21 February 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position

A brilliant article that should command widespread intellectual attention.

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position,” International Security 40.3 (Winter 2015/16): 7-53.


Unipolarity is arguably the most popular concept used to analyze the U.S. global position that emerged in 1991, but the concept is totally inadequate for assessing how that position has changed in the years since. A new framework that avoids unipolarity’s conceptual pitfalls and provides a systematic approach to measuring how the distribution of capabilities is changing in twenty-first-century global politics demonstrates that the United States will long remain the only state with the capability to be a superpower. In addition, China is in a class by itself, one that the unipolarity concept cannot explain. To assess the speed with which China’s rise might transform this into something other than a one-superpower system, analogies from past power transitions are misleading. Unlike past rising powers, China is at a much lower technological level than the leading state, and the gap separating Chinese and U.S. military capabilities is much larger than it was in the past. In addition, the very nature of power has changed: the greatly enhanced difficulty of converting economic capacity into military capacity makes the transition from a great power to a superpower much harder now than it was in the past. Still, China’s rise is real and change is afoot.

Key excerpts:

“Ultimately, China’s long-term significance on the world stage will not be as great as its current GDP growth statistics would seem to indicate because they do not properly account for the economic costs of its present method of environmentally harmful growth and the extent to which current growth comes at the expense of the country’s long-term economic growth potential.”

“Just being ‘very good’ in the production and/or design of many top-end systems will not be sufficient—at least in a conflict with a technologically superior competitor.83 Fighter jets provide a telling example. Christina Larson underscores that the ‘problem with Chinese-and Russian-construction stealth fighters is that if there’s a bolt out of place, it shows up on a radar signature. Russian and Chinese construction is typically much looser’ than U.S. stealth fighter construction.84 Notably, excellence in production and design must be achieved in all elements of a fighter. China’s advanced aircraft program has attained many successes, but the significance of these accomplishments is greatly undermined by China’s lack of ability to produce a capable engine. Robert Farley stresses that ‘the problem with Chinese engines is that they’ve been remarkably unreliable. Engines require extremely tight tolerances in construction; even small errors can lead to the engine burning out.’85 Regarding China’s fifth-generation fighter program, Jesse Sloman and Lauren Dickey underscore that ‘engines are a critically important component of any fighter aircraft…. [W]ithout a reliable, high-performance turbofan engine to power them,’ the fifth-generation fighter program ‘will be crippled.’86 Because of deficiencies in engine power, China’s fourth-generation fighter, the J-15, can have only a partial fuel load or only a very low missile-load when it takes off from an aircraft carrier.87 As Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson note, China’s ‘inability to domestically mass-produce modern high-performance jet engines’ means that the Chinese must continue to use Russian-made engines in its tactical aircraft; and yet, Russian jet engine producers are ‘a distant second in quality’ to the ‘top jet engine producers [which] are all located in the U.S. and Western Europe.’88

“When we assess the distribution of capabilities…it becomes clear that the United States is and will long remain the only state that can pursue a grand strategy of deep engagement, which requires the capacity to sustain credible security guarantees with allies across oceans. China’s rise to the emerging potential superpower level does not alter this structural reality. And the United States’ unique position is a profoundly important background feature of the international system; the United States currently has defense pacts with sixty-eight countries—a security network that spans five continents, contains a quarter of the earth’s population, and accounts for nearly three-quarters of global economic output. Were another state able to sustain a comparable network of alliances, or were the United States unable to do so, the world’s security setting would be dramatically altered. The unipolarity-is-ending narrative misses the fact that change of that order is not likely for decades.”

“Change of a subtler kind has occurred, however. China’s rise to an emerging potential superpower does not render deep engagement impossible, as the unipolarity-is-ending narrative would suggest. At the same time, the counterclaim that unipolarity is not ending misses the fact that China’s rise presents the United States with trade-offs that did not exist in the 1990s. In particular, as maintaining the core commitments gets more challenging, the trade-offs between focusing on deep engagement versus a more expansive deep engagement–plus stance become more severe.”

“The main takeaway from the burgeoning literature on denial strategies is to reinforce Betts’s point that the United States’ sole superpower position gives the U.S. government room to maneuver. China’s military rise can elicit strategic as well as military responses from the United States and its allies. Thomas Christensen has argued that China can ‘pose problems without catching up.’ The United States’ position of global primacy gives it options to address those problems other than by decisively countering each new Chinese military capability. As strategic thinkers from B.H. Liddell-Hart to Thomas Schelling remind us, using military power to challenge a settled status quo is very hard to do. China’s military rise may push the United States to recognize these old truths and exploit the advantages of standing on the defensive.”