April 13, 2011

China's Hard Power and the Potential for Conflict in Asia

Whether China's ascendance will culminate in conflict is the seminal question of our era. International relations theory and history suggest that new powers, particularly if autocratic, do not rise peacefully. As its hard power has increased, China has begun to move away from a grand strategy of restraint. The United States and other likeminded countries, however, still have time to shape China's choices and avert conflict.

The downside of rising Chinese power has become evident in recent years. Buoyed by a rapid recovery from the global financial crisis, Asia's emerging superpower is displaying a newfound assertiveness. China has attempted to obstruct freedom of navigation in the waters off its coast, downplayed North Korean aggression, escalated a simmering maritime dispute with Japan, and ratcheted up pressure against littoral states with territorial claims in the South China Sea. Occurring against the backdrop of a continuing increase in Chinese hard power, these developments raise the question:
Will China's rise occur peacefully or culminate in conflict?

Although a definitive answer remains beyond our reach, informed forecasting is possible. This article takes international relations theory as a starting point for assessing whether China will utilize its hard power in coercive ways. We then distill lessons from several historic power transitions before returning to the present and surveying China's economic and military capabilities. What follows next is an evaluation of China's changing grand strategy. We conclude by offering policy recommendations on how to reduce the likelihood of a conflict with China.

Read the full article at SERI Quarterly.