Competing great powers, and the potential for clashes among them when there are changes of place at the top of the hierarchy, are an old story in international relations. Against this realist model of inevitably warlike power struggles stands another idea: ‘peaceful rise’. China committed itself to this policy a decade ago, and arguably adopted it as far back as the shift to reform and opening up in the late 1970s. The only other modern great power than can possibly claim to have risen peacefully is the United States. Since there are only two cases of attempted peaceful rise, it is worth asking what parallels can be drawn between the United States and Chinese experiences. Given their different placements in history, with the rise of the United States having taken place between 1865 and 1945, a century earlier than China’s current rise, what lessons, if any, can be learned for China from the United States experience? This article looks closely at both the meaning of ‘peaceful rise’ and the credibility of the United States and Chinese claims to it. It surveys the key points of similarity and difference between the United States and China during their process of rise, comparing contemporary China with the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not with today’s United States. The conclusion sets out six lessons for China and for international society that can be drawn from comparing the two cases.
Competing great powers, and the potential for clashes among them when there are changes of place at the top of the hierarchy, are an old story in international relations. Indeed, this story is central to the mainstream realist approach to International Relations (IR) and it comes in various forms: rising and declining great powers, hegemonic (in)stability theory, polarity theory and power transition theory, among others.1 The historical record offers a lot of support for the idea that war is a frequent accompaniment when rising powers challenge incumbent ones for the top places in the international hierarchy. France rose to power by challenging Spain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Britain rose to power by defeating the Netherlands and France, and had to fight two challenges from Germany. Germany rose to power by defeating Austria-Hungary and France. For a time during the late 19th century Germany might have aligned with Britain against Britain’s colonial rivals France and Russia. But this possibility closed after 1898 with Germany’s decision to embark on a naval challenge to Britain. Russia rose to power in many conflicts with Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and France, and became a superpower on the back of its major role in the defeat of Germany in 1945. Japan rose to power by defeating China and Russia. Initially, Japan bandwagoned with the leading power, Britain, but their 1902 alliance arrangements broke down after the First World War, and Japan moved to a warlike rise. Most of these rising powers actively sought the wars they fought as part of their strategy for rising. For this reason it was quite common for rising powers to devote a lot of their new wealth to acquiring military strength. The general assumption of inevitable tension between, on the one side, rising powers wanting to change the status hierarchy and the rules, and on the other the established status quo ones wanting to defend them, seems plausible. This is especially so when such tensions are amplified by ideological differences, as they were throughout the ‘short’ 20th century (1914–1989). This weight of history is interpreted by some IR theorists as meaning that conflict is inevitable when challengers and incumbents meet at the top of the great power hierarchy.2 The three world wars of the 20th century (First, Second, and Cold) seem to underpin this view.
Against this model of inevitably warlike power struggles stands another idea: ‘peaceful rise’. China committed itself to this policy a decade ago, and arguably adopted it as far back as the shift to reform and opening up in the late 1970s. The only other great power than can possibly claim to have risen peacefully is the United States. Since there are only two cases of attempted peaceful rise, it is worth asking what parallels can be drawn between the United States and Chinese experiences. Given their different placements in history, what lessons, if any, can be learned for China from the US experience? These questions are made more interesting by two other factors. Firstly, China’s rise is happening now, and its success or failure is therefore of enormous interest and importance to contemporary world politics. And secondly, the incumbent hegemonic power that China is trying to rise peacefully against is the United States: the only other case of peaceful rise. Could it be that IR has crossed some sort of threshold, leaving behind the realist history and opening up something new? Looking ahead, might India be the third great power in a sequence of peaceful rise? For the purposes of this comparison we will take the period of United States rise as running from 1865 (the end of the Civil War) to 1945 (its emergence as the pre-eminent world power). The United States therefore presents a complete case study with a well-defined end point after which the United States is definitely ‘risen’ rather than ‘rising’. China’s peaceful rise begins in 1978 with the big turn in policy to reform and opening up, and remains a work in progress. China might therefore still abandon peaceful rise and revert to the traditional realist formula. If it stays the course, the question arises as to when, and by what criteria, we might think of China as having moved from ‘rising’ to ‘risen’. One possible benchmark for this would be acceptance by the United States of China as a peer, as it did with the Soviet Union on the basis of nuclear parity during the 1960s and 70s.
The next section looks more closely at both the meaning of ‘peaceful rise’ and the credibility of United States and Chinese claims to it. Section 3 surveys the key points of similarity between the United States and China during their process of rise. Section 4 does the same with the key points of difference. The concluding section sets out the lessons for China and for international society that can be drawn from comparing the two cases. Readers should keep in mind that we are comparing contemporary China with the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not with today’s United States.
Interpreting ‘Peaceful Rise’ and the United States and Chinese Cases
We use the label ‘peaceful rise’ because it is a more accurate statement of the issues than the more anodyne and diplomatic ‘peaceful development’. But how, exactly, should peaceful rise be defined? What criteria need to be met for the rise of a great power into the top ranks to count as peaceful? As Buzan drawing on Galtung,3 argues, one can think about this in terms of three models: warlike rise (meeting the realist expectations of the rising power precipitating a great power war); cold or negative peaceful rise (no great power war, but an environment of threat and suspicion); and warm or positive peaceful rise (a friendly environment with a low sense of threat). This suggests two general models for peaceful rise: cold and warm. With the realist criteria in mind, we might thus say that the minimum condition for peaceful rise is that a growing power is able to make both absolute and relative gains in both its material and its status positions, in relation to the other great powers in the international system without precipitating major hostilities between itself and other great powers. Peaceful rise involves a two-way process in which the rising power accommodates itself to the rules and structures of international society, while at the same time other great powers accommodate some changes in those rules and structures by way of adjusting to the new disposition of power and status. The empirical plausibility of peaceful rise rests on two cases: the United States, which arguably achieved it during the 20th century, and China, which says it wants to achieve it during the 21st.
