Redefining the US in Light of China’s Rise

China’s economy is expected to surpass that of the United States by 2020 (although it might come sooner or not at all). Regardless, China’s growth will necessarily lead to a shift in global power. The question thus is to what extent will China’s wealth and the influence that money can buy affect the US’s position on the world stage?

If China continues to pursue its territorial ambitions aggressively in the South and East China Sea, Beijing may discover that its influence in the world will be somewhat limited. Certainly the creation of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) in the East China Sea is not a positive step forward and appears to have backfired.

While an ADIZ in itself is not controversial, China’s inclusion of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands involving Japan is far from trivial and unnecessarily invites the potential for conflict. If nothing else, the ADIZ was an attempt to provoke Japan and the US, for which it was successful in drawing two US B-52s to fly over the ADIZ as well as South Korean fighter jets.

Although the US’s status as sole world power will eventually come to an end, this should not be taken as evidence of its diminished role on the international stage. America’s leaders must come to terms with this development. Failure to do so could impede the US’ ability to navigate this new reality.

While sending the B-52s (or any other military aircraft) was necessary to dispel the notion that China was willing to enter into conflict over its arbitrary declaration of an ADIZ, the US cannot succumb to a game of whack-a-mole with China, responding to every claim or move made.

The US’s response to China, if anything, demonstrated the surprising ease at which Beijing was able to provoke Washington. The US, rather than dictating the terms of its engagement with China, instead assumed a reactive role to China’s assertiveness. When engaging China, the US must lead where possible, and cautiously follow when necessary.

In her recent remarks at Georgetown University, National Security Advisor Susan Rice set forth America’s intentions in Asia Pacific and, of course, with China. When faced with matters of mutual interest, she said the US and China will cooperate. When faced with competition, they will manage as best as possible. With 60 percent of the US Navy’s fleet to be stationed in the Pacific by 2020, undoubtedly to China’s displeasure, there will be much work to be had in managing relations, never mind competition, between the two world powers.

Presently at least, given the economic interdependence of the US and China, there exists at the moment and for the foreseeable future some semblance of peace. In this period of coexistence, however fragile, the US has an opportunity for rebirth.

Re-imagining America’s place in the world In a multi-polar world, America’s leadership must stand as an alternative to China. Consequently and necessarily, the US must re-imagine its place on the world stage. And it need not look far for inspiration.

During the 19th and early-20 Centuries, when the British Empire remained a force to be reckoned with, the US continued to attract people from all around the world. It was a destination for immigrants not because the US stood as the most powerful country in the world but because it offered that which no other country at the time did: a fresh start free from the customs and traditions of old.

For better or worse, China holds onto its rich 4,000-year-old history, and perhaps as a result, a sense of conformism continues to persist. It remains fairly ethnically homogenous with over 90 percent Han Chinese, and wary of external influences. The US, by contrast, is a comparatively young and ethnically diverse nation – the latter due in part to its immigrant heritage; and it is this heritage that will, as it has in the past, carry and define the US in the years to come.

China’s newfound wealth and economic opportunities will serve as a powerful incentive for foreign states to go along just to get along, if only to have their slice of the pie. Not even the US is immune to the allure of China’s potential.

However, regardless of its rank in the world as number one or number two, the US will remain a destination for people from all corners of the globe looking to start anew – that is, of course, if it can restore its financial health. The US’s ability to attract talent and hard-working individuals has been its greatest asset; however, political and economic uncertainty threatens to turn away future creators and innovators.

Opportunities for creativity and innovation are among the main allure of the United States, but if America’s leaders cannot resolve their political differences and get back to serving the people, it will be they, not China, that dethroned the US.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer who lectures at the University of Ottawa and who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)