Will China’s rise be peaceful? Academics from around the world give their verdict

This bronze imperial guardian lion is one of a pair which guard the Gate of Supreme Harmony - the second major gate in the south of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

The China Debate 2019, organised by the SOAS China Institute, brings together four leading China experts, from the USA, China and the UK, to address the question ‘Will China’s rise be peaceful?’ China’s rise as a Global power is undoubtedly one of the most important contemporary issues on the international stage. 

Ahead of the event, here’s what 3 of them had to say.

David M. Lampton (Johns Hopkins-SAIS and Stanford University)

In terms of major power relations, how the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) deal with each other is the central, big power foreign policy issue of our times.  The three pillars of the U.S.-China relationship for the last four decades (security, economics, and cultural educational ties) have been undermined by political trends and the senior-most leaders in both societies. In the process, a revisionist, mistaken narrative is taking root in both nations that the last forty years of “comprehensive engagement” was mistaken.

I argue that the core problem in Sino-American relations is that security ties are deteriorating rapidly. This deterioration, in turn, infects the other previously supportive pillars of the relationship, namely economic and educational ties. Therefore, the central need is to restore a compelling, positive security rationale for constructive bilateral ties in a very different circumstance than existed when Richard Nixon went to China in 1972. The other major need is to introduce more reciprocity into bilateral relations so that Americans come to perceive Beijing will cease tilting the economic, education, and media playing fields so lopsidedly in its own favour. Ultimately, more reform-oriented and multi-lateralist political environments in both nations is required. Until that day comes, if it comes, we must try to limit damage by not forgetting everything we learned over the last four-plus decades. History teaches that Sino-American conflict can be very costly for both countries and the world.

Katherine Morton (University of Sheffield)

Under Xi Jinping, China’s future ambition is to become a global power by 2049. This includes building a military with the capability to “win wars” by 2035. Whether these goals can be achieved will depend upon domestic developments as well as changing international conditions. How other states respond to China’s global ambition, especially the United States, really matters. From this vantage point, I am becoming increasingly pessimistic for three reasons. First, the US has pursued a policy of engagement with China over the past four decades aimed at integrating it into the liberal rules-based international system. It is now widely perceived in Washington that this policy has failed, leading to a hardening stance towards China. Second, we are witnessing a growing divergence between the US-led international order and China’s grand strategy for national rejuvenation. The possibility for constructive engagement still remains, but this is going to require a fundamental reset of foreign policy on both sides. Finally, the general consensus is that China’s reform and opening to the world has generated multiple benefits. But as the balance of economic opportunities tilts more strongly in China’s favour, and in the absence of domestic reforms, this consensus is likely to breakdown. In combination these trends suggest that we are moving more in the direction of greater competition. The question is whether it is possible to identify a common strategic purpose that would help to stabilise US-China relations during a period of considerable turbulence in international affairs.

Zhu Feng (Nanjing University)

I believe that China’s rise will be mostly peaceful as its rise happens to be under a unipolar system. The power gap between China and the US will be overwhelmingly large and I see no likeliness it will narrow down. In addition, China has no reason to want to take the option of a non-peaceful rise in light of the solidity of the US-centred alliance system. Of course, no one could exclude incidental military conflict caused by an unplanned military encounter. But there is no way China would deliberately challenge US primacy by its military moves. Finally, China by nature is a developmentalist power. It defines its main interests, and its scrambling domestic transition will also add to its strategic vulnerability if it risks military adventurism.

The China Debate 2019 will take place at the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, SOAS on Tuesday, 7 May.

Contributed by Aki Elborzi, SOAS China Institute

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