Sunday, December 30, 2007

China, International Institutions, and Power Transitions

Can the West handle the growth of Chinese power? Certainly, as long as China's rise is contained within the global system's multilateral institutionalist framework, led by the United States. This is G. John Ikenberry's basic point in his new essay on the growth of Chinese power at Foreign Affairs, "The Rise of China and the Future of the West." Ikenberry's one of the very top international relations scholars working from a neoliberal institutionalist perspective. I particulary liked his edited volume, America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power. I find myself agreeing with much of Ikenberry's argument in his current Foreign Affairs essay. Here's the introduction:
The rise of China will undoubtedly be one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century. China's extraordinary economic growth and active diplomacy are already transforming East Asia, and future decades will see even greater increases in Chinese power and influence. But exactly how this drama will play out is an open question. Will China overthrow the existing order or become a part of it? And what, if anything, can the United States do to maintain its position as China rises? Some observers believe that the American era is coming to an end, as the Western-oriented world order is replaced by one increasingly dominated by the East. The historian Niall Ferguson has written that the bloody twentieth century witnessed "the descent of the West" and "a reorientation of the world" toward the East. Realists go on to note that as China gets more powerful and the United States' position erodes, two things are likely to happen: China will try to use its growing influence to reshape the rules and institutions of the international system to better serve its interests, and other states in the system - especially the declining hegemon - will start to see China as a growing security threat. The result of these developments, they predict, will be tension, distrust, and conflict, the typical features of a power transition. In this view, the drama of China's rise will feature an increasingly powerful China and a declining United States locked in an epic battle over the rules and leadership of the international system. And as the world's largest country emerges not from within but outside the established post-World War II international order, it is a drama that will end with the grand ascendance of China and the onset of an Asian-centered world order. That course, however, is not inevitable. The rise of China does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition. The U.S.-Chinese power transition can be very different from those of the past because China faces an international order that is fundamentally different from those that past rising states confronted. China does not just face the United States; it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations. The nuclear revolution, meanwhile, has made war among great powers unlikely - eliminating the major tool that rising powers have used to overturn international systems defended by declining hegemonic states. Today's Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join. This unusually durable and expansive order is itself the product of farsighted U.S. leadership. After World War II, the United States did not simply establish itself as the leading world power. It led in the creation of universal institutions that not only invited global membership but also brought democracies and market societies closer together. It built an order that facilitated the participation and integration of both established great powers and newly independent states. (It is often forgotten that this postwar order was designed in large part to reintegrate the defeated Axis states and the beleaguered Allied states into a unified international system.) Today, China can gain full access to and thrive within this system. And if it does, China will rise, but the Western order - if managed properly - will live on. As it faces an ascendant China, the United States should remember that its leadership of the Western order allows it to shape the environment in which China will make critical strategic choices. If it wants to preserve this leadership, Washington must work to strengthen the rules and institutions that underpin that order - making it even easier to join and harder to overturn. U.S. grand strategy should be built around the motto "The road to the East runs through the West." It must sink the roots of this order as deeply as possible, giving China greater incentives for integration than for opposition and increasing the chances that the system will survive even after U.S. relative power has declined. The United States' "unipolar moment" will inevitably end. If the defining struggle of the twenty-first century is between China and the United States, China will have the advantage. If the defining struggle is between China and a revived Western system, the West will triumph.
Ikenberry's correct to note the importance of China's rise, although I think he needs to specify more carefully just when America's "unipolar moment" will end. Indeed, my main quibble with his piece is that his major premise of American decline (and China's rise) is an assumption. Some of the best recent work on the contemporary balance of power predicts a shift to multipolarity in about 20 or 30 years (and even Christopher Layne's important argument to that effect was more theoretically-driven than empirically substantiated). Fareed Zakaria, in a recent Newsweek essay, actually made a nifty little data-based case for the likelihood of continuing American global leadership:
Over the past 20 years, America's growth rate has averaged just over 3 percent, a full percentage point higher than that of Germany and France. (Japan averaged 2.3 percent over the same period.) Productivity growth, the elixir of modern economics, has been over 2.5 percent for a decade now, again a full percentage point higher than the European average. In 1980, the United States made up 22 percent of world output; today that has risen to 29 percent. The U.S. is currently ranked the second most competitive economy in the world (by the World Economic Forum), and is first in technology and innovation, first in technological readiness, first in company spending for research and technology and first in the quality of its research institutions. China does not come within 30 countries of the U.S. on any of these points, and India breaks the top 10 on only one count: the availability of scientists and engineers. In virtually every sector that advanced industrial countries participate in, U.S. firms lead the world in productivity and profits.
