A G2 Century
For the past 75 years, the world has been dominated by either a single power, or by two rival powers, as the dispersion of global power that existed in the centuries prior to the Second World War was replaced by a world led by much larger states with much greater potential power than those of previous centuries. In the decades following the Second World War, the world was dominated by rival ideological powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, two massive states that were engaged in a Cold War that only ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the next two decades, there was what has been described as a unipolar moment, in which the United States stood head and shoulders above all other states to dominate the globe.
Over the past decade, a new great power rivalry has come to dominate global affairs, this time pitting the United States against another state with massive potential power, China. In fact, for all of the talk of a coming multi-polar world, it appears that another two-state global rivalry, often referred to as the G2, is inevitable. With the US and China well ahead of all other states in nearly all of the components that comprise a state’s power, these two great powers appear set to remain the dominant global actors for the foreseeable future. However, are we sure that a G2-dominated world is inevitable?
The United States on Top
For all of the talk of the United States being a relatively new actor in global affairs, it has actually been a major global force for some time. In fact, the US was already one of the world’s wealthiest economies right from its independence and by the late 19thcentury, it had already emerged as the world’s most powerful economy. Since then, the United States experienced tremendous demographic, geographic and technological growth, allowing it to become the world’s leading power by the end of the First World War. Nevertheless, it was not until the Second World War that the US developed its unmatched military power, a development that allowed that country to become the unquestioned leading power in the world in the wake of that conflict. The United States has managed to retain this position to this day, despite many obstacles and missteps. While its relative power to some emerging markets may be shrinking, it has actually expanded its overall power when compared to other developed economies in recent decades, allowing it to maintain its position of global leadership.
If the United States is a relatively new actor on the global scene, China’s influence in global affairs is as old as any state in the world. In fact, China has attained a position of global leadership many times in its long history. However, China experienced centuries of decline that culminated in its reaching its lowest-ever level in terms of global power and influence in the Second World War, the same time that the US was emerging as the leading global power. However, beginning in the 1980s, China enacted a series of crucial economic reforms that began to unlock that country’s vast potential power, reforms that resulted in the Chinese economic miracle, one of the greatest economic transformations in history. Now that China is a major economic power (and as it has long been a demographic power), it is quickly developing into a major technological and military power, one capable of dominating Asia and challenging the United States’ position on a global scale. In fact, China has the capability to rival the US in nearly all aspects of power, a development that would have seem far-fetched just 50 years ago.
How to Measure a Country's Power
With the United States and China set to be engaged in what is likely to be a very long competition to be the world’s most powerful state, it is interesting to look at how each country is measured, and will be measured in the future, in terms of the factors that comprise the power of a state. To do this, we will use the seven factors of power that are used in the ISA Country Power Rankings that were created by ISA (International Strategic Analysis) to develop accurate fact-based rankings of a country’s power. Here is how the United States and China measure up with regards to these seven power factors:
- Economic Power: The United States and China are easily to world’s two most powerful economies, with the United States holding a sizeable advantage over China in terms of wealth and finance, but with China making inroads in terms of growth and scale. Outside of the US and China, the European Union is the only other global actor that can compete with the two superpowers in terms of economic power and influence, but it is hamstrung by slow growth and its divided nature.
- Demographic Power: In terms of demographic power, China is well ahead of the United States thanks to the fact that its population is four times as large. The greatest threat to China’s demographic power is the fact that its population is aging rapidly, while the country’s working-age population is set to shrink rapidly. The only other power that can compete with the superpowers in terms of demographic power is India, whose population is set to overtake China’s in the near-future.
- Military Power: In terms of military power, the United States remains the world’s dominant actor by a very wide margin, particularly in terms of air and sea power. Thanks to major increases in defense spending, China is now emerging as the world’s second-leading military power. Outside of the US and China, only Russia has the level of offensive and defensive military power to be able to claim to be a global military power of note, but its economic weaknesses limit its potential.
- Environmental and Resource Power: The United States favorable geographic position and its vast natural resources have played a key role in its rise to become the world’s leading power. China is also a giant country geographically, but its position is less favorable as its vast population is crowded into just half of the country. Outside of these two countries, Russia, Canada, Australia and Brazil can all claim to be environmental and resource powers.
- Political Power: In terms of political power, their vast economic and military power has enabled the United States and China to amass a great deal of political power and influence. In fact, there is a strong possibility that the world will align in two poles, one dominated by the US and another by China, should their rivalry intensify. As a result, no other global power will be in a position to challenge the US and China politically for the foreseeable future.
