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5 Questions with Jonathan Holslag

Jonathan HolslagJonathan Holslag, an expert on China’s foreign policy, says that Asia will be the “most dramatic theater” for rivalry between great powers. Mr. Holslag is the head of research for the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies and I interviewed him about the changing global balance of power and China’s rise.

He argues that “America is declining” because others are gaining relative strength. “Growing economic power brings growing ambitions and interests,” but China “does not necessarily want to challenge America.”

You recently wrote that the United States is a “declining power.” How will America’s fall influence US policy?

To decline is obviously one of these dramatic verbs with many connotations. Some students argue that decline starts as soon as growth comes to a halt. Others contend that states can postpone decline for years, even decades, if only they succeed to set rules that are acceptable for other countries without having to invest a lot in enforcing them, or to maintain primacy in one sector of power. You can have a decline because other states are revisionist, or because the dominant power fails to maintain the status quo.

America is declining because other powers are relatively strengthening their capabilities faster, and convert these in influence. This is a matter of economic development, certainly in the case of China. The PRC is a revisionist power by default: it does not necessarily want to challenge America, but it does so, simply because it is more effective in converting its resources into growth. Other states that do not achieve the comprehensive national growth as China does, are bolstering their capacity to apply specific pockets of capabilities for diplomatic use: energy and selective military force in the case of Russia and geopolitical primacy in the case of India.

The impact of this evolution is aggravated because Washington has failed to pursue an effective status-quo strategy. Especially in the last eight years or so, it has wielded its power as if it was a vibrant young superpower. Consequently, it has been bearing more costs than it can afford, and it has done so without accumulating new capabilities. Overstretch is now tangible in all dimensions of its power: militarily, economically, politically, etc.

At such a critical juncture a global power has three options: to engage its main threats, to withdraw or to embark on a cost-effective strategy that aims at rejuvenation and regaining capabilities. The latter policy would be characterized by military restraint, diplomatic prudence and economic ambition.

President Obama’s policy bears some characteristics of this constructive realism. If he succeeds to promote more financial austerity, triggers a green economic revolution and he does so before others do, America has a chance to regain the economic assets that are needed to sustain its primacy among other powers.

Diplomatically, Washington will temper its unilateralism, but while doing so it will experience more difficulties to embed its policies in solid alliances. The strong players will obviously be more confident to protect their own national interests and raise the costs for making concessions to America. But smaller countries too will have more maneuverability. Instead of exclusively relying on the US as a diplomatic partner or offshore balancer, they will try to benefit as much as possible from diversifying their economic, political and military linkages.

Realism implies comparatively optimizing gains and lowering costs. This cost-effectiveness makes burden-sharing a key objective in America’s new foreign policy. But to persuade powers like China to give up free riding, it will have to be prepared to yield authority. Even when it does not like it, it will have to be more sensitive to spheres of influence and learn to live with harsher power plays in multilateral institutions.

The challenge is thus to maintain a balance between giving more scope to other powers on the one hand, and using the strategic brake for self-improvement and rebuilding its powerbase on the other.

Do you think the world’s rising powers – including Brazil, Russia, India and China – will increasingly play a more prominent role in international affairs and global security?

Growing economic power brings growing ambitions and interests. This will be felt at the regional level first, but there are already indications that particularly China is aiming at securing its economic stakes globally. This will be a creeping, but determined expansion of power projection. The question is whether this spillover from economic ambitions into the field of security will be benign and cooperative.

With new trading states boosting their economic diplomacy, we risk slipping into a double security dilemma. On the one hand, states like China will consider access to consumer markets and natural resources as a matter of national security, and actively back up their commercial ventures with political power. This already brings the risk of mercantilist tit-for-tat games.

But there is more. If one country, again probably China, succeeds to make more headway than others, there is a chance that countries like India and Russia start to fear that this will alter the overall balance of power, and this would make strategic competition inevitable.

Once more, this is not because of the fact that Beijing seeks to confront them, but simply because of asymmetric gains cause distrust. The impact of this security dilemma is getting larger and larger in places like Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, where predatory regimes are able to play their new partners off against each other.