But with specific reference to China, Walter Russell Mead argues in today's Los Angeles Times that the Chinese challenge is not as pressing as many assume:
The most important story to come out of Washington recently had nothing to do with the endless presidential campaign. And although the media largely ignored it, the story changes the world. The story's unlikely source was the staid World Bank, which published updated statistics on the economic output of 146 countries. China's economy, said the bank, is smaller than it thought. About 40% smaller. China, it turns out, isn't a $10-trillion economy on the brink of catching up with the United States. It is a $6-trillion economy, less than half our size. For the foreseeable future, China will have far less money to spend on its military and will face much deeper social and economic problems at home than experts previously believed.
Mead goes on:
The political consequences will be felt far and wide. To begin with, the U.S. will remain the world's largest economy well into the future. Given that fact, fears that China will challenge the U.S. for global political leadership seem overblown. Under the old figures, China was predicted to pass the United States as the world's largest economy in 2012. That isn't going to happen. Also, the difference in U.S. and Chinese living standards is much larger than previously thought. Average income per Chinese is less than one-tenth the U.S. level. With its people this poor, China will have a hard time raising enough revenue for the vast military buildup needed to challenge the United States. The balance of power in Asia looks more secure. Japan's economy was not affected by the World Bank revisions. China's economy has shrunk by 40% compared with Japan too. And although India's economy was downgraded by 40%, the United States, Japan and India will be more than capable of balancing China's military power in Asia for a very long time to come.
Mead notes that in terms of absolute gains, the overestimation of China's comparative power has real negative implications for the quality of life for the Chinese people. When China's growth is calculated more accurately, the downward revisions mean in effect that fewer Chinese have escaped the burdens of poverty. But back to Ikenberry's argument: Beyond Chinese relative power, Ikenberry provides a couple of questionable examples to support his case on embedding great power change within an institutional framework. For example, check out this passage on the Soviet Union's power transition in the 1980s:
As the Soviet Union declined, the Western order offered a set of rules and institutions that provided Soviet leaders with both reassurances and points of access - effectively encouraging them to become a part of the system. Moreover, the shared leadership of the order ensured accommodation of the Soviet Union. As the Reagan administration pursued a hard-line policy toward Moscow, the Europeans pursued d├ętente and engagement. For every hard-line "push," there was a moderating "pull," allowing Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue high-risk reforms. On the eve of German unification, the fact that a united Germany would be embedded in European and Atlantic institutions - rather than becoming an independent great power - helped reassure Gorbachev that neither German nor Western intentions were hostile.
This is a particularly benign take on the Soviet view of the world correlation of forces during the Reagan years. While the Europeans may have been more accomodating of an institutionalist bargain facilitating Soviet accession to German independence, material factors - the Soviet Union's dramatic relative decline in the international system - just as likely contributed to Gorbachev's decisionmaking on international reform (or, there could be multi-level interaction effects; see Seweryn Bialer, "Domestic and International Factors in the Formationof Gorbachev's Reforms"). Ikenberry also makes an odd point on NATO and the need to "renew" Western institutions to channel China's multilateral integration:
Renewing Western rules and institutions will require, among other things, updating the old bargains that underpinned key postwar security pacts. The strategic understanding behind both NATO and Washington's East Asian alliances is that the United States will work with its allies to provide security and bring them in on decisions over the use of force, and U.S. allies, in return, will operate within the U.S.-led Western order. Security cooperation in the West remains extensive today, but with the main security threats less obvious than they were during the Cold War, the purposes and responsibilities of these alliances are under dispute. Accordingly, the United States needs to reaffirm the political value of these alliances - recognizing that they are part of a wider Western institutional architecture that allows states to do business with one another.
Reading this passage one might get the idea that NATO's leadership in the multilateral coalition in Afghanistan is a fluke (see here, here, here, here, and here). Other than this, interestingly, Ikenberry's institutional case for integrating China into the Western order rests on fundamentally self-interested notions of maintaining U.S. international primacy. The article's an especially interesting contribution in that sense.