UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


The United States and China in Power Transition

The United States and China in Power Transition - Cover

Authored by Dr. David Lai.

December 2011

284 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The most profound change that the United States and China have experienced in their relations over the past 30 years is perhaps the onset of an apparent power transition between the two nations. This potentially titanic change was set in motion as a result of China’s genuine and phenomenal economic development, and the impact of this economic success on the United States and the U.S.-led international system has been growing steadily. This perceived power transition process will continue to be a defining factor in U.S.-China relations for the next 30 years. As China’s economic, political, cultural, and military influence continue to grow globally, what kind of a global power will China become? What kind of a relationship will evolve between China and the United States? How will the United States maintain its leadership in world affairs and develop a working relationship with China so that China can join hands with the United States to shape the world in constructive ways? In this book, Dr. David Lai offers an engaging discussion of these questions and others. His analysis addresses issues that trouble U.S. as well as Chinese leaders. Dr. Lai has taken painstaking care to put the conflicting positions in perspective, most notably presenting the origins of the conflicts, highlighting the conflicting parties’ key opposing positions (by citing their primary or original sources), and pointing out the stalemates.


This analysis discusses the nature of U.S.-China relations in the context of an ongoing power transition between these two great powers, the rise of China and its impact, China’s tortuous experience during its transition to modernity, U.S.-China conflicts over the two nations’ core interests, and the future of the U.S.-China power transition.


This analysis holds the following propositions. First, as a result of its genuine development and the impact of its expanding influence on the international system, China and the United States are inescapably engaged in a power transition process, which is, on top of all other issues, about the future of international relations.

Second, the history of power transition is filled with bloodshed; yet China and the United States are willing to blaze a new path out of this deadly contest.

Third, although China and the United States have exchanged goodwill for a peaceful future, the two nations nevertheless have many contentious and unsettled conflicts of interest that are further complicated by the power transition process and, if not properly managed, can force the two to stumble into unintended war against each other, hence repeating the history of power transition tragedy.

Finally, the next 30 years will be a crucial stage for China’s development and the evolution of the U.S.-China power transition. Unfortunately, these titanic changes are overshadowed by the inherently conflicting relations between China and the United States. It will take these two great powers extraordinary efforts to come to terms with the emerging new realities.


This analysis covers a wide range of issues related to and complicated by the ongoing U.S.-China power transition. It has made an effort to put these issues in perspective. The intent is to remind U.S., as well as Chinese, leaders of the complicated nature of U.S.-China relations under the condition of this power transition and to encourage them to look at the existing conflicts in this new light. It is also intended to persuade the two nations’ leaders to look beyond their parochial positions and take constructive measures to manage this complicated process. The following are some key policy recommendations derived from this analysis.

• While the United States and China have always had conflict since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, U.S. and Chinese leaders should always bear in mind that since China embarked on its genuine economic revolution in 1978, the defining character of the U.S.-China relationship has become known as a power transition. The two nations’ policies and interactions therefore must take this factor into account.

• Power transition is about the future of international relations. Historically, systematic changes were settled on battlefields. In the current situation, the United States and China have exchanged goodwill to blaze a new path for a peaceful transition. However, this is just the first step in the right direction; as the power transition process unfolds, there will be new and unexpected challenges. U.S. and Chinese leaders therefore need to do more to find ways to adjust to the new situations and reassure each other from time to time to avoid war.

• Power transition is also about titanic changes in great power relations. The most critical one is between the United States and China. U.S. and Chinese leaders should gain a good understanding of what the two nations can or cannot do with respect to the changes. Both nations’ leaders should guard against the temptation to do the impossible, which will be a recipe for disaster and war.

• As China continues to grow and expand, it will find it more difficult to compromise, but will be increasingly capable of taking stronger stands on matters involving its extant and expanding national interests. China should guard against the tendency to initiate premature confrontation with the United States.

• The United States should bear in mind that a rising China will naturally “ask for more,” even if Chinese leaders try to make China’s expansion less demanding. The United States should therefore guard against the tendency to overreact to China’s moves.

• The struggle for the fate of Taiwan is no doubt the most explosive issue between China and the United States. The two great powers have many conflicts. However, the conflict over the fate of Taiwan is the only one overshadowed by the “dictate of the gun”—China’s determination to use force if peaceful means fails to bring about unification and the U.S. commitment to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan” (U.S. Public Law 96-8, The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979). This outstanding issue is now further complicated by the power transition process. It is not an exaggeration to say that if the U.S.-China power transition were to catch fire, the fight over the fate of Taiwan would be the most likely trigger. That said, we should see that the current “stabilizer” in the Taiwan Strait is a U.S.-defined status quo. Specifically, the United States opposes any unilateral attempt to change the status of Taiwan; it holds China against the temptation of a forceful unification with Taiwan; and at the same time, warns Taiwan not to provoke China by pushing forward the independence agenda. This U.S. balancing act rests on the backing of U.S. military power. However, as China continues to modernize its military power, the power balance over the Taiwan Strait will change. This analysis suggests that although the use of force is a dangerous component of the Taiwan issue, it is in the interest of both the United States and China to guard against the temptation to look at the Taiwan issue in purely military terms and run a deadly military contest on this issue. In the meantime, China should guard against the temptation to upset this status quo prematurely.