Even when there is an objective need for working together to stabilize these regions, it is the tragedy of great power politics that such interdependence does not lead to long-term cooperation, and America too will not escape from these dynamics.

Many US and European officials express desire for China to become a “responsible player” in the international system. How will China assume a leadership role? How will this impact world order?

The question is of course who defines the responsibilities. China finds that its policies are perfectly responsible according to its own interests. There is an outspoken incongruence between Europe’s expectation that normative convergence will help to allow both sides to cope with divergent interests; while China finds that they should try to define key joint interests, to circumvent differences over norms. America’s new realism seems to match more with this Chinese pragmatism, while Europe has difficulties to come to grips with it. We are thus likely to see that both sides of the Atlantic will be increasingly at odds over how they seek to socialize China as a responsible stakeholder.

In a recent study on China’s Africa policy we found that China is willing to adapt to external expectations under three main conditions: when its strategic interests are not harmed, when rules are not binding and when other powers do the same. We have witnessed for example that it adopted stringent measures promoted by the EU to curb the illicit diamond and ivory trade with Africa, but not the trade of mineral ores that are crucial for its industry. All in all, it tends to pursue chameleon diplomacy, adapting to different situations: pursuing sovereignist policies with autocratic regimes and reaching out to civil societies when it has to do business with democracies.

A tempting pitfall is to evaluate China’s compliance by measuring the degree to which it became a member of multilateral bodies. True, this integration facilitates its peaceful rise, but it is by no means an end of great power rivalry.  In the framework of the UN we observe that China is getting more assertive to project its own norms and principles. In the context of the WTO, China is duly complying with existing standards, but it aggressively tries to mould future rules in favor of its national interests, often tabling proposals that run against Western wishes.

I call this reverse socialization. China adapts to the form in order to influence the substance, and projecting its own ideas and values. It is not so much the acceptance of channels of interaction that matters, but the degree to which China uses them to translate its successful growth into diplomatic or normative influence. There is a serious risk that once China gets too strong within these bodies, the West will relinquish the multilateralism that it has so actively promoted.

How important will it be for China to maintain a strong relationship with the US?

The overriding need is for stability and the US key to provide in this stability. While being revisionist by default, China will do its best to mislead Washington that this is not the case. In that regard, it comes as a blessing that many China watchers evaluate China’s power with interaction-level benchmarks, rather than capabilities. As long as Beijing can continue to boost its influence, it will be glad to show itself as a constructive partner.

For the years to come, there are two major things to watch. First, it remains to be seen how much the PRC is going to stimulate domestic consumption in order to reduce its costly addiction to US consumers. Secondly, it will be a challenge for China to keep its head cool. It knows that it gets more clout and in the last few months we have seen that it is getting more vociferous in clarifying its position. While this new self-confidence is understandable for a country that is expected to finance large parts of Obama’s economic plans; it might be counterproductive as an agitated America will make less concessions or even revert to more hostile policies.

In the past, the rise and fall of superpowers led to competition and conflicts. In the future, is there potential for a major clash as the international balance of power shifts?

The best possible outcome for the coming two decades will be a new concert of great powers, tied together by the wish to maintain stability and to focus on development. For the years to come, none of them will be able to claim a new superpower status, but a concert might prove to be unsustainable because of uncertainty of each other intentions as the regional balances of powers alter, because of looming nationalism, and because of a persistent crisis in the productive sectors that elicit protectionism and fierce mercantilism. Asia will obviously be the most dramatic theatre for rivalry, whether this is stirred by the US or not.

Photo from the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.



  1. […] is already on record as describing the U.S. as a “declining” power globally, and says Washington is on balance a factor that […]

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David Kampf

David Kampf is a writer and researcher based in Washington, DC. He is also a columnist for Asia Chronicle. He analyzes international politics, foreign policy and economic development, and his pieces have appeared in various publications, including China Rights Forum, African Security Review and World Politics Review. Recently, he directed communications for the U.S. Agency for International Development and President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Rwanda. Prior to living in East Africa, he worked in China and studied in Brazil, India and South Africa.

Area of Focus
International Politics; Foreign Affairs; Economic Development


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