- Cultural Power: The United States remains the world’s dominant cultural power by a wide margin, with US culture and entertainment playing an influential role in all corners of the world, and with the English language dominating the global like no language before. Meanwhile, as Chinese economic and political influence grows, so too does the global influence of Chinese culture. As such, the US and China stand to be the two dominant cultural forces of the coming decades.
- Technological Power: Apart from the economic and military spheres, no factor of a state’s power is more contested by the United States and China than the technological sphere. Here, the US has been the leading global power for more than a century, but it faces its sternest test from the rising technological prowess of China. Outside of the US and China, there are centers of technological power in East Asia and Europe, but they are dwarfed by the world’s two superpowers.
When one takes a clear and unbiased view of the power dynamics around the world today, it is hard to argue that we do not live in a world dominated by two superpowers. In fact, there is little to suggest that this situation will change in the coming decades, despite the challenges that currently face both the United States and China.
With all signs pointing to a world dominated by two great powers, there are justified concerns that we could be headed for a situation known as the Thucydides Trap in which an established power faces a challenge from a rising power, leading to misconceptions that bring these two powers into conflict. Alternatively, the threat of a new Cold War must also be considered, with the United States and China forming rival alliances that battle for influence around the world. These fears are stoked primarily by the fact that China’s rising power is threatening the US’ pre-eminent position as the world’s leading power. This is particularly true in Asia, where China views itself as the region’s rightful dominant power and where the US plays a role similar to that of Britain in Europe in previous centuries in which it attempts to keep any single actor from dominating Asia, just as Britain attempted to keep any single power from dominating Continental Europe.
In fact, there are many flashpoints that could bring the United States and China into direct conflict. These include:
- Taiwan: China is determined to regain control of Taiwan, but the United States has thus far maintained its defense of Taiwan. If the US’ determination to defend Taiwan wanes, or if Beijing feels strong enough to take military action to regain control of Taiwan, the two superpowers could come into conflict.
- Korean Peninsula: Despite the recent talks between the leaders of the US and North Korea, the Korean Peninsula remains one of the world’s most-volatile places. Should a war break out there, or should North Korea collapse, Beijing could feel compelled to intervene to prevent the US from gaining a foothold on the Yalu River.
- India: The United States views India as a counterweight to China in Asia and in the Indian Ocean, while China and India share a highly-disputed border that has the potential to lead to a new conflict between those two countries. Should India move closer to the US, China could counter by pressuring India around its periphery.
- South China Sea: China claims 90% of the waters of the South China Sea as its own, claims that overlap those of other countries in the region, including Vietnam and the Philippines. So far, the United States has used its vast naval power to maintain open sea lanes in that body of water, but this could lead to a clash with China.
In fact, as China becomes a more active global player, it could find itself clashing with US interests in many parts of the world. Already, the United States has found itself feeling threatened by China’s growing influence in regions such as Central Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean. Should China continue to seek to gain influence further outside of its borders, and should the US choose to attempt to stem China’s rising influence, it is possible that countries all around the world will find themselves being forced to side with one or the other superpower, a development that could usher in a new Cold War.
How the World Reacts to a G2
While the United States and China battle for global supremacy, other powers are seeking to carve out a role for themselves in this G2-dominated world. For example, Russia remains a formidable military power that has sought to rebuild some of the global influence that it lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Likewise, India is a demographic superpower that has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The European Union is a major economic and regulatory power, albeit one the suffers from sluggish growth and deep internal divisions. Meanwhile, countries such as Brazil, Turkey and Saudi Arabia seek to play a leading role in their respective regions, a role that sometimes requires them to attempt to keep either the United States or China at bay.
As we look ahead, it is hard to envision a scenario in which the United States and China do not remain the world’s two leading powers for a long time to come. For the moment, the United States retains sizeable advantages over China in many of the factors that comprise their overall power. However, China is narrowing the gap in many areas thanks to its rapid economic development over the past 40 years. Now, both sides are looking to either expand or maintain their position and influence in different regions of the world and are seeking allies as their influence spreads. This is forcing many countries to make the difficult decision of siding with Washington or Beijing, a decision most countries would prefer to avoid having to make. As China’s power continues to grow, it could bring that country into conflict with the United States via one of the many flashpoints that both countries have a stake in. In fact, how this bilateral relationship develops is one of the most important questions facing the world in the years and decades ahead and will shape the geopolitical landscape for the foreseeable future.