The United States is the only great power that has attempted and accomplished peaceful rise by succeeding in replacing the hegemon, Britain, without going to war with it during the period of power transition.4 From the late 19th century onward, when the United States was becoming the biggest great power in the system, its relations with Britain were good enough to qualify for a warm peaceful rise. But this is not the whole picture, and it might be objected that the rise of the United States in a wider sense was hardly peaceful. In fact, one writer has even talked of the United States during the 19th century as being a most ‘dangerous nation’ becoming involved in some early clashes with Britain (and Canada) before and after independence, wars against the native peoples of North America, and during the 19th century wars against Mexico and Spain.5 Rising America also was, and remains still, a highly interventionist power in relationship to Central and Latin America. The rise of the United States was moreover much facilitated by the First and Second World Wars in both of which the United States was a late and reluctant entrant but a major beneficiary of the peace settlement. In this sense the United States had the good fortune to be the big winner in great power wars started by others. It could, in a sense, free ride on the parallel warlike rise of Germany, which did challenge Britain and precipitate great power wars.6
We are left, therefore, with a rather complicated picture in which the United States rise takes on a different character in relation to the existing hegemon (Britain) the other great powers, and the neighbours of the United States in the Americas. In relation to Britain as the reigning hegemon, the United States rise fits the warm peace model. The United States rose through the 19th century, and then assumed a hegemonic position in the 20th, without having to engage in a serious or extended war with Britain. On the contrary, it rose (as we shall see later) in concert with—and at key points in alliance—with Britain and the British. Indeed, long before Churchill officially referred to the relationship as being distinct and special after the Second World War, it had in fact already become so.7 In relation to other great powers the picture is mixed between warm and cold peace, with the United States being twice drawn into great powers wars precipitated by the rise of great powers other than itself. But it did not initiate these wars, joined them very late, and sided in both cases with Britain. In relation to its neighbours the picture is again mixed. The United States fairly quickly developed a warm peace with Canada, but in relation to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean its rise was a mixture of warlike, cold and warm. The United States record thus raises some difficult questions for defining a rise as peaceful or not. By narrow realist criteria confined to great power relations, a plausible case can be made that the United States did rise peacefully. But from the perspective of its neighbours to the south, its rise might well look to be on the more warlike end of the spectrum.
What about the case of China? China began its own peaceful rise after having adopted its policy of economic reform at home while opening up to the West in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Various rhetorics have surrounded this attempt, with the phrase ‘peaceful rise’ being only briefly in vogue in 2003–2004.8 But the general logic behind the policy was clear. China’s leadership decided that the country needed to modernize, become wealthy and powerful, and recover from the excesses and chaos of the Maoists years culminating in the cultural revolution. They understood that it could only do this if it abandoned total state control over the economy, and created significant space for the market to operate. This move in turn required that China engage economically with both its neighbours and the world, and become part of the global systems of trade, investment, and finance. China’s commitment to peaceful rise was thus instrumental, but deep. As Zhang argues, China put its own economic development as top priority, and deduced from that the need for stability in its international relations both regionally and globally.9 This change was driven by internal developments in China during the late 1970s and early 1980s in which the country underwent a quite profound change of national identity, strategic culture, and definition of its security interests, all of which transformed its relationship with international society.10
China’s rhetoric of peaceful rise is ongoing, but what does its record for the past three decades look like in terms of the three models? So far there has been no warlike rise either against other great powers or China’s neighbours. China’s relations with the United States as the prevailing hegemon are mainly cold peace, as are its relations with two of its major power neighbours, Japan and India. Even China’s strategic partnership with Russia can hardly be described as warm, and its relations with Europe are more about indifference than either cold or warm. China has failed to make any great power friends. China’s relations with its smaller neighbours have been mixed. For the first 25 years there was a slow but quite steady trend towards warming relations with Southeast Asia. But since 2008 China has taken a more aggressive line, pushing most of its relations with Southeast Asia into the cold peace model. This policy shift, along with rising nationalism, and by 2012–2013 open talk of war between China and Japan over the islands dispute between them, raised the possibility that China would exit from peaceful rise and revert to a more realist model. China’s peaceful rise thus shares with the United States the complexity of operating in three domains. Like the United States, it could in theory achieve a peaceful rise in relation to the prevailing hegemon, while having elements of warlike rise in relation to other great powers and its neighbours. That option is more difficult for China than for the United States, because the United States is allied both with Japan and many other of China’s neighbours.
One other issue that needs to be addressed is how the strategy of rising peacefully relates to what happens after a country has risen? The spectrum of possibilities here is large. On one end of it lies the realist reading of peaceful rise as a mere strategy of deception aimed at facilitating a transit through a dangerous period of relative weakness. Once risen, the new power then reverts to power-maximising behaviour. On the other end of the spectrum is a follow-through of peaceful rise into some form of benign and consensual leadership. China is sometimes suspected of the deception strategy, not least because it has been reticent to set out its grand strategy, or say what it will do once it has risen.11 Some Chinese backers of peaceful rise may support it for that reason: a key theme of Sun Tze’s Art of War is, after all, the merits of strategic deception. The United States likes to think of itself as the benign and consensual leader, and even though many would contest that interpretation, there is some truth in it. What actually happens after peaceful rise is beyond the scope of this article. But perceptions of what will happen once a rising power has risen do affect the process, and even the viability, of a peaceful rise strategy, and are therefore important to the argument here. For the United States, its commitment to peaceful rise was more or less implicit in its liberal character. China cannot make the claim that its internal structure necessarily supports peaceful rise, yet has made its rhetorical commitment to peaceful rise quite explicit. That combination puts a premium on whether or not China will be able to persuade others that its peaceful rise is something other than a temporary manoeuvre in a longer game of the art of war.
