Communist/anti-capitalist ideological movement, now more inconceivable than at any point since 1848, will re-emerge to challenge U.S. interests. Not even China wants that.

Therefore, it makes little sense to fret much about a traditional Sino-American conflict. Still, one might think that the ability of one side to coerce the other may be changing with the relative distribution of capabilities. This seems unlikely to me as well. The U.S. has been unable to compel China in a meaningful way for decades (if it ever had that ability); this has been obvious since the Korean War ended in a stand-off, and was codified when the mainland took China's seat on the U.N. Security Council in 1971. Similarly, China has not been able to compel the U.S. to take any significant actions that it otherwise would not. If whatever compellence power the U.S. might have been able to exert against China was defunct by the 1950s or 1960s -- despite the enormous disparity in capabilities between the two -- how long would it take for China to gain that ability over the U.S. even if current rates of growth were sustained indefinitely? Many decades, at least, and perhaps never. It would likely take some major technological break-through, or some other unforeseeable system-altering event. That is, it is inconceivable in the literal sense, and would likely require the destruction of the current geopolitical system as presently constituted. Deterrence capabilities have remained more or less unchanged over the past few decades, although the inclination to employ them may have lessened.

So what we're really talking about is the second of the two choices above. If that's the case, then why do we continue to employ monadic, or even dyadic, evidence to try to reach conclusions about a wider system? As should not surprise regular readers, I am skeptical that China's systemic power has increased very much at all over the past few decades. Yes, China is able to block U.N. resolutions that it doesn't like, but that's been true for forty years. Yes, China is expanding its trade and business networks globally, but mostly by going to places where the U.S. has few interests -- Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. While these investments have yielded some fruit, the process has not been seamless. Yes, China is collecting the world's malcontents -- Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Burma, Sudan, North Korea -- but I'm not sure that's evidence in support of China's growing global clout. More like their desperation for friends of any sort. In any case the U.S. has done fine without close ties to these countries.

China has stockpiled trillions in financial reserves, but seems to have no purpose for them. They haven't been able to use them to buy much influence in the U.S.'s sphere. They haven't been able to employ them on investments that are likely to yield a high return, instead investing in U.S. Treasury bills and GSE securities. Any unwinding of those positions will impair China's growth model, which still depends on a dear dollar, and the erosion of the value of their remaining dollar assets. Those assets, in other words, are more an albatross than an opportunity. And if owning lots dollars makes one powerful, then the country that can create an unlimited supply of them must be very powerful indeed.

What China has not done, and not even attempted to do, is change or overthrow the key components of the post-WWII system: a global U.S. military presence, a series of international institutions, and a set of inter-locking alliance structures that facilitate international integration on security, trade, and finance. In each of these areas China has become more integrated into the existing system over the past few decades, which will make it harder to fundamentally alter that structure in the future. And while they have expressed some interest in marginal changes to the institutional apparatus, they've not pushed for qualitative changes nor have they been able to achieve many of their lesser aims. Nevertheless, China hopes to become more integrated into institutions like the WTO and IMF, not less. China wants more involvement with the other institutions from the G20 to the Basel Committee... this is the U.S.'s playground, and the games played there are played accordingly to the U.S.'s rules. At the same time that China's rise has attracted some countries, it has pushed other countries closer towards the U.S. Arguably the latter -- e.g. India, Japan, Indonesia -- are likely to be more important in the coming decades than those that have moved closer to China, which are mostly a collection of regimes in various states of collapse.

Does China's rise mean that nothing has changed, or will change in the future? Of course not. The rise of Japan and Germany changed some aspects of the international system, as did the waxing and waning of the USSR. It just didn't change the system itself. The question is whether China's rise will be accommodated by the existing system, or whether systemic transformation will take place. If the former is true then the influence of the U.S. is likely to surpass China for the foreseeable future. If the latter is true it may not.

All indications are that the former is true.

If China does continue to integrate into the current system, then that makes the system that much more durable. Which, in turn, further embeds the central position of the U.S. within the system. Which, in turn, could actually increase the power of the U.S. Put another way, the U.S. clearly has more influence over China's trade practices with China in the WTO than it had when China was outside of it.

So it's not about whether GDP growth is a better comparative measure than GDP per capita, or about CINC scores or anything like that. It's about who is better able to influence, control, shape, and mold the global political and economic systems. In order to play game China has had to accept the U.S.'s rules. To the extent that that persists little else matters.


Phil Arena said...

I agree that much of this discussion makes far more sense in terms of answering the first of your two questions than the second. And I agree that the second question is important. But you seem to be suggesting there's no reason at all to care about the first question, and that I'm not prepared to agree with.

I would not say that the probability of a war between the US and China in the next few decades is essentially zero. I think it is relatively low. Lower than many fear. But not so low as to be worth assuming away.

