The Power-Transition Discourse and China’s Rise
Summary and Keywords
The idea of power transition, or power shift, has recently been much in vogue in scholarly, policy, and even popular discourse. It has, for example, motivated a resurgent interest in the power-transition theory and the danger of the so-called Thucydides trap. China’s recent rise has especially motivated an interest in these topics, engendering concerns about whether this development means that China is on a collision course with the United States. These concerns stem from the proposition that the danger of a system-destabilizing war increases when a rising power catches up to a declining hegemon and challenges the latter’s preeminent position in the international system. Thucydides’s famous remark about the origin of the Peloponnesian War, claiming that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable” in ancient Greece, has frequently been invoked to support this view. Whereas power shift is a generic term referring to any change in the balance of capabilities between two or more states, power transition is a more specific concept pointing to a reversal of positions whereby a rising latecomer overtakes a previous dominant power in the international system (or at least when this latecomer approaches power parity with the dominant power). Power-transition theory presents a contemporary version of Thucydides’s explanation of the Peloponnesian War. It calls attention to the changing power relationships among the world’s major states and provides a seemingly cogent framework to understand the dynamics that can produce war between these states and their respective allies.
A careful reader will immediately find the preceding paragraph unsatisfactory as it contains several important ambiguities. For instance, what do we mean by “major states” or “great powers,” and what do we have in mind when we refer to changes in their relative “power”? Also, does the power-transition theory claim that war is likely to break out when there is a change in the identity of the world’s most powerful country? Or does it also say that war is likely to occur even in the absence of a late-rising state overtaking, and therefore displacing, an incumbent hegemon? If so, how closely does the late-rising state have to match the incumbent’s power capabilities before the power-transition theory predicts a war between them? Would the latecomer have to reach at least 80%, 90%, or even 95% of the incumbent’s power before an approximate parity between the two is achieved? Does the power-transition theory pertain only to the relationship between the world’s two most powerful states, or does it apply to other states? And if power transition is a necessary but insufficient condition for war, what are the other pertinent variables and their interaction effects with power shifts? Finally, what do we mean by war or systemic war? The answers to these questions are not self-evident. How they are dealt with—or not—is in itself suggestive of the power relations in the world being studied by scholars and these scholars’ positions in this world and their relations to it.
The Power of Ideas and Discourse
There is already a large literature on the historical evidence pertaining to the rise and decline of major states and the effects that these power shifts have had on the occurrence of systemic wars. (For trenchant reviews of the research program on power transition, see Dicicco & Levy, 1999; Lebow & Valentino, 2009; Levy, 2008b; Rapkin & Thompson, 2013; Vasquez, 1996.) Although evidence and conclusions drawn from this literature (such as when questions like those raised in the Summary are addressed) are often referred to here, a subject that has heretofore received much less scholarly and policy attention will be discussed. The central concern here is the manner in which power shift or power transition as an idea has been deployed in popular scholarly discourse in the United States in particular, and the power that this discourse has had in influencing public perceptions and shaping policy dispositions in this country and elsewhere. This discourse propagates a particular view or understanding of international relations, and it has a powerful impact independent of the actual processes of change affecting the relative status and capabilities of the major states. To the extent that people’s perceptions and ideas matter for their actions, we need to come to grips with the power of this discourse. In other words, it is argued here that the manner in which the idea of power shift or power transition has been presented and analyzed is consequential for setting the policy agenda, framing popular discussion, and mobilizing elite and public opinion.
To the extent that both scholarly agenda and popular discourse have reflected a common premise of shared claims—claims that are widely but often uncritically accepted—they demonstrate a form of cultural hegemony as described by Antonio Gramsci (1971). They feature certain dominant ideas that most people take as normal, natural, and even self-evidently legitimate. Alternatives to these dominant ideas or interpretations do not receive nearly an equal amount of attention. The dominant narrative is presented and accepted as objectively true even when its interpretations are a matter of serious contestation. As just stated, the concern here is about what are generally accepted as mainstream ideas or conventional wisdom, not just in the United States but also in many other countries.
Ideology—reflecting people’s values and beliefs—provides an invisible form of power. Many writing in the Marxist tradition, including Gramsci, have emphasized that the reproduction of class relations depends not just on instruments of outright coercion. The dominance of the ruling class’s ideas also plays a critical role. Indeed, this power to persuade and coopt is far more effective in gaining the working class’s consent in bourgeois societies. Friedrich Engels has been credited with coining the term “false consciousness” in describing how the proletariat sometimes fails to grasp the exploitative nature of class relations, thereby enabling the capitalist class to maintain its power grip. To the extent that workers and other citizens are socialized or indoctrinated to accept the existing social, economic, and political order as legitimate, inevitable, and even natural, they will be unable to imagine any alternative to the status quo.
One does not have to be a Marxist to understand and appreciate the power of ideas and discourses. Scholars sharing the constructive approach to studying politics have argued persuasively that people respond to the world around them based on the meaning they attribute to this world (including their own social positions and relations in this world), and not to some objective reality (e.g., Wendt, 1992, 1999). Moreover, this social understanding and the production of knowledge itself are inseparable from the power relations that define social actors. Michel Foucault (quoted in Pan, 2012, p. 17) has famously argued that “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge”; nor is there “any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” Although international relations analysts aspire to objective knowledge, their enterprise cannot but reflect their subjective interpretation of the “world out there.” In Jim George’s words (quoted in Pan, 2012, p. 17), “the process of discursive representation is never a neutral, detached one but is always imbued with the power and authority of the namers and makers of reality—it is always knowledge as power.” The conduct of scholarly discourses and practices is therefore connected intimately to the power politics of international relations that they seek to study. These fields are mutually constitutive and reinforcing.
Several analysts have developed closely related concepts such as “productive power” (Morriss, 2002), “narrative power” (Manners, 2002), and “ideational statecraft” (Hagstrom, 2005). They all refer to the more fundamental constitutive effects in the exercise of power in contrast to the typical concern with the causal effects of this exercise, with the latter concern usually defined as A’s ability to get B to behave in a way that it would not otherwise do—that is, to get B to behave contrary to its original interests or initial preferences. Productive, narrative, or normative power points instead to A’s ability to get B to see that its interests and preferences are closely aligned with and even identical to A’s. Thus, it refers to A’s ability to propagate and gain widespread acceptance of its views, ideas, and symbols. This kind of power has a constitutive effect because it influences B’s construction of its identity and derivatively, its definition of its interests and preferences. As Hagstrom and Jerden (2014, p. 347) have remarked, this is the “ability to define what passes for ‘normal’ in world politics” (Manners, 2002, p. 236) or “an actor’s ability to present his own particular worldview as compatible with the communal aims” (Nabers, 2010, p. 938). As such, this constitutive power permeates public discourses, influencing how people think and therefore how they act by shaping their understanding of what is normal and natural.
“Hence, knowledge production, including scholarship, plays an important role in promoting collective understandings in which certain ideas are seen as ‘legitimate’ and others as ‘outlandish.’ Knowledge production thus becomes deeply entangled in power politics” (Hagstrom & Jerden, 2014, p. 352). The ideas pursued and propagated by the scholarly community do not reflect some independent reality but are rather part of the existing power relations. Scholars’ works also inevitably constitute the world they study. Rather than presenting or accepting their production of knowledge as neutral and disinterested, a greater degree of self-reflection and self-scrutiny would be warranted to appreciate the hegemonic influence of certain ideas such as the so-called Thucydides trap.
The ideas and narratives provided by scholars can also often tell us more about them than about the subjects of their study. “We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are”—words of wisdom that have been assigned to Anais Nin as well as the Talmud. In this important sense, Chengxin Pan (2012, p. 43) argues that much of the recent Western writings on the so-called China threat theory have been autobiographical. The typical representation of China we encounter in this literature “has less to do with ‘what China is’ than with what China watchers’ own situatedness in certain Western self-imagination.” Pan quotes Harold Isaacs in a similar vein: “By examining the images we hold, say, of the Chinese and Indians, we can learn a great deal about Chinese and Indians, but mostly we learn about ourselves” (Pan, 2012, p. 43).
The power-transition narrative is one example that projects a particular interpretation of World Wars I and II to the analysis of contemporary China. In its crudest form, it warns that today’s China is a replica of imperial and Nazi Germany. The causal story it tells about the origins of these global conflagrations reveals its proponents’ fears and hopes. Their selection of cases representing power transition and their explanation of historical outcomes also highlight their self-imaginations. For example, what is in their mind concerning about China’s rise today would not or did not apply to the United States in the late 19th century during the United States’ ascendance to status as the world’s premier power. By “othering” China, these scholars implicitly or explicitly affirm what the United States (the Self) was not—and is not. Thus, the United States’ overtaking of Britain was benign and peaceful because unlike China today, the United States was ostensibly a democracy then (even though women and minorities did not yet have suffrage) or because it was a satisfied power (even though the United States had expanded its territory many times more in the preceding decades compared to imperial Germany and contemporary China). There are therefore two categories of states: one consisting of authoritarian, dissatisfied, and aggressive countries such as contemporary China and imperial Germany, and the other consisting of democratic, satisfied, and peaceful ones like the United States. The power-transition theory is thus supposed to pertain to just the former category but not the latter. But those who invoke this theory often fail to offer a detailed discussion of the analytic logic and historical evidence that have guided their assignment of specific countries to these categories or that have informed their understanding of the manner in which the putative country attributes have interacted with power shifts to influence the prospects of war and peace in the past.
As William Thompson (1999, p. 213) has concluded, “the most difficult position to defend is the extreme argument that democratization was primarily responsible for the decline of Anglo-American conflict.” Yet the idea that this variable accounted for the peaceful power transition between these two countries has persisted and has been extended to contemporary Sino-American relations, with the argument that if only China were a democracy, power shifts between it and the United States would not be worrisome (e.g., Friedberg, 2011). Moreover, the idea that the United States was a status-quo power has also been propagated as a matter of historical fact, even though it has had “a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequaled by any people in the nineteenth century” (Henry Cabot Lodge quoted by Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 238).