Key Points of Similarity During the Process of Rise
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the United States and China is that in geographical, demographic, and economic terms both are relatively big actors in the international system. In terms of land area, they are nearly the same size at a bit over 3.5 million square miles, currently ranking 3rd (United States) and 4th (China) in the world. During the period of its rise the United States was also relatively big. In 1900, it ranked 3rd (after Russia and China) or 4th (if one counts the British Empire as a single unit). In terms of population, China has for long been number one, and currently has close to 20% of the world’s population, compared to the United States’s 4.5%, which ranks it 3rd after India. During its period of rise the United States benefitted from mass immigration during the 19th century. Fifty million Europeans emigrated between 1800 and 1914, most of them to the United States, helping to increase its population from 5 million in 1800 to 160 million in 1914.12 During its period of rise, the United States thus still ranked high: in 1900 it was fourth after China, India (or the British Empire) and Russia. In terms of economy (Gross Domestic Product (GDP)), China currently ranks third after the EU and the United States, and just ahead of Japan. During its period of rise the United States took an early lead, surpassing Britain during the 1870s and increasing its lead as number one thereafter. The First World War enabled the United States to become a net creditor, and to take over financial leadership from a weakened Britain. By 1930, the US GDP was roughly the size of the next three (Britain, Germany, and Russia) combined.
Interestingly, and perhaps a bit more surprising, both countries have lived in relatively benign international environments during their periods of rise. The United States has been, of course, famously favoured by geography. Thus it has always had, and still has, relatively small and weak neighbours to its north and south. Indeed, it is perhaps the only great power that has not been ‘neighboured’ by other great powers. Its geographical remoteness has also made its ascent both less threatening to the rest of the world and reinforced its ‘disinclination’ to dominate other great powers.13 With huge insulating oceans to east and west, it has moreover been difficult to reach militarily, giving it options for degrees of isolation from the balance of power not available to other great powers. The United States, in addition, was able to set up and largely dominate a regional political and security system in the Western hemisphere. It was also helped in its rise by its cultural and linguistic affinity with the leading power, Britain. Britain not only provided over 6 million emigrants to the United States between 1880 and 1914,14 but also was by far the largest investor in the US economy. By 1914, Britain was responsible for well over half of the investment into the United States.15 Contrary to realist expectations, it very quickly came to accept America’s rise as being both inevitable following the Union’s victory in the Civil War, and potentially beneficial as Britain’s rivalry with Germany began to assume an increasingly serious form in the late 19th century. Britain became, in effect, a major collaborator in the rise of the United States—though this fact of course does not feature much in United States self-understandings of its rise.
China’s history in this respect is more complicated.16 Up until the early 19th century it was insulated from other great powers by distance (although not from Asian steppe barbarians), and could usually dominate its civilized neighbours. But from the 1840s through to the last decade of the Cold War, China was vulnerable to all manner of foreign bullying and intervention, both from the West and from a rapidly industrializing Japan. During the period of its current peaceful rise, however, China has been lucky enough to live again in a relatively benign environment. The Soviet Union may have been a rival of sorts but by the late 1980s it had ceased to be threatening. Japan, under US tutelage, did not cultivate offensive military power. The United States broadly allowed China entry into the world economy and encouraged its domestic reforms. The association of Southeast Asian Nations drew China into its regional diplomatic arrangements. China’s policy turn was partly responsible for creating this benign environment because it made China both less threatening and more attractive economically to its neighbours and to the West. But China also benefitted from the generally more benign international and regional security and economic environment following the end of the Cold War. It might be argued that, like Britain in relation to the United States, the United States has played a significant facilitating role in the rise of China, mainly in terms of economic policy. Like the United States, China is similarly reticent about acknowledging this helping hand from the leading power. What links their cases in this respect is that both the United States and China were rising in the context of an international society led by a liberal power.
Part of this relatively benign environment for both the United States and China was that during their ascendant periods—America’s after 1865 and China’s after 1978—both countries benefitted from very substantial foreign direct investment (FDI) as an important vehicle facilitating their own development. Thus FDI in the United States accounted for close to 20% of annual GDP by 1914—around $7.1 billion in total stock.17 Indeed, in key sectors such as steel, chemicals, and transport, FDI was crucial. Admittedly, this proportion declined precipitately thereafter as a result of war, the expropriation of German assets, the depression, and a growing association in the American official mind of foreign investment with threats to national security. Nonetheless, for a critical period following the Civil War, FDI did play a critical (and now little recognized) role in America’s 19th century ‘take off’. FDI was similarly important to China following the abandonment of Maoism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At first careful not to move too precipitately, China gradually abandoned economic isolationism and began to open its doors to increased outside investment. Initially the great majority of this came from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, moving China from nearly zero FDI in the 1970s, to over $900 billion by the late 1990s.18 But as time went on, the United States and the European Union became more heavily involved too. The bulk of this investment tended to be concentrated in the main coastal cities and the Special Economic Zones. However, China fast became the most open and most attractive economy in the whole of the developing world. Indeed, by the first half of 2012 it had overtaken the United States in becoming the most important destination for FDI world wide.19
Another more obvious similarity between them was that both experienced a traumatic civil war before their period of rise. In the United States, this took place between 1861 and 1865, immediately before the dramatic take-off in the US’s population and economy. In China, things were again much more complicated, with the civil war running for many decades. China fragmented after 1911, and from 1927 to 1949 there was an organized civil war between communists and nationalists interspersed with foreign interventions and invasions. China’s civil war ended three decades before its peaceful rise began, but nonetheless the experience of civil war left a similar legacy in both countries: both thereafter placed an enormous emphasis on remaining united. Parallels could in fact be drawn between the ruthless military anti-secessionism and rejection of self-determination that underpinned the US civil war, and China’s similar current attitudes towards Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. Abraham Lincoln and the Chinese Communist Party would perhaps have understood each other quite well on this question. The United States has been more fortunate in that its unity question was largely laid to rest after the Civil War, and did not much affect its peaceful rise. For China, the unity question is still not fully resolved, especially over Tibet and Taiwan. It plays significantly into China’s international image, and therefore into its wider foreign policy and IR.
