If you’ve picked up a national newspaper in the past six months, chances are that a story on the world’s fastest growing economy, China, was on the front page. In 2004, China reached the trillion dollar mark in total contracted foreign investment, taking in $60 billion in 2004 alone. And this massive influx of investment has translated into a skyrocketing gross domestic product, leading to higher levels of employment and disposable income fostering a booming middle class. Cell phone use is up, and auto manufacturers like General Motors are building plants in China in hopes of driving away with the world’s fastest growing automobile market. Many economists and policymakers believe that this extensive integration of Chinese and American markets will significantly lessen the chance of a military conflict, but don’t be fooled.

Angela Cesere

The subtle shift in the international system is currently underway threatens the unilateralism America has enjoyed for more than a decade, and threatens to throw America into conflict with an increasingly powerful China. Currently, it is infeasible to think that China is able to spark such a shift alone. But help seems to be on the way, as China has found partners with similar goals of stemming U.S. unilateralism. To put the type of systemic shift I’m talking about into context, a look into history is insightful. A brief survey of European history tells the story of the Balance of Power principle. The theory explains the complex chess game that governed Europe from the 18th century to the end of World War II. The age was marked by the formation of Europe’s contemporary states, as well as frequent warfare. Inevitably, certain states came to dominate this system at different times, and it was seen as dangerous to all involved to allow a single state to become too powerful. A series of “balance of power” wars, culminating with the Napoleonic Wars, were settled when coalitions of less-powerful states defeated the dominant power.

The question is: Is America now playing the part of Napoleonic France? And if so, is a coalition building in hopes of ending American hegemony? There isn’t yet a clear-cut answer, especially because the era of conventional inter-state warfare seems to be fizzling out. However, several states would very much like to see an end to U.S. economic, political and military dominance. China, of course, is one of these, but an unlikely coalition (a necessary coalition by balance of power standards) is forming around China with similar goals.

Joint wargames with Russia at the end of August not only upped the stakes on the contentious issue of Taiwan (Both militaries practiced amphibious beach landings complete with paratroopers.), but provided Russia the opportunity to show off new weapons it hopes to sell China for much- needed cash.

While a potential Russian-Chinese military alliance is a formidable thought, the most worrisome scenario for military strategists is the potential military cooperation between China and Europe. Fed up with President Bush’s overbearing foreign policy, Europe may be looking for ways to stem America’s intervention capabilities as well. Recent numbers confirmed that Europe is now China’s largest trading partner, and this strengthening economic relation nearly led Europe to terminate its arms embargo on China last year. There is deep anxiety among military strategists over what a modern, European-built Chinese navy would mean to the security of Taiwan and America’s ability to defend the tiny island.

In South America, China has been showing its increased geopolitical savvy by buying-up key resources, while friendly relations with Iran will add a strain on relations as well.

These recent developments are certainly intended to send a message to Washington that the European Union, China, and Russia are tired of American carte blanche foreign policy.

While it’s still in the realm of the unlikely that this challenge will break out into a major military conflict, smaller but significant conflicts are increasingly likely in regional flashpoints. Several nonmilitary consequences of this growing coalition instead are more likely. First, the United States will be increasingly limited in its aggressive foreign policy without financial, political and military support from Europe. Similarly, the Chinese have been a critical partner in diplomatic dealings with North Korea and its nuclear threat.

These events are coalescing to give this unlikely coalition increasing leverage against what much of the world resents as arrogant American imperialism. A realization is dawning in Washington that the era of American unilateralism is gradually drawing to a close. Contentious issues like Taiwan and a worldwide resource shortage will inevitably bring the involved countries into conflict. The sooner U.S. leaders and policy makers accept and adjust to this new system and how they deal with potential conflicts will determine the future geopolitical landscape as well as America’s position within it.

 

Slade can be reached at bslade@umich.edu.

 

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