‘Peaceful rise’ will meet US containment

Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-6 22:58:01

John Mearsheimer Photo: Chen Chenchen

Editor's Note:

John Mearsheimer (Mearsheimer), professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is best known in China for his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), in which he predicts, based on his pessimistic view of the anarchic world order, that China's rise will inevitably be "unpeaceful." Has anything changed this position? What will China's efforts at "peaceful rise" bring to the Asia-Pacific region? Global Times (GT) reporter Chen Chenchen interviewed Mearsheimer exclusively during his recent trip to Beijing.

GT: Tragedy will be issued in a new edition next April. And the China section will be revised. Is there any change in your long-held conclusion that China will not rise peacefully?

Mearsheimer: I have completely rewritten the conclusion, so it deals only with the question of whether China can rise peacefully. So I now have a lengthy concluding chapter that makes my argument. The basic argument will not change at all. I think it is the most comprehensive statement of my views on the subject. I only dealt with the subject partially in the original conclusion. But in the new conclusion I deal exclusively and comprehensively with the question of whether China can rise peacefully.

GT: Is there anything about China's rise that you still feel uncertain about or want to rethink?

Mearsheimer: No. I am quite certain that China cannot rise peacefully. But my argument is based on my theory of international politics, and my theory, like all social science theories, is not always right. So there is some possibility that I will be proved wrong. And I always say let's hope that this is one of those cases where I am proved wrong, because I tell a depressing story. In keeping with the title of my book I tell a tragic story. I hope that I am proved wrong. But I believe I'm sad to say that I will not be proved wrong.

GT: Chinese President Xi Jinping recently proposed that China should take the initiative in its neighborhood policy, and he stressed achieving a win-win situation. How do you interpret this? Does this mean China's rise will enter a new stage?

Mearsheimer: I think that from President Xi's perspective - and I think it would be true for any US president as well - the ideal situation would be a win-win situation. There is no question about that. But the fact is there is no win-win situation. International politics among great powers is basically a zero sum game. When one side wins, the other side loses.

The US is now by far the most powerful state on the planet, and it is also the most powerful state in East Asia. But as China rises and becomes increasingly powerful, it will want to dominate Asia the way the US dominates the Western hemisphere. The US of course will go to great lengths to prevent China from dominating Asia. In other words, there will be an intense security competition between the two countries.

GT: There seems to be increasingly louder voices from Chinese experts that China should adjust its low-profile strategy. Do you agree?

Mearsheimer: I believe the smartest strategy for China is to maintain a low-profile approach to international politics and to have a very soft, very light touch when dealing with its neighbors and any crisis that might arise. It's not in China's interest at this point to pursue a hard-nosed foreign policy. And the reason I say this is that I believe that time is on China's side. It becomes more and more powerful with the passage of time. So what China should do is to wait until it is much more powerful than it is now, and then become more assertive, because it is much more likely to get its way in the future when it is more powerful relative to its neighbors as well as the US. So keeping a low profile in the near future is the smartest strategy for China.

GT: But it's a paradox that the neighbors think China is already assertive and has already changed its low-profile policy.

Mearsheimer: The neighbors have a different incentive structure. The neighbors understand - here I'm talking about countries like the Philippines and Vietnam - that time is on China's side, and therefore from their perspective it makes sense to worry about China now and to cause trouble now, because China is not that powerful and the US is much more powerful than China. If you look at all the crises that have arisen in East Asia over the past 10 years, it is China's neighbors, not China, that have started almost all of them.

China I believe has overreacted in most cases to those provocations, but the provocations were not initiated by China. Other countries in the region initiated those provocations. And that's because those countries understand that now is the time to settle their disputes over, say, the Diaoyu Islands, or the South China Sea, whereas the Chinese understand that this is not the time to provoke a conflict but instead to wait until China is much more powerful than it is today.

So you have a different incentive structure on the part of China's neighbors as compared to China itself.

GT: So when they provoke, China only needs to ignore them?

