THE UNITED States and the People’s Republic of China are locked in a quiet but increasingly intense struggle for power and influence, not only in Asia, but around the world. And in spite of what many earnest and well-intentioned commentators seem to believe, the nascent Sino-American rivalry is not merely the result of misperceptions or mistaken policies; it is driven instead by forces that are deeply rooted in the shifting structure of the international system and in the very different domestic political regimes of the two Pacific powers.
Throughout history, relations between dominant and rising states have been uneasy—and often violent. Established powers tend to regard themselves as the defenders of an international order that they helped to create and from which they continue to benefit; rising powers feel constrained, even cheated, by the status quo and struggle against it to take what they think is rightfully theirs. Indeed, this story line, with its Shakespearean overtones of youth and age, vigor and decline, is among the oldest in recorded history. As far back as the fifth century BC the great Greek historian Thucydides began his study of the Peloponnesian War with the deceptively simple observation that the war’s deepest, truest cause was “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”