Power Transition Theory and the Rise of China

Open Access
Paul, Ethan C
Area of Honors:
Political Science
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Douglas Lemke, Thesis Supervisor
  • Michael Berkamn, Honors Advisor
  • China
  • Power Transition Theory
  • Thucydides's Trap
  • Kenneth Organski
This paper seeks to understand the current and future trends in the U.S.-China relationship using Power Transition Theory. Power Transition Theory argues that the international system is inherently hierarchical, with one Dominant Power able to determine the rules, norms, and institutions that guide state behavior in the international system, which all other less-powerful states must acquiesce to. However, exogenous dynamic forces can upend this hierarchical equilibrium by providing a dissatisfied, non-Dominant state with the material capacity necessary to challenge the existing order. This phenomenon is what is referred to as a “power transition,” and historical analyses have shown that such power transitions frequently result in devastating interstate conflict. After outlining the core tenets of Power Transition Theory, this paper shows that current aspects of the U.S.-China relationship are conducive to a power transition: China has the material capability and desire to challenge the U.S.-led order. In an effort to prevent either a direct conflict between the U.S. and China or some sort of second “cold war,” this paper then offers policy recommendations to U.S. policymakers. It argues that the strategy most conducive to long-term U.S. interests is one based on 19th-century Great Britain’s policy vis-à-vis the then-rising U.S., which saw Great Britain recognize and try to account for, rather than outwardly prevent, the rise of a new great power. In the U.S.-Sino context, a similar policy would effectively call for the U.S. to amplify, rather than resist, China’s efforts to remake the international system, while also tacitly recognizing Chinese sovereignty over the Southeast Asian region.