Mearsheimer: No. China cannot afford to ignore them. China has to make it clear what its position is. But China should go to great lengths, in my opinion, not to use bellicose language or force, but instead use firm language.

China, however, has overreacted to the provocations, and as a result has scared its neighbors and scared the US more than it had to. Nevertheless, there is no way that China can avoid scaring its neighbors and the US as it gets very powerful, just because it will be so big and will have so much military capability. When states look at other states and try to determine how threatening they are, they invariably focus on their capabilities, not their intentions, because you cannot know intentions. Nobody can know what China's intentions will be in the decades ahead. But the mere fact that China is getting increasingly powerful and may someday become even more powerful than the US is naturally going to scare all the neighbors and the US.

GT: But from the Chinese side, many believe China only has economic influence, and its power in other fields like security and politics is quite inadequate. So according to your theory, is that because China is still not powerful enough economically?

Mearsheimer: The Chinese economy has been growing by leaps and bounds since the early 1980s, and the Chinese trajectory appears to be upward.

GT: You don't believe in the "China crash" theory?

Mearsheimer: I'm not sure, but my guess is China will not crash and its economy will continue to grow in impressive ways. And the end result will be that China will become increasingly powerful militarily, because there is a very close relationship between economic and military might. Specifically, you need a powerful economy in order to build a powerful military.

That's why I say the future is with China. China's geostrategic situation will improve because it will become militarily more powerful, in large part because it's going to be economically more powerful.

GT: So along with economic growth and military growth, China will automatically gain discourse power in the international arena?

Mearsheimer: As China grows economically and militarily, it will be able to throw its weight around in international institutions, and in its use of diplomacy. Its diplomacy will be backed up by more military force. That will make its diplomacy much more effective. China's influence in international politics will increase greatly.

But one should remember that the US and China's neighbors will go to great lengths to contain Chinese power, and that will put a limit on how much influence the Chinese have. Nevertheless China is a huge country, and it has tremendous economic potential. If it realizes that potential, it will become an incredibly powerful country both economically and militarily.

GT: But specifically take the COC negotiations. Some Chinese experts say China now needs to actively seek to lead such negotiations and try to make new rules. China currently is only participating in new rules making in this region. In the next decade, can China change its role from participating to leading the process of new rules making in this region?

Mearsheimer: I would make two points. First of all I don't think China should be pushing forward negotiations over the South China Sea at this point in time. China is not powerful enough to get its way. What China should do is wait 20 or 25 years, and then negotiate, because it will be much more powerful at that point, and it will be much easier for Beijing to get a favorable outcome then. So I think what China should delay negotiating, keep the status quo until it is much more powerful, and then, this is my second point, China should take the lead and insist that it gets what it desires in the South China Sea.

GT: Neighbors, especially businessmen, don't seem to prefer single leadership in this region by either China or the US. They are happy to see the two competing with each other and thus can maximize profits from balancing the two sides. How do you see this tendency?

Mearsheimer: Businesspeople have only one goal, that's to make more money. They don't care much about geopolitics. Businesspeople want a peaceful Asia, and they want both the US economy and the Chinese economy to flourish so they can make lots of money. My argument is that there is a geopolitical or geo-strategic logic that is independent of the logic that dominates the business community, and it will profoundly influence international politics in Asia in the future. That geopolitical logic is fundamentally different from how businesspeople think, because it's zero-sum.

GT: So you're saying regional players will need to take sides either with the US or with China?

Mearsheimer: Absolutely. That's what will happen. There will be many countries in Asia that will have a very powerful incentive to side with China for economic reasons, and with the US for security reasons. The question you have to ask yourself is which one will win out. My argument is that security will dominate economics. And the key reason is that survival has to be the principal goal for every state.

Security must take priority over other goals. It's true for China, the US, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore. It is true for every country on the planet. If you don't survive, if you don't provide for your own security, then you cannot pursue any other goals. So I think countries like South Korea, Japan, and Australia, that have a great deal of economic intercourse with China and would like to continue to trade with China will nevertheless in the end be forced to side with the US in a balancing coalition aimed at containing China.

