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China’s Rise to Great Power Status: Why the Expected Balancing Might not Occur?

Open Panel

Abstract

The rise of China as an important actor in world politics has generated a rich debate in the international relations literature. Neorealist scholars bring parallels with previous historical cases of ascending powers, and conclude that China will challenge militarily the United States for the title of a world leader. Liberal thinkers are more inclined to believe in a peaceful China, constrained by its need to integrate in the international system. I argue that IR scholars cannot credibly predict China’s behavior on the basis of historical case studies. While China is behaving as neorealists would predict a rising power would, i.e. pursuing its narrowly defined interest, its policy choices and actions are constrained by the current international system, which is considerably different than during any past power transition. Two main differences stand out - very high economic interdependence and interconnectedness, and a multipolar world. For example, technological innovation, which was a major factor during Great Britain’s ascendance to power, is no longer concentrated, and in many cases happens as a result of large-scale international collaboration projects. At the same time, power, broadly defined, is more evenly distributed across the globe than at any other time in history. This paper explores these two features of the current international system and their impact on a rising China. The main question I seek to answer is whether they present a limitation to China’s eventual balancing behavior. The preliminary study shows that the current levels of interdependence and distribution of power will have a constraining influence on China. This finding has serious implications for the foreign policy choices of other actors: to contain or engage the rising giant.