Remarkably, membership in the two opposing categories of countries (peaceful versus aggressive, democratic versus authoritarian, status-quo oriented versus revisionist) can change rather quickly and easily. Thus, whereas Kaiser’s Germany was once admired as a paragon of the constitutional state, bureaucratic efficiency, and rule of law by many Americans (including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson), this view turned negative as World War I approached and Germany was increasingly depicted as despotic and aggressive (Oren, 2003). Similarly, Americans’ image of China changed sharply from negative to positive after U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, even though the Chinese regime’s basic character had remained essentially the same. China became perceived as a strategic partner to contain the USSR, even though it was itself not so long ago the target of U.S. containment. Americans’ perceptions of China turned negative again after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the Cold War’s end in the early 1990s. Again, this perceptual shift occurred in the absence of any basic alteration in the Chinese regime or its policy orientation in the interim. In recent years, the U.S. discourse on the so-called China threat has risen, when Beijing’s foreign policies have actually become less bellicose than in the earlier decades of the People’s Republic and when Chinese society has become more open and China itself has become more so to the rest of the world. Rather, changes in popular images and scholarly discourse in the United States tend to follow and reflect more the ups and downs of official relations between these countries than anything about what China is or does.
Given its emphatic focus on the power distribution among the world’s major states, the power-transition theory naturally shows a palpable sense of disquiet, anxiety, and even insecurity when it turns its attention to China’s growing economy and military. China’s rise is a concern, even though by any objective measure this country is still far behind the United States in its national capability. Many scholars, both Americans and non-Americans, have of course commented on the persistence of the U.S. hegemony and have even heralded its status as a “unipolar” power (e.g., Beckley, 2011/2012; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2008; Cox, 2012; Nau, 1990; Nye, 1990; Russett, 1985; Strange, 1987). In commenting on the U.S. military supremacy, historian Paul Kennedy remarked in 2002 that “[n]othing has ever existed like this disparity of power, nothing . . . I have returned to all of the comparative defense spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled for The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close” (quoted in Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2009, p. 10). Those who view China’s rise as a threat are of course not reassured, even though, objectively speaking, this extent of U.S. military supremacy and this country’s geographic position (being flanked by two oceans and bordering only two relatively weak neighbors) should make Americans feel safer than the citizens of any other country.
The United States became the only superpower in the world after the USSR’s demise, even though some scholars have predicted that its unipolar status will be short-lived (e.g., Layne, 1993, 2006, 2009a, 2012). This significant power shift in the international political economy and military balance, however, is rarely taken up by those concerned about China’s rise. Evidently, not all power shifts are the same. The power-transition theory focuses on the danger of war when a latecomer catches up to an existing leading state, but it does not concern itself with the question of whether this danger can also increase when an incumbent hegemon is empowered to act more unilaterally and assertively because other states have become less able to restrain it (e.g., Brooks & Wohlforth, 2008).
The case of U.S. relative power gains in the wake of the USSR’s dissolution deserves attention for another reason. How much of this phenomenon can or should be explained by the U.S. rise, and how much of it should be attributed to the decline and demise of its Cold War nemesis? Lebow and Valentino (2009, p. 399) argue that some of the past power transitions among major European states were more the consequences of the defeat or collapse of the Spanish Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than necessarily the rise or catch-up of the upstart states. Thus, these power shifts can also reflect the outcomes of wars rather than their causes. For example, wars of national unification enabled Prussia/Germany and Italy to gain upward mobility in the European power hierarchy. The communist victory in the Chinese civil war also laid the political foundation for the country’s subsequent economic growth. Wars and power shifts can thus have a reciprocal influence on each other rather than just a one-way causality going from power shift to war.. Arguably, power shifts—even sharply deleterious ones as in the case of the USSR’s decision to settle the Cold War—can also incline the leaders of a country to retrench and cease its global rivalry, thereby boosting the prospects of peace and reconciliation (Wohlforth, 2003). The power-transition theory is therefore highly selective in its attention to the prospective danger of war occasioned only by the rise of a secondary power without also considering the effects of those other possibilities of power shifts, as suggested in this and the preceding paragraphs.
Relatively little attempt has been made to provide a coherent and unified explanation that addresses not only a situation in which an upstart manages to close the capability gap separating it from an incumbent hegemon, but also the phenomenon of this incumbent hegemon extending further its power advantage over the rest of the world. In contrast to the power-transition theory’s focus on a single global hierarchy, analysts such as Jack Levy (2008b) and William Thompson (1996, 1997, 2000) have called attention to the interactions between the global hierarchy and the regional hierarchy in 19th-century Europe or today’s Asia (e.g., Rapkin & Thompson, 2003, 2013). A concentration of power at the global level has rarely been confronted by an antihegemonic coalition, whereas in 19th-century Europe, such a development at the regional level has recurrently invited balance-of-power dynamics. Whether regional relations in contemporary East Asia are being driven again by the same balance-of-power dynamics is an empirical question, and the available evidence is open to debate (e.g., Chan, 2012; Ross, 2004, 2006). It is plausible that a combination of global deconcentration of power and a concomitant regional concentration of power (whether in 19th-century Europe or contemporary East Asia) presages an increased danger of war (see also Levy & Thompson, 2005, 2010). In the 19th century, it is plausible that a trend toward regional power concentration in Europe (by Germany) might have threatened a global hegemon (taken by the power-transition theory to mean Britain). But can this situation also be applied to today—that is, is it also plausible to argue that China’s rising power in Asia poses a similar threat to the U.S. global hegemony (unlike Britain, the United States is not located nearby China)? Whether plausible or not, it is important not to conflate the global and regional levels of analysis.
One also need not argue that the incumbent hegemon is necessarily the defender of the international status quo; this being the case, its accumulation of additional power does not threaten other countries but rather protects them. Conversely, a rising latecomer is not inevitably a revisionist state and hence a destabilizing influence in international relations. After all, in recent years the United States has been a persistent advocate of regime change abroad, whereas China has instead argued in favor of the Westphalian principle of national sovereignty (for a discussion of how Beijing’s position has evolved from a blanket opposition to international interventions to supporting and even participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions, see Carlson, 2006). As Johnston and Ross (1999, pp. 291–292) have remarked, “In contrast to the Maoist era, China propagates no ideology to be spread around through the intervention in the internal affairs of others. Indeed, the predominant ideology that the Chinese leaders promote today is sovereignty and autonomy, and the illegitimacy of intervention in the internal affairs of others.”
Ironically, when it comes to many U.S. and Western scholars’ expectations of what China will do in the future, their prognoses also often reflect consciously or unconsciously what the United States or the West has itself done in the past. That is, there is a tendency to project future Chinese conduct through the prism of past U.S. or Western practice or experience. For example, U.S. officials and scholars often claim that Beijing’s current policies are motivated by a desire to drive out U.S. influence in East Asia (e.g., Lieberthal & Wang, 2012). In the words of the preeminent writer on offensive realism, John J. Mearsheimer, “we would expect China to attempt to dominate Japan and Korea, as well as other regional actors, by building military forces that are so powerful that those other states would not dare challenge it. We would also expect China to develop its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, directed at the United States. Just as the United States made it clear to distant great powers that they were not allowed to meddle in the Western Hemisphere, China will make it clear that American interference in Asia is unacceptable” (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 401).
Expressing a similar concern, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (2000, p. 56) claimed that “China resents the role of the United States in the Asia Pacific region. This means that China is not a ‘status-quo’ power, but one that would like to alter Asia’s strategic balance in its own favor.” By implication there are countries that do not seek to alter strategic balance in their own favor; the United States belongs to this category but not China. Moreover, whether a state is revisionist or status-quo oriented is to be judged by its policies toward the dominant power, which is treated as synonymous to the international order. Commenting on such views, Benjamin Schwarz (2005, p. 27) remarks:
Hardliners and moderates, Republicans and Democrats, agree that America is strategically dominant in East Asia and the eastern [sic] Pacific—China’s backyard. They further agree that America should retain its dominance there. Thus U.S. military planners define as a threat Beijing’s efforts to remedy its own weak position in the face of overwhelming superiority that they acknowledge the United States holds right up to the edge of the Asian mainland. This probably reveals more about our ambitions than it does about China’s. Imagine if the situation is reversed, and China’s air and naval power were a dominant and potentially menacing presence on the coastal shelf of North America. Wouldn’t we want to offset that preponderance?
John Mearsheimer is, of course, known for his strong advocacy of offensive realism, arguing that
[t]he overriding goal of each state is to maximize its share of world power, which means gaining power at the expense of other states. But great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest of all the great powers, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon—that is, the only great power in the system.
(Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 2)
Yet, Mearsheimer avers that after consolidating its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has had, and indeed should have, only the aim of preventing another regional hegemon from rising elsewhere. Thus, inexplicably, he argues that the United States did and should go on the defense rather than seeking further expansion beyond the Western Hemisphere. Mearsheimer therefore proposes the role of an “offshore balancer” for the United States (e.g., Mearsheimer & Walt, 2016) in Europe and the Middle East—although not in East Asia where he believes China’s rise will be inevitably unpeaceful (Mearsheimer, 2006). As in many other scenarios that have been written about possible futures involving Sino-American clashes (Rapkin & Thompson, 2013, p. 39), his view is Sino-centric since it is always “China that sets things in motion—never the United States.” Naturally, it is also odd to hear in a theory of offensive realism that a regional hegemon (a status that only the United States has managed to successfully achieve) would change its disposition and go on the defense as an offshore balancer rather than continuing its expansion to eliminate its competitors (Rapkin & Thompson, 2013, p. 56).
Even though the United States has in some years spent almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined (U.S. military spending amounted to 49% of the entire world’s military spending in 1995 and 46% in 2006; http://www.cfr.org/defense-budget/trends-us-miitary-spending/p28855 and www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0904504.html), those who invoke the power-transition theory are worried about China’s increasing defense budget. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld asked in 2005, “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing [Chinese] investment [in defense]?” (quoted in Pan, 2014, p. 101). In his view, Beijing’s increasing military expenditures must necessarily mean its aggressive intention since “no nation threatens China.” Thus, despite its own overwhelming military superiority, “Washington rejects the notion that China has any justifiable basis for regarding the American military presence in East Asia as threatening to its interests” (Layne, 2009b, p. 121).
As Pan (2012, p. 48) points out, narratives on power transition not only habitually describe China’s Otherness but also, paradoxically, are inclined to voice concerns about this country’s emergent sameness with the United States’ own past conduct—concerns such as China will replicate its attempts to establish military dominance, seek territorial expansion, conquer foreign markets, and build extensive alliances. For example, statements about China’s ambitious claims in the South China Sea and its purported plan to build a blue-water navy at least implicitly recall events during a comparable period of U.S. ascent, such as Washington’s annexation, conquest, or invasion of the Hawaiian archipelago, the Panama Canal zone, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba—actions that extended the U.S. maritime frontiers to a far greater extent than the current Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Similarly, U.S. commentaries on Chinese designs on Taiwan often present scripts reminiscent of Washington’s own actions toward Cuba such as during the Bay of Pigs episode in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and in the imposition of the 1901 Platt Amendment on that country.