GT: When talking about this question, many Chinese experts are pessimistic. For instance, even Myanmar is interacting actively with the US, and the relationship between China and North Korea seems to be shifting. They often say China doesn't have lots of cards to play in this region. Do you think China will have few allies in the region?

Mearsheimer: Yes. I think that's correct.

GT: So China will become an isolated rising power?

Mearsheimer: China will have a few allies. I think that North Korea will be an ally, as will Laos, Cambodia, and Pakistan. As to Myanmar, I think the US will go to great lengths to transform Myanmar from a Chinese ally to a US ally. We've done that with Indonesia and Malaysia. The US will even go to great lengths to win Pakistan over to our side.

The problem that China faces is that it is physically located in Asia, and it is a direct threat to its neighbors in ways the US is not. It's purely a function of geography. The US has no territorial goals in Asia; nor do we have territorial goals in Europe. That is why the Europeans never feared us either. It's not like the US is going to conquer Belgium or Italy, or South Korea. So the US is not anywhere near as threatening to countries in Asia as China is to them. The US did wage a vicious war against Vietnam from 1965 to 1975, so the US can occasionally be dangerous to countries in Asia, but we are nowhere near as threatening as China is to them, simply because China is physically located in Asia.

So all of China's neighbors have a powerful incentive to look for someone from outside the region to protect them against China, and that's why it's so easy for the US to line up allies in a balancing coalition against China. By the way the same thing was true regarding the Soviet Union during the Cold War - both in Europe and Asia. Eventually even the Chinese allied with the US against the Soviet Union. And the reason is that the Soviet Union was a direct threat to China in ways that the US was not.

GT: Are you saying that in the process of the US rise, geography was a big advantage, because it didn't have to deal with so many neighbors as China does?

Mearsheimer: Absolutely. There is no question that the greatest advantage the US had when it was pursuing regional hegemony in the Western hemisphere between 1783 - when we got our independence - and 1900 - when we finally achieved hegemony - was that there was no other great power in its region.

The European great powers, especially Great Britain, were involved in the Western hemisphere, but they had a huge power projection problem, because they were located on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The US was eventually able to neutralize the British, because we got to be so powerful. So it was much easier for the US to become a regional hegemon than it will be for China in the future.

The other reason it will be difficult for China to dominate Asia is nuclear weapons, which make it very difficult for any country to expand its influence.

GT: But now geography is also interpreted by some as an advantage for China, because currently the US also has a power projection problem in this region. Some are saying that as the US is declining itself, there is no way to keep input into this region the way China does, so the pivot strategy is not sustainable.

Mearsheimer: It all depends on just how powerful China becomes relative to the US. If China has a per capita GNP like South Korea or Japan, I believe the story you tell will be true. The US simply may not be able to contain China; it will be just too big and too powerful. To put this in slightly different terms, one can hypothesize a scenario in which China becomes so powerful economically and militarily that the US cannot contain it and it becomes a regional hegemon. That is unlikely, but it is a real possibility.

It is more likely the Chinese economy will continue to rise but not at such a rapid clip, in which case the US will be in a good position to contain China.

GT: There are already arguments in the US that the pivot strategy has already failed before it's fully developed. What's your view?

Mearsheimer: These arguments are ridiculous. It's too soon to tell whether the pivot strategy is going to work or not. Whether China can rise peacefully is a question that's going to play itself out over the next 20 or 30 years. The fact is there hasn't been much of a pivot in the past year or two, but that does not tell you very much. The important question is what will happen in the next 20 to 30 years. My view is that if China continues to rise, you will be amazed at how many military assets the US will put in Asia.

GT: So do you still hold the view that the two may not necessarily go to war in this region?

Mearsheimer: There is little doubt in my mind that there will be an intense security competition between the US and China. Whether there is a war between the two countries is another matter. I think, to choose my language carefully, there is a reasonable chance that the US and China will end up in a shooting war over the next 30 or 40 years. I don't think it will be a war on the scale of either WWI or WWII. A general war between the US and China is not possible, mainly because of nuclear weapons.