A particularly interesting similarity between the United States and China is the way in which the main lines of their foreign policies show striking parallels during their period of rise. Both pursued economic engagement with the rest of the world, and a focus on economic self-development (industrialization) while remaining politically aloof, self-defensive, and not wanting to participate in the global balance of power. The culturally and economically expansive, but politically and militarily ‘isolationist’ policy of the United States up to 1917, and again during the interwar years, does not look all that different from the Dengist policy of reform and opening up economically, and seeking stability and keeping a low profile regionally and internationally. In this context, both countries practiced military restraint as opposed to building up their armed forces as fast as, or faster than, their economic growth. Except during wartime, United States military forces remained modest right up to the start of the Cold War; China likewise, even during Mao’s time, gave a relatively low priority to military expansion and modernization in relation to the development and growth of its economy.
Figures for US military expenditure as a percentage of its GDP during the period of its rise are not easy to come by. But it is probably true that between the end of the US Civil War and the United States entry into the First World War, United States military expenditure seldom if ever exceeded 1% of GDP and was often much less than that. By the late 19th century this was, of course, 1% of a fast growing economy that was already the world’s largest, so it was not an inconsiderable sum. But despite its huge economic lead, in the run-up to the First World War the military expenditure of the United States was generally less than that of Britain, Germany, or Russia, and about the same as France. The US army was not designed, and was not strong enough, to fight wars against other significant powers. Instead it was designed either to hold the country together (the role of the armies of the North) or to be directed against weak opponents including native Americans, rebellious colonials like the Philippinos, feeble neighbours like Mexico, and relatively weak outside powers like Japan and Spain.
Finding reliable figures for China’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP after 1978 is almost equally problematic, with China’s government pitching the numbers for military expenditure low, and the US military pitching them high. The estimates from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are perhaps a reasonable compromise.20 They show considerable consistency for the period 1989–2010, with China’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP fluctuating within a narrow band of 1.6–2.5. As with the United States, of course, this modest-looking figure has to be seen in the context of a very rapidly growing economy. This has made China’s military expenditure until recently roughly comparable to that of the big European states such as Britain, France and Germany, and with Japan. Even if China is now pulling ahead of these, it still falls extremely far short of the massive US figure. In some parallel with the United States, therefore, China has favoured economic development and growth over military expenditure. It has focused on military modernization to be sure, but unlike powers rising in warlike mode, it has done so at a measured pace, and has not sought to rival US military power across the board.
Despite their relative military restraint, both countries have exhibited a certain weakness for navalism: the United States in building the ‘Great White Fleet’ during the 1890s; and China now looking towards a blue-water navy during the second decade of the 21st century. The ‘Great White Fleet’ brought the US navy more up to international standard than its army. By the outbreak of the First World War, the United States had more of the modern ‘dreadnought’ battleships (12) than France (7), Japan (7), or Russia (5), but many fewer than Britain (41) or Germany (24). Naval might was partly about showing off their new power, but more instrumentally it also reflected the keenness of both to insulate their regional sphere from outside interference. For the United States, this was embodied in the Monroe doctrine (1823), the building of naval power, the Panama canal, and a policy of self-interested interventionism in Central and South America and the Caribbean. China’s position is again more complex, partly because there are substantial powers within its region, and partly because the United States is deeply embedded as an intervening power in East Asia. Nevertheless, China’s military policy is aimed at establishing sea control out to the first island chain, and in asserting expansive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. Like the United States before it, China wants to be able to exclude outside powers from its region, though in attempting this it faces much more challenging circumstances than those that faced the United States.
In line with politically isolationist policies, both states were extremely reluctant to take on international leadership responsibilities commensurate with their rising power. This reticence was easier to pull off when their power was relatively small during the early phases of peaceful rise, but increasingly difficult as their relative power began to weigh significantly in the global balance. In the case of the United States, this policy left international society seriously under-managed during the first half of the 20th century, when the United States had for long been the biggest economy and Britain, especially after the First World War, was no longer strong enough to lead effectively. The United States was a reluctant entrant into both the First and Second World Wars, and having taken the lead in setting up the League of Nations, then abandoned it. China has only just arrived at the point where the question of matching its responsibilities to its power is becoming pressing, both for China itself and for international society.21 At the time of writing there has been no significant display of willingness in Beijing to begin taking more responsibility for global management, and some disturbing signs of self-interested swaggering. The concern to maintain domestic development and domestic stability (harmony) continues to reign supreme.
