Wednesday 20 Mar 2019 | 15:06 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 20 Mar 2019 | 15:06 | SYDNEY

China: An inconvenient truth


Hugh White

15 October 2010 13:19

Our colleague Raoul Heinrichs has a peach of a post over at Pnyx exploring the fascinating and momentous paradox that America has so willingly used its power to create the conditions in which China's power could grow to displace it.

One could write a book about the subject, but for what it's worth, it seems to me that over the past three decades, Americans, and America's friends, have constructed quite an elaborate system of interlocking beliefs to assure themselves that China's rise will not seriously challenge America’s global position. At their simplest, these beliefs boil down to four propositions:

  • China's economy will stop growing before it gets close to America's.
  • If China's economy does keep growing it won't matter because the US will still be far ahead in other forms of national power, especially military and diplomatic.
  • If China's military and diplomatic power grows too it won't matter because China will not try to challenge America's primacy, either because its economic interests give it no choice, or because it will have become more like the US and hence will welcome US leadership.
  • If China does try to challenge American primacy it won't matter, because America will easily defeat the challenge.

Separately or together, these propositions have been accepted as axiomatic by most people in American and Asian strategic debates. Each of them could be true, but none of them is self-evidently so, and in fact all four are proving to be false.

So why have a lot of smart people got such big issues wrong for so long' My hunch is that two factors are at work. One is a failure of imagination: we have all found it hard to imagine a world in which the US is not the most powerful country, because US power has been the dominant fact of the international system for a century. The other is the insidious power of preference: we don't want to live in a world in which China is as strong, or stronger, than America.

Together, these impulses have made us too eagre to accept, and too unwilling to scrutinise, arguments that lead away from this unthinkable and unpalatable prospect. Only in the last two years – since the GFC — have we seen the beginnings of a serious understanding in America that the unthinkable and unpalatable might happen. That makes the next few years very interesting indeed.

Photo by Flickr user Chi King, used under a Creative Commons license.