Whether drawing attention to differences or similarities, one’s descriptions of others often reveal more about oneself than about them. This tendency does not just show the fears voiced by U.S. hardliners who advocate policies to contain China before it gains too much power to challenge the United States or the West more generally. It also manifests itself when those favoring policies to engage China express the hope that, as a result of this country’s economic and social liberalization and its increasing integration into the international community, it will become more democratic and consequently more peaceful as a “responsible stakeholder.” In short, it will hopefully become more “like us.” This tendency recalls an earlier era when many Western missionaries, including Americans, went to China hoping to uplift this country by converting its people to Christianity—and in the memorable words of Nebraska’s Senator Kenneth Wherry, “with God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, until it is just like Kansas City” (https://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/traveling/hidden-treasures-shanghai-just-kansas-city.html). Thus, China is often the object of bimodal treatment showing either the writers’ fears and insecurity or their hopes and fascination. In either case, these writings often reflect and disclose their authors’ implicit self-referencing and -imagination.
The Power-Transition Narrative
Political science as a discipline originated in the United States., and Americans have dominated this discipline and its subfield of international relations. While political scientists and international relations scholars take pride in their study as an objective inquiry, the discipline’s development has not been immune from ideological influences and many of its preeminent figures have been deeply involved in the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy (Oren, 2003). Various national security agencies of the U.S. government have funded large research projects, including those in international relations. Unsurprisingly, this subfield’s popular theories and research agendas have reflected largely U.S. perspectives and preoccupations. Moreover, because U.S. graduate programs have trained the largest number of foreign students, these theories and agendas have also gained significant influence abroad. Even Chinese scholars and analysts often embrace the logic and concepts commonly featured in the United States discourse on power transition without questioning them. The propagation of these ideas demonstrates U.S. soft power (Nye, 2004), and it accounts in part for the widespread fascination with the topic of power shifts in and beyond the United States.
Put crudely, this fascination is about whether the U.S. position as the preeminent global power is being threatened by China, and whether China’s relative power gains in the recent past presages a coming war between these two countries. The power-transition theory, originally formulated by A.F.K. Organski (1968), argues that when a rising power reaches parity with or overtakes an extant hegemon, the danger of a systemic war rises. (Gilpin, 1981, has also written about power transitions, but most of the subsequent scholarship on this topic has followed the intellectual tradition started by Organski—e.g., Organski & Kugler, 1980; Kugler & Lemke, 1996; Lemke, 2002, 2004; Tammen et al., 2000.) A systemic war is a struggle about which country gets to decide the rules for the international system, and represents therefore a contest over which country should be the world’s hegemon. According to the power-transition theory, World Wars I and II are such conflicts started by a dissatisfied latecomer (Germany) seeking to displace a declining hegemon (Britain). These wars are supposed to provide historical analogies for understanding contemporary Sino-American relations.
But how persuasive is the historical narrative provided by the power-transition theory to explain World Wars I and II, and do these historical conflicts provide suitable analogs for understanding current Sino-American relations? Despite the considerable objections that have been raised against this theory (to be discussed later), it appears to have become a widely accepted framework for studying Asia and more specifically Sino-American relations as Lebow and Valentino (2009) have remarked (e.g., Chan, 2004, 2005, 2008; Friedberg, 2005, 2011; Lai, 2011; Levy, 2008b; Rapkin & Thompson, 2013, 2003; Tammen et al., 2000). China’s rising capabilities and its perceived aggressive ambitions have inclined some writers to present arguments conventionally labeled as the China threat theory (e.g., Bernstein & Munro, 1998; Friedberg, 2011; Krauthammer, 1995; Navarro, 2008; Roy, 1994; Segal, 1996). Although not a proponent of this theory, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and China specialist Susan Shirk has claimed “[h]istory teaches us that rising powers are likely to provoke war” (quoted in Lebow & Valentino, 2009, p. 389).
When a theory focuses on systemic wars—that is, wars that involve a large number of belligerent states and that have a lasting impact on the international system as a whole—it is naturally limited in the number of instances that it can study. The two world wars would seem to qualify for these criteria of being systemic. They involved a large number of belligerent states and have had a system-transformative effect at least in the sense of confirming the United States as the new preeminent world power. One could also plausibly argue that Europe lost its status as the central region (or subsystem) of international relations after 1918. It is, however, less clear how the rules of international order would have been changed had the Central Powers prevailed in World War I. To what extent can Wilhelmine Germany be described as a revisionist state bent on altering the international norms and principles prevailing at that time, and were the Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans more concerned about the preservation of their declining empires than expanding their influence (that is, did they have primarily a defensive motivation)? At issue is the power-transition theory’s attribution of an offensive motivation and revisionist desire to these states, when the alternative hypothesis that they were driven more by a sense of insecurity and desperation to forestall decline and disintegration seems equally plausible if not even more accurate.
Naturally, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire could hardly be described as rising powers on the eve of World War I. Even though Germany had clearly been gaining relative power compared to some states (e.g., Britain and France) before the two world wars, it was also declining or poised to decline relative to others (e.g., the United States, Russia/the USSR) in 1914 and again in 1939. It is therefore difficult to decide how one should interpret Susan Shirk’s remark quoted earlier since the United States was the one country that had clearly gained on the other major states during this period. But she clearly did not have it in mind when she blamed rising powers for provoking war. She argues that Anglo-American similarities in values and culture were responsible for preventing a war between these countries (Shirk, 2007, p. 9), but one wonders why these similarities did not have the same effect on Prussia and Austria, or whether she would agree with the proposition that in situations of cultural dissimilarities, a rising power is more likely to instigate war (e.g., the Spanish-American and Mexican-American wars). One also wonders whether a rising power is defined as revisionist because it has fought a war against the incumbent hegemon—that is, the analyst making such attribution is guilty of hindsight bias and also tautological reasoning. To avoid these mistakes, one has to stipulate ex ante those indicators that can distinguish a revisionist state from a status-quo one. In current discourse, the designation of satisfied and dissatisfied states (or ostensibly status-quo and revisionist states) tends to be but a thinly veiled identification of “us” and “them”—or in and out groups reflecting social and political construction.
It is important to distinguish between a state’s desire to advance its status or position in the world and its desire to challenge and modify the basic rules and norms of the international system. To describe both of these motivations as revisionist is to commit obfuscation. Wilhelmine Germany could be revisionist or expansionist in the former sense but not necessarily in the latter. This characterization would also apply to imperial Japan during the same period (indeed, which country would not like to improve its status or position in the world?). While Tokyo engaged in external aggression, it also provided “an example par excellence in conforming its government institutions, legal system, and general international practices to the interests, rules, and values of ‘civilized’ international society, as prescribed by Western nations” (Khong, 2001, p. 40). Thus, the Japanese sought to join rather than overthrow the then prevailing order established by the Western powers. But Tokyo’s overtures were rebuffed when, for example, its Western allies in World War I declined to accept the principles of national and racial equality at the Versailles Conference. In other words, the existing club of powerful countries was not ready to welcome new members. More recently, China faced stiff opposition in its efforts to gain membership in various international organizations (including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization) or to increase its voice in such institutions (such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), as Amitai Etzioni (2016) has shown. While some have argued persuasively that an open liberal international order should be able to integrate rising latecomers (e.g., Ikenberry, 2001, 2008a, 2008b), the actual extent to which a rising latecomer like China feels welcomed to join this order and can be effectively integrated into it remains an open question.
In the late 1800s, the United States rather than the other major countries acted more like a revisionist power in both of the senses described earlier. It not only greatly expanded its territory and waged the Spanish-American War, but also “increasingly [tried] to establish its own rules in competition with others [such as in declaring the Monroe Doctrine], and to play its own game beyond its regional sphere” (Khong, 2001, p. 49). Thus, the conventional labels we encounter today, describing countries as status-quo or revisionist, tend to themselves reflect a certain degree of revisionist history.
If by revisionism one means challenges to the ordering principles and basic norms governing international conduct, one would look to a state’s behavior pertaining to matters such as the legitimacy of ruling elites, the rules of warfare, the procedures for making territorial adjustments, and protocols for mutual accommodation of spheres of influence. In one or more of these respects, revolutionary France and the USSR (their respective regime after 1789 and 1917) could be described as revisionist. Hitlerian Germany after 1939 (following its invasion of Czechoslovakia) also falls into this category. Contemporary China, in making extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea, may be seen as revisionist in this regard, but it has at least joined the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (which the United States has yet to join). By ceasing its support for insurgency movements seeking to overthrow ruling (capitalist) elites, Beijing has arguably become a more status-quo power over time. In contrast, Washington has pursued officially an agenda to change foreign regimes (e.g., in Iraq, Libya, and Syria) and has also enunciated new doctrines to wage war (e.g., in its insistence that it had the right to launch a preventive war against Iraq and to use unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries), to invoke special treatment of “enemy combatants,” to carry out extralegal “renditions,” and to seek extraterritorial jurisdiction in applying its policies and laws abroad. Rarely do analysts who attribute revisionism or status-quo orientation to different countries get into such details to explain their characterizations.
Parenthetically, the Spanish-American War is pertinent to the democratic-peace theory. If Spain in 1898 can be considered a democracy as some do (e.g., Lake, 1992), then this conflict presents a problem to the proposition that two democracies never go to war against each other. More concerning to the usual characterization given by the proponents of power-transition theory, the Anglo-American relationship was quite acrimonious during most of the 19th century. London considered Washington to be a rival and competitor in the Far East and the Western Hemisphere, and the two came close to a fight over the Oregon dispute in 1845–1846 (they had also actually fought a war in 1812). As late as 1896, in the wake of the border conflict between Venezuela and British Guiana when the United States insisted on its right to arbitrate disputes in the Western Hemisphere, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury said to his finance minister: “a war with America, not this year but in the not distant future—has become something more than a possibility” (Bourne, 1967, p. 337).
In fact, Britain had considered intervening on behalf of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Expressing his regret that Britain had failed to do so, Salisbury had said earlier: “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate Wars it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career” (MacMillan, 2013, p. 38). Historian Kenneth Bourne (1967, p. 408) points to the revisionist history being used by many international relations scholars and China watchers nowadays to describe 19th-century Anglo-American relations: “The United States remained an enemy of Britain’s calculations . . . until 1895–96. Until after the Venezuelan affair any increase in the territory and strength of the United States was regarded as a direct threat to the British possessions and British power and influence in the western hemisphere.”
In addition to the two world wars, Organski and Kugler (1980) have mentioned the Napoleonic Wars (although they did not study it in detail because systematic data were unavailable for this case), the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese War as systemic wars. The Napoleonic Wars, however, concluded with the restoration of the ancient regime and the return of an approximate balance of power among the major European states. In other words, this conflict did not so much transform the European system of international relations but rather restored it to the status quo ante, including preserving France (which was vanquished) as an autonomous actor. The Franco-Prussian War could be interpreted as system-transformative because henceforth Prussia/Germany became a “new” major power in Europe, but this conflict did not change the basic rules of international relations. The Russo-Japanese War again had perhaps the belated effect of confirming Japan as a new entrant in the club of major states, but it again did not alter international order. It certainly did not involve the two most powerful states in the international system, a challenge to the global hierarchy, or a struggle over its basic ordering principles. Collectively, these remarks suggest that the dependent variable to be explained by the power-transition theory—systemic war—has been obfuscated and underspecified and that there is a danger of mixing apples and oranges when one lumps these disparate conflicts in the same category.
Surely, in-depth historical analyses would be helpful to clarify the motivation behind the rising latecomers’ decision to accept war. Were their leaders primarily motivated by a revisionist and offensive desire as suggested by the power-transition theory? Or were they acting more out of a sense of insecurity and a defensive desire to avert an impending loss or decline? In other words, were they more the greedy type or its opposite, the fearful type? One may reasonably argue that Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler were the greedy type, but it is less clear whether Otto von Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand belonged to the same type. Mention of Archduke Ferdinand also reminds us that accident or serendipity plays a role in historical outcomes—had the Archduke not been assassinated (a tragedy that was itself the result of a confluence of events), Vienna’s decision processes on the eve of World War I could and would have been very different. It seems too facile to attribute systemic wars to the greedy and impetuous nature of revisionist leaders heading the rising powers (after all, some of these leaders were actually worried that their countries were declining or poised to decline shortly).
When explaining Germany’s decision to start World War I, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg stated that in 1914 “war is still possible without defeat, but not in two years!” (quoted in Van Evera, 1999, p. 77). Adolf Hitler had similarly concluded in 1939 that “favorable circumstances will no longer prevail in two or three years’ time” and that Germany would face “certain annihilation sooner or later” if it did not launch a preventive war at a moment most propitious to it (quoted in Van Evera, 1999, pp. 77–78, 96–97). He blamed London for failing to see that “an Anglo-German combination [made] the most natural of alliances” (quoted in Schweller, 1998, p. 114), and for not realizing that the USSR was “now the greatest power factor in the whole of Europe” (quoted in Robertson, 1963, p. 54). “Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians; if the West is too stupid and blind to grasp this, then I shall be compelled to come to an agreement with the Russians, beat the West, and then after their defeat turn against the Soviet Union with all my forces” (quoted in Copeland, 2001, p. 135). These statements indicate that German leaders were motivated to wage a preventive war—one directed against Russia/the USSR—and they were not driven by a desire to challenge Britain, which they were supposed to have already overtaken in 1914 and again in 1939. They preferred an earlier war rather than postponing a confrontation because they sensed that their power position (and that of their allies) would only get weaker rather than stronger over time.
By their very nature, systemic wars entangle belligerent states whose decisions to fight cannot be taken as independent observations (for example, London’s decision to declare war on Berlin was not unrelated to Berlin’s prior decision to invade France through Belgium and also the earlier decisions to order military mobilization by Vienna and St. Petersburg in the summer of 1914). This situation of a small number of cases with multiple tangled relations makes empirical generalizations and causal attributions difficult. In their critique of the power-transition theory, Lebow and Valentino (2009, p. 389) argue that “[p]ower transitions are remarkably rare, they seldom occur as the result of differential rates of economic growth, and have most often occurred peacefully. Power transitions are more often the results of wars, rather than the causes of them. Wars between rising and dominant powers are infrequent and are not waged by either side primarily in the effort to defend or revise the international order in their favor.”
One moment’s reflection will remind one that many power transitions have taken place since 1945, such as when China overtook Japan and Russia/the USSR, or when Japan and Germany overtook Russia/the USSR, Britain, and France. All these power transitions have been peaceful so far, and none has involved rewriting the basic rules of international order. Moreover, the peaceful nature of these power transitions does not appear to depend on the regime character of an overtaking country or that of an overtaken country. Thus, there are democratic as well as authoritarian countries that did the overtaking or that were overtaken. Moreover, these countries have come from the ranks of both those that are supposed to be satisfied and dissatisfied.
These objections point to a serious problem when analysts only ask whether a given war was preceded by a power transition between its leading belligerents. When they do this, they are selecting on the dependent variable. By limiting their analysis to only those occasions when a war occurred, they cannot take into account other instances when peace has endured in the wake of a power transition. Their analysis will therefore overlook instances when their theory predicts war in the wake of a power transition, but this prediction is falsified (such as the peaceful power transition between Britain and the United States). This practice thus fails to recognize and confront the theory’s false alarms. It does not attempt to explain and cannot explain, for example, why war has not occurred after China has overtaken Japan. Why has this power transition thus far been peaceful but a prospective (even though unlikely) power transition between China and the United States may, in contrast, provoke war?
To their credit, Organski and Kugler (1980, p. 50) report their most general analysis results, showing that an equal distribution of power between pairs of their major states have been associated more often with peace (81.3% of the time) than war (18.8%)—that is, periods of power parity or overtaking are about four times more likely to be peaceful than to experience war. Although they acknowledge that their data only show “the necessary conditions for major wars to break out” and caution their readers that their “results must be treated not as definitive answers but as tentative findings” (Organski & Kugler, 1980, pp. 61, 62), the writings of some subsequent China watchers have tended to turn their analysis into a deterministic theory. Most analysts in the power-transition tradition (including Organski and Kugler’s own research) have focused primarily, and some even exclusively (e.g., Houweling & Siccama, 1988; Geller, 1992), on power shifts to explain the occurrence of war. Thus, one has the impression that the (dis)satisfaction variable has been merely introduced as an ad hoc way to explain away anomalies such as the peaceful overtaking of Britain by the United States.
Power shift is not just a theoretical construct; it is also a social and political construct. This concept can be used to show the dynamics of international change, but it can also be deployed to call attention to particular trends or to mobilize support for particular policies. Different analytic reasoning is introduced, depending on whether those perceived to be gaining or losing relative power happen to be one’s friend, neutral, or (potential) foe. Thus, the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are presented as a group of emergent (or reemergent) powers, but Germany and Japan are almost never lumped with them as countries whose power has also rebounded sharply since 1945. Whereas China’s overtaking of Japan has been a popular topic among those interested in the effects of power transition on regional stability, there has been little comparable interest in the effects produced by a reunited Germany overtaking a weakened Russia. Naturally, other variables may be at work that could dampen the historical rivalry between Germany and Russia, but the point here is that the idea of power transition is invoked only for some countries (e.g., China vis-à-vis Japan) but not for others (e.g., Germany vis-à-vis Russia) without the underlying logic of selection being explicated. Randall Schweller (1992) offers one rare exception to this tendency when he argues that when a rising latecomer is a democracy rather than an autocracy, its relative power gains are not likely to produce a war.
Most conspicuously, the United States was omitted from the power-transition theory’s explanation of the two world wars (Organski & Kugler, 1980). Had the United States been considered, there would not have been a power transition between the world’s two most powerful countries because Germany never overtook the United States or even came close to matching its power capabilities (Vasquez, 1996, pp. 41–42). By the 1890s, the United States had already become the world’s preeminent power. Yet the power-transition theory depicts World War I and again World War II as attempts by a rising Germany to displace Britain as the world’s hegemonic leader, even though Britain had already lost this position to the United States before the end of the 19th century. If the United States can thus be dismissed as a contender for global hegemony when it had already become the world’s leading power in 1914 and certainly by 1939, then it becomes far more dubious to cast today’s China in that role. Whatever may be said of China, it remains essentially a regional power (e.g., Zhang & Tang, 2005), one that possesses little capacity and one that has shown little inclination to pursue a strategic presence beyond its immediate neighborhood (e.g., in the Middle East, Europe, or Latin America). In contrast and surely by 1939, the United States had already consolidated its regional hegemony, established a global presence, and played a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of World War I. As Charles Kupchan (2001) has remarked, views on power transitions tend to reflect social construction by elite entrepreneurs rather than some objective reality.
In this instance, we encounter the odd phenomenon of an actual power transition (the United States overtaking Britain) being dismissed by the theory that focuses explicitly on this phenomenon as the key variable for explaining the occurrence of systemic war and, at the same time, having this theory invoked to comment on another case (China overtaking the United States) that has not happened and may never happen. In investigating past instances when an upstart state is said to have approached power parity with an existing leader, Organski and Kugler (1980, pp. 44, 48) have stipulated that the upstart must have achieved at least 80% of the existing leader’s capabilities (other subsequent analysts, such as Tammen et al., 2000, p. 31, have also stated that a power ratio of 4:5 or 5:6 between the latecomer and the leading state presents the most dangerous moment for a war to occur between them), although they would also consider as “contenders” the next two strongest countries when none were able to meet this criterion. This latter decision, however, clearly admits states that did not have any short-term prospect of reaching parity with, not to mention overtaking, the world’s dominant power and introduces such states into the analytic mix.
Two other colleagues working on the power-transition research program have suggested the idea of the “largest drop-off”—that is, the designation of candidate states contending for global mastery should be decided by the respective power gaps separating them (Lemke & Werner, 1996). Thus, if A is the leading power, and B, C, D, and E each has 90%, 65%, 50%, and 45% of its power, respectively, then only A and B should be considered as contenders (the drop-off is the largest between B and C). According to this proposed criterion, the United States is so far ahead of the other countries—including China—that it is truly peerless. Therefore, to lump it with the other G-8 countries and China in the same category of “major states” or “great powers” is to greatly obfuscate matters. In truth, there is only one superpower. This line of reasoning naturally makes the power-transition perspective irrelevant or at least greatly premature.
The power-transition theory has also been applied to study the dynamics of regional politics (e.g., Lemke, 2002), including dynamics among those countries that are clearly not among the world’s leading “major states.” Moreover, this theory’s original emphasis on an upstart country leapfrogging a previous leader has subsequently been replaced by a focus on the upstart just reaching a position of approximate parity with the leader (e.g., Kugler & Lemke, 1996). But as will be shown shortly, whether judged by its military expenditures, economic output, or number of allies, China has clearly not reached this threshold when compared to the United States. Evidently and again, not all power shifts are the same. Some are dangerous even when there is only a distant and uncertain prospect of an actual power transition or even approximate parity (the justification given by U.S. officials for launching a preventive war against Iraq is an extreme example). Others are apparently benign and thus dismissed as being outside of the theory’s purview, even when an actual power transition has occurred.