Despite their reluctance to take a leading role in international society, both a rising United States and a rising China nonetheless took firm positions in relation to it. Both joined the general framework of international society, but took dissenting positions on key points. The United States, along with most of the Americas, was happy to assume the status of sovereign equality and thereby to convert European into Western international society. But the United States rejected the institution of balance of power, and via the Monroe Doctrine tried to set itself up as hegemonic in the Western hemisphere, not least by sponsoring the first International Conference of American States in 1889. It led the building of a regional international society in the Americas distinctive for its high degree of legalism and commitment to intergovernmental institutions.22 Because of their highly racialised societies,23 the states of the Americas were also laggards in the early human rights campaigns against slavery. Since 1978, China has likewise sought to integrate itself into Western-global international society. Like the United States, it has taken a very strong line in favour of sovereign equality and non-intervention: both states are strongly sovereigntist in their attitude towards international society. And like the United States it has resisted those parts of the prevailing international society that disagreed with its internal makeup, in this case most obviously the Western understanding of human rights. There are signs that China would like also to follow the United States in establishing regional hegemony, for example in its support for narrower memberships of Asian regional institutions. But as explained above, China’s neighbourhood is much more complex than that faced by the United States, and it has so far had little success with this strategy.24
Perhaps more curiously given their isolationism, both countries projected a rhetoric of international harmony, albeit of profoundly different types. The United States one was based on universalist liberal ideas about harmony of interests through a market economy, and the peaceful effects of trade and democracy and individual freedom. Put simply, the United States view was that if all countries became like America, there would be a peaceful world. American exceptionalism was thus outward looking and open.25 As noted above, American liberalism gave some reassurance, especially to Britain, that once risen the United States would remain relatively benign. China meanwhile has retreated from the ideological universalism of its Maoist period based on Marxian notions of structural conflict rather than on harmony. Now it projects ideas of harmony based loosely on Confucian prescriptions about ‘all under heaven’ (Tianxia).26 This has been allied to a strong interpretation of non-intervention, non-discrimination and the right of peoples to determine their own political and social development. In China’s case, harmony seems now more to be based on the respect for, and preservation of, differences, rather than the cultivation of homogeneity along some particular ideological line. Chinese exceptionalism is inward looking and closed, broadly summed up in the much used phrase ‘with Chinese characteristics’ when describing almost any social, economic or political policy.27 Again as noted above, this poses the problem for China that other powers will be suspicious about what happens after China has risen.
Rather less surprisingly, both China and the United States practiced protectionism during their period of rise. The United States (or more precisely the northern states) practiced protectionism throughout its rise until the Civil War. Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1791 that ‘to maintain between the recent establishment of one country and the long-matured establishments of another country, a competition upon equal terms is in most cases, impractical’. Tariffs followed in 1816, 1824, and 1828. By 1857 tariffs averaged 20%. The defeat of the South was in fact a defeat for the kind of free trade policies favoured by the Confederacy and more generally the Democrats. Protectionist tariffs remained the bedrock of the Republican Party between 1890 (the McKinley Tariff) and 1909 (Payne-Aldrich Tariff). Wilson liberalized trade somewhat, but after the First World War the Republicans reintroduced high tariffs (The Fordney-McCumber Tariff, 1922). In short, throughout its rise before 1914 the United States accorded high tariff protection to its economy, manufactures in particular such as textiles, iron, steel, glass, and tin plate. Nor did the situation change at all in the inter-war period. If anything, the situation deteriorated in the 1920s and got even worse in the 1930s with the onset of the depression. This kind of overt protectionism was further reinforced between the two wars when (as we have seen) the United States became less open to inward FDI and a battery of legislation was passed to ensure that Americans retained control over an increasingly American economy.
China has been more constrained by the rules of what is now a much more highly institutionalized global economy than that faced by the United States, and also by its need to keep export markets open. But China has never fully bought into the notion of an ‘open door’ broadly associated with the Western ideal of globalization. On the contrary, many of its instincts remain protectionist. Thus while it might protest the protectionism of others (as it did at the 2012 18th party congress) it practices its own form of the same, keeping its own goods cheap by ensuring that the reminbi remains weak. Furthermore, though it may practice competition at home, its own economy—and its own leading corporations—remain very much under the direction of an all-powerful dirigiste state. Indeed, state-led enterprises continue to command the heights of the Chinese economy. Finally, as Western economists have for long been pointing out, China engages in more subtle forms of protectionism: not by putting up tariff barriers but rather by demanding technology transfers from Western investors for being allowed access to the Chinese market.
The final similarity may be more difficult to quantify but nevertheless has potentially large significance. Despite their massive cultural differences, which might broadly be summed up as being individualist versus collectivist societies,28 American and Chinese societies have much in common including amongst other things a strong sense of patriotic pride (often verging on the chauvinist) married to a much-commented upon commitment to materialism and materialist measures of success. This may in part help explain America’s very real fascination with a modern entrepreneurial China that might have much more in common with the United States than some Americans would care to admit. It would certainly help explain China’s very deep respect for American power and American economic success. In fact, one of the more obvious measures of this respect is where the new Chinese elite now seem to prefer to send their children (to the United States) to get a ‘gold standard’ education. At the political level these broader similarities may also help us explain why both states are much inclined to bean counting in terms of their military and economic strength. This quantitative approach to power plays easily into zero-sum, realist, materialist ways of thinking about international relations, and could easily reinforce the views of those on both sides who either want to, or think they have to, construct their relationship as one of rivals or enemies. It perhaps also plays into some of their current policy similarities. Most obviously both have been obstructionist at global environmental negotiations on the grounds that they are unwilling to put restraints such as commitments to pollution control in the way of maximizing their economic development and GDP growth.
