NEVER IN RECENT YEARS HAS A simple question inspired so much debate. The economic rise of China and the military buildup that has followed Beijing’s boom in capital resources has driven American scholars and strategists into a frenzy of speculation over what most mainstream analysts see as an inevitable clash of great powers.
Robert Kaplan, a contributor for The Washington Post, argues that China’s increased naval power could soon squeeze the U.S. Navy – and thus American power projection – out of the East Asian sphere. The House’s recent passage of a bill imposing high tariffs on over $300 billion worth of Chinese exports to the United States has led to even more fervent speculations that the United States and China could soon butt heads; some have said that this indicates an economic conflict has already begun. For U.S. strategists, the question now becomes not if, but how U.S. interests abroad will be forced to shift because of Beijing’s resurgence.
Taking for granted that China is the most powerful state in East Asia, we must accept that the Chinese will likely make a bid for regional hegemony. This means pushing the United States away from Taiwan, and restricting American access to the first island chain, creating a sphere of influence that curves from southern Japan to the northernmost tip of the Philippines and on to Malaysia and southern Vietnam. China’s navy is technologically inferior to that of the United States, but the Chinese are specifically targeting the weaknesses of American seagoing forces. Some pessimistic projections claim that Chinese submarines will be able to force American carriers and destroyers out of the South China Sea within 10 years. Regardless of timelines and specific dates, China’s military deterrent is strong, and it’s only going to get stronger.
China’s economic power is also substantial, especially considering the methods Beijing has used to manipulate international trade through currency inflation. The renminbi is currently undervalued by 20 to 25 percent compared to the U.S. dollar, meaning that Chinese goods are selling in the United States at extremely low prices while American goods are relatively more expensive in China. This creates a trade deficit between the two states that has shifted manufacturing overseas and led to high job loss in the United States. While the Senate has not yet passed the blanket Chinese tariff bill, the die has more or less been cast. Washington is fed up with Beijing’s economic policy, and for better or for worse, our Congress is trying to do something about it.
This means three things for American interests. First, Washington’s influence in the Far East will likely be shaken up. Alliances could shift and tensions will rise. For the past several months, China’s relations with her neighbors have been strained at best: Relations with Japan and India, for example, are more dismal than they have been for years. If China doesn’t back down from congressional pressure, East Asian states will either bandwagon with what they see as a rising People’s Republic or join with the United States to balance – and hopefully slow – China’s progress.
Second, as other authors have speculated, this could mean a new trade war with China: Chinese goods will be less competitive in the United States, which might lead the Chinese to block American goods in retaliation. While this won’t force Chinese goods out of the United States, it will make them more expensive and could lead to a resurgence of American jobs or imports from other, more economically friendly, states.
Finally, and most importantly, Washington strategists might finally recognize what experts on African politics have seen on the horizon for years: A new Cold War is probably brewing with China. Not the Cold War of our grandparents, with great powers building satellite states in the developing world, but rather a period of economic tension and institutionalized conflict between the world’s two great powers. The international system is not bipolar yet, but it soon will be, and states around the world will inevitably side with one power or the other. China’s expansion into Africa is a perfect example of this: Just a few years ago, most African nations were in favor of Taiwanese independence. Now, as China invests more and more capital into countries like the Sudan, these states have increasingly favored China’s policies. This is indicative of the way the world will look in the near future.
This is not to say that America will soon be embroiled in a dire conflict. Economic embargoes could easily be avoided through World Trade Organization negotiations. American troops are not days away from armed conflict with the Chinese. Nevertheless, it is of vast strategic importance to consider the ways in which China will increasingly threaten American interests abroad.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Tuesday.