When new countries rise to power, the story often ends badly, sometimes in war. Many Americans worry about China’s economic power and, understandably, about its military assertiveness. Pundits and presidential candidates often talk as if China were already an adversary of the United States. Few have focused on Asia’s other giant, India. Instead of scaring the American people about one country and ignoring another, we need to get busy working with both on a new world system that accommodates all three. There is reason to hope that with thoughtful, steady policies agreed upon by the United States, China, and India, this time will be different.
One example makes me cautiously optimistic that the rise of China and India can be peaceful. I’ll call it a tale of three powers. In the late nineteenth century, the British Empire stretched around the world. Its economic and military might were unparalleled. Yet some cracks were showing in the foundations. Steadily, two other powers encroached on Britain’s dominance. Both these rivals had strong economies, were rap- idly industrializing, and increasingly sought a place for themselves in the international order. One was a monarchy, Germany. The other, the United States, was a democracy that shared some, but not all, of Britain’s values. Over several decades, Britain decided to accommodate the rise of the United States, believing that the United States would generally align itself with the rules of the international system Britain had established, and eventually help share the burden of supporting this order by keeping the seas free for navigation, and trade mostly open. Britain tolerated many missteps by the United States on the latter’s way to great power status. The two avoided major conflicts and ultimately became allies in two world wars. While Britain made some friendly overtures to Germany as well, it treated Germany mostly as a rival to be balanced. Both countries rapidly built up their navies in the lead-up to World War I, and ultimately fought two devastating wars.
Many in the United States today call for us to repeat, in essence, the policy that Britain pursued in the late nineteenth century: to support the rise of India, a democracy, and other like-minded countries, as a counterweight against the growing power of authoritarian China. I believe that this strategy alone will not succeed, just as it did not succeed for Britain.