Nor does the distribution of capabilities matter only when war is likely.

Do you think the status of Taiwan would be the same today if the US had spent a tenth as much per year on defense as it has over the past 50 years? I seem to recall that from previous debates with Quiggin that you agreed with me that such a claim would be absurd. Yet this claim presupposes that the bilateral distribution of military capabilities (which is strongly correlated with GDP) plays a role in shaping real policy outcomes. Of course, this debate is far bigger than the status of Taiwan. No question. But Taiwan is not the only issue affected by the relative capabilities of each side. States that *could* do well in war tend to get what they want, even if they *do not* go to war. To the extent that the expected outcome of a hypothetical war between the US and China is, for now, gradually shifting in China's favor, that means that we can expect to see policy outcomes shift gradually in China's favor. On a host of admittedly smaller issues, this is already true. Once China's deep sea navy has the capacity to project significant capabilities across the globe, we can expect to see that apply to a much wider range of issues.

None of which is to deny that a systemic perspective is lacking from this debate and ought not be, nor that it is exceedingly likely that the overall structure of the system is likely to remain more or less in place for the foreseeable future. I just wouldn't be so quick to jump from there to the claim that little else matters.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Phil -

If we're interested the fate of Taiwan then it might make sense to only focus on the bilateral relationship. But that's not what these discussions are generally about.

(And, for the record, I don't think the U.S. would fight for Taiwan anymore and I'm not sure China would either. Nor will they have to. I'm far from being an expert on this issue, but it seems like Taiwan is moving closer to the mainland all the time and the U.S. is doing nothing to halt that trend.)

My main point is that the traditional measures of distribution of capabilities miss what it really important. It's not size of the standing army, or GDP in aggregate vs. GDP per capita.

It's hard for me to think of any issues of interest to the US -- small or large -- where policy outcomes have shifted noticeably in China's favor as a result of changes in the distribution of power projection capabilities. Perhaps you can give me a for-instance here.

Anyway, I interpret this as evidence that China's capabilities haven't increased nearly as much as we might think if we looked only at CINC inputs, say. And to the extent that they have, it's been as a result of embedding themselves into the system that the US maintains. Which, in turn, embeds US influence more deeply into the structure.

Phil Arena said...

I agree Taiwan is not the main issue. And I agree a war is less likely today, though I think that is largely because the status quo is shifting in China's favor and the US has come to accept that. I don't think that's independent of changes in the bilateral distribution of capabilities.

I also agree that there are few, if any, issues of real interest to the US where policy outcomes have shifted towards China (though minor ones would include Taiwan as well as, I think, the distribution of oil contracts in post-war Iraq -- why would so much of them end up in Chinese hands if not because the US is trying to placate a China it would not fear if not for China's growth?) As I said above though, I think we're going to see a real change once China's power projection capabilities get up to speed. For some time now, China has been growing without actually increasing its ability to project military power much past its borders. So of course that growth didn't have much impact. Aircraft carriers are a whole nother story though. That is, of course, consistent with your claim that if we look at CINC scores, we get a misleading picture. But I do think that it matters whether China keeps this up for a while.

Of course, as I've said before, I think folks like you and Drezner have made a good case that we shouldn't assume that China *will* keep growing at this rate for all that long. So I'll readily admit that I'm splitting hairs here. But just as you like to point out (rightly) that we too often forget about system dynamics, I like to point out that we too often focus on how things influence the likelihood of war without paying attention to how they might influence changes in the distribution of benefits that might occur through processes other than war.

LFC said...

I haven't yet read the whole post. Just want to say, though, that while I agree on the low likelihood of U.S.-China war in coming decades, I disagree on the reasons. IMO the main reason US-China war is unlikely is that interstate war, and esp. great-power interstare war, is basically a defunct institution, here following Mueller's argument which I discuss in my review of Goldstein's book.

You are doing, IMO, your intro IR students a disservice if you just feed them the line about nuclear-weapons-and-interdependence without noting that there are other perspectives on this question.

Kindred Winecoff said...

LFC, I barely mention nukes in class. I do talk about interdependence a lot, but I focus on mechanisms rather than simple correlations. I also emphasize the importance of norm shifts, democratization, etc. I'm fine with Mueller's contention and even like it. (Just last night I winced, multiple times, while watching WWI scenes in Downton Abbey. (My wife likes the show; not sure she got why I was wincing.))

But I don't think that's unrelated to technology either. It's a cliche, but there is truth in the claim that WWI was as bad as it was because tactics hadn't kept up with technology. More recent conflicts have done better with that, and I think a large part of the reason why major power conflict is so unthinkable now is because it would be so devastating; what would "winning" a U.S.-China conflict even look like?

Not an original argument, I know, but I don't think the norm shift is only about enlightenment.

LFC said...


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The World Is Still Not a Dyad
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