Can China put an end to US hegemony?

Can China put an end to US hegemony?

The consensus opinion among international relations experts indicates that the United States is in decline relative to the rise of China. The most salient indicator of this relative decline was said to be the fact that the former has recently experienced an economic downturn, while the latter has been growing at impressive rates for the last three decades (including during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009). Other signs of this “trend” are listed as follows: the U.S. has a large budget deficit while China is a net creditor to it, China has a huge population and GDP, which bring forth excessive energy and raw material demand, and its overall trade (exports+imports) surpasses that of the U.S. Furthermore, the “imperial overstretch” of the U.S. entails an inability to confront variable coalitions in addition to economic and diplomatic initiatives and unconventional resistance methods devised by rising powers within their respective regions.

According to this widespread narrative, weaker countries take advantage of this emerging “non-polarity” and “diffusion” (instead of “transition”) of power through free-riding, easier technological absorption, and increasing imbalances in global trade. As a result of evolving economic realities of the U.S.-led capitalist system, American and Western FDI is flowing into rising powers’ domains while home industries and production in the former countries are inevitably inhibited. And as technology and industry spreads through a spiral of chaos, military capabilities of rising powers cannot be restrained through formal policies. Rising powers easily imitate, import, reverse-engineer, or even innovate new technologies which help them “leap-frog” up in the value chain; while currently advanced countries relatively stagnate due to the inefficiency and time-taking processes of investing in the foremost technology.

The only relevant solution to put an end to the demise of Western power (at least for a while) is adopting a mercantilist trade policy, leaving aside free trade and commercial/financial liberalization. Furthermore, the U.S. should give up its liabilities all around the globe and avoid overseas adventures (such as alliances in the Asia-Pacific and interventions in the Greater Middle East). The main reasoning behind this set of policy suggestions is that the hegemon’s influence extends at the cost of multiplying and magnifying challenges to its vital interests, while creating an additional and crippling burden on its resources.

Going beyond fiction

Nevertheless, an alternative view which sounds more realistic suggests that the U.S. is more than able to channel and manipulate the financial and power balances in its favor due to globalization and the hegemonic power it upholds. Neither barely quantitative analyses, nor comparing statistical data regarding a rising power’s growth rates (in this case, Chinese growth rates) just with its performance in a previous time-period will directly yield reliable results reflecting the relative share of power. For instance, 90 percent of Chinese high-tech exports consist of products for foreign firms in addition to low-tech components. China may have a lead in the number of scientists it raises, but we can speak of no qualitative advancement relative to the U.S. in terms of innovation and patents. Furthermore, Beijing’s growth rates are high because of the fact that it was largely underdeveloped and totally closed to the rest of the world at the time when the third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to open up the country’s economy back in 1978.

Hence, China is clearly rising, but it is obviously nowhere close to catching up with the U.S.; the latter of which can still be denoted as the system-maker and primary party to gain the utmost privilege due to the maintenance and advancement of the contemporary international system in line with liberal goals.

The U.S. maintains its ability to most efficiently utilize “sticks-and-carrots” policies, diplomatic gestures and penalties, restrictions or provisions for access to top world markets, support or denial of membership in top international organizations and many similar tools granted by the system. It can set global agendas in and of itself, and normative frameworks to which all nations are subjected. Furthermore, despite entailing sizeable costs, maintaining its military superiority requires Washington to shoulder a relatively (not in absolute terms) light burden but huge diplomatic and political leverage in the face of its “contenders.”

In the end, the alternative view briefly explained above clearly demonstrates that it is structural power and qualitative evaluations, but not quantitative measures of preponderant power, which truly account for sustaining hegemony; as such, the U.S. does not face a single contender at all.

Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu is an analyst with the USAK think tank.