LONDON – On Feb. 15, just as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in the United States for a four-day visit, U.S. President Barack Obama told an audience of American workers in Milwaukee: “Manufacturing is coming back!” Coming back from China, that is. But while the Master Lock Co. of Milwaukee has moved some jobs back to the United States, everybody knows that the flow will really continue to be in the other direction.
It doesn’t matter whether China’s economy finally overtakes America’s in 2020, or 2025, or 2030. A great shift of productivity and wealth is under way, and economic power generally translates pretty directly into military power. So will the United States and China be able to manage the shift without a great war?
At the end of Vice President Xi’s U.S. visit on 18 February, the future Chinese leader assured delegates at a trade conference in Los Angeles: “A prosperous and stable China will not be a threat to any country. It will only be a positive force for world peace and development.” Perhaps, but everybody else is very nervous about it.
The transition from one dominant world economic power to another is always tricky, and the historical precedents are not encouraging. Spain was the 16th-century superpower, and the shift to French domination, though never complete, entailed several generations of war. Then Britain displaced France, amidst several more generations of war.
When Germany challenged British supremacy and Japan began building its empire in the Pacific and East Asia in the early 20th century, the transition involved two world wars — and resulted in the de facto division of the world between two non-European superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The omens are not promising, to say the least.
Both the U.S. and the Chinese armed forces use these precedents to argue for greater military spending. The Chinese generals mostly do it privately, within the confines of Communist Party hierarchy. American military leaders do it more publicly, by coming up with risk assessments designed to frighten the public into keeping defence spending up, but they both groups play the same game.
They can’t help it. Their military training and their whole worldview condition them to expect conflict, and their corporate interest in a higher defence budget leads them to define almost any change as a threat. It sometimes feels like we are doomed to repeat the past endlessly.
But the past is a complicated place, and there is a systematic distortion of history that emphasizes violent transitions at the expense of peaceful ones. In fact, at least one major power shift in the past century was entirely peaceful.
The U.S. economy overtook Britain’s late in the 19th century, and it was not inevitable that the change in the pecking order would be peaceful. The time when the two countries would be close allies was still far in the future, and throughout the 19th century Americans continued to see Britain, their old colonial master, as their most dangerous enemy. The two countries fought their last war in 1812-14, but Britain kept a garrison in Canada until 1870.
London then withdrew the garrison, but not because it trusted the United States. It just calculated that the United States was now so strong that Britain could never win a land war against it in North America. It also concluded that a large Royal Navy presence in American waters was likely to drive the United States into a naval arms race that Britain would lose, and so began thinning out the number of warships that it kept in the western Atlantic.
It was the right strategy. The United States never invaded Canada again, and although it meddled a great deal in the affairs of various Caribbean and Central American countries, that did not threaten any British vital interest. The thorny crown of being the world’s greatest power passed from Britain to the United States without a war, and within one more generation the two countries were actually allies.
So now it’s America’s turn to figure out what to do about an emerging great-power rival on the far side of a great ocean, and one option would be to copy Britain’s example. Don’t provoke the Chinese by hemming their country in with air bases, carrier fleets and military alliances, and they’ll probably behave well. If they don’t, then the other Asian great powers, Japan, India and Russia, are quite capable of protecting their own interests.
The United States has no truly vital interests on the Asian mainland, or at least none that it could protect by fighting China. It was entirely safe from foreign attack before it became the world’s greatest power, and it will still be militarily invulnerable long after it loses that distinction.
Britain is a lot more prosperous than it was when it ran the world, and its people are probably happier too. Decline (especially decline that is only relative) is not nearly as bad a fate as Americans imagine.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.