Key Points of Difference
The most obvious difference between China and the United States, as many Chinese like to point out, is that theirs is a very old country, indeed a civilization, that measures itself in millennia, whereas the United States is a quite new country with a history not yet spanning a quarter of one millennium. The United States’s history is nevertheless quite long compared to many other contemporary states, including many in Europe. And although the United States is definitely a recent start-up compared with China, in one important sense, as Jones points out, the United States is the oldest state in that it has a good claim to be the first modern state.29 Since China aspires to modernity it is in this key sense younger than the United States. This difference is closely related to another one, that China rests on the cultural homogeneity of a people who have been in situ for a long time. China’s nationalism is therefore of the ethno-cultural type, which differentiates it strongly from the rest of the world in terms of ‘Chinese characteristics’. The United States, in contrast, is mainly a country of immigrants. Its nationalism is civic rather than ethnic, and combines with a multicultural identity. America’s civic nationalism also gives it a unique identity that differentiates it strongly from the rest of the world. But, as noted in the discussion of American exceptionalism above, this differentiation is open and potentially inclusive, rather than closed and exclusive. For all of its many faults and hypocrisies, America’s ideology and commitment to individual freedom does have considerable worldwide appeal. And alongside this inclusive ideology is the fact that America’s multiculturalism allows many parts of the world to see themselves in some sense as represented in America. The American melting pot both homogenizes its citizens into Americanness, while allowing them to keep hyphenated identities as Mexican-, Chinese-, German-, Korean- and many other national types of American. In this area of identity and culture/ideology, therefore, the US and China could hardly be more different.
On top of this deep intrinsic difference, lie equally big ones in the timing and historical conditions under which the two have conducted their rise. The trajectory of the United States began more than a century before China’s recent start, and the nature of international society has changed profoundly between the two periods of rise. In terms of modernity and industrialization, the United States was a late developer, along with Germany and Japan coming in the second round after Britain. China is a late developer, arguably in a fourth round, meaning that it is rising in a context in which the world economy as a whole is much more developed, and there are many other industrialized and industrializing countries rather than just a handful. This matters in several ways. Most obviously the United States rose during a period in which great power wars were normal and regular occurrences, commitment to maintaining a global economy was thin and episodic, and empire building and racism were legitimate practices. China, in contrast, has risen into a world where nuclear weapons have made great power wars irrational, when empires and racism are neither legitimate nor fashionable, and when commitment to maintaining world trade, and a stable world economy more broadly, is stronger and more uniform.
Both the United States and China rose in a context where other large powers were also rising (the United States rose alongside Germany, Japan, and Russia/USSR; China is rising alongside India and Brazil). But beyond that, the differences are great. The United States rose in a context in which there were major ideological differences amongst the great powers, and several of the rising ones were making extreme military and ideological challenges to the liberal status quo. Although the United States did not start any of the consequent wars, it was drawn into both of them as a key player. In a sense, the United States was the major beneficiary of the First and Second World Wars, where it joined late, suffered relatively little damage or casualties, and was able to pick up the pieces after the other great powers had been destroyed or depleted by the conflicts. China is rising in a context where ideological differences amongst the powers are much lower, the institutional framing of international society is much stronger, and none of the rising powers seeks to overthrow the existing order by force (though they may well of course want to negotiate modifications to it). Like the United States, China will probably not start any hegemonic wars. But neither will it get drawn into any such wars, nor have the option to benefit from them by standing back.
As argued above, both China and the United States have experienced a shift from being relatively insulated from the core of the international system by distance and geography, to being inescapably enmeshed in it. While this might at first look like a similarity, it is in fact more of a difference. For the United States, the end of its insulation, although foreshadowed by the First World War, took place relatively late, during the Second World War, by which time the United States was already the leading great power. So during its rise, the United States had real choices about the degree to which it would engage or not with the rest of international society, and for the most part it chose isolationism. For China, this shift took place in the middle of the 19th century, when outside intrusion burst in on it and exposed its weakness. China suffered a major fall from power between 1840 and 1945, a traumatic experience that influences its current outlook heavily. The United States has never had that experience, and even on the worst declinist scenarios would have only a relatively mild version of it should it fall from global primacy during the coming decades. Since the foreign intrusions began, China has never had the choice to engage or not. It had only the choice about how and on what terms to engage, and sometimes, as during the period up to the 1940s, not even that. During its Maoist period China engaged by being oppositional to Western-global international society. Under Deng it chose engagement and peaceful rise, and has so far stayed with this choice.
A similar caveat, perhaps turning an apparent similarity into a difference, applies to the point argued in the previous section, that both China and the United States have benefitted from a relatively benign international environment and help from the leading power. While this similarity remains valid, the United States was always part of the Western identity and project, whereas China, despite its adoption of some features of modernity, remains culturally and politically strongly non-Western. This difference matters in any consideration of hegemonic succession. The US took over from Britain, its nearest kin country in terms of ethnic stock, culture and ideology. This was perhaps a unique transition in that Britain could let its world leadership go without feeling deeply threatened by the likely nature of the new global order led by the United States. If it came to such a transition between China and the United States, China would have to take over from a hegemon with a culture and a political order deeply different from its own. China’s adoption of capitalism would help a bit, making it easier than a transition involving a profound ideological difference, such as one from the United States to the Soviet Union would have been. But it is almost impossible to imagine the United States feeling as comfortable about China as Britain was able to feel about the United States. If China became more democratic that would help a lot, as shown by the West’s relative lack of concern about the rise of India. But it still would not recreate the unique conditions that applied between Britain and the United States.
Both China and the United States rose in the context of a liberal economic order in which they were embedded. Neither rose in isolation. But while there are some similarities (see on protectionism in the previous section) the differences are greater. In domestic terms, the United States has always had a foundational commitment to a free enterprise system. This is part and parcel of its liberal commitment to individualism and the market. China’s conversion to capitalism is very recent, and comes in authoritarian form.30 It remains unclear how deep its commitment to the market actually is, and this uncertainty plays into the doubts about what a risen China would be like. In this regard, China’s recent drift back towards favouring State Owned Enterprises is worrying. The Chinese Communist Party clearly has no interest whatsoever in liberal individualism, and feels deeply uneasy about the capitalist society that its hugely successful economic reforms are inevitably creating.
In systemic terms, the United States experience was rather mixed. The United States was unquestionably part of the world economy during the period of its rise, but it could be argued that the world economy before 1945 needed the United States more than the United States, with its vast resources, technological know-how and large market at home, needed the rest of the world. The systemic context for the United States rise was an unstable liberal order waxing and waning during the 19th and 20th centuries. The US economy was big enough to make it significantly responsible for these instabilities, most obviously in 1929. After decades of denying its responsibilities, the United States had eventually to take on the role of liberal hegemon after the Second World War. China has risen into a well-established and highly institutionalized liberal economic order, to which it was initially fiercely opposed, but with which since 1978 it has been seeking accommodation. But China’s policies of reform and opening up made it far more dependent on the more advanced world—for a market for its goods, for inward investment, for political support, and in its own region, for successful examples it could follow, if not necessarily imitate. In this sense, and ironically, although both were dependent on foreign capital, markets and technology, China as a formally communist-led country seemed to lean on the capitalist world far more than democratically-led America with its special mission to spread the gospel of free enterprise. It remains an open question whether the economic crisis beginning in 2008 will create turbulent conditions for China more similar to those experienced by, and in part created by, the United States.
In relation to international society, the United States was reformist revisionist, wanting negotiated change in international society towards more legal and institutionalized practices. China says it is a status quo power, wanting to join the US-led order and seeking stability above all. But there are hints that it might be either another kind of reformist revisionist (wanting increases in its own status, and negotiated changes in some norms and practices), or possibly a radical revisionist (the nationalist position wanting China to start flexing its muscles as soon as its relative strength allows, or shift more sharply back towards a state-run economy). The universalist ideology of the United States on international society gave it a relatively clear position. As yet, and apart from its strong pluralist commitment to sovereignty, non-intervention, and the protection of cultural and political distinctiveness, China’s position on what kind of international society it would like to be part of remains murky. This difference perhaps relates to the relative stability of the basic character of the US polity after the Civil War, and the relative uncertainty both within China and outside it about what kind of polity China will become over the next decades. After its civil war, the American polity settled into a stable form within which it has evolved ever since. For better or for worse, this provides considerable continuity and predictability about how the United States relates to international society. China’s civil war is still within living memory, and as the ongoing pressures for major social reform indicate, the country has probably not yet settled into an enduring form of political economy.
At the regional level, there are some similarities in the roles of China and the United States in their respective local spheres, but as already discussed, large differences too. The United States was always the elephant in the Americas, having a love–hate relationship with its neighbours from very early on in its rise. It has mainly been able to exclude rival powers from its region. It can, and up to a point still does, dominate the Western hemisphere, and has some legitimacy as regional leader. China was for nearly two millennia secure as the elephant in its region, enjoying both primacy and legitimacy as the hub of civilization. But from the 19th century it was unable to keep rival powers out of the region, and was displaced as the dominant power from within the region by Japan from the late 19th Century until recently. Huge resentment over Japan’s challenge to China’s hegemony still poisons relations between the two (and thereby greatly benefits the United States position in the Western Pacific). China still cannot exclude outside powers from its region, and neither does it yet have the power or the legitimacy to reassert regional leadership. China lives in a region with other great powers and the United States does not (though it might do with the rise of Brazil). So while the United States feels relatively secure in its region, China still does not.
We have shown that the similarities between the United States and China touch at enough points of significance to make the comparison between them intriguing, particularly in relation to some conspicuous similarities in their policies (e.g. protectionism; general restraint in acquiring military strength, yet also having a weakness for navalism; giving primacy to economic growth over agreements on dealing with global warming, and refusing either to lead or be led on this issue). Yet there are also many big differences between the United States and China both in themselves and in the timing and placement of their rise to power. The remaining question to be answered is therefore: ‘So what?’ This comparison is entertaining, but is it useful beyond helping the United States and China to put their relationship into an interesting historical context, and perhaps thereby to understand each other better? Does it suggest any lessons about the process of peaceful rise, either generally, or in relation to China’s current policy? What does comparing these two cases of peaceful rise, one completed nearly seven decades ago, the other still in process, tell us about China’s prospects? Despite the differences between the two cases we can see six useful lessons.
The first general lesson is that one can see from the United States case that a kind of peaceful rise is indeed possible, despite the predictions of realist theory. In a narrow but important way, the United States achieved a warm rise in relation to the existing hegemon, though a colder and sometimes warlike one in relation to other great powers and its neighbours. That accomplishment makes the Chinese case a lot more interesting than it would be if the realists were always right. But peaceful rise is much more complicated and differentiated than at first appears to be the case. Because it involves different domains it can be partly peaceful and partly warlike, as was the case with the United States. The key to seeing the United States as a genuine case of peaceful rise is that it did not challenge the reigning hegemon, and indeed supported it. On that model, a Chinese rise that avoided direct rivalry with the United States, but involved similar neighbourhood bullying to that of the United States, would still, in a narrow way, count as a kind of peaceful rise. So even although peaceful rise is against realist logic, realist logic is by no means out of the picture. It is often observed that the bellicose turn in China’s behaviour coincides precisely with the weakening of the United States as a result of the economic crisis beginning in 2008. This fits with realist logic, and if true supports the position of those who think that peaceful rise was only ever a temporary ruse to cover an awkward transition period. In that case, China is now exiting from its peaceful rise strategy, and pursuing power politics from a position of greater strength. Peaceful rise is then nothing more than a footnote within a broadly realist picture, and the United States remains a unique, perhaps unrepeatable, exemplar of it.
The second lesson is that in some very significant ways, China’s prospects for rising peacefully look easier to achieve than was the case for the United States. China rises in a system/society in which great power war is largely ruled out, and in which the institutional order is relatively well developed. In the absence of empire-building, official racism and deep ideological divides, the surrounding context for China’s rise is relatively benign. Warlike rise is not really an option except perhaps in a limited way within China’s local neighbourhood, though even there the United States presence in East Asia makes such a strategy much more dangerous than it was for the United States. When the United States was rising, warlike rise was a realistic, even rational, option. Now it is not. Although foolishness leading to war can never be ruled out, the main question for China is what kind of peaceful rise, cold or warm, and in relation to which constituencies: neighbours, other great powers, and the reigning US hegemon?
Despite this easier position, the third lesson is that there are three obvious reasons why China’s position in the international system/society is never going to be as relatively strong as the United States was at its peak:
China is a relative latecomer to industrial modernity, meaning that there are a lot more substantial, modernized powers in the international system than there were when the United States rose;
China is less secure in its own region than the United States was, both because there are other substantial powers surrounding it, and because the United States has a strong position in East Asia; and
It seems highly unlikely that there will be hegemonic wars from which China can take advantage as the United States did. The two world wars eliminated or weakened many great powers leaving the field clear for the United States. China has to rise in a context of many other rising powers and older powers not going away.
What further inhibits China over the longer term is its own limited world view—one that does not seem to encompass the idea of global leadership, let alone doing much more than repeating the old Westphalian mantra that states should not interfere in the internal affairs of other states.31 If China is to make a success of its peaceful rise, it badly needs to develop a vision of the kind of international society it wants to be part of, and to make that vision reassuring to others.
There is of course nothing China can do either about being a late developer or not having other great powers fight hegemonic wars to its advantage. It will rise into a world where there are several other great powers, some of them neighbours.32 So the fourth lesson is that China will therefore not have to, or have the option to, take over as singular hegemon for the world economy as the United States did. Instead, it will have to participate in a collective hegemony to create, manage, and support the rules and institutions of the global economy. If it did bid for singular hegemony it would be disadvantaged not only by the power structure, but also by the degree of cultural and political difference between itself and both the existing hegemon and the international order more generally.
The fifth lesson is that the regional level will be crucial to China’s peaceful rise. At the regional level, China is less geostrategically favoured than the United States both because its neighbours are stronger than the United States ones were (and still are), and because outside intervention in its region (mainly by the United States) is also strong and well-established. China has less opportunity than the United States did to simply dominate its region, and so it has to be more careful than the United States was about how it conducts relations with its neighbours. Since the United States both had weak neighbours and could insulate its region from outside interference, it could afford to abuse its neighbours and conduct a regional rise that was significantly cold and sometimes warlike. China does not have the option that the United States did of keeping separate its relationships with its neighbours, other great powers, and the leading power. In China’s case these three domains are all quite tightly tied together. Consequently, China would pay a huge price for copying the United States model. But China does have the option of seeking to build better relations with its neighbours, as Germany and Indonesia and Brazil have done (and Russia and India have conspicuously not done). Coming to terms with its region is essential to China’s prospects for peaceful rise, or at least for a warm version of peaceful rise in line with China’s rhetoric of harmony. For a time during the later 1990s and early 2000s, this warm peace seemed to be China’s strategy, and with the exception of relations with Japan, it worked quite well. China was in good standing with most of Southeast Asia and also with South Korea. But since 2008–2009, this policy seems to have been abandoned, and China has taken a more nationalist, bullying, arrogant, and swaggering line towards most of its neighbours.33 This policy has already led to rising fears of China in Japan and South Korea,34 fears recently heightened by China’s resort to gunboat diplomacy in the islands dispute with Japan. If sustained, it will kill China’s warm peaceful rise at its roots. It will encourage regional balancing against it, and it has already helped to consolidate the United States position in Asia. It does not mean that China will revert to the warlike rise of other great powers, but it does mean that it will achieve only a cold, perhaps very cold, ‘negative’ peace.
The sixth and final lesson, both for China and for international society, is that peacefully rising powers risk staying too long in isolationist mode, refusing to take great power managerial responsibilities commensurate with their level of power and capability. This is what the United States did from the late 19th century through to the Second World War. Partly as a consequence, international society fell apart during the 1930s. For the reasons given above, this issue is going to be less crucial for China than it was for the United States, at least in relation to the global economy. Britain was failing as the liberal hegemon both because the relative size of its economy had become too small, and because it was bankrupted by two world wars. This forced the US into either taking the leadership role or abandoning the global liberal economic order. Despite the presence of a deep economic crisis, the current situation does not look like this. The United States is not going to be as weak as Britain became. Its economy may be in relative decline, but its relative size and quality, and the strength of its military, will remain high. Neither the United States economy nor its military have been ruined by either the Cold War, or its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, to anything like the same extent as Britain was weakened by two world wars. China will not therefore be faced with the same extreme choices as the United States unless it tries to displace the United States or overthrow the liberal economic order, both of which it is poorly placed to do. Given that other powers are also rising, and that the United States, Europe and Japan are not going to disappear as major centres of power, China will never face the hegemonic question faced by the United States, and international society needs to look beyond singular hegemony to stabilize the economic order. For China, and for international society, the question will be whether China pulls its weight in creating and managing the post-Western order, or whether it succumbs to a self-centred and reckless nationalism. Perhaps it will be on the issue of the global environment, rather than the global economy, that China’s willingness to pull its weight in the management of international order will be tested. Peaceful rise is possible for China, and in the very narrow sense of it not triggering great power war, very probable. The choice is between what kind of peaceful rise—warm or cold. There is still time and possibility to choose about this, but on the present trajectory China is heading for a cold peace, both in its neighbourhood and in the world.