Can China Rise Peacefully?

If the China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.

(Editor’s Note: The following is the new concluding chapter of Dr. John J. Mearsheimer’s book The Tragedy of the Great Power Politics. A new, updated edition was released on April 7 and is available via Amazon.)

With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, the United States emerged as the most powerful state on the planet. Many commentators said we are living in a unipolar world for the first time in history, which is another way of saying America is the only great power in the international system. If that statement is true, it makes little sense to talk about great-power politics, since there is just one great power.

But even if one believes, as I do, that China and Russia are great powers, they are still far weaker than the United States and in no position to challenge it in any meaningful way. Therefore, interactions among the great powers are not going to be nearly as prominent a feature of international politics as they were before 1989, when there were always two or more formidable great powers competing with each other.

To highlight this point, contrast the post–Cold War world with the first ninety years of the twentieth century, when the United States was deeply committed to containing potential peer competitors such as Wilhelmine Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. During that period, the United States fought two world wars and engaged with the Soviet Union in an intense security competition that spanned the globe.

After 1989, however, American policymakers hardly had to worry about fighting against rival great powers, and thus the United States was free to wage wars against minor powers without having to worry much about the actions of the other great powers. Indeed, it has fought six wars since the Cold War ended: Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001–present), Iraq again (2003–11), and Libya (2011). It has also been consumed with fighting terrorists across the globe since September 11, 2001. Not surprisingly, there has been little interest in great-power politics since the Soviet threat withered away.

The rise of China appears to be changing this situation, however, because this development has the potential to fundamentally alter the architecture of the international system. If the Chinese economy continues growing at a brisk clip in the next few decades, the United States will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force. It is still an open question as to whether China’s economy will continue its spectacular rise or even continue growing at a more modest, but still impressive, rate. There are intelligent arguments on both sides of this debate, and it is hard to know who is right.

But if those who are bullish on China are correct, it will almost certainly be the most important geopolitical development of the twenty-first century, for China will be transformed into an enormously powerful country. The attendant question that will concern every maker of foreign policy and student of international politics is a simple but profound one: can China rise peacefully? The aim of this chapter is to answer that question.

To predict the future in Asia, one needs a theory of international politics that explains how rising great powers are likely to act and how the other states in the system will react to them. We must rely on theory because many aspects of the future are unknown; we have few facts about the future. Thomas Hobbes put the point well: “The present only has a being in nature; things past have a being in the memory only, but things to come have no being at all.” Thus, we must use theories to predict what is likely to transpire in world politics.

Offensive realism offers important insights into China’s rise. My argument in a nutshell is that if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The United States, however, will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony. Most of Beijing’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, will join with the United States to contain Chinese power. The result will be an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. In short, China’s rise is unlikely to be tranquil.

It is important to emphasize that my focus is not on how China will behave in the immediate future, but instead on how it will act in the longer term, when it will be far more powerful than it is today. The fact is that present-day China does not possess significant military power; its military forces are inferior to those of the United States. Beijing would be making a huge mistake to pick a fight with the U.S. military nowadays. Contemporary China, in other words, is constrained by the global balance of power, which is clearly stacked in America’s favor. Among other advantages, the United States has many consequential allies around the world, while China has virtually none. But we are not concerned with that situation here. Instead, the focus is on a future world in which the balance of power has shifted sharply against the United States, where China controls much more relative power than it does today, and where China is in roughly the same economic and military league as the United States. In essence, we are talking about a world in which China is much less constrained than it is today.

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