10 Jan 2019
Prestige as power infographic
In 2013, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was quoted as saying, “The Chinese will want to share this century as co-equals with the United States.”

So, if China and the US are destined to be rivals, how will it play out? What does a battle look like if the prize is prestige and not territory or domination? What constitutes a win?

Well first of all, we’ll have to assume that China and the US avoid an all-out war.

Not everyone agrees on this. There has been a lot of talk about Thucydides’ Trap, the idea that a powerful state will fear a rising state, as Sparta feared Athens, and that the two will inevitably end up at war.

In an upcoming International Affairs article (January 2019), Khong Yuen Foong, Li Ka Shing Professor in Political Science at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, addresses Power as Prestige in World Politics and applies this lens to the particular dynamic between the US and China today.

He picks up from scholar Robert Gilpin who in his book War & Change in World Politics, claims that, “Prestige, rather than power is the everyday currency of international relations – if your strength is recognised, you can generally achieve your aims without having to use it.”

Khong, looking on from Singapore, says it is plain to see that “power is shifting from the West to the East,” and that the US is the established hegemon and China the rising challenger.

Ultimately, he advises the struggle is “best viewed as a competition over hierarchy of prestige, with China seeking to replace the US as the most prestigious state in the international system within the next thirty years.”

In akeynote speech at ANZ's Finance and Treasury Forum on 14 November 2018, Singapore’s Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that he had felt Thucydides’ Trap - the idea that when one power displaces another, war is inevitable - was not going to apply to China and the US. But, he said, recent events have changed his mind.

Goh says many changes have taken place since the US elected President Donald Trump, bringing with him, his “America First” foreign policy. It is a long list; pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement, renegotiating NAFTA, questioning NATO and most importantly when it comes to China — imposing tariffs on Chinese goods.

While he is pessimistic, Goh doesn’t foresee a military conflict anytime soon, and he praises China’s “restraint” but also concludes China will bide their time while they modernise their military - which, according to China’s timetable, is due by 2035, or before.

Both ESM Goh and Khong express that ironically, the foreign policy of “America First” - to Make America Great Again - may actually diminish America's greatness on a world stage. The incumbent power, in trying to curb the rise of an emerging power, may end up accelerating its ascent.

What constitutes prestige?

What else provides a measure of prestige on the world stage? The Lowy InstituteAsia Power Index evaluates countries by their resources, like their economy and military, and their influence, like diplomacy and culture. They rank the US as the number one power in Asia, with a score of 85. China comes in at number two with a score of 75.5. For comparison, Japan is number three with a score of 42.1.

With scores like that, at least in the Asia Pacific region, the US and China are already near equals. What else would it take for China to gain global prestige?

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one such gambit for multinational prestige. The megaproject aims to build massive infrastructure — roads, rail, ports, pipelines — linking China to dozens of countries across Asia, Africa and Europe. It is estimated to cost between US$4 trillion and US$8 trillion, funded by Chinese policy banks and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

These connections are a way for China to extend influence around the world, and in the process promote the Chinese Yuan as amainstream reserve currency.

Professor Khong has previously said that, if it happens,“the political payoff for China will be significant political influence among the 65 countries participating in the project.”

According to Shanghai based Wall Street Journal journalist, Trefor Moss, China's “sheer size and economic muscle” increase its global prestige. The AIIB itself was only possible because of China's economic power. Launched in 2016, the bank has backed 28 projects in 13 countries. The multilateral development bank is seen as a potential rival to the World Bank and IMF who are largely controlled by the USA, Western Europe and Japan.

To a lesser extent, China's militarisation in the South China Sea are attempts to strengthen its power and influence in the region. Whether these actions enhance or diminish its prestige remains to be seen.

Perhaps the global prestige balance will shift not by China’s actions, but by the inactions (or reversals) of the US. In November of 2018, US President Trump skipped the high-profile summits held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), where Chinese President Xi had the opportunity to call on member countries to, “firmly uphold the rule-based multilateral trading system and say no to protectionism.”

The US Vice President Mike Pence did attend, however. There was even an announcement that the US and its allies will spend US$1.7 billion on providing electricity to APEC host nation Papua New Guinea. The project is the first step by the US to try and counter China’s OBOR.

Under Trump, the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a reversal of his predecessor Obama’s policy, and reinstated sanctions against Iran. This prompted Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to tweet, This new US president... has disgraced the remnant of America's prestige and that of liberal democracy. America's hard power, that is to say their economic and military power, is declining too."

It’s doubtful that the tweets of world leaders will be the determining factor in the prestige of nations. While China peddles influence through infrastructure aid the US under Trump appears to be happy disengaging from the region. Although, considering the talk of a trade war it appears unlikely the US will completely ignore China's growing influence.

In the end we are left with Khong's notion that, “the state at the top of the prestige hierarchy gets to translate its power into the political outcomes it desires with minimal resistance and maximum flexibility.” In other words, the next thirty years will be a contest of which country gets the most, by doing the least.

(Photo: UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré)