The 20th century's record on rising powers: Two world wars and the Cold War. How will the 21st century turn out?

The question has been raised in the comments whether there’s any chance at all that 中国/China and the USA will move toward conflict. As everyone knows, bourgeois democracy is dominated by commercial elites, and the most powerful American companies all support engagement over containment. The progress of the debate over granting China permanent “normal trade relations” in 2000 provides a lot of support for the idea. Commercial interests, piously cloaking themselves in the crackpot idea that expanded trade would cause political liberalization, steamrolled human rights, labor, and security concerns.

Yet American elites are far more divided on how to approach China than the relative calm in the media would seem to indicate. Certainly the dominant faction, based in multinational industrial and finance capital, wants to avoid confrontation so as to continue exploiting Chinese labor and taking advantage of China's weak environmental regulations. But an insistent minority based in the security bureaucracy and domestic industry view China as America's most important enemy. And that minority is likely to gain strength as China does.

You can see hints of the “China threat” group in the widespread Congressional criticism of China's exchange rate policies and the outburst that killed the 中海油/CNOOC offer on Unocal in 2006. For a better idea of these people’s solid presence in the halls of power, just skim thru some of the testimony and reports of the Congressionally mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which every year warns about the growing threat from China. Support for anti-China policies is already quite deep, if not yet very broad.

It'll be interesting to see the military/small capitalist faction battle it out with the big capitalist faction - it's not a conflict that too often makes it into the light of day. Right now the engagement group has the upper hand - altho Cheney, like Clinton before him, has been quietly encircling China with military bases even as the US speaks the language of trade and cooperation. There are two things that make me worry about long-term conflict. First, any sudden crisis (over 台湾/Taiwan, say) would immediately destroy all the leverage of the accommodationists. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves - the United States will go to war to deny Taiwan to China.

Second, US economic interests in China will probably start to decline relatively soon. The Chinese government only tolerates foreign investment because it needs the capital and access to technology. China is fast catching up on technology, and if the Chinese economy can make the transition from export-led growth to sustained growth driven by domestic consumption - which I think it will - American companies will find a less inviting market. Those companies might leave on their own anyway, in search of even cheaper labor - many are already starting to move to Việt Nam.

Just think about the anti-Japan panic of the early '90s - a nearly hysterical fear gripped the whole country before the bursting of the bubble economy abruptly ended the Japan "threat". Now consider what's going to happen when China starts to pose strong competition not only economically, but in diplomatic and military affairs as well.

On the Chinese side as well, there are strong pressures toward confrontation. Popular nationalism is so strong that the government would have to take a hard line on any international crisis - especially over Taiwan - even if it didn’t want to. Chinese people themselves have almost no awareness that their country is rapidly assuming the role of imperialist power, and even less of a critical stance toward that fact. Nor do they understand the colonial character of Chinese policy in Tibet (西藏/Xizang) and شەرقىي تۈركىستان/Sherqiy Türkistan (新疆/Xinjiang), and they interpret international criticism of those crimes as a form of aggression.

Most important, China is in the midst of a capitalist revolution, which necessarily creates massive inequalities and constant cultural instability. For many people, the anxieties created by this process will be displaced onto the international sphere, and a reactionary nationalism will fill the void of ideology and provide an anchor in the turmoil wrought by commodification. For elites, nationalism is a useful direction to channel popular grievances into, and popular support for imperialism will soon enough become a necessary condition for expanding profitability.

So for the moment, capitalism prevents conflict - but in the long run it will probably require it. Maybe this time the USA will deal better with a rising power than it did with the Soviet Union after the war, or than Britain did with rising Germany in the early 20th century. But I doubt it.

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