Significantly, Lebow and Valentino (2009, pp. 397–398) have argued that power transitions are quite rare. Among the two strongest European states during the long period between 1645 and 1950, it had occurred only once when Russia surpassed the Spanish Empire around 1715 after the War of the Spanish Succession—assuming that one agrees with these analysts’ use of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) multiplied by its population size as an index of its power. If the United States is added to the mix of major states, it overtook Russia in 1895. On neither occasion, however, did war break out. Importantly, if one agrees with Lebow and Valentino’s measure of national power (GDP multiplied by population size), then China overtook the United States in the 1980s and war has again not taken place, at least not thus far.
When people talk about power shifts or power transitions in international relations, they obviously have in mind the competition among states to advance their relative position, including the contest between the two most powerful ones to reach the pinnacle of international hierarchy and to dominate the international system. One would want to ask which national capabilities reflect most accurately a country’s positional status or are most helpful for it to sustain its upward mobility in international ranking. Indicators used to assess relative national capabilities have included a state’s population or economic size, its military expenditures, and its alliances. These indicators usually measure quantifiable assets but overlook less tangible qualities such as policy capacity and political influence. Naturally, whether power shifts are occurring and, if so, to whose advantage is dependent on the indicator(s) an analyst chooses to emphasize. A country’s GDP can tell one story, but its capacity to undertake technological innovation can give a different picture. As Rapkin and Thompson (2003, p. 327) have noted, the power-transition theory focuses on quantity or size (of population, the economy, and in some cases, military establishment) to indicate relative national power, a disposition that tends to exaggerate China’s position while seriously underestimating the qualitative edge enjoyed by the United States in initiating and sustaining innovations that extend the technological frontier. Naturally, whether there is an ongoing process of power transition between the United States and China depends on the particular measures an analyst chooses to examine and is a matter subject to debate, even though those invoking the power-transition theory obviously believe that this is an ongoing process and perhaps a distinctly likely, if not inevitable, outcome between China and the United States. It seems, however, that this concern is greatly exaggerated because it overlooks the qualitative dimensions of national power—especially a country’s capacity to undertake technological innovation and to develop leading sectors that spur economic growth, as argued by the leadership long-cycle theory (Rapkin & Thompson, 2013).
In formulating their theory, Organski and Kugler (1980) recognize the importance of policy capacity and argue that a country’s more effective leadership and mobilization of its resources can enable it to prevail over an adversary with a larger population or territory. Thus, policy capacity can offset a disadvantage in size at least when one considers only the relatively short term. Over the median term, economic productivity is more important. A country is obviously twice as productive if it produces as much as a counterpart with twice its population. Latecomers tend to have the advantage of being backward; that is, they can learn from the experiences of their predecessors and thus take short cuts in developing their economy. Differential rates of economic growth will enable these latecomers to catch up as the previous leaders tend to slow down. Power-transition theory sees the leapfrogging by a latecomer over the previous leader as the most dangerous moment for war to break out. (In later studies, such as that by Kugler & Lemke, 1996, this emphasis on overtaking was replaced by a focus on the latecomer reaching just approximate parity with the leader.) Yet even the importance of economic productivity is eclipsed in the long term by population size, which is in the power-transition theorists’ view the sine qua non for achieving the status of a great power and in order for a country to contend for global supremacy. They argue that a country’s potential to reach this achievement is inevitably dependent on and limited by its demographic size. Thus Tammen et al. (2000, pp. 17–18) assert that “the size of populations ultimately determines the power potential of a nation.” One gets the impression from reading this literature that a power transition is almost inevitable between China and the United States and, when India’s population outgrows China’s, between China and India.
Organski and Kugler (1980, p. 19) believe that aggressors who start war will “come from a small group of dissatisfied strong countries, and it is the weaker, rather than the stronger, power that is most likely to be the aggressor.” If so, the weaker country has after all not yet overtaken the stronger one—or perhaps even come close to matching the stronger one’s capabilities. This conclusion seems odd since it is the phenomenon of overtaking or at least approaching parity that is supposed to encourage the initiation of war by the upstart country. It seems an accurate characterization of Japan’s 1941 decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor, thus initiating the Pacific Theater of World War II. But this event also raises the important question of why Japan (whose leaders had thought that their country was eight or nine times weaker than the United States) would want to initiate such an asymmetric fight. In this case, the power-transition theory’s expectation of an approaching parity, not to mention overtaking, had clearly not materialized, but war still occurred. Japan’s decision to go to war was a gamble driven by fear and desperation (e.g., Barnhart, 1987; Iriye, 1981). Parenthetically, if one wishes to add the Sino-American fighting in the Korean War to the mix of cases to be considered, this clash also occurred at a time much earlier than one could plausibly argue for approaching parity or overtaking. This was a conflict that would not have been expected by the logic of the power-transition theory. These two instances, China’s involvement in the Korean War and Japan’s attack against the United States in 1941, would suggest that neither parity nor overtaking is a necessary condition for war to occur.
According to Organski and Kugler’s (1980, p. 61),
The fundamental problem that sets the whole system sliding almost irretrievably toward war is the differences in rates of growth among the great powers and, of particular importance, the differences in rates between the dominant nation and the challenger that permit the latter to overtake the former in power. It is this leapfrogging that destabilizes the system.
The power-transition theory argues that Berlin sought deliberately to fight London in 1914 and again in 1939 in order to claim global hegemony. This argument is of course premised on the proposition that Germany had already overtaken Britain (as suggested by the Organski & Kugler, quote), which in turn means that it was no longer the weaker adversary relative to Britain on the eve of both world wars. Organski and Kugler (1980, p. 59) observe that “[b]y the time World War II breaks out, Germany has a significant advantage over the United Kingdom.” This observation, however, is contradicted by the remark introduced earlier, claiming that the weaker power (Germany) rather than the stronger one (Britain) is the aggressor and instigator of war. This seeming contradiction can be reconciled only by modifying the original proposition to refer to the tendency for the weaker coalition of states to be the aggressor against the stronger coalition, a condition that Organski and Kugler (1980, p. 60) have suggested to be the reason why the Central Powers and the Axis Powers had lost both two world wars even though Germany was supposed to have already overtaken Britain. When transferred to contemporary Sino-American relations, however, this analytic move makes China appear even much weaker when matched against not only the United States. but also Washington’s numerous powerful allies (e.g., Japan, Germany, Britain, France). Parenthetically, when alliances are used as units of analysis in an effort to extend the power-transition theory’s original focus on the dyadic relationship between the two most powerful states (e.g., Kim, 1991, 1992, 1996), this analytic move represents a departure from this theory’s hard-core assumption that states, especially major states, are the dominant actors in international relations (Dicicco & Levy, 1999, p. 693).
Significantly, although Germany had a larger population than Britain on the eve of both world wars, this comparison does not take into account the British Commonwealth as a whole. Nor does the view of Germany overtaking Britain comport with the fact that Germany’s GDP and its GDP per capita (or economic productivity) actually still lagged behind Britain’s in 1913 and again in 1940 (Levy, 2008b, pp. 22, 28; Rapkin & Thompson, 2003, p. 325). There would be a German advantage if one considers only its stronger army. Perhaps for this reason, Kugler and Lemke (1996) have replaced the power-transition theory’s original emphasis of a latecomer overtaking a previous dominant power with only the latecomer’s ability to reach approximate parity with the previous dominant power as a condition for war. In their words, “theoretically, it is parity that is important to war initiation. The closer to parity a dyad is, the greater the threat of war. Parity, not power transitions, is of theoretical importance. For this reason, it would have been better if Power Transition Theory had been named Power Parity Theory” (Kugler & Lemke, 1996, p. 12).
This analytic move naturally presents a less restrictive condition for war to happen since parity can occur without transition but there cannot be a transition without parity. It remains unclear, however, whether a latecomer must still reach at least 80% of the dominant power’s capabilities in order to fulfill the condition of parity, and whether even after it has overtaken the previous leader and, say, has grown to be 120% as powerful, one would still consider their relationship to be characterized by parity within the broad band provided by B having 80% to 120% of A’s power capabilities. If so, there are now a much larger range of circumstances and presumably also a more protracted period of time for war to occur. It is thus easier to find evidence of war occurrence to support the theory, albeit this larger range of circumstances and more protracted period would also make it more difficult to exclude other alternative reasons for the war’s occurrence, if any, that is observed (or for matter, easier to explain away the two countries’ peaceful relations by pointing to other plausible reasons). Moreover, the theory’s chief reason for explaining the occurrence of war—namely, a putative upstart challenger’s desire to unseat a dominant power—becomes irrelevant (after all, this supposed challenger could have already surpassed the previous leader given the now broadened definition of parity). As Dicicco and Levy (1999, p. 698) have noted, a switch of focus to parity (as opposed to transition) makes the important question about the timing of war onset moot. Whether the predicted war happens before or after a power transition has occurred will no longer matter for the theory, which will now also become more difficult to falsify. The underlying logic of the theory—that systemic war stems from the challenge mounted by a latecomer to unseat an existing hegemon from its dominant position—also loses much of its force if a parity situation can extend beyond the point of transition (i.e., parity can continue to describe a situation after an erstwhile latecomer has already overtaken the previous hegemon).
As the preceding discussion indicates, the power-transition theory argues that the determination of relative national power is largely, even overwhelmingly, endogenous to a country—that is, the determinants of a country’s power are domestic in origin. Foreigners’ attempts to retard or impede its growth are therefore unlikely to succeed. Even defeat in foreign wars can only delay and interrupt the vanquished countries’ growth trend by just about a generation, after which they will resume their prewar trajectory. Organski and Kugler (1980, p. 28) use the Phoenix factor to describe this phenomenon, remarking that “whatever the fortunes of war, the challenger [that is, the latecomer] will probably ‘win’ sooner or later.” Surprisingly, their emphasis on the domestic sources of national power tends to be overlooked by many recent commentators on power transition, with many of them arguing about whether the United States should contain or engage a growing China. If Organski and Kugler are right in their original view, these policies would not matter much in affecting China’s future power. Even so, which policy Washington chooses to pursue can matter greatly in affecting the Chinese people’s perceptions of U.S. intentions toward their country; that is, whether the United States has a friendly or hostile attitude toward their country, and in that way U.S. policy can significantly affect future Sino-American relations.
