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.

War is more likely in multipolarity than in bipolarity, in part because there are more great powers in multipolar systems and therefore more opportunities for great powers to fight with each other as well as with smaller countries. In addition, imbalances of power are more common in multipolarity, because the greater number of countries in multipolarity increases the chances that the underpinnings of military power will be distributed unevenly among them. And when you have power asymmetries, the strong are hard to deter when they are bent on aggression. Finally, there is greater potential for miscalculation in multipolarity, in terms of assessing both the resolve of opponents and the strength of rival coalitions. This is due in good part to the more fluid nature of international politics in a multipolar world, where there are shifting coalitions and significant potential for states to buck-pass to each other.

To make matters worse, unbalanced multipolarity is the most dangerous distribution of power, because it contains a potential hegemon, which not only has markedly more power than any other state in the region but also has strong incentives to use the sword to gain hegemony. A potential hegemon can, moreover, elevate the level of fear among its rivals, which sometimes causes them to pursue risky strategies that might lead to war.

In short, the bipolarity of the Cold War was a more peaceful architecture of power than the unbalanced multipolarity that lies ahead if China’s economy continues to grow rapidly. In addition, the geography of the Central Front was more conducive to peace than is the geography of Asia. These two considerations taken together do not mean that a Sino-American war is sure to happen, but they do tell us it is more likely than was a Soviet-American war between 1945 and 1990.

Communism and Nationalism

One might counter this pessimistic assessment by arguing there was an ideological dimension to the Cold War that made it especially dangerous—communism versus liberal capitalism—which will be absent from the growing rivalry between China and the United States. For example, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, says, “Unlike U.S.– Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.”

Ideology of any sort, of course, falls outside the scope of my realist theory of international politics. Nevertheless, the subject merits some discussion because ideology doubtless played a role in fueling the Cold War, although a subsidiary one. The conflict was driven mainly by strategic considerations related to the balance of power, which were reinforced by the stark ideological differences between the superpowers. Furthermore, it seems clear that this potent ideological cleavage will not matter much in shaping future relations between Beijing and Washington. After all, China is now hooked on capitalism, and communism holds little attraction inside or outside of China. So this development appears to point toward a Sino-American security competition that will be less fearsome than the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

That is the good news. The bad news, however, is that a different ideology—nationalism—is likely to play a role in energizing the rivalry between China and the United States, as well as between China and its neighbors. Nationalism, which is the most powerful political ideology on the planet, holds that the modern world is divided into a multitude of distinct social groups called nations, each desiring its own state. This is not to say every nation gets its own state or to deny that many states have more than one nation living within their borders.

The members of each nation have a strong sense of group loyalty, so powerful, in fact, that allegiance to the nation usually overrides all other forms of identity. Most members typically believe they belong to an exclusive community that has a rich history dominated by remarkable individuals and salient events, which can be triumphs as well as failures. But people do not simply take pride in their own nation; they also compare it with other nations, especially those they frequently interact with and know well. Chauvinism usually emerges as most people come to believe that their nation is superior to others and deserves special recognition. This sense of specialness sometimes leads nations to conclude that they are the “chosen” people, a perspective that has a rich tradition in both China and the United States, among other countries.

Nations at times go beyond feeling superior to other nations and wind up loathing them as well. I call this phenomenon “hypernationalism,” which is the belief that other nations are not just inferior but are dangerous, and must be dealt with harshly, if not brutally. In such circumstances, contempt and hatred of the “other” suffuses the nation and creates powerful incentives to use violence to eliminate the threat. Hypernationalism, in other words, can be a potent source of war.


One of the main causes of hypernationalism is intense security competition, which tends to cause people in the relevant nation-states to demonize each other. Sometimes leaders use hypernationalism as part of a threat-inflation strategy designed to make their publics aware of a danger they might otherwise not fully appreciate. In other cases, hypernationalism bubbles up from below, mainly because the basic nastiness that accompanies security competition often causes the average citizen in one nation-state to despise almost everything about the rival nation-state. A major crisis can readily add fuel to the fire.

Contemporary China is ripe for hypernationalism. In the years between Mao’s decisive victory over the Kuomintang in 1949 and his death in 1976, communism and nationalism were powerful forces that worked hand in hand to shape almost every aspect of daily life in China. However, after Mao’s passing, and certainly after the military crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, communism lost much of its legitimacy with the Chinese public. In response, China’s leaders have come to rely much more heavily on nationalism to maintain public support for the regime.


It would be a mistake, however, to think that nationalism is merely propaganda purveyed by the leadership for the purpose of sustaining the public’s allegiance to the state. In fact, many Chinese citizens passionately embrace nationalist ideas of their own volition. “The 1990s,” as Peter Gries notes, “witnessed the emergence of a genuinely popular nationalism in China that should not be conflated with state or official nationalism.” What makes nationalism in contemporary China such a potent force is that it is both a top-down and a bottom-up phenomenon.

Not only has nationalism become a stronger force in China in recent years, its content has also changed in important ways. During Mao’s rule, it emphasized the strengths of the Chinese people in the face of great adversity. They were portrayed as heroic fighters who had stood up to and ultimately defeated imperial Japan. Gries explains, “This ‘heroic’ or ‘victor’ national narrative first served the requirements of Communist revolutionaries seeking to mobilize popular support in the 1930s and 1940s, and later served the nation-building goals of the People’s Republic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. . . . New China needed heroes.”

That proud narrative, however, has largely been abandoned over the past twenty-five years, replaced by one that represents China as a victim of aggression by the world’s other great powers. In particular, great emphasis is placed on what the Chinese refer to as their “century of national humiliation,” which runs from the First Opium War (1839–42) until the end of World War II in 1945. China is depicted during that period as a weak but noble country that was preyed upon by rapacious great powers and suffered deeply as a consequence. Among the foreign devils are Japan and the United States, which are said to have taken advantage of China at almost every turn.

The theme of China as a helpless victim is not the only strand of Chinese nationalist thought. There are a number of positive stories as well. For example, Chinese of all persuasions take great pride in emphasizing the superiority of Confucian culture. Nevertheless, pride of place in Chinese present-day nationalist thought belongs to narratives that emphasize the “century of nationalist humiliation,” which, as Gries notes, “frame the ways that Chinese interact with the West today.” Indeed, “for China’s military, avenging humiliation remains a key goal.”