- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Center and China Foundation: Can Conflict Be Avoided Between U.S. and China?

| Winter 2010-11

History suggests that as a rising power ascends, there will be conflict with established leaders. Such power transitions have occurred 11 times since 1500AD, and war between the parties took place in eight of those cases.

Economic forecasts suggest that China will approximate U.S. economic power sometime in the 2020s, and the question arises: Can conflict then be avoided, or will we extend the litany of past conflicts?

Over two days in August, the Belfer Center's Graham Allison, Joseph Nye, and Richard Rosecrance joined a debate on that question at a workshop in Washington with director Lu Mai and other Chinese experts from the China Development Research Foundation in Beijing.

The participants addressed the question from economic, democratic, and power standpoints, and concluded that conflict was still possible between the U.S. and China, but could be averted by progressive and rapid adjustments to each other.

One participant noted that China is an outlier -- a fast-rising country that still lacks democratic institutions.

There are many points of tension between the two powers: Taiwan, the South China Sea, military arms increases, and differences over non-proliferation issues.  In economic terms, the trade imbalance has not been rectified, and the Renminbi remains inconvertible at too low a valuation. And the Chinese population does not yet fully benefit from a greater consumption sustained by Chinese industrial progress.

Chinese participants stressed the need for the U.S. to accept the primacy of the Chinese position in East Asia, including Taiwan and the offshore islands. American participants said that Chinese moves in East Asia must be peaceful or they would be rejected.

For conflict to be avoided both sides agreed that person-to-person and academic and policy interchanges were essential. These exchanges did not generally take place between Germany and Britain or Germany and Russia on the eve of 1914.

These preliminary hypotheses will be considered further in meetings in Beijing on January 10-11, 2011.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rosecrance, Richard. Center and China Foundation: Can Conflict Be Avoided Between U.S. and China?.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2010-11).

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