China Isn't Rising—It's Merely Outlasting Other Nations

Soldier in Tiananmen Square. Flickr/Creative Commons/Richard Fisher

China has been a hegemon and source of civilization for at least twenty centuries; its rise is not new.

Does China’s imperial past predict its future? Does Europe’s past predict Asia’s future? These are the wrong questions to be asking. Asia is much more than simply China, and Asia itself is much more than simply a reflection of Europe. The question is not whether there are any lessons to be drawn from Europe’s bloody past; nor is the question whether there is anything essentially Chinese that we can trace back through the mists of time which will allow us to unlock the Oriental mind. Rather, the most relevant questions are whether East Asia as a region experienced any enduring patterns or dynamics, and if so, then what are the implications for regional security in the twenty-first century?

The answers to these questions is clearly, “Yes.” East Asia has usually been unipolar, and often hegemonic. Today the region has returned to unipolarity so quickly that almost nobody has noticed. Whether China can again become a hegemon, however, is far less certain.

After a tumultuous twentieth century, an East Asian regional power transition has already occurred, and occurred peacefully. Despite endless pessimistic predictions of the return of the balance of power politics to Asia, China’s rise in the region is already over. China’s share of regional GDP grew from 8 percent in 1990 to 51 percent in 2014, while Japan’s share fell from 72 percent in 1990 to 22 percent. The past quarter-century has seen a head-spinningly fast regional power transition. Countries are rapidly increasing their economic ties to China and each other. East Asian countries have steadily reduced their defense spending because they see little need to arm. China passed Japan in overall size without a blink from anyone in the region. The only remaining question is how big the gap between China and its neighbors will become. In fact, the difference in size between China and its neighbors is already so stark as to be almost impossible to put on the same chart.

This leads to an uncomfortable conundrum for all the pessimists out there who bleat endlessly about the return of power politics in Asia, or who wishfully hope for Abe to lead a powerful Japan to compete with China:

Considering the ample evidence of China’s rising power, states in the region could easily have already begun a vigorous counterbalancing strategy against China if that were their intention. It seems reasonable to argue that if states were going to balance against China, then they would have begun by now. Those who predict that a containment coalition will rise against China in the future need to explain why this has not already occurred, despite three decades of transparent and rapid Chinese economic, diplomatic and military growth. Idle speculation about what could happen decades from now provides little insight into the decisions states are making today. If China’s neighbors believed China would be more dangerous in the future, they would have begun preparing for that possibility already.

Problems with Using European History to Understand Asia’s Present

The tendency to use European comparisons to understand Asia is unsurprising. Our theories of multipolarity, alliances and balance-of-power politics were largely inductively derived from the European historical experience, but have been presented as universal phenomena. Yet the Western international system grew and spread out of something that preceded it that was quite different. Because of the triumph of the nation-state system, it is forgotten that other international orders have existed, and might exist again. The current international system is actually a recent phenomenon in the scope of world history, but to date it has generally been studied from within: scholars studied European history to explain how this European model for international relations developed over time.

Arguments about Asia’s future thus become arguments about European history, instead. And, using Europe as a lens through which to view Asia also implies that learning about Asia must not be that important. After all, if European history is all we need to understand Asia’s future, then why put in the enormous effort to master an Asian language? Why put in the years of time and effort to become comfortable with the history, culture and society of an Asian country?