Is the Rise of China a Threat to the Unipolarity of the US?

China has developed the potential to pose local challenges to the US and is also developing the potential to bid for the superpower status…

The Decline of US as Unipolar Power and the Rise of China Debate

Michael Beckley in his writing “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure” states that the “rise of China” has been the most read-about topic of the 21st century. The reason behind this topic catching interest among scholars and policymakers is that the rise of China involves the ‘decline of the dominance of the United States and the unipolar world order’. The debate around this issue as Beckley points brings out two perspectives. One is that of the declinists and the other perspective being the alternative. Many scholars argue that the decline of the US is occurring and thus the long-standing world order in which the US served as the only superpower is now reverting to a system of multipolarity or bipolarity with China as the bipolar power challenging the US hegemony. This essay seeks to summarise the debates around the decline of the US and the rise of China by exploring both perspectives. It also seeks to understand why the concept of polarity is not well suited to explain the changing dynamics of today’s international system. And finally examines the possibility of China, compete with the US and also the strategy that the US should focus on, to maintain its dominant position in the international system.

The Declinist and Alternative Perspectives

Beckley states that the declinist perspective emphasises how the US hegemony and the current global order resemble the conditions of the past eras, whereas the alternative perspective emphasises how the situations are not just different but also unique.

The declinist perspective emphasises that the decline of US hegemony is very natural since history tends to repeat itself in the pattern that the great powers rise and fall. The second argument is that the decline is the result of globalization, the integration of national economies, and the diffusion of technology from the developed world to the developing world and that the US is succumbing to the hegemonic burden that it bears to sustain globalization. They mix up the hegemonic stability theory with the traditional Balance of Power theory and that the US is suffering from the ‘Imperial Overstretch’ by acting as the provider of public goods to the world whereas the weaker states seek benefits out of it but in turn create obstacles for the US initiatives. Declinists argue that the US faces a hegemon’s dilemma in specifically three areas- Security, Trade, and Finance thus making the hegemony expensive as well as provocative. Declinists associate globalisation with diffusion-based conventionally accepted assumptions.

On the other hand, an alternative perspective emphasises the fact that US power is more durable and both hegemony and globalisation enable the US to derive advantages and also exploit these advantages, attracting economic activity and manipulating the international system to suit its benefits.

Beckley states that the studies around the US-China debate suffer from certain shortcomings such as they lack the comprehensive set of indicators to study the US-China comparisons and also that some studies are statically presenting an incomplete view of the US and Chinese power. Beckley seeks to overcome these shortcomings by using various sets of parameters like wealth, innovation, and conventional military capabilities over the past 20 years. He argues that on economic terms China’s rise is mostly attributed to its rising GDP but only GDP is not synonymous with national power. What matters more is not just wealth but ‘surplus wealth’ which the US has accumulated for many years but that is not the case with China since the factors that contributed to the Chinese growth are now declining like the ‘demographic dividend’. China has narrowed the gap in terms of GDP and now exports a huge volume of advanced technology products and employs more scientists than any other country in the world, but these exports are produced by foreign firms and also the scientific advantage has not transformed into qualitative innovations. In terms of military capabilities, China may pose a problem for the US, but the US still has an edge over China and can still be able to launch effective attacks from positions far beyond the reach of Chinese missiles and submarines. Thus, supporting the arguments of an alternative perspective. However, the US military capacities still have some vulnerabilities.

Beckley concludes that China is inevitable but at the same time incremental as well as non-linear and that the US still has the economic, technological as well as military lead over China. He argues that the rise of China and the end of unipolarity is probably wrong, but this fear can work in favor of US policymakers. He also warns against the dangers that the declinist theory may cause like prompt trade conflicts and immigration restrictions and impair foreign policymaking and also trigger the type of violent interactions that they seek to prevent, one potential reaction being the ‘retrenchment.’ Thus, US Foreign policy should focus on preserving the current state of affairs.

The Concept of Unipolarity

The concept of unipolarity in recent years is used to analyze the change in today’s international system. The debate that runs around the Decline of the US and the rise of China is said to be looked at from the view of bringing about the structural change in the international system today and shift from a Unipolar system to a Bipolar system.

But Stephen Brooks and William C. Wohlforth in their writing suggest that this concept is inadequate to analyze the dynamics in today’s international system and it can only explain that how a world with one superpower is different from that with two superpowers but is way too blunt to explain or track the change from one kind of system to another. Because China is different from past rising powers be it the Soviet or for that sake Japan and also the world in which it is ascending is much different from the previous eras. They highlight 3 pitfalls of these concepts: Firstly, it encourages dichotomous thinking that the world is either bipolar or unipolar. Secondly, it demands broad measures of the distribution of capabilities that fail to capture the important shifts in the wellsprings of state power across time. Thirdly, it is inadequate to capture the relation between structure and agency.

