Rising States, Declining States, and the Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations


Josh Shifrinson is an Assistant Professor of International Relations with the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. His book, Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts was published with Cornell University Press in 2018 (a copy can be ordered here or here).  Additional research has appeared in International Security, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Quarterly, and other venues. You can find my occasional tweets on U.S. foreign relations and international affairs by following @shifrinson.

Across time and space, declining great powers have feared that other, relatively rising states will present mounting challenges to their security as power shifts in the latters’ favor.  This concern is one of the truisms of international politics. Thucydides, for one, famously attributed the Peloponnesian War to “the rise of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”  Similarly, Wilhelmine Germany’s leaders saw the rise of Russia before 1914 as “an ever-increasing nightmare,” just as British planners after the Second World War worried Britain was soon to be “Lepidus in the triumvirate with Mark Antony and Augustus.”  And, less we think there were concerns of an earlier age, U.S. strategists today express worry that a rising China will challenge a declining United States’ security by questing for regional (if not global) domination, picking off American allies, and trying to undermine the U.S. economy.

In practice, however, states facing a declining great power are rarely so uniformly predatory.  For one thing, not all relatively rising states adopt intensely predatory strategies to push decliners down or from the great power ranks at the first sign of shifting power.  There is a qualitative difference, for instance, between a surging United States’ efforts to move the U.S.-Soviet military balance in its favor through asymmetrical arms control when faced with a waning Soviet Union in the 1980s, to the wholesale effort to break up the Warsaw Pact and evict the Soviet Union from Central-Eastern Europe in the early 1990s: the latter was a direct blow to Soviet influence, while the former was a slow-moving way to adumbrate Soviet strengths.

As importantly, not all rising states prey upon declining great powers– in fact, rising states sometimes cooperate with and support declining states to great or lesser degrees. The collapse of British power after World War Two, for one, saw the United States try to keep the United Kingdom a great power, initially through limited economic and diplomatic backing, but eventually by extending extensive economic and military assistance via the Marshall Plan and NATO (respectively). Even more dramatically, German leaders before 1914 made the survival of Austria-Hungary – one of the two “sick-men of Europe” – among the highest German strategic priorities, and thus extended that Habsburg Empire significant diplomatic backing and military support in Austria’s conflicts with Russia before the First World War.

In short, declining states may fear rising state predation amid a changing distribution of power, but the reality is more nuanced.  Some rising states, at some times, indeed go for the jugular and seek to push decliners from the great power ranks with abandon. Still, this is not a universal trend: not only may rising states only slowly try to exploit power shifts to their advantage – pulling their claws for a lengthy period of time – but so too do they often try to support decliners and keep them members of the great power ranks. Conventional worries surrounding the politics of rising state strategy are understandable but overstated.

Rising states instead tend to prey or support declining great powers to a greater or lesser degree based on calculations of need and opportunity familiar to practitioners of realpolitikand scholars of realism.  Ultimately, the more a relatively rising state needs partners against other great power threats and the more a declining state is able to provide assistance, the greater the likelihood a rising state is to support a decliner to keep it a member of the great powers.  Conversely, the less pressing the need for allies or the less able a decliner is to provide such strategic assistance, the more likely a riser is to embark on a predatory course.

These are not simply perceptual calculations driven by the vicissitudes of rising state beliefs or ideas.  Rather, assessments of a declining state’s strategic value are driven by whether (1) there are other great powers around which may threaten a rising state’s continued growth, (2) a declining state’s geographic position allows it to help against a riser’s other challengers; (3) there exists the potential for the decliner’s economic and military recovery (i.e., whether a decliner can be made great again) and (4) there is some domestic base calling for the declining state’s own cooperation with a rising state.  When these four conditions are met, a rising state is apt to conclude a decliner might be useful in abetting its ongoing rise while absorbing the attention of other great powers.  Absent these factors, however, then predation looms.  After all, backstopping a decliner which offers little utility against a rising state’s other competitors would at best be a diversion of resources and may, in fact, be highly detrimental by assisting a state which may still seek to impede a riser’s continued emergence.  Better, therefore, to try to grow at the decliner’s expense via some kind of predation.

Whether rising states prey or support decliners wither greater or lesser assertiveness, meanwhile, hinges on the declining state’s own military posture – that is, whether it can impose military costs on a riser if a rising state threatens the decliner’s interests. Conventional wisdom often holds that declining states can best ensure their security in a competitive international system by putting resources towards strengthening the military. This logic is not wrong, but it is incomplete.  Rising states finding little strategic value in decliners are indeed apt to pull their punches and limit the intensity of their predation when decliners retain a robust military, cautiously probing a decliner’s weakness in order to gradually shift the balance, but doing little to directly challenge a military strong decliner for fear of provoking a crisis or war. Instead, only when a decliner is militarily weak and strategically irrelevant do they engage in all-out efforts to relegate a decliner and make direct and large immediate gains at its expense.

