China Cannot Rise Peacefully

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The title in this blog post is the declared bottom line from John Mearsheimer’s recent speech (given in Australia in August 2010) and the article from the China Journal of International Politics, (Vol 3, 2010, “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia”).  Now I promise to get off this US-China relationship thing soon but I couldn’t leave without evaluating John’s speech and recent article.

For those who don’t know John, he is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.  He is an IR celebrity – a rather hard thing to do.  He is well known for developing what is called, “Offensive Realism,”  an international relations approach that asserts that all states in an anarchic international system seek power and dominance in the international system.  This is not classic realism but realism that sees nations seeking hegemony more from uncertainty than defensive actions.  Offensive realism in contrast is realism on steroids.

So John looks at the current situation and sees US-China relations through this offensive realism lens:

Thus, the core question that any leader has to ask him or herself is this: what is the best way to maximize my country’s security in a world where another state might have significant offensive military capability as well as offensive intentions, and where there is no higher body I can turn to for help if that other state threatens my country?  This question—more than any other—will motivate American as well as Chinese leaders in the years ahead, as it has in the past.  … The best way for any state to ensure its survival is to be much more powerful than all the other states in the system, because the weaker states are unlikely to attack it for fear they will be soundly defeated. No country in the Western Hemisphere, for example, would dare strike the United States because it is so powerful relative to all its neighbors. To be more specific, the ideal situation for any great power is to be the hegemon in the system, because its survival then would almost be guaranteed.

John is a mild-mannered –  and a thoroughly likable colleague (actually I went to graduate school at Cornell with him) – who is seriously committed to international relations. So while I can, and do, disagree with him frequently – I always take him seriously.  But as you can see from the quotes above, offensive realism is anything but mild-mannered.

For John the actions of China will be not unlike the United States.  The emergence of the United States as a great power is defined by the US’s achieving regional hegemony.  It is the only great power, according to John, to have done so, and having done so it has dedicated itself to not facing another hegemon.  In John’s world of great powers – best expressed in: The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (NY: Norton, 2001)  – a rising power like China will imitate a previous great power – the United States.

It is unlikely that China will pursue military superiority so that it can go on the warpath and conquer other countries in the region, although that is always a possibility. Instead, it is more likely that Beijing will want to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries, much the way the United States makes it clear to other states in the Americas that it is the boss. Gaining regional hegemony, I might add, is probably the only way that China will get Taiwan back.

China will seek hegemony in Asia – pushing out the United States as the United States pushed out the Europeans in the Western Hemisphere to establish regional hegemony.  China will then claim regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.  The struggle will not be identical to but also not unlike the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For John the world is a world of great powers, not identical to the past but not that different either.  And the significant differences that describe global relations today fade into insignificance in the face of great power dynamics.  As it was; so will it be. Even the dynamics of globalization so dramatic over the last decades fade away and are assessed as insignificant:

My view is that economic interdependence does not have a significant effect on geopolitics one way or the other. After all, the major European powers were all highly interdependent and prospering in 1914 when First World War broke out.

And though the interdependence that John acknowledges was present in the twentieth century, I think most would recognize as significantly different in scale and influence taking into account financial, trade and investment trends.  These trends describe a tight global economic system far beyond the world understood in 1914.  And China is so much more integrated into the world economy than earlier rising powers.  Is conflict impossible? Of course not.  But the dismissal of the global economic context by John is not realistic.

I remain convinced that US-China relations are best described as “yi di, yi you” ( 亦敌 亦友) – “Both Friend and Foe” (see recent posts including “Jumping to Conclusions“).  China and the United States will have to work through periods of rivalry and periods of partnership. Those periods of rivalry could be quite tense but the periods of partnership in global leadership are likely to be quite restorative.

The picture narrated by John Mearsheimer is tragic –  possible  but not likely.  We do not have to conclude as he does:

Indeed, it is downright depressing. I wish that I could tell a more optimistic story about the prospects for peace in the Asia-Pacific region. But the fact is that international politics is a nasty and dangerous business and no amount of good will canameliorate the intense security competition that sets in when an aspiring hegemon appears in Eurasia. And there is little doubt that there is one on the horizon.