Mearsheimer and the Rise of China

The National Interest posted a new chapter from John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which I am yet to read, on whether China can rise peacefully. It’s up in full, for free, and well worth the read – it can be found here.

It’s worthwhile both for what Mearsheimer anticipates will happen over the next few decades in the Pacific, and for a succinct summary of the tenets of offensive realism. Of course, the problem with reading a succinct summary is that it can feel like important arguments are rushed and assumptions aren’t justified, which does mean The Tragedy of Great Power Politics has jumped its way up my reading list. Still, I’d like to give you my own brief summary of the argument and highlight a couple of interesting points, as well as a few questions that the article left me with.*

Mearsheimer is most famous for developing the theory of offensive realism, which posits, like realism, that the lack of any overarching authority leaves states to pursue their own security in an anarchic environment. It goes further in arguing that states will seek to be as secure as possible – if they can, including pursuing dominance in their neighbourhood, or regional hegemony. Meanwhile, they will try and ensure no other states attain a similar level in their own regions to make sure no-one else is secure enough to interfere in other regions.

The only state to have actually achieved lasting regional hegemony was the United States. Mearsheimer doesn’t whitewash what this involved – the colonisation of what is now the USA was bloody and involved several wars and lots of dead Native Americans, and then once the USA had established dominance of the Western Hemisphere through the Monroe Doctrine, it went to war on multiple occasions to stop three of those four countries listed above achieving regional hegemony. None of this will be of any surprise to leftist critics of US foreign policy – however Mearsheimer is clear that this is just how he thinks great powers behave. This is important – because just as the USA determinedly pursued regional hegemony as it rose, so, he argues, will China.

I’ll leave you to read the chapter for more detailed discussion of the different ways this rise could lead to conflict with China’s neighbours and the US – I just wanted to comment on a couple of points.

First off, the common counter-arguments Mearsheimer identifies to his prediction of an unpeaceful rise are economic interdependence – the importance of trade with China with the world, and especially its neighbours should make states less likely to pursue conflict – and a particularly benevolent ideology driving Chinese leaders based on Confucian thought. Mearsheimer is dismissive of both of these, arguing that on the one hand, there is no real evidence that its different traditions has meant China has behaved any different to other great powers in the pursuit of security over the centuries** , and on the other, that while prosperity is an important factor in leaders’ decision-making, security is more important, as if a state neglects it security, is attacked, and ceases to exist… well it can hardly pursue prosperity, can it?

The next interesting point, and it’s a reassuring one: though both China and the USA are nuclear powers, the risk of M.A.D. is not as high in any conflicts that may arise in the future between the two as it was between the USA and the USSR. In essence, where the central front in the Cold War was Germany, with such a concentration of forces present that the early battles were liable to determine the global balance of power, the US and China are likely to have conflicting interests in various areas, none of them individually significant enough to make escalation to nuclear war likely.

“It was widely believed that victory in the initial battles of a European conflict would cause a profound shift in the global balance of power; this conviction created powerful incentives for the side that was losing to use nuclear weapons to salvage the situation.”

Furthermore, as they are more likely to be sea battles (or AirSeaBattles teehee) than land engagements, there’s less of a risk of nuclear escalation (I’ve posted several articles about terrifying tactical nuclear weapons technology in the past – shit would have been grim)

It’s also worth noting, as a counterpoint to the grimness, before proceeding, that this is far from a unanimous conclusion. Here, Zack Beauchamp argues convincingly that, at the very least, war isn’t likely in East Asia anytime soon. Of course, since that’s his main target here, it isn’t clear whether his arguments will really persuasively hold over the long term. Broadly speaking, Beauchamp seems to argue that underlying factors (note: not structural ones in a realisty way) will prevent the specific flashpoints that have seemed threatening recently (admittedly the article is a few months old but), while Mearsheimer argues that the underlying balance of power will evolve in such a fashion that it will make those intermittent crises more likely to escalate – even  in the face of the important factors Beauchamp highlights.

In light of all that, a few questions/doubts.