To return to the example noted earlier, there is thus a reason U.S. strategists focused primarily on challenging the USSR primarily through arms buildups and asymmetric arms reductions in the 1980s: given a strong Soviet military, seeking to directly undercut the sources of Soviet strength through, e.g., overt efforts to break up the Soviet Union, was a recipe for disaster. Once, however, Soviet military strength in Europe (outside the Soviet homeland) collapsed following the Revolutions of 1989, however, the U.S. was able to drive through the breach, facilitate the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet empire (by, e.g., fostering German reunification within NATO), and begin extending U.S. influence into the former Eastern Bloc.  As U.S. officials put it when discussing their plans at the start of 1990, the Soviet military collapse created a window of opportunity to maximize American influence at the declining Soviet Union’s expense; not only were the Soviets thus unlikely to resist U.S. pressure but, if they did, U.S. planners could always “remind [Soviet leaders] that their troops are fast being pushed out of the region” – the Soviets had few tools to oppose American aggrandizement.

Counterintuitively, however, a declining state’s efforts to retain a robust military can backfire when a rising state sees strategic value in a decliner and – ceteris paribus – thus enjoys incentives to support it.  After all, a declining state which retains a potent military under such circumstances is also a declining state which (1) can take care of itself, and (2) may entrap or ensnare its partners.  In such situations, even rising state which wants to aid a decliner are apt to hang back and curtail the intensity of their support – keeping a decliner in the wings as a partner without incurring costly steps to assist a state which may still pose problems for the riser’s well-being. Rather, it often takes the collapse of a declining state’s military strength to encourage rising states to intensely support a decliner that might otherwise be picked apart by other great powers or enticed into others’ orbits.  Thus, where the United States had been reluctant to fully cooperate with a still-militarily potent Britain in 1945-1946 – haggling hard over financial loans to Britain and refusing to countenance a formal Anglo-American alliance – the collapse of British military strength in early 1947 saw the United States soon pull out the stops to keep Britain ‘alive’ as a great power partner. Even more strikingly, the same period saw the Soviet Unionattempt to do similarly, going so far as to extend Britain a formal alliance offer in support of a plan to divide Europe into British and Soviet spheres of influence as the decline of British power became a rout.

What do these processes mean for policymakers contemplating the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States?  Despite much hand-wringing in Washington and beyond, the preceding analyses actually suggests a rising China is far from an unmitigated disaster. On one level, the fact that China is rising in a crowded geopolitical environment – with potential challengers in Japan, Russia, and India in its near-abroad – means that China may actually have good reason to avoid preying upon the United States if and as power continues to shift between the U.S. and PRC.  Capitalizing on this opportunity, however, would require drastic changes in current U.S. strategy and a U.S. willingness to countenance cooperation with China against other potential threats to the PRC. This would be no mean task at a time when the U.S. is taking the lead in organizing an anti-China coalition.  Still, we should not foreclose the possibility: after all, Chinese leaders themselves have indicated a desire to keep a relatively waning U.S. engaged in the Indo-Pacific region, suggesting a rising China itself still sees value in a declining United States.

Still, it is possible that a rising China may eventually grow so large (and other states fail to keep pace) that the United States is the only state standing between China and regional or global dominance. Under such circumstances, China would face a natural incentive to prey upon the United States in the manner many pundits today seem to predict.  Still, the fact that the United States retains meaningful military leads over China, is the world’s leader in fielding and operating cutting-edge military technology, and will retain a large economy and industrial base to sustain such forces in the future means the U.S. should be able to maintain a robust military posture in any U.S.-PRC standoff.  All things being equal, the United States should therefore be capable of keeping Chinese predation in check, avoiding an all-out Chinese push to undercut the United States as a great power by threatening punishment vis-à-vis the PRC.  Even in this scenario, in other words, a rising China is likely to remain a cautiously predatory China and not an all-out competitor prepared to challenge the United States with blood on its breath and malice aforethought.

In sum, declining great powers – including the United States today – may worry about the potential for rising state predation, but the track record of rising states themselves is far more nuanced.  Only when a declining great power is of little use to a rising state in offsetting other great power threats and lacks the military tools to harm a riser are rising states apt to embark on the most intensely predatory courses that decliners fear.  Otherwise, rising states are not only likely to avoid all-out efforts to relegate decliners into the dustbin of history, but they may end up supporting and cooperating with declining states to keep them members of the great power ranks.  At a time when concerns over the decline of the United States and the rise of China are at the forefront of grand strategy debates, the results offer room for cautious optimism: the declining United States is playing a strong hand geopolitically and militarily.

Image: Secretary Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the ASEAN-US Ministerial Meeting, 3 August 2018, Singapore, via wikimedia



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