Can China Rise Peacefully?

October 25, 2014 Topic: SecurityGrand Strategy Region: ChinaRealismAmerica

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.

In essence, this is a situation in which economic and political-military considerations are in conflict; that raises an important question: which factor will ultimately prevail? My argument is that security considerations almost always trump economic considerations and that states opt for balancing over bandwagoning whenever they must choose between those strategies. The underlying logic of my position should be clear by now. Countries balance against powerful rivals because it is the best way to maximize their prospects of survival, which must be their highest goal. Bandwagoning with a more powerful state, in contrast, lessens the bandwagoner’s prospects for survival, because the more formidable state is free to become even more powerful and thus more dangerous.

The economic-coercion argument, however, has a different logic; it stresses prosperity over survival. The core claim is that a state with significant market power can seriously hurt the economy of the target state, and that the threat of economic punishment will be enough to coerce the vulnerable country into bandwagoning with the more powerful state. There is no question that severe economic pain is a scary prospect, but not surviving looms as an even greater peril. Survival, in other words, is a more powerful imperative than prosperity, which is why realist logic usually trumps arguments based on economic coercion, and why China’s neighbors will balance against it.

Indeed, there is already considerable evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, along with smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are beginning to look for ways to contain it. India and Japan, for example, signed a “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation” in October 2008, mainly because they are worried about China’s growing power. India and the United States, which had testy relations throughout the Cold War, have become good friends over the past decade, in large part because both fear China. In July 2010, the Obama administration, which is populated with individuals who preach to the world about the importance of human rights, announced that it was resuming relations with Indonesia’s elite special forces, despite their rich history of human rights abuses. The reason for this shift is that Washington wants Indonesia on its side as China grows more powerful, and, as the New York Times reported, Indonesian officials “dropped hints that the group might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban remained.”

Singapore, which sits astride the critically important Strait of Malacca and worries about China’s growing power, badly wants to improve its already close ties with the United States. Toward that end, it built a deepwater pier at its Changi Naval Base so that the U.S. Navy could operate an aircraft carrier out of Singapore if the need arose. And the decision by Japan in mid-2010 to allow the U.S. Marines to remain on Okinawa was driven in part by Tokyo’s concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the region and the related need to keep the American security umbrella firmly in place over Japan. As China becomes more powerful, relations among China’s neighbors will grow even closer, as will their relations with the United States.

Finally, a word about Taiwan’s future is in order. Given Taiwan’s importance for controlling the sea-lanes in East Asia, the United States has a powerful incentive to prevent China from seizing it. Moreover, American policymakers care greatly about credibility and reputation, which makes it even less likely that the United States would abandon Taiwan. This is not to deny that China might eventually become so powerful that the U.S. military cannot defend that island. In the meantime, however, Taiwan is likely to be part of an American-led balancing coalition aimed at China, which will surely infuriate Chinese of all persuasions and intensify the security competition between Beijing and Washington.

In sum, my theory says if China continues its striking economic growth over the next few decades, it is likely to end up in an intense security competition with the United States and its neighbors. I have said much about the specific policies we would expect the relevant actors to pursue. For example, we should expect to see China articulate its own version of the Monroe Doctrine and seek to push the U.S. military out of the Asia-Pacific region. And we should expect most of China’s neighbors to join an American-led balancing coalition aimed at checking Beijing.

But more must be said about what a security competition between China and the United States would look like. In particular, we need to know what indicators to keep an eye on in the years ahead to determine whether my prediction is proved correct.

What Would Security Competition Look Like?

If a Sino-American security competition developed, it would have twelve main ingredients. To begin with, there would be crises, which are major disputes between the two sides in which there is a serious threat that war will break out. Crises might not occur frequently, but it would be surprising if there were none over long stretches of time. Arms races would be another central feature of the rivalry. Both superpowers, as well as China’s neighbors, would expend significant amounts of money on defense in order to gain an advantage over the other side and prevent it from gaining an advantage over them.


We should expect to see proxy wars, in which Chinese and American allies fight each other, backed by their respective patrons. Beijing and Washington are also likely to be on the lookout for opportunities to overthrow regimes around the world that are friendly to the other side. Most of those efforts would be covert, although some would be overt. We should also see evidence of each side’s pursuing a bait-and-bleed strategy when there is an opportunity to lure the other side into a costly and foolish war. And in cases where there is no baiting, but the other side nevertheless finds itself in a protracted war, we would expect to see its rival pursue a bloodletting strategy, in which it seeks to prolong the conflict as much as possible.

Moving away from the battlefield, we would find abundant evidence of government officials in Beijing and Washington identifying the other side as their number one threat. Public and classified documents outlining military strategy would clearly depict the other country as a dangerous adversary that needs to be countered. Furthermore, American and Chinese think tanks that deal with national security issues would devote a large portion of their attention to scrutinizing the rival superpower and portraying it as a formidable and threatening adversary. Of course, some people in both countries will reject this confrontational approach and instead recommend deep-seated cooperation with the other side, perhaps even including appeasement of the adversary on certain issues. Over time, we would expect these individuals to be marginalized in the discourse and policy debates.


Beijing and Washington can also be expected to put travel restrictions on visitors from their rival, as the Soviet Union and the United States did during the Cold War. We would, furthermore, anticipate seeing the United States bar Chinese students from studying subjects at American universities that have direct relevance for the development of weapons and other technologies that might affect the balance of power between the two countries. In related moves, both countries would surely place selected export controls on goods and services that have a significant national security dimension. The likely model here for the United States is CoCom, which it established during the Cold War to limit the transfer of sensitive technologies to the Soviet Union.

None of this is to deny the likelihood of substantial economic intercourse between China and the United States in the midst of their security competition. Nor is it to deny that the two superpowers will cooperate on a handful of issues. The key point, however, is that the relationship between the two countries will be conflictual at its root and that the struggle between them will manifest itself in the ways described above. Of course, my argument is not just that there will be an intense security competition but that there will also be a serious chance of war between China and the United States. Let us consider in more detail the possibility that China’s rise will lead to a shooting war.


The United States and the Soviet Union fortunately never came to blows during the Cold War, although both countries fought wars against smaller states, some of which were allied with their rival. The fact that both sides had large nuclear arsenals is probably the key reason the superpowers never fought against each other. Nuclear weapons, after all, are a major force for peace simply because they are weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of their use are so horrible that it makes policymakers extremely cautious if they think there is even a small chance they might be used in a conflict.