Why China is the greatest beneficiary of geopolitical events in 2015
One of the decisive challenges when seeking to predict the future of global order is understanding the economic costs and benefits of being a hegemon. That matters because unless leading and underwriting international order is, all things considered, economically beneficial, all hegemonic powers will eventually be challenged by rising powers that grow faster. In War and Change in World Politics, published in 1983, Robert Gilpin argued that differential rates of growth (due to cyclical diffusion of technology and production) among states assure that no power will be on top forever. In addition, non-hegemonic states tend to better economically as they face little incentive to support the hegemon's travails and make expensive global public contributions, i.e., they free-ride.
If the economic impacts of exercising hegemony are, overall, negative, the lifespan of each hegemonic system is, per definition, limited. The threatened hegemon then may either try to resist the rising power (and be eventually overthrown) or voluntarily hand the reigns to the newcomer, recognizing that the economic burden of global leadership has become too great to shoulder. Applied to contemporary international affairs, Gilpin's insights suggest that the days of US global leadership are numbered because global leadership is not economically sustainable.
Even those in favor of perpetuating US hegemony recognize that doing so comes at an economic cost for Washington. Perceived wrongdoers must be punished even if there is no direct economic advantage of doing so, as was the case with the NATO intervention in Libya, which was essentially carried out by the United States alone. Despite China's growing contribution, the bulk of resources spent on maritime security is still paid for by the United States. The same goes for many other areas that provide the basic infrastructure of today's global governance. Not all hegemonic orders are the same, of course, and both Pax Britannica and Pax Americana were shrewdly built with a concern for economic sustainability. Indeed, in many instances, US hegemony functions on the basis of the threat of coercion, which is far cheaper than coercion itself. It is also more mutually beneficial than previous orders, thus reducing the incentive to openly challenge the status quo. Still, US defense spending makes up 5% of its GDP, far more than that of other powers such as China, Japan or Germany.
In The Politics of Unipolarity, Nuno Monteiro argues that whether emerging powers such as China will continue to balance past the point at which their survival is ensured by a robust nuclear deterrent -- i.e., how long they will accept US hegemony -- depends on whether the unipole accommodates their economic growth. If that is the case, rising powers have no incentive to continue balancing past that point. If, on the other hand, the unipole takes actions that contain the economic growth of potential competitors, then the latter have an incentive to continue balancing, ultimately leading to the end of unipolarity. Put differently, unipolarity is durable if the hegemon wants to.
That assumes that the United States will never voluntarily abdicate (or at least slightly reduce) its global leadership role because the costs are thought to exceed the benefits. Yet if -- say, in two decades -- the United States' GDP and economic influence in global affairs were be significantly smaller than that of China, how will policy makers in Washington, D.C. convince voters worried about health care, education and infrastructure to support maintaining more than 1000 military facilities scattered over more than 140 countries, in which more than 200,000 military personnel are stationed? What will they respond to those who argue for systematic retrenchment (as already happens now), or those who say that China should finally "step up to the plate" and start providing international security? What is the economic rationale of paying for military bases in regions that are economically dependent on China? Even though there are past examples of global hegemons who were inferior economically to others, such a scenario only works for so long. In fact, US inaction in Syria could, by some, be seen as an early sign of hegemonic fatigue in Washington.
At the same time, William Wohlforth rightly points out that voluntarily giving up a global leadership position is fraught with risks. Retreating in some areas may turn out to be a slippery slope, causing others to doubt US security commitments. Indeed, the causal connections between military expenditures, small-scale wars and economic growth are contested, even though it seems likely that the expenditures related to the Iraq War added to concerns about the United States' budget. Finally, of course, US hegemony provides ample benefits for the US economy, for example by defending its key interests without asking for a permission slip -- a privilege no other country enjoys.
Geopolitical events in 2015, alas, seem to support Gilpin's thesis. The United States is dedicating a considerable amount of resources to containing the conflict in Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, and, more importantly, it faces two major challenges in Syria and Ukraine, likely to absorb most of President Obama's attention dedicated to foreign policy in his final months in office. That takes away diplomatic and economic resources from the far more important long-term challenge: China's growing influence in its neighborhood, which will require a sophisticated US strategy to build a coalition willing to balance against China.
There are few signs that technology will do away with the messy, expensive and bloody conflicts the United States engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade. In fact, these two wars may very well continue for another decade, forcing the US to remain engaged. From a Chinese perspective, events in 2015 (and since 2003 in general) so far have been ideal, assuring that policy makers in Washington regard the rise of China as only one challenge among many, unable to devise a clear and coherent response to open provocations such as large-scale cyber attacks and island-building in the South China Sea. This inability to solely focus on what truly matters is a problem only hegemons face, as they constantly feel the urge to solve problems across the globe, and as they are called upon to solve a far broader range of problems than other actors. That may explain China's reluctance to play a constructive role to help bring the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to a close -- precisely what Gilpin predicted in 1983.