Preventive or Revisionist Challenge During Power Transition? The Case of China–USA Strategic Competition

AuthorCiwan M. Can,Anson Chan
Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Preventive or Revisionist
Challenge During Power
Transition? The Case of
China–USA Strategic
Ciwan M. Can1 and Anson Chan1
Some scholars argue that established great powers tend to launch preventive
wars to halt and reverse power transition processes, while others argue that it is
the rising great powers that initiate revisionist challenges. Through the application
of the preventive war model and the theory of strategic competition, this article
argues that we should identify the initiation of a hegemonic war in the agency of
established great powers during power transition processes and that hegemonic
confrontations, in the age of nuclear weapons, are limited to the diplomatic
domain where great powers will compete for relative strategic influence in the
world. The argument is then applied for a re-examination of China–USA relations
as this provides a novel ground for testing its explanatory power. Based on our
findings, the article further argues that the USA has been the instigator of a
preventive strategic competition against China aimed to halt and reverse the
ongoing power transition process.
Great powers, power transition, preventive war, strategic competition, China,
History has clearly not ended, and its tectonic plates are again on the move as the
rise of China has brought the discussion of great power politics and competition
back to the centre stage in the academic field of international relations and the
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(1) 7–25, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221076646
1 School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, Shanghai, P.R. China.
Corresponding author:
Ciwan M. Can, School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, 220 Han Dan
Road, Shanghai 200433, P.R. China.
8 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 9(1)
world of policymaking (Bolton, 2020; Clinton, 2011; Haass, 2020a; Haass &
Kupchan, 2021; Schuman, 2020; Westad, 2019). While the relationship from the
early 1990s and up until the 2000s was characterised by relatively low tensions
(Goldstein, 2020; Ross & Tunsjø, 2016), the past several years, particularly from
2010 onwards, have increasingly been portrayed as one of a new Cold War
(Mearsheimer, 2020; Walt, 2020).
Structural shifts in the balance of world power have historically been major
sources of instability in international politics due to strategic uncertainties,
changes in patterns of cooperation and competition, among the great powers
(Gilpin, 1981; Organski, 1968; Walt, 2018; Wu, 2020). According to Allison
(2017), 12 of the past 16 shifts in the distribution of power among the great powers
have unleashed the so-called Thucydides’ Traps1 and hegemonic wars. Hegemonic
wars are quite different from other inter-state wars as they involve the great
powers and because the very structure of the international political system and the
ordering principles of relations between states are at issue (Gilpin, 1988; Can &
Chan, 2020; Ikenberry, 2001, 2020).
China–USA relations have become the most recent case of power transition in
the international political system, and according to some observers, it should be
expected that as China approaches power parity, or overtakes the USA in terms of
material capabilities, it will initiate a challenge for the position of hegemony and
seek to revise the existing US-led liberal international order (McMaster, 2020;
Pillsbury, 2015; Walt, 2018). The fundamental logic underpinning this assumption
is simply that states in an anarchic self-help environment are first and foremost
concerned about their security, and that the best way for a state to guarantee its
security in such an environment is to become the dominant power in the system
(Waltz, 1979; Mearsheimer, 2014). Furthermore, because the arrangements of
international order are shaped and controlled by a dominant power, a newly
established power will seek to revise these arrangements to better reflect and
reinforce its own particular values, interests and influence, rather than those of the
previous hegemon (Gilpin, 1981; Organski, 1968).
The best way for China to guarantee its security is thus to outrank the USA as
the most powerful state in the world and use the overwhelming influence such a
position brings to shape and control an international order more conducive to its
own interests and values rather than those of the USA. China, the argument goes,
is a dissatisfied and revisionist rising great power, while the USA is a satisfied
established great power that will seek to protect the status quo from the malign
purposes of China (Yilmaz & Xiangyu, 2019). China and the USA are ‘on a
collision course fueled by the dynamics of power transition’ (Layne, 2020, p. 42).
We challenge the above-mentioned assumptions and expectations held by
scholars and policy makers who argue that rising great powers historically tend to
be the instigators of hegemonic challenges against established great powers and
its application to China–USA relations in the twenty-first century. By adapting
assumptions from the preventive war model and theory of strategic competition,
and through the application of these for a re-examination of China–USA relations,
we argue that (a) the USA, as the established great power, is dissatisfied with the
ongoing transition process and (b) that the USA has initiated a preventive strategic

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