Hegemonic Transitions, Military Power and the Technological Frontier

Taipei 101

Some kinda scary news recently coming from the Asia-Pacific. Specifically, I am referring to this article from the New York Times which describes some significant saber rattling from China over Taiwan and a potential violent reunification. The first graph of the article describes China showing off some new military hardware in a provocative display:

The 25 Chinese fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes flew in menacing formations off the southern end of Taiwan, a show of military might on China’s National Day, Oct. 1. The incursions, dozens upon dozens, continued into the night and the days that followed and surged to the highest numbers ever on Monday, when 56 warplanes tested Taiwan’s beleaguered air defenses.

to add insult to injury the one of the Chinese pilots let a Taiwanese air traffic controller know exactly what they thought of them

China did not cower. When a Taiwanese combat air traffic controller radioed one Chinese aircraft, the pilot dismissed the challenge with an obscenity involving the officer’s mother.

Well then . . .

None of this is really that big of a deal since these sort of displays are not uncommon among great powers but what does make this conflagration more worrisome is that China’s military power has increased enough to make an invasion of Taiwan possible

China’s military might has, for the first time, made a conquest of Taiwan conceivable, perhaps even tempting. The United States wants to thwart any invasion but has watched its military dominance in Asia steadily erode. Taiwan’s own military preparedness has withered, even as its people become increasingly resistant to unification.

. . .

China’s ambitious leader, Xi Jinping, now presides over what is arguably the country’s most potent military in history. Some argue that Mr. Xi, who has set the stage to rule for a third term starting in 2022, could feel compelled to conquer Taiwan to crown his era in power.

Mr. Xi said Saturday in Beijing that Taiwan independence “was a grave lurking threat to national rejuvenation.” China wanted peaceful unification, he said, but added: “Nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will and powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Of course stuff like this gives China hawks all the more grist for their hegemonic transition/great power war mills. Parity in military power is one of the most important indicators people follow when monitoring/trying to predict a hegemonic transition between the U.S. and China. Although China is still far behind the U.S. in military power articles like this show that the gap maybe narrowing a bit. This does not mean a hegemonic transition is imminent or inevitable but rather something to continue to monitor

Another indicator to monitor for a possible hegemonic transition is the technological production frontier. In their book Transition Scenarios: China and the United States in the Twenty-First Century David Rapkin (my mentor! and RIP) and Bill Thompson (his mentor and therefore my grand mentor?) argue that the key factor indicating a hegemonic transition is underway, or has happened, is technological innovation, or who is operating out on the edge of the technological frontier. On page 85, Rapkin and Thompson state:

Specifically, we view innovation as a general and defining attribute of system leaders, a kind of activity that they undertake systematically on a continuous basis, and not merely a strategy, among others, to be pulled off the self should challengers arise. Furthermore, we think the key feature of innovation is that it brings about qualitative, sometimes revolutionary, change that enable system leaders to open initially and widen subsequently their economic and military leads.

They bring this into the U.S. – China debate by simply stating on page 87-88

If the United States retains its technological edge, it is likely to continue being the world’s lead economy. If not, it will experience relative decline and fall behind the economies of other states.

Rapkin and Thompson produce a chart in their book from a Rand study in 2006 which speculated what would be the most important technological applications in 2020. Below is the chart as it appears on page 86 of the book

It’s interesting to read this list in 2021 as no country, not the U.S. or China, is leading in the production of all of these technologies. It would be worthwhile to go through and see where both China and the U.S. land currently on the production of these technologies (perhaps in a future post?), however a few weeks ago a different list was produced in the Washington Post where the authors did a similar exercise – comparing U.S. and China production on a series of important technologies.

The Washington Post list included: smartphones, telecom network gear, commercial drones, electric vehicles, social media, mobile games, semiconductors, batteries, and solar panels. Not all of these are what I would call the technological frontier but some of them are and they all represent important technologies nonetheless. According to the charts produced by the Post it looks like the U.S. is “winning” on three of the technologies – electric vehicles, mobile games, and semiconductors while China is “winning” on – smartphones, telecom network gear, commercial drones, social media (Tiki’s Tok, lol) batteries, and solar panels. If you take this list as similar to the one produced in Rapkin and Thompson’s book than this looks like a hegemonic transition between the U.S. and China is well underway. I would pump the brakes on that however as the Post list doesn’t cover everything listed by Rapkin and Thompson and it includes some technologies that are less significant. Nevertheless, I think that this list combined with China’s increased military power shows China inching ever closer to matching U.S. technological and military power. I am still a professed China skeptic but I don’t think one can claim the gap between the two has not closed a bit

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