This last comment gains importance in that, as Rasler and Thompson (2000, p. 310) suggest, “declining incumbents select, to some extent, which challengers they will fight and with whom they will ally to meet the intensive challenge.” That the United States had fought on the British side in both world wars was the decisive factor in determining the outcomes of these conflicts, and prior British policies had something to do with this U.S. decision to fight on the British side. London faced multiple rivals or challengers in the late 19th century and early 20th century, including France, Russia, Japan, and the United States. It decided to conciliate, accommodate, or align with them in order to focus its attention and resources on Germany (Chan, 2004; Vasquez, 1996). These countries’ choices in the subsequent conflicts were thus at least in part influenced by prior British policies toward them and not just by their general status-quo or revisionist orientation. Surely, all of these countries were expansionist powers. The general point here is that at any given time, there are likely to be several rising powers (such as China, India, and Germany today) and how the incumbent dominant power behaves toward them can have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy on their future amity or enmity.
People who see Sino-American relations to be fraught with the danger of a coming conflict tend to emphasize those indicators pointing to a looming power transition, whereas others who are more sanguine about continued U.S. dominance are likely to point to other indicators. If military expenditures are used to indicate relative national power, the United States has most recently outspent the next seven countries with the highest defense spending combined (being responsible for about 37% of total global defense spending). Its military expenditures in 2014 were roughly 3 to 4.5 times higher than China’s (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2015; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2015). It is thus far ahead of China according to this measure of national power, and there is little chance that China will overtake it in the near future. As for GDP, the World Bank reports that the U.S. economy in 2014 was about 1.7 times larger than the Chinese economy in current market prices (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD/). Compared to the extensive alliances that Washington has built around the world, Beijing has but one formal ally in Pyongyang, one that it has become increasingly estranged from in recent years. If one settles for demographic size as an indicator, there was never a power transition because China has always had a larger population than the United States.
Thus, how much power shift and whether a power transition is occurring are not a settled matter. The popular discourse on these ideas, however, can in itself promote a perception that a power shift and even a power transition in Sino-American relations are taking place. Even though China has made some relative gains, the United States still retains a large edge in almost any reasonable measure of national power, including a country’s critical capability to forge and sustain technological innovation (Beckley, 2011/2012; Modelski & Thompson, 1996; Rapkin & Thompson, 2013). The U.S. superiority in the latter respect is unmatched. Rather than an impending power transition, those who invoke the power-transition theory are really more concerned about a less favorable power advantage enjoyed by the United States than any prospect of China being able to overtake it any time soon.
The idea of power shift did not of course start with China’s rise in recent years. There were in recent memory other proclamations of interstate power shifts and contests involving countries other than China, such as those featured in the titles of popular books like Le Défi Américain (The American Challenge, Servan-Schreiber, 1968) and Japan as Number 1 (Vogel, 1979). Titles such as When China Rules the World (Jacques, 2009) are hardly the first of its kind. Yet as several observers have pointed out, predictions that the United States is losing its hegemonic position have thus far turned out to be greatly exaggerated and premature (Cox, 2012; Nau, 1990; Nye, 2004; Russett, 1985; Strange, 1987). Many of these skeptical voices have questioned the extent to which the possession of material assets by states is the same as their capacity to produce desired effects abroad. Even though most studies of power shifts or power transitions share a realist premise by focusing on power as the central concept, surprisingly little systematic effort has been devoted to clarifying this concept (Hagstrom & Jerden, 2014). As a quick example, much of China’s recent rise has been due to its economic expansion, which has in turn been very much dependent on this country’s import of foreign components, technologies, and capital and its export of manufactured goods with relatively low technology content. This expansion has thus been closely tied to China’s integration into the globe’s production and trade networks. While China’s share of the global economy has risen, its sensitivity and vulnerability to external conditions have also increased. Therefore, it is too facile to simply point to this share as a sign of an ongoing power shift in China’s favor without inquiring further about the nature and source of this phenomenon (e.g., Pan, 2014).
Moreover, the power-transition theory leaves unsolved a critical puzzle: Why should a rising latecomer continue to be dissatisfied with the international order that has allowed and even helped its rise? Why should this upstart not become more rather than less committed to this order? Why should the other stakeholders be more rather than less concerned simply because this upstart has now become more powerful and is thus more capable of altering the existing system when concomitantly it should have less incentive to undermine this system because it now has a larger stake in it? According to prospect theory, a country making recent large gains should be less inclined to take risks, and it is more likely to assume a conservative posture in order to protect these gains rather than jeopardizing them by behaving recklessly (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Conversely, why should a declining hegemon continue to defend the existing system when this system’s rules have worked less well to its advantage and when it has a diminished stake in it? This question is obviously pertinent to the policies of President Donald Trump. The power-transition theory appears to appeal to a different logic. This theory sees a rising upstart as a threat to the existing system simply because this country has gained increasing capability to alter it. But it does not see an existing hegemon’s possession of overwhelming power as presenting a similar threat. Rather, it argues that this hegemon’s large stake in the existing system motivates it to defend the current order. At the same time, it declines to apply the same reasoning to the upstart that its increasing stake will incline it to become more wedded to the current order.
By focusing almost exclusively and even obsessively on power shifts, the current discourse overlooks the more fundamental question about the distribution of benefits under the existing international regime. Does the current distribution of benefits correspond to the current distribution of power among states? Which countries enjoy a surplus of benefits compared to its power, and which countries suffer a relative deficit? In his original formulation, Organski (1968, pp. 327–328) acknowledged that the dominant nation “always benefits disproportionately” from the existing international order at the expense of the weaker states and that “the dominant nation and its supporters are not usually willing to grant the newcomers more than a small part of the advantages they receive.” This view implies that it is not power shifts moving in the direction of great parity that produce war, but rather the disparity between the actual power positions held by the major states and the system’s allocation of benefits among them provides the key to explain international conflict. As Robert Powell (1999, p. 199) observes,
If the distribution of benefits mirrors the distribution of power, no state can credibly threaten to use force to change the status quo and the risk of war is smallest. If, however, there is a sufficiently large disparity between the distribution of power and benefits, the status quo may be threatened regardless of what the underlying distribution of power is.
Resentment and grievances arise because the existing system fails to adjust quickly and effectively prevailing patterns of allocating benefits in view of the ongoing or recent power shifts. Indeed, a rising latecomer cannot expect to make additional gains by going to war if its allotment of benefits has already fully reflected its power position (Chan, 2004). Its threat to go to war will not be credible because fighting a war under these circumstances will not improve its current share of benefits. War becomes attractive only when this state suffers a deficit of benefits compared to what its power capabilities would entitle it to. Under these circumstances, going to war will enable it to improve its situation by closing the gap between its relative power position and its relative share of the benefits. Thus, the key question is not the extent of power parity between two countries or the speed of an ongoing or impending transition between them. Rather, it is the ease or difficulty with which the benefits allocated by the international system can be adjusted to correspond to the changing power balance. If this redistribution is timely and proportionate, it will not profit the challenger to start a war, since it cannot expect war to bring it extra gains. The current prevailing discourse tends to focus overwhelmingly on power shifts without giving enough attention to the distribution of benefits and costs conferred by the existing rules of international interactions and transactions.
According to this discussion, rather than a latecomer’s excessive demands, it is possible that the established powers’ resistance to downsize their existing roles, expectations, and benefit shares is a major factor contributing to war. The failure of the existing system to accommodate and integrate the newcomer(s) should at least be considered as a possible reason for conflict (Ikenberry, 2001, 2008a, 2008b; Legro, 2007, 2008). To explain the occurrence of war, one needs to at least also ask how equitable is the current order’s distribution of benefits and costs among states and how various political, institutional, and psychological factors may incline existing or previous dominant states to resist changes to their entitlements and privileges.
There is often a serious problem of endogeneity in the current literature when analyzing a latecomer’s supposed dissatisfaction with the international order and thus its revisionist impulses. For example, this country’s alliance alignment and its defense spending have been used to indicate its dissatisfaction with or alienation from the international system (e.g., de Soysa et al., 1997, 1998; Kim, 1996; Kim & Morrow, 1992; Lemke & Reed, 1996, 1998; Lemke & Werner, 1996; Werner & Kugler, 1996). These measures, however, tend to be also correlated with war occurrence, the dependent variable of power-transition theory. When leaders of a country anticipate armed hostility and try to prepare for war, they are motivated to seek allies and ramp up their military expenditures. Such behavior does not necessarily indicate their dissatisfaction or alienation. Indeed, it is almost a truism to say that states that go to war are dissatisfied with each other. But this is different from saying that one of them is necessarily dissatisfied with the international order and is in the process of mounting a challenge to the international system rather than simply escalating its conflict against its counterpart in a given dispute. When one examines China’s actual actions such as those with respect to its adherence to international agreements on nuclear nonproliferation and weapons exports, its cooperation to curb global warming or to combat international terrorism, or its participation in international organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (Chan, 2015; Johnston, 2003; Foot & Walter, 2011; Kim, 1999; Pang, 2014; Pearson, 2006), the available evidence does not support the view that Beijing is more out of step with the rest of the international community than Washington.
Several other aspects of the power-transition theory are revealing about the effects of power relations on scholars’ perspectives and pursuit of knowledge. This theory focuses on the danger of war when an upcoming state catches up to or overtakes an existing dominant state. It blames the upstart for being the instigator of war because it sees this upstart as being dissatisfied with the existing world order. In formulating the power-transition theory, Organski and Kugler (1980) have argued that this dissatisfaction interacts with a latecomer’s rising power to cause it to challenge the incumbent hegemon. According to these analysts, both variables are separately necessary and jointly sufficient to cause this upstart to choose war. Wars, especially systemic wars, are therefore due to this country’s desire and attempt to alter the status quo. This view casts the incumbent hegemon in the role of defender of the status quo and depicts the upstart as a destabilizer that challenges not just the incumbent hegemon but one that also undermines the international system as a whole. By proclaiming that the upstart is a revisionist power, this view endows the status quo with a certain amount of sanctity and glides over the question of how the existing way of doing things works to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. It equates opposition to the leading power to opposition to the entire international community.
Thus, this view treats the hegemon and the international community or the world order as synonyms. In the words of Tammen et al. (2000, p. 9), “[b]y definition, the dominant power is satisfied . . . [and therefore] is the defender of the status quo. After all, it creates and maintains the global or regional hierarchy from which it accrues substantial benefits.” By characterizing the incumbent hegemon as being satisfied with the existing world order, the possibility that this state may seek to alter things even more to its advantage is sidelined from legitimate inquiry. Because the incumbent hegemon is by definition a satisfied power, the upstart is inevitably cast in the role of a challenger and thus cannot but be a dissatisfied and revisionist state.
