Check out other comments in this series from: Graham Allison, Gordon G. Chang, David Denoon, Michael Fabey, John Glaser, James Holmes, Lin Gang, Kishore Mahbubani, Robert Ross, Ruan Zongze, Robert Sutter, Xie Tao, Xu Feibiao and Wang Jisi.
Robert Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Associate at the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University:
U.S.-China relations are worse today than at any time since 1971, when Henry Kissinger visited China. And they will get worse.
Scholars and policy makers have long observed that rising powers and power transitions contribute to international instability and that the rise of China would be destabilizing. Over the past ten years, China has significantly narrowed the gap in U.S.-China capabilities in maritime East Asia, challenging American naval dominance. It should not be surprising that there is now heightened U.S.-China competition; the power transition is taking place in a region of vital security importance for both powers. Moreover, as this trend continues and the gap continues to narrow, tensions between the U.S. and China will increase.
China’s rise has contributed to its impatience to improve its security in East Asian waters. Surrounded by U.S. alliances and military bases, it has challenged the regional security order. It has carried out a rapid build-up of its navy, island building and oil drilling in the South China Sea, coercive policies against South Korea and Philippines in retaliation for alliance cooperation with the United States, and challenges to the maritime sovereignty claims of Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Chinese policy has been effective; American allies have begun to distance themselves from U.S. initiatives that challenge Chinese interests. Not content to allow China to erode U.S. maritime dominance, the United States has responded with a range of counter measures, including the pivot to East Asia, assignment of a greater percentage of navy ships in East Asia, frequent and high-profile naval challenges to Chinese maritime claims, and the development of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Predictably, U.S. initiatives have not curtailed rising China’s efforts to reshape the strategic order of rise nor stabilized U.S. alliances. China’s naval modernization and ship-production rate continue to close the gap in U.S.-China capabilities, contributing to further Chinese activism and heightened concern among American allies over the effectiveness of U.S. defense commitments. As U.S. naval dominance continues to erode and its alliance system experiences greater pressure, the United States will respond with stronger strategic initiatives designed to constrain Chinese activism and reassure our allies of its resolve to balance China’s rise. The power transition will continue, and, as China approaches naval parity, tensions will intensify.
Power transitions inevitably cause heightened great power conflict. The stakes are high, and, in security affairs, it is a zero-sum conflict. Nonetheless, the course and outcome of the U.S.-China power transition is not predestined. The course of the conflict, including the likelihood of war, will be determined by leaders making discreet decisions, influenced by their personalities, domestic politics, including nationalism, and international dynamics. Equally important, the outcome of the transition will be influenced by decades-long economic and political trends in China and the United States. In this respect, despite China’s recent rise, the United States possesses many enduring advantages that can favor it over the long-term.