Test of Wills: Can China Overtake America in Asia Peacefully?

May 19, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAmericaForeign Policy

Test of Wills: Can China Overtake America in Asia Peacefully?

Chinese scholars look to a crisis in America's own backyard for important insights into Beijing’s relationship with Washington. 

It is well known that Chinese social scientists have been hard at work over the last decade grappling with the intellectual challenge of great power relations, to include a special interest in “权利转移” [power transition]. It is doubtlessly encouraging to see Chinese thinkers looking outside of the narrow confines of the Chinese historical experience. It was not that long ago, after all, that they were all seeking answers from a single, little red book. I have written in another column for this Dragon Eye series that Chinese strategists keep a very close eye on Western concept development within international relations theory. Thus, the “Thucydides Trap” has become quite a common topic of discussion in Chinese circles over the last two years.

International relations theorists have long identified the Anglo-American accommodation of the late 19th century as uniquely worthy of study. This is for the obvious reason that it stands out as a unique case of peaceful power transition. A late 2014 study from the Chinese journal 中国社会科学 [Social Sciences of China] by two Tianjin academics, Han Zhaoying and Yuan Weihua, may suggest that Chinese specialists agree about the particular importance of the Anglo-American historical case. Their paper, which focuses on the 1895 Venezuela Crisis as a “典型案例” [classic case] is entitled “The Balance of National Will in the Course of the Transfer of Power – Resolution of the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895.” As the title may suggest, the findings of this study are not altogether positive, from an American perspective. Underlining the importance of the piece, a note reveals that the study was sponsored by central authorities as a “重大项目” [vital project] related to research on “new type great power relations.”

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly reassuring that Chinese scholars are reflecting deeply on the fact that peaceful power transitions “并不多见” [are extremely rare]. Moreover, the stated research question, set in the essay’s initial paragraph, can hardly be faulted: “… [H]ow can peace be preserved in the circumstances of power transition, which is fully laden with the risk of war?” Interestingly, most of the research is based on information gleaned from The Correlates of War (COW) Project, an effort by American social scientists dedicated to the “systematic accumulation of scientific knowledge about war.” Some of the observations by these Tianjin scholars about the COW data are quite interesting. For example, with respect to the pace of respective GNP growth rates during the 1880s and 1890s, they note that U.S. growth rates outpaced that of Great Britain by an average of almost 2 percent in the earlier decade, but only by .4 percent in the latter decade. They do not state this explicitly, but any reader might immediately be struck by the fact that the gulf between U.S. and Chinese average growth rates in the last few decades has been much more stark. Another interesting aspect of the overall balance in the Anglo-American rivalry that the Tianjin scholars highlight is the fact that Britain’s Navy was vastly superior to that of the United States during this period—with a threefold advantage in tonnage and a six fold advantage in naval personnel.

To summarize the crisis in question in the briefest terms, one simply needs to know that within the context of a significant border dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain, that Caracas appealed to Washington. The United States interceded on Venezuela’s behalf, insisting that Britain’s overbearing conduct violated the Monroe Doctrine, and demanded that the dispute be taken before arbitrators. After some nasty diplomatic notes and even threats were exchanged across the Atlantic, London “blinked” and agreed to the arbitration proceedings. From the Chinese point of view, the major puzzle seems to be: why did London blink, enabling a “peaceful transition” in the structure of power in the Western Hemisphere?

The Tianjin scholars discuss four alternative explanations to answer the puzzle outlined above. The first derives from “权力制衡论” [balance of power theory] and states simply that the “… formidable strength of the rising power limits the possibility for the hegemonic power to resort to force.” A second proposed explanation, “威胁制衡论” [balance of threat theory], which is quite clearly derived from Stephen Walt’s work, is that Russia and Germany formed much more imminent threats to Great Britain, which caused London to accommodate Washington. A third theory that is evaluated is described as “意图论” [a theory of intentions] and is attributed to the recent writings of Charles Kupchan. A fourth related explanation is similarly straightforward: “文化认同”[common culture].


The authors admit that each explanation has a “certain plausibility.” But all also are said to have limits. For example, the balance of power fails to explain why Britain had a much larger navy and yet ultimately yielded to American demands. Likewise, the American Civil War is brought up as an example of a brutal war fought among very similar cultures. As the title of this Chinese analysis suggests, the authors conclude that a fifth hypothesis concerning “国家意图制衡” [the balance of national will] is actually most persuasive in the case of the Venezuela Crisis. They suggest that numerous factors can influence a given country’s “national will” to include, for example, its system of government, public opinion and even a national leader’s temperament. In this crisis, hawkish statements by members of the U.S. Congress, President Grover Cleveland’s tendency to become “激怒” [infuriated] by British diplomatic maneuvers, and his implied threat: “…已经做好了战争的准备” [military preparations have already been undertaken] are all cited as examples of strong American national will in this particular crisis. By contrast, Britain’s “national will” in this crisis is evaluated by the Tianjin scholars as “weak.”

The article by these Chinese scholars is also more than a little interesting for what it reveals regarding Chinese perceptions of the American Monroe Doctrine. The authors view the 1895 Venezuela Crisis as the final step in a long process that eventually yielded a new regional system for Latin America in which the United States took over from Britain as the leading state. In their perceptions, this was accomplished in three phases: 1) 1823 – the Monroe Doctrine warned European states “不要作什么” [do not do anything]; 2) 1845-48 – President Polk altered the doctrine to warn the Europeans “不要干涉我作什么” [do not interfere in what I do]; 3) 1895—President Cleveland again elevated the doctrine to a new level “承认我是什么” [recognize what I am] or rather that they must accept a new system led by the United States. Surveying the course of America’s rise to global preeminence, these Chinese authors are careful to point out that, while the United States and Britain avoided a direct conflict in this period, that America’s rise “却并不是和平的” [was hardly peaceful].


Plenty of Western commentators have compared current Chinese strategy in the South China Sea to America’s Monroe Doctrine. This article by scholars from Tianjin may help replace speculation with actual facts regarding Chinese thinking with respect to this very important analogy. While the authors avoid making explicit comparisons to contemporary Chinese foreign policy dilemmas, it is quite easy to see how the most important theme regarding the “balance of will” could presage a highly destabilizing future for U.S.-China strategic interactions in the Asia-Pacific. Perhaps the only encouraging conclusion to emerge from this fascinating article is the important recognition provided at the denouement that suggests one of the ingredients for America’s success in the Venezuela Crisis was, in fact, the wide support of Latin American states themselves. Here is a lesson that Beijing might want to deeply reflect on.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government. 

Editor’s Note: The following is part of an occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all back articles in the series here.