If one assumes an established dominant power is by definition a satisfied country, then this move empties any empirical content from the second variable in the power-transition theory, the variable pertaining to a country’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the international order (De Soysa et al, 1997, 1998; Lemke & Reed, 1998). What additional analytic purchase does one get if having power is necessarily correlated with being satisfied? Whether the confusion between these concepts is intentional or inadvertent, the resulting analysis produces an impression that the dominant power is inevitably the bulwark for international stability and the latecomer a source of instability—unless, of course, it was the United States overtaking Britain.
It then takes only a small leap to attribute war to the impetuous and aggressive nature of this upstart without, however, questioning whether those that arrived earlier as great powers are willing to adjust their roles, status, and privileges in view of the more recent changes that have occurred in their relative power positions. How just is the existing international order and how open is it to emergent powers are not questions taken up by the power-transition theory. Disruption is seen to be caused by the demands of new arrivals rather than the psychological, institutional, and political resistance of existing powerholders to trim their own expectations in view of changing international power relations. The difficulties encountered in attempting to change the permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the vote quotas in the International Monetary Fund reflect at least in part such resistance.
Although there is a substantial literature on the subject of preventive war (e.g., Copeland, 2001; Gilpin, 1981; Lebow, 1984; Levy, 1987, 2008a; Mueller et al, 2006; Ripsman & Levy, 2007; Silverstone, 2007; Trachtenberg, 2007; Van Evera, 1999), the power-transition theory does not consider this possible motivation on the part of an extant but declining hegemon to initiate a conflict against an upstart before the upstart becomes too strong to confront (Levy, 2008b, pp. 26–28). This possibility is almost never mentioned among Western China watchers. The power-transition theory depicts the two world wars as Germany seeking to challenge Britain’s hegemony rather than Germany starting a preventive war against an emergent Russian colossus. Naturally, the motivations being attributed to German leaders are sharply different according to these two competing interpretations. According to the Russian leaders, these leaders were driven by an excessive ambition for expansion, whereas according to the German leaders, they were acting out of fear and insecurity due to a recognition that their country was hemmed in by adversaries (France and Russia) on two sides, tied to a weak and besieged ally (Austria-Hungary), and poised to enter a period of relative decline (with respect to a rising Russia/USSR and falling further behind an already dominant United States). Unlike 1914 and 1939, nuclear weapons in today’s world should discourage a country’s incentive to wage a preventive war against another nuclear-armed state (Levy, 2008b). At the same time, continued U.S. improvement in nuclear weapons technology and its initiation of missile defense programs have led some to argue that these developments have already put Washington in a position to nullify China and Russia’s second-strike capability to retaliate against a possible attack from the United States (Lieber & Press, 2006; see also Posen, 2003; Glaser & Fetter, 2016, with the latter authors discussing the U.S. capability to undermine China’s ability to undertake nuclear retaliation). Parenthetically, U.S. leaders once did give serious consideration to launching a preventive attack against Chinese nuclear facilities (Burr & Richelson, 2000/2001).
The power-transition theory does not consider the competing interpretation attributing the two world wars to a failure in Germany’s diplomacy to persuade Britain to stay on the sideline in 1914 and even to side with it against Bolshevism in the years before 1939. According to this alternative view, these wars happened not because Berlin wanted to pick a fight with London but rather despite its efforts to keep Britain out of war. When the power-transition theory’s logic is applied to contemporary Sino-American relations, it tends to similarly see a China eager and determined to challenge U.S. predominance as the source for a potential conflict rather than the alternative explanation: that is, that a possible Sino-American clash can be due to Beijing’s inability to discourage or deter Washington from encroaching on its perceived sovereignty or security (such as in a prospective conflict over Taiwan or actually in 1950 when China intervened in the Korean War). The latter alternative view suggests that should a Sino-American conflict occur over Taiwan, it is not because China wants to fight the United States. Rather, it is because Beijing has been unable to persuade Washington to stay out of what it perceives to be its internal affairs. Fighting the United States would be China’s last resort and hardly not its first. As mentioned earlier, prevailing discourses can have a powerful influence in framing policy agendas and shaping popular perceptions by casting Beijing in the role of an initiator rather than defender (such as in defending the current status quo in the sense of preventing Taiwan from formally seceding from China or in 1950, in a failed effort to deter U.S. troops from crossing the 38th parallel and destroying the North Korean regime).
Moreover and equally important, the alternative view just presented argues that the power-transition theory makes the serious mistake of conflating what is essentially a local dispute with coordinated efforts by Beijing to challenge Washington’s global preeminence and even to revise the world order (as if any country, even a superpower like the United States, can forge this order alone without cooperating with others and adjusting to their interests). Jack Levy (2008b, pp. 28–30) has made the same point about this theory’s characterization of the two world wars. Both of these conflicts stemmed more from Europe’s regional dynamics than any Anglo-German rivalry for global hegemony. These conflicts (as well as the Franco-Prussian War) resulted primarily from a competition by the relevant European states to gain security and power over their regional rivals (e.g., Berghahn, 1973; Fischer, 1975; Hilgruber, 1981; Robertson, 1963; Taylor, 1961; Tuchman, 1962). It is far-fetched to see them as being motivated by Berlin’s desire to take over London’s possessions outside of Europe, that is, to challenge London’s global position, especially in the case of World War II. Although Berlin certainly did have overseas ambitions such as is shown by its Weltpolitik before 1914, its primary concerns and the proximate causes for the two world wars originated much more from European sources. At least in 1914, Russia rather than Germany was more dissatisfied with the status quo and more motivated to seek its revision at the expense of especially the declining Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Rather than wanting to fight Britain, Germany had “sought to keep [it] out of the war” in 1914 (Vasquez, 1996, p. 42). The dispute that set off World War I did not involve a direct German challenge of Britain. As Vasquez has argued, London’s engulfment in this conflict had at best only an indirect source, one resulting from a dispute involving allies of Britain’s allies (Serbia was an ally of Russia, which was in turn Britain’s ally). If Berlin had wanted to pick a fight, its bellicosity was directed more at Russia and France than Britain.
Similarly, Beijing is currently far more concerned with issues pertaining to its immediate neighborhood such as across the Taiwan Strait, on the Korean peninsula, and in its relations with the Southeast Asian countries. Plainly put, it is difficult to characterize its foreign policy agenda as a campaign seeking to challenge Washington’s global primacy. As mentioned earlier, indications of such a concern or perception say more about the observers than the observed. Rather than a latecomer directly challenging or confronting an incumbent hegemon, it is much more reasonable to explain the two world wars (e.g., with respect to Belgium, Serbia, and Poland) and the various conflicts or crises after 1945 (e.g., on the Korean peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, in Palestine, and over Cuba, Berlin, and Kashmir) as a result of the contagion and escalation processes whereby leading powers became embroiled in local conflicts due to the dynamics of their alliance ties. The sources for wars and crises tend to be local in origin, and the larger conflagrations that subsequently engulf third parties are often a consequence of the “chain-ganging” effects stemming from the major states’ interlocking alliance commitments (Christensen & Snyder, 1990).
Thus, if a military clash were to occur between China and the United States over Taiwan, in Korea, or around the South China Sea, it represents a local crisis escalating to involve both major and minor states (just like the events in Sarajevo provided a spark that ignited a larger conflagration; see Thompson, 2003). This view questions the power-transition theory’s argument that a global contest between the two most powerful countries is the source stimulating and sustaining regional and local conflicts. It questions this theory’s depiction which “anticipates that wars will diffuse downward from the global to the regional hierarchies but will not diffuse upward from regional to global” (Tammen et al., 2000, p. 8). China’s conflicts with the United States over Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam long predated its recent rise and can be dated back to a time (the 1950s and 1960s) when it could hardly have challenged America’s global preeminence. As Jack Levy (2008b) has remarked, the power-transition theory does not appear to capture important aspects of the interactions between a dominant global power and a traditional, resurgent regional power. From the perspective of the dominant global power, how can it balance its global interests and its interests in different regions? For the rising regional power, how can it engage the dominant global power in cooperation for the sake of its domestic growth and at the same time compete with this counterpart for regional status and influence? While U.S. and Chinese interests may collide over specific issues in Asia, they can also converge or overlap in other regions and even globally, such as in their joint efforts to promote international economic growth, curb nuclear proliferation and global warming, and combat terrorism. The power-transition theory’s characterization of a global struggle for systemic supremacy misrepresents many Sino-American disagreements that are more local or regional in nature. This misrepresentation is of course an alarmist exaggeration. But by inflating the supposed stake involved in these disagreements, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to and mobilizing political support for efforts to contain and even confront China.
As already mentioned, today’s China is at best a regional power, with its policy attention focusing primarily on its immediate neighborhood. It has only a limited capacity to project its political and military power. Even though its military capabilities have improved recently, these capabilities are primarily intended to harass and hamper the overwhelming U.S. air and naval power arrayed right up to China’s borders. And even though China has become an important and often the leading trading partner for many countries, its political and economic presence is still small compared to that of the United States in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Importantly and unlike the USSR, Beijing has thus far not tried to compete for influence by recruiting allies and establishing client states in these regions—not to mention try to displace Washington’s influence there. This is one significant difference between its present policy and Moscow’s policy during the Cold War. Another important difference is that whereas the United States had tacitly recognized a Soviet sphere of influence in East and Central Europe during the Cold War, it has declined to extend a similar recognition to Beijing (Resnick, 2013). Unlike the communist regimes in East and Central Europe that used to provide a buffer zone, the United States has formal or informal allies (e.g., Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) located right at China’s doorstep. These observations again suggest that the power-transition theory’s contention of a Sino-American struggle for global supremacy is a very seriously flawed misrepresentation. Beijing is far more concerned about its security conditions near home than contesting for influence in the “distant abroad.” This is one similarity that China shares with Germany, which also lived in a congested and dangerous neighborhood—ironically, a similarity between these two countries that analysts mostly overlook. The power-transition narrative one often hears in the United States also betrays an ironic concern for China’s emergent sameness, such as if Beijing were to declare a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine or Brezhnev Doctrine or if it were to undertake actions against its neighbors similar to those Washington had undertaken toward Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and even tiny Grenada. In this respect, this narrative again reveals autobiographical referencing—reminding us again of the adage “we see things not as they are, but as we are.”
So What Given the Prevailing Power-Transition Discourse?
Scholarly theories often leak into pundits’ commentaries, popular opinion, and even the views of important policymakers (such as those whose views were quoted earlier). There is not a shortage of sensational titles such as The Coming Conflict with China (Bernstein & Munro, 1998), The Coming China Wars (Navarro, 2008), When China Rules the World (Jacques, 2009), and A Struggle for Supremacy (Friedberg, 2011). Naturally, there are also opposing voices, but they tend to be swamped by the more sensational claims and strident positions often representing a simplified, even caricatured, view of power shifts and their effects on war and peace. Even teachers and researchers of international relations who cannot necessarily be associated with the power-transition perspective point to “the rising power of China” as the most important issue facing the United States (Maliniak et al., 2012, p. 82). When these professional colleagues were asked in a survey to identify the most urgent and critical issues in international relations, they indicated that this issue was at the very top of their list of concerns. For many, its importance even exceeded “global climate change.” This view was shared by both U.S. and non-U.S. scholars, with only a slight difference between these two groups.
