The debate over
whether the United States will maintain its hegemony or whether its hegemony
will last for only a few more decades is moot; nothing lasts forever. Despite
the U.S.’s efforts to fortify its base of power and maintain its global
dominance, an undeniable truth remains: the benevolent hegemony will end. In
this paper, without addressing a specific timeline but rather accepting the
reality of its coming, I propose that China will complete its power transition
and force a return to a bipolar power balance. China will accomplish its goals
by using “soft balancing” and “economic pre-balancing” rather than military
might to bolster its position.i
It will be a peaceful transition despite putting a liberal democracy and a “democratic
dictatorship”ii
into conflict for power.

 

     Layne asserts that despite sometimes
millennia of unipolarity, hegemons are always toppled by “counterhegemonic
balancing of other great powers.”iii
China’s regional rise to power threatens the United States’ benevolent
hegemony. China’s strategic plan centers on ousting the U.S. from its unipolar
power position and asserting itself as a bipolar power without the economic
burden of relying on hard power capabilities. Its pursuit of foreign policy
that strengthens regional alliances, economic strategy that focus on
integration into the world economy, and normalization of its policies through
international institutions form a strong foundation for achieving its power
transition aspirations.iv

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     There is little need for China to develop
its hard-power or military might beyond that needed to protect its physical
borders and international waters. It doesn’t need advanced military
technologies to attain its strategic goals; it has the more cost-effective
weapon of the world economy. By entangling itself in the economies of its
regional neighbors and pursuing advantageous trade balances, China can more
attain regional supremacy and work toward global supremacy without huge
investments in military technology.

 

     The primacist view of power balancing
asserts rising nations are motivated to grow their military capabilities by
fear of being conquered and views power balances in hard power or military
terms.v
Brooks and Wohlford highlight China’s reliance on outdated Russian military
equipment as a reason that China will not achieve a power balance with the U.S.vi
A scenario in which the U.S. engages China via conventional ground, naval and
air forces to “conquer” it is unlikely. If this hard power theory held true,
with the U.S.’s global power projection superiority for the foreseeable future
it would be unlikely that China could complete its power transition and rise to
global dominance. China’s economic, military, and international policies
indicate its recognition of the unlikeliness of that scenario. China is using
“soft balancing” and “economic pre-balancing” to counter the U.S.’s global
dominance without having to incur the economic burden of attempting to grow its
military might and power projection capability to par with the U.S.vii

 

     Instead of investing in hard-power
projection, China has pursued “soft balancing” in its pursuit of power
transition. At the same time, and more insidiously, it pursues a parallel path
of “economic pre-balancing.” It focuses on closing its technology gap and
bolstering its economic base as its foundation for transition of power. This is
a more cost effective and attainable route to ascension. Much has been made of
China’s technology gap and international patent/intellectual property gap.viii
For a nation who is willing to use the research and development that other
nations have invested time and vast resources into developing, it can close the
technology gap much faster than independently investing in developing
technologies independently.

 

     If one views regions as “mini
international systems,” it becomes clear how China’s moves toward weakening the
U.S.’s unipolarity in the Asian regional system threatens the unipolar power
position.ix
In historic attempts at power transition, regional rivals have allied against a
new bid for regional hegemony or power balancing. There are no likely regional
rivals for China to face down. There is little Eurasian rivalry to concern
itself with either militarily or economically. Brooks and Wohlford assert that
China’s lack of military allies other than North Korea will impede its ability
emerge as a superpower.x
I contend, however, that China’s strategy to use its economic sway as its sword
rather than its military will negate the need for the hard-power projection.

Just as the United States would never engage in trench warfare again, so China
does not need to overdevelop its military might in order to achieve superpower
status. China is working toward a superpower economy and its integration into
the global economy will ensure it has allies.

 

     The U.S.’s reliance on being viewed as
benevolent hegemony in order to maintain its unipolar position fails when
considering China. A tenet of benevolent hegemony is that the hegemony must be
viewed at a minimum as benign and optimally as acting in others’ best interests.

China does not view the U.S.’s hegemony as benign or benevolent.xi
In democratic peace theory, two democracies are unlikely to go to war with each
other.xii
The “democratic dictatorship” that Mao Tse-tung outlinedxiii
uses words like “democracy” that reassure democratic nations but fall short of
living up to the tenets of a democracy.

 

     Despite this, the democratic peace may
prove true between the U.S. and China. China’s strategy demonstrates two
pillars of the Kantian Triangle: international organizations and economic
interdependence. Without the third leg of “democracy” this makes for a rather
lopsided by still triangular shape when democratic dictatorship is substituted.xiv
While the U.S. may not view China as a liberal democracy, normalization of its
economic policies and overtures toward humanitarian efforts will likely
persuade other nations of its democratic tendencies if not truly liberal
democracy.

 

     China’s power transition strategy uses
“soft-power” techniques to further its power transition. By integrating into
regional institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,xv
normalizing its economic policies and engaging in regional economies, China
will continue its pursuit of and likely achieve regional and ultimately global
power transition. This normalization will allow it to use democratic peace
theory, despite not being a democracy, to avoid the necessity of hard power
projection to achieve its strategic goals.

i
Layne, Unipolar Illusion 2006

ii
Mao 1949

iii
Layne, Unipolar Illusion 2006

iv
Albert 2017

v
Layne, Unipolar Illusion 2006

vi
Brooks and Wohlforth, Once and Future 2016

vii
Layne, Unipolar Illusion 2006

viii
Brooks and Wohlforth, Once and Future 2016

ix
Lim, Locating Transition 2010

x
Brooks and Wohlforth, Once and Future 2016

xi
Layne, Unipolar Illusion 2006

xii
Owen, Democratic Peace 1994

xiii
Mao 1949

xiv
Russett and Oneal, Triangulating Peace 2001

xv
Brooks and Wohlforth, Once and Future 2016

 

 

x

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