They use Barry Buzan’s “1+X” terminology and modify it to overcome the pitfalls of the concept of Unipolarity in accessing the change in the current international system. They examine the distribution of capabilities tailored to 21st-century global politics and the requisites for a country to classify as a superpower. They distinguish between great powers and superpowers and the gap in capabilities between them and also identify the great powers which are in a position to bid for superpower status. They open up the possibility of the 1+Y+X system in which the Y power is the one capable of bidding to the status of superpower status of that of ‘1’ and ‘X’ as the other great powers. Here the size of X term is not important but the number of superpower term whether it is 1 or more than 1. They examine the core elements of power, i.e., military capacity, economic capacity, and technological capacity same as Beckley analyses these parameters in his writing but on a broad basis in today’s context.

The debates around the rise of China emphasize that China is no more just another X power but is catching up with the US as mentioned by the declinist view in Beckley’s writing. But the analysis of the above parameters shows the gap between the capabilities of China and the USA. This gap is huge in all aspects be its military capabilities, technological capabilities, or economic capabilities. This makes China not a competing power at par with the US but a state that is capable of bidding for superpower status among the other great powers. This distinction was not provided by the concept of unipolarity and thus it was incapable of explaining the US-China capability distribution in the 21st Century. By analyzing the parameters on a broader scale, they both asses that the US will remain the world’s sole superpower, and China is put in a class of itself where it is different from other great powers but is capable of bidding for the superpower status. But this is not an easy task for China to do and will take a long time.

They both have used Barry Posen’s essay “The Command of the Commons” to explain the gap between China’s economic rise and its potential to attain the capabilities of a superpower. Posen argues that the US enjoys Command of the Commons, i.e., the Sea, Space, and Air, and discussed how this Command of the Commons supports the hegemonic grand strategy as well as sustains the Dominant position in the international system. He points out 4 attributes:

  1. Large scientific and industrial base,
  2. Specific mix of military systems accumulated over the past few decades of procurement,
  3. The ability acquired over decades to coordinate the production of needed weapons systems, and
  4. The particular skill and technological infrastructure that the US has built to effectively employ these weapons in a coordinated manner.

Achieving these attributes for China seems hard and even if it succeeds it will take a long time to bridge this gap. On economic terms, China seems to make progress but the way towards technological and military capabilities will take time. Thus, they conclude that the World has Shifted from a 1+X to a 1+1+X system with the US as the sole superpower followed by China as an emerging superpower.

They also mention that China’s rise may generate pressure on the US to face trade-offs inherent in its grand strategy choices and need to make adjustments to its military posture.

The Grand Strategy of the US

The grand strategy discussed in Posen’s writing explains how the Command of the commons helps the US to maintain its dominance in the international system but also mentions the contested zones where the US encounters with the adversaries or the local forces may result in fierce battles. The US may still win wars in these zones but that requires more clever strategy and rethinking its strengths and weaknesses. Hence, it is more beneficial for the US to go for the selective engagement type of hegemonic strategy rather than that of the primacy.

Viewing this argument by Posen, China can act as one of the local adversaries as it is today quite in a position to be called a regional power that is quite dominant. And in the light of both the writings mentioned above, one can say that the challenge that China puts in front of the US completely depends on the US and its strategic goals whether it wants to follow a destroy, disrupt, and defeat approach or aims to be defensive. The defensive stance is in line with that of selective engagement and also favorable as well as manageable for the USA.

One can conclude that China is rising but it is not catching up to the level of the USA and there lie huge technological, economic as well as military gaps between the capabilities of both countries. However, China has developed the potential to pose local challenges to the US and is also developing the potential to bid for the superpower status. But this does not mean that the one superpower system is on the verge of structural change or there has been a transformation in its fundamental operating dynamics. It will take a long time to compete with the US for global dominance and till then, the US will remain the sole superpower.


Barry Posen. Command of the Commons: The Military Foundations of U.S. Hegemony, International Security 28:1. MIT PRESS JOURNAL. 5-46 (Summer 2003)

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the 21st Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position, International Security 40:3. MIT PRESS JOURNAL. 7-53 (Winter 2015/2015)

Michael Beckley. China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure, International Security 36:3. MIT PRESS JOURNALS. (Winter 2011/12)

Preeti Patil is a post graduate student of Politics with specialization in International Relations, at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Born and brought up in Nagpur, Maharashtra Preeti has done BE in Electronics Engineering from Nagpur University. Preeti has a keen interest in International Relations and Diplomacy. Her research interests are Asian Studies, Feminist IR theory, Asian International Relations theory, Peace and Conflict Studies. She also aspires to join the Indian Foreign Services. Preeti has a passion for cooking and also enjoys reading books and writing poetry and short stories.

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