This survey (conducted in 2011) also asked its respondents to rate the danger of a Sino-American war in the next decade. The U.S. respondents rated this event’s probability at 1.33 (on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten indicting highly probable), and the non-U.S. respondents gave an estimate of 1.34, which is almost identical to the result from their American counterparts. When asked to extend their forecast to the next 30 years, these groups’ ratings rose considerably to 2.27 and 2.28, respectively (Maliniak et al., 2012, pp. 84–85). Although these figures can hardly be construed as alarmist, they also do not paint a rosy picture of future Sino-American relations. They certainly do not suggest any inevitability of a clash between these two countries, but they do indicate a foreboding that the passage of time is likely to be accompanied by a deterioration rather than an improvement in bilateral relations. In their opinion, the danger of war will increase over time.
If the position taken in this discussion is correct, a power transition between China and the United States is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Much of the discourse on this subject constitutes social and political construction intended to identify a rival or competitor for the purposes of political mobilization and agenda setting. It obviously designates an in- and out-group, and portrays the latecomer as a dissatisfied challenger bent on upsetting the existing international order without, however, engaging in any detailed analysis intended to either develop conceptually the ideas of dissatisfaction or world order, or provide a robust empirical/historical basis for the discourse’s attributions. It assigns a motive to the latecomer for instigating a conflict but fails to consider whether a dominant but declining hegemon can also be motivated to start a preventive war. While the dominant country is seen by definition to be committed to this status quo, even though it has the most capability to alter this situation to its further advantage, the newcomer is typically described to have an incentive to destabilize it. The newcomer seeks destablilization simply because it has gained relative capabilities and without any regard to the fact that it has also acquired an increased stake in the status quo by virtue of its recent upward mobility. Analysts thus shuttle their logic about the supposed status-quo commitment or revisionist intentions of countries depending on whether they are describing the dominant or the late rising countries’ motivations. The status quo is endowed with a certain amount of sanctity even though the original formulation of the power-transition theory acknowledges that it is a rigged system that works to the advantage of a select few (the earlier arrivals) and to the detriment of many others. Overwhelming attention is paid to the distribution of power, with scant concern for the distribution of the benefits and costs that the current system allocates to different countries. There is both an ad hoc and a post hoc tendency, so that a country is characterized as dissatisfied and is assigned a revisionist agenda by virtue of its having fought, contested, or simply not gotten along with the dominant country. Therefore, there is a tendency for tautological reasoning, so that attribution of a state’s policy orientation is based on its war involvement against or disputes with the dominant power rather than the other way around (i.e., to stipulate and verify antecedent conditions that are independent of war or dispute). Moreover, the dominant power and the international community (or world order) are lumped together as one and the same thing. Opposition to the dominant power then becomes a challenge to the international community or the world order. Labels such as status-quo orientation and revisionist intentions are applied contrary to the relevant states’ own declared statements, their actual conduct, and even the customary connotation of common words, so that an agenda intended to promote regime change abroad is described as a status-quo campaign, whereas an avowed intention to adhere to the Westphalian principles is described as revisionist. There is scant sense of irony that comments on current or possible future Chinese conduct can be autobiographical in recalling or reflecting current or past U.S. practice. Finally, those who apply the power-transition theory to current Sino-American relations conflate a conflict over local or regional issues with a direct challenge mounted by the newcomer to undermine and replace the current hegemon’s global dominance. They thereby deliberately or inadvertently exaggerate what is at stake for the latter country and for the international community as a whole in these two countries’ disagreements.
If a dominant but declining power may be motivated to launch a preventive war as in the case of Germany in 1914, its weaker but rising counterpart should have the opposite incentive to postpone a conflict until it gets stronger. So why did Russia not continue a strategy to buy time after having made concessions in previous Balkan crises in order to deescalate tension? The historical analysis by Levy and Mulligan (forthcoming) shows that although Russian leaders wanted to avoid a confrontation again in 1914, this inclination was offset by their fear of losing their credibility if they had failed to support Serbia and by their worry about being unable to recover their position in the Balkans. A desire to stand firm after having suffered reputational setback in previous encounters (this cost can also extend to the leaders’ domestic standing) as well as a wish to avert geostrategic losses disposed them to become more adamant and risk acceptant (as prospect theory would lead us to expect), even though Russia would have been in a stronger position to take on Germany if its military and financial reforms were given more time to bear fruit. This conclusion in turn points to the relevance of alliance entrapment and persistent rivalries in abetting systemic wars.
It also bears on Chinese policymaking, especially with respect to confrontations over Taiwan—ones that Beijing had backed down on in each previous crisis. If there should be another confrontation, Beijing’s leaders could very well feel more constrained to repeat this experience for the same reasons that characterized St. Petersburg’s decision process in 1914. Even though waiting can benefit China by giving it more time to develop its capabilities, Chinese leaders may accept escalation because of their concern over rising reputational costs, domestic political fallout, and an inability to reverse the political and military consequences of backing down yet one more time.
The power-transition theory focuses on power shifts between the two leading countries at a time when the relative positions of their associates and allies can also be experiencing significant changes. These concurrent developments for major and minor parties can also be destabilizing (Doran & Parsons, 1980). The power-transition theory overlooks this multilateral context. It also does not give enough attention to other factors that interact with power shifts to increase the danger of a systemic war. Rapkin and Thompson (2013) point to the additional effects of bipolarization whereby countries increasingly align and commit themselves to opposing camps, as well as to the effects of persistent and intensifying rivalries whereby countries become parties to escalating arms races and an increasing incidence of severe militarized disputes. Interlocking alliance ties and rivalry dynamics act in conjunction with power shifts to compound the danger of systemic war. Thus, in this view, power shifts are just one of several drivers responsible for such war.
It is often forgotten that one of the main propositions of the power-transition theory is that states grow at different rates largely because of their domestic conditions, even though these conditions can be influenced to a limited extent and in the short to median term by their foreign relations. This theory therefore argues that international interventions are not likely to be effective in bending states’ respective power trajectories over the long term. In this light, it makes more policy sense to focus on other conditions that interact with power shifts to create a combustible international environment prone to war, conditions that foreign policy officials are likely have more direct control over. Enduring rivalries as shown by recurrent crises, intensifying arms races, and entangling alliance ties are three such other conditions that provide the general context paving the pathway to large conflagrations such as the one set off by Sarajevo in 1914 (Thompson, 2003). It also bears repeating that power shifts are never a strictly bilateral matter, and their multiplicative ramifications can ripple throughout the international system as a result of changes in the growth trajectories of even the smaller major powers (Doran & Parsons, 1980). Structural conditions such as sharp inflections in states’ growth trends in the context of their protracted historical competition can abet intense fears, acute anxieties, or unwarranted confidence on the part of individual leaders and incline them to risk war.
As Lebow and Valentino (2009, p. 408) have remarked:
Should war come between the United States and China in the future it will not be a result of a power transition. The greater risk is that conflict will result from the misperception that such a transition is imminent, and the miscalculation by decision-makers in the United States (or China) that China will soon be in a position to do what no state has done before – unilaterally dictate the rules of the international system. Power transition theory would be made self-fulfilling—generating its own corroboration where history has failed to oblige.
One must remember that China and the United States. had in fact fought in recent history when they clashed in the Korean War and at a time when no one could plausibly argue that there was an ongoing process of power transition between these two countries. This episode tells us that a military conflict can occur without a newcomer catching up to a dominant power. China can decide to fight even when faced with a vastly stronger adversary in order to shape long-term political trends and to avert what its leaders expect to be worse outcomes (e.g., a severe loss of domestic legitimacy, U.S. encroachment on China’s borders, an inability to retrieve its international reputation or position) if Beijing were to remain passive. Such a fight would have little if anything to do with a desire to challenge Washington’s global supremacy or to rewrite the rules of international order. Thomas Christensen (2006) has thoughtfully argued that many of Beijing’s prior military actions against other countries have been plausibly motivated by a concern that if it had not acted, its weak position (domestic or international) would suffer a further decline (that is, the unfavorable capability gap separating it and an adversary would become larger—a prospective change whose direction is opposite to the one predicted by the power-transition theory, as this theory expects increased bellicosity from an upstart that has improved its relative position). Thus, aggressiveness can be prompted by fears about a future window of vulnerability and not by a desire for aggrandizement. If so, the power-transition theory may actually have things backwards. In the foreseeable future, Beijing will be wary to accept a military clash with Washington (or Moscow, New Delhi, Hanoi, or even Taipei). If it does enter into such a clash this decision will not likely be because it welcomes such a confrontation but rather because it feels it cannot avoid it without suffering greater perceived costs to its reputation, security, or regime survival. In the Korean War and its other military clashes involving the USSR, Vietnam, and Taiwan, Beijing’s resort to arms cannot necessarily be attributed to its confidence in its ability to vanquish its opponent on the battlefield and to resolve its problems with this adversary once and for all by military force. Rather, these were attempts to somehow slow and arrest, if not also reverse, a worsening situation. Such decisions tended to reflect a reluctant choice of the least distasteful of all the available unpalatable options. This line of reasoning also suggests that China can pose a problem for the United States without having to match the United States’ capabilities (Christensen, 2001). Arguably, Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor is better explained in the same way than by the power-transition perspective. This perspective can actually cause analysts and officials to misdirect their attention and to foster complacency or miscalculation in situations where large power asymmetries (as conventionally defined) characterize relations among states or groups and are expected to continue to characterize these relations in the foreseeable future (such as attested by U.S. experiences in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan).
Finally, the power-transition theory’s interpretation of history is certainly contestable. This view often reflects its proponents’ self-imaginations. By failing to undertake a balanced analysis, analysts tend to reify and distort history to support their theory. Furthermore, an inclination toward a deterministic view of history gives short shrift to human agency, that is, by shortchanging the role played by leaders’ policy agendas, personal perceptions, and decision processes, while overemphasizing the influence of structural conditions, especially those pertaining to changes in the power distribution among major states. We need to have a better understanding of how changes at the interstate level can affect variables at the level of individual officials, and vice versa. For all the reasons enumerated, one wonders whether the views promoted by the prevailing discourse on power transition are good science, good history, or even good politics.
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