• At present, the U.S. policy of measured arms sales to Taiwan is a point of repeated contention between China and the United States. Several times in the last 2 decades, the conflict over arms sales to Taiwan has led to deep and abrupt downturns in the two nations’ relations, especially the military relations. In the years ahead, while the United States should find ways to make the decisions to provide Taiwan with needed defensive weapons less provoking to China, China should modify its reactions and avoid suspending the U.S.-China military-to-military (mil-to-mil) contacts, which are most needed at times of tension and conflict.

• In the past 3 decades, the United States and China have developed a highly interconnected and interdependent relationship. However, the two nations’ military relations remain tenuous, and at times confrontational. In the years ahead, while the two nations will follow their own strategy to maintain the leading edge (in the case of the United States) and develop the needed capability (in the case of China) of their military power to counterbalance each other, it is in the two nations’ interest to develop an effective, reliable, and sustainable contact between the two militaries. In the last 2 decades, the United States and China have established a few high-level military contacts. However, these contacts are rather superficial. They cannot be used to help reduce tension when the two nations are in conflict. As some Chinese analysts put it, when China and the United States come to blows over their core interests, their superficial mil-to-mil contacts are the first to be cut; but when the relations between the two nations rebound, the mil-to-mil contacts are the last to resume. This is really dangerous for the two nations that are trying to prevent unintended wars. This analysis suggests that the United States and China consider exchanging resident students (military officers) in each other’s military schools at all levels as a long-term remedy to this problem. As the United States and China continue to agonize over the power transition in the years ahead, this “grass-roots” effort and investment will allow the two militaries to learn about each other’s principles and operational codes; it will pay valuable dividends that the current ad hoc and on-and-off mil-to-mil contacts can never produce.

• Although China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, it is still a developing nation and has many unsettled “nation-building” issues, such as its avowed mission to reunite with Taiwan, settlement of the East and South China Sea disputed territories and ocean interests, and harmonizing its relations with the people of Tibet and Xinjiang inside and outside of China. This analysis has shown that the United States does not see eye-to-eye with the Chinese leaders on these so-called Chinese core interests; however, it also suggests that the United States should maintain its role as a keeper of order and justice in the Western Pacific and try to avoid becoming a directly-involved disputing party to China’s claimed core interests. This is especially the case with respect to China’s territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea and disputes with the Southeast Asia nations in the South China Sea.

• In addition to the above, the United States and China also have a thorny issue in the Korean Peninsula. For decades, the United States has mostly treated the North Korea problem as a military issue and responded to many of North Korea’s provocative acts with military countermeasures. China, however, while ostensibly trying to persuade North Korea to control its provocative acts, adamantly opposes the U.S. military posturing in the Korean Peninsula, charging that the real intent of the intensified U.S. military activities in Northeast Asia is a U.S. attempt to deter China. As recently as June 2011, China solicited Russia’s support to issue a joint statement openly denouncing the U.S. approach: “the two countries pledged support for each other on a wide range of issues, including Russia’s security challenges from the United States and Europe as well as U.S. pressure on China in the Asia-Pacific regions.” U.S. political and military leaders should see that, with China and Russia standing in the way, a military solution to the North Korea problem is not an option. Hasty military reactions to the North Korea problem are increasingly becoming a point of contention between China and the United States. This is dangerous to the power transition process.

• In light of this situation, the U.S. repositioning and reduction of military forces in South Korea appeared to be proper policy adjustments. In the years ahead, the United States should gradually turn the remaining U.S. military forces in the Korean Peninsula from the decades-long tactical operations into a strategic deterrence presence. This adjustment is consistent with the Nixon Doctrine that expects our allies and friendly nations in Asia to bear the primary responsibility for their security interests, while the United States provides needed military, economic, and political support. In the meantime, the United States should take China’s advice to replace the Korean War Armistice with a peace treaty and normalize U.S. relations with North Korea. This act should relieve the United States from a hostile problem that has cost the United States blood and treasure for well over 6 decades. With the removal of hostility, North Korea has no more excuse to develop nuclear weapons. The United States is no longer part of the problem. The eventual denuclearization in North Korea, which is a China-led principle and initiative, will be an issue of the Northeast Asia nations. The United States can reengage in this issue as an “off-shore balancer” with much strategic flexibility.

• In the next 30 years, the gap between the U.S. and Chinese comprehensive national power will continue to exist, but it will become smaller. The power transition theory believes that the risk of war will become bigger when the two nations’ national power approaches parity. U.S. and Chinese leaders must pay more attention to the changes coming out of the power transition in the years ahead and make more efforts to manage the changes accordingly.

Access Full Report [PDF]: The United States and China in Power Transition

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list