Robert Gilpin, Hegemonic Transition and China

Robert Gilpin and Thucydides both wrote about the problems of hegemonic transition, however, unlike Thucydides, Gilpin’s work presents a systematic theory instead of a historical account. Gilpin wrote his book War and Change in World Politics in 1981 during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union were in a great power ideological struggle that had the potential to break out into hegemonic warfare. In 1981, Gilpin saw the United States as a declining power, The Soviet Union as a potential hegemonic challenger and China as a backwards state.[1] Thirty-four years later, the United States is the sole superpower, the Soviet Union has broken up, and China has undergone reforms and rapid military and economic growth making it the only potential peer competitor of the United States. Despite these changes, Gilpin’s framework can guide U.S. policymakers dealing with the rise of China.

A fundamental assumption of War and Change in World Politics is that the international system is stable if no states wish to change the status quo, however if a state believes that the expected benefits of changing the system outweighs the expected costs it will attempt to do so.[2] The United States, as the dominant world power, sets the rules for the international system through its alliance networks and its influence over international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. When the creation of this system started after WWII in 1945, China was weak and isolated, so it did not participate in making the rules of the current order. As China continues to grow economically and militarily, not only its incentives, but also its capabilities to challenge the current order will increase. As Gilpin states, “a more powerful state can afford to pay a higher cost than a weaker state…as the power of a state increases, so does the probability of its willingness to seek a change in the system.”[3] President Xi has frequently articulated the need for a new international system based on political non-interference and a new type of great power relations with the United States based on respect for each countries core interests, including China’s core interests of reunification with Taiwan.[4]

As a country rises and the balance of power shifts in its favor, it will often seek to extend territorial control, political influence, and domination of the international economy.[5] China is currently asserting a stronger role in the world economic system, builds new diplomatic ties, and is aggressively pursuing a wide range of new maritime claims. Chinese actions in each of these three areas can undermine or threaten U.S. influence and interests. For example, China’s recently created Asia Infrastructure Investment bank, a new international economic institution with more than 40 member countries, is widely seen as a competitor to U.S. led financial institutions like the IMF or the World Bank. In order to prevent this competition, the United States unsuccessfully urged allies like Australia, South Korea, Germany and the United Kingdom not to join the AIIB.[6] In diplomacy, President Xi traveled to Pakistan in April 2015 and pledged $46 billion dollars in aid, more than the United States has ever given to Pakistan during decades of a troubled alliance. In addition, within the same week, China extended a $5 billion loan to the United State’s main irritant in Latin America, Venezuela. This new loan comes on top of an already existing $70 billion worth of risky Chinese loans, but ensures that China will have a foothold in Latin America.[7] Lastly, China’s increasingly expansive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas threatens United States interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, and since China’s claims are contested by U.S. allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, any Chinese use of force could drag the United States into the conflict.

Ultimately, the gravest danger in the U.S.-China relationship is the threat of hegemonic war. According to Gilpin, hegemonic war occurs when a rising power seeks to change the international system and the current dominant power is unable to restore the international system to a state of equilibrium through changes in its policies.[8] A hegemonic war is a total war fought to reorder the international system, where the victor sets the rules and the distribution of territory and power. Because of the totality of this goal, it includes participation of all major states and many minor states as well, and effective limits of the means employed weaken resulting in high levels of violence and treachery.[9] Regardless of the outcome of a hegemonic war with China, the United States would suffer tremendous loss in human life and prosperity, and could lose its preeminent position in the world system, leading to a new set of international rules and norms that do not serve its interests.

Gilpin offers the United States a way to avoid hegemonic war through the route of national revitalization. If the current dominant power, in this case the United States, can change its policies to increase or retain its power it will increase the cost for the rising country to challenge the existing system, restoring equilibrium.[10] This is a challenging solution. Gilpin characterizes an aging or declining society as one where there is a lack of cooperation, an emphasis on individual rights instead of collective duty, and decreasing productivity. Furthermore, this solution requires the rejuvenation of the United States military, economic, and political institutions to be successful. The United States is increasingly matching Gilpin’s description of a declining power as domestic partisanship and American lack of faith reduces American authority and effectiveness abroad.[11] However, now that the United States’ economy is recovering from the 2008 financial crisis there is no reason to believe that an American decline is inevitable.

In order to prevent decline relative to China, and create lasting prosperity, Gilpin would suggest that the United States should find an optimal way to allocate scarce resources across the conflicting needs for protection, consumption, and investment.[12] One way to meet this goal would be a foreign policy that avoids costly wars of choice, such as the Iraq War, and instead used scarce resources to fund the Strategic Rebalance to Asia policy that would strengthen our security posture in East Asia, thus raising the cost for China to challenge the existing system. However, it will not be enough to change foreign policy, but will require political reconciliation at home and political bravery to address issues like national debt, tax policy and other changes necessary to rejuvenate the United States in the long-term.

[1] Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 235.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] Andrew S. Erickson and Adam P. Liff, “Not-So-Empty Talk The Danger of China’s “New Type of Great-Power Relations” Slogan,” Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2014,

[5] Robert Gilpin, 106.

[6] Nicole Gaouette and Andrew Mayeda, “U.S. Failure to Stop China Bank Unmasks World Finance Fight,” Bloomberg Business, April 7, 2015,

[7] Shannon Tiezzi, “Maduro: China Gives $5 Billion Loan to Venezuela,” The Diplomat, April 21, 2015,

[8] Robert Gilpin, 187.

[9] Robert Gilpin, 197-200.

[10] Ibid, 187.

[11] Francis Fukuyama, “American Power Is Waning Because Washington Won’t Stop Quarreling,” New Republic, March 10, 2014,

[12] Robert Gilpin, 190.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
This entry was posted in china, International Relations, Pacific Asia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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