First of all, importantly, I think, though this is one of the things the book probably deals with – I’m not 100% convinced dominance in Asia is really important enough to justify the danger and expense that would come with trying to contain China on its home turf. You only have to look at the concern that China’s area-denial (A2/AD (with anti-access I think)) weapons developments provoke to get an impression of how challenging it would be to seriously compete with a China that has developed into a credible rival. Consequently, it doesn’t seem out of the question for the USA to take a look at things and decide it isn’t worth the effort to actively seek to keep China down instead of accommodating its sphere of interest – what this would mean for US allies and China’s likely victims in the regions is, of course, unclear. However, this is on the basis of the chapter alone – I am sure Mearsheimer goes into more detail on why regional hegemons don’t tolerate peer competitors in the book, so this is a question to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Perhaps more interesting, then, is what the rest of the world would do about it. Nationalism leads me to be particularly interested in Britain and Brazil’s responses, especially as you can use them as loose proxies for other groups of countries.

While Brazil’s trajectory in international affairs will likely become an even more interesting one to look at over the next few years/decades, in this area, I feel like it won’t – at various points over the past few presidencies, Brazil-US relations have varied enough that you could plausibly argue for Brazil supporting continued US dominance, as well as Brazil, with Chinese support, becoming a more assertive power in the Western hemisphere.  Indeed, Mearsheimer mentions the possibility of Chinese troops stationed in Brazil as an illustration of what China-as-peer-competitor could mean. One to watch, I guess. EDIT: a friendly Brazilian studies teacher has weighed in with a slightly more informed opinion in the comments so scroll down for more on Brazil

Meanwhile, Britain, and more broadly, NATO and the EU. While the sequester and general US budget concerns are leading to concern that their mammoth defence spending might still not be enough for confrontation with China, those budget concerns are even greater in Europe. Where they’re debating the legality of the US Navy fielding less than eleven aircraft carriers, the UK won’t have jets to fly off our one until about 2020, and we’re likely to sell the second. Suffice to say that I don’t think China or the USA are considering the British role in their rivalry very much. The only exception, potentially, could be if EU security cooperation actually gets its act together and “Europe” becomes a serious military actor. Though Mearsheimer would presumably predict that both the US and China would try and prevent that happening – peer competitors and all. For the time being, the main role I could see European states playing in any US-China confrontation would be that of moral arbiter of sorts – I’m not convinced either party would give too much of a toss about international opinion in the event of a high-stakes security dilemma, but European soft power could be useful in legitimising one or the other party in the quest for dominance. Marginally.

Is that enough though? Advocates of higher defence spending have to answer the “what for” question to justify diverting money from schools and hospitals to tanks, and it is pretty hard, at the moment, to do anything other than say “you never know”. While this is fair, to a point – tomorrow’s threats are uncertain, and it’s often more costly and risky to rearm than it is to maintain spending – it doesn’t seem compelling enough in the current days of economic woe. For US hawks, the prospect of a security competition with China is of course, manna from heaven – real security interests at stake! A real military rival! – and fair play. However, just because security competition is happening between great powers in Asia, it really doesn’t follow that Britain or the EU need to participate or try and keep up. In which case, short of Putin discovering London has a lot of Russians living here, it seems like the UK is rather secure for the foreseeable future. But you know, unknown unknowns and that.

*it’s a longish one, I’m afraid – as you will have noticed when scrolling down to this asterisk. It took me two six-hour car journeys and just under a week to plan and write this one and it still came very close to joining the 5000 words of abandoned drafts on my computer. The momentum I had gained couldn’t really hold up to any significant editing.

**I like this one especially, because there’s a tiresome strand of left-wing thought that looks at China’s moves in Africa and goes “look how benevolent they are unlike every other power in history!”


2 thoughts on “Mearsheimer and the Rise of China

  1. I think that Brazil’s reaction to the internet spying by American and British intelligence agencies last year (President Dilma cancelled her state visit to the USA) is symbolic of Brazil position in the world stage and reflects Brazilians attitude to USA.
    The USA’s hegemony in the continent (specially in the 20th century) is a thing of the past as far as Brazil is concerned. This is partly due to its increasing trade with China (17% in 2012, against 11% with USA), but it’s worth pointing out that Brazil exports to African, European and Arab countries total the remaining 72% and that affords a certain confidence in taking a more independent stance against both China and the USA. As far as we can infer, the past and present Brazilian government seeks a balanced position in the world stage, that represents its interest of that of the developing countries and not one of regional hegemony nor world domination 😉

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