Is the International System Transitioning to Chinese Hegemony? Not yet


Two interesting articles were published recently highlighting China’s opportunity to assume more leadership in global politics now that the U.S. is governed by an ignorant man child.  The first by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker argues that America’s incoherent foreign policy under Trump has opened the door further for China to assume more global leadership responsibilities.  The second one by Edward Wong, reflecting on his years of covering China, argues that if China does acquire more global responsibilities in the absence of U.S. leadership it will be because of its ability to coerce rather than the attraction of the “China model.”  Wong ends his article with a very ominous look into a future where China is the world’s most dominant state.

“But for now, the Communist Party embraces hard power and coercion, and this could well be what replaces the fading liberal hegemony of the United States on the global stage.  It will not lead to a grand vision of world order. Instead, before us looms a void.”

Both article highlight the dark side of potential Chinese hegemony while breezing by the United State’s own “empire” like activity.  Ultimately, however, both make a good point that the U.S. abdication of many of its global responsibilities under Trump is opening the door for China to take a greater global role which they are seizing with coercion (Wong) and technological progress (Osnos).

There are many possible “transition scenarios” that can play out in the U.S.-China rivalry.  My advisor, David Rapkin (along with his advisor William Thompson) even wrote a book outlining many of these scenarios.  One of the issues they discuss in judging the plausibility of certain scenarios is whether to give more credence to quantitative indicators of structural change (China GDP surpassing U.S. GDP for example) or to more qualitative indicators (technological innovation and legitimacy). They argue that its possible to have structural change in the international system (China surpasses the U.S. on many economic and military quantitative indicators such as GDP) but without a power transition where China becomes the hegemon.  This is because China may not able to close the qualitative gap with the U.S. (lags the U.S. in technological innovation and legitimacy).  The Osnos article spends a lot of time highlighting China’s advancement in new technologies such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition software along with U.S. retrenchment in those areas.

“in concrete terms, why does it matter if America retreats and China advances? One realm in which the effects are visible is technology, where Chinese and American companies are competing not simply for profits but also to shape the rules concerning privacy, fairness, and censorship.

“Before Trump took office, the Chinese government was far outspending the U.S. in the development of the types of artificial intelligence with benefits for espionage and security. According to In-Q-Tel, an investment arm of the United States intelligence community, the U.S. government spent an estimated $1.2 billion on unclassified A.I. programs in 2016. The Chinese government, in its current five-year plan, has committed a hundred and fifty billion dollars to A.I.

The Trump Administration’s proposed 2018 budget would cut scientific research by fifteen per cent, or $11.1 billion. That includes a ten-per-cent decrease in the National Science Foundation’s spending on “intelligent systems.”

If China is able to become the world leader in technological innovations then it will take a big step forward in closing the qualitative gap between itself and the U.S.  But technological innovation is not the only gap China needs to close.  It needs to gain a lot more international legitimacy if it wants to really close the qualitative gap with the U.S.  While Trump is doing his best to sully the good name of the U.S. the rest of the world still has an overall more positive view of the U.S. than China:

(Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project)

Also if the U.S. is able to move beyond Trump its international image should rebound as it did When Obama took office in 2009:

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 11.01.16 AM

The best thing the U.S. has going for it in terms of holding off Chinese hegemony is its relatively open society, its relative respect for human rights and democracy, and its world class higher education system.  All things Donald Trump and the Republican party would love to take a pick axe to.  Until they are successful with that however the U.S. will still maintain a qualitative edge over China.

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