But a limited war over the South China Sea, or Taiwan, or Korea, or the Diaoyu Islands, is definitely possible. I'm not saying it's likely, I'm saying it's possible. We can tell plausible stories about how a war breaks out between the US and China, or how a war breaks out between China and Japan and the US gets dragged in, or how a war breaks out between North Korea and South Korea and China and the US both get dragged in, as happened in 1950. Again, these are not likely scenarios. They are plausible scenarios. The key point to keep in mind is that anytime you have an intense security competition, there is an ever-present possibility of war.

GT: The US faces its own troubles with alliance management. US President Barack Obama's recent absence from several regional meetings was interpreted by some as a sign that the US has too much trouble itself and simply cannot provide so much protection. How do you see this?

Mearsheimer: In recent years the US has a done a poor job in managing its foreign policy. The US has behaved especially foolishly by fighting unnecessary wars with countries like Iraq and becoming deeply embroiled in the politics of Syria and Egypt. I believe America's Asian allies have good reason to worry about whether the US is a reliable ally that will be there for them if there is a conflict with China. The pivot to Asia is in large part an attempt to reassure our allies. It has less to do with China's rise and more to do with signaling to our allies that they can depend on us.

Yet the much more important question is whether or not the US will keep acting in foolish ways as China continues to rise. My view is that if China's rise continues and it becomes more powerful militarily, and therefore more of a threat to its neighbors and the US, American policymakers will focus much more attention on Asia and they will behave in more strategic ways. That means that in the end the US will be there for its Asian allies. But given American behavior over the past 15 years, I fully understand why our friends in Asia worry about our reliability.

GT: Say there is a conflict over the Diaoyu Islands, will Washington really deploy military forces and go into confrontation against China just for the island disputes?

Mearsheimer: If there is a conflict between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, the US will have two conflicting ways of thinking about how to deal with the problem.

First, the US will have a powerful incentive to intervene as an umpire or an arbiter, and do everything it can to get China and Japan to stop fighting, or if they haven't gone to war yet, to prevent them from doing so.

In that case, the US will not side with either Japan or China. Instead, it will try to be a neutral actor that keeps them from fighting or shuts down any fighting that has broken out. That's one set of incentives the US will have. Second, the US will have powerful reasons to side with Japan against China because Japan does not have nuclear weapons and it depends on the US nuclear umbrella for its deterrence. The Japanese constantly worry about whether the US promise to use nuclear weapons to defend them is credible. Thus, US credibility is a huge issue for Japan. So if the US does not side with Japan if Japan gets into a crisis or a shooting war with China, the US-Japan alliance will be badly damaged. Other American allies in the region will worry as well.

In short, the US will face two conflicting sets of incentives if China and japan tangle with each other. I believe in the end we will side with Japan, but it's not clear just how forcefully we will side with Japan, because our incentives to dampen the conflict will be great. Although it's likely we will side with Japan, it's not 100 percent certain, and of course the Japanese understand this, which is why the Japanese over time are likely to think more and more about getting nuclear weapons.

We saw this same phenomenon in the Cold War in both Europe and Asia. In the 1970s, South Korea began to develop nuclear weapons because its leaders felt in the wake of the Vietnam War and the coming of the Nixon doctrine, that the US might not be there to protect them. So did Taiwan. And in Europe, the Germans had similar concerns. Most Americans don't realize this, but in the 1950s and even in the 1960s, Germany gave serious thought to developing its own nuclear weapons, because its leaders had doubts about the reliability of the US promise to use nuclear weapons to defend Germany in the event the Soviet Union was overrunning West Germany.

So this issue of extended deterrence is going to be front and center in the US-Japan relationship, and in some of America's other partnerships in Asia as well. Think about South Korea. As North Korea has nuclear weapons, the South Koreans depend on the US nuclear umbrella. Therefore, if the US does not side with Japan against China in a crisis or actual conflict, South Korea is likely to read that as evidence it cannot depend on the US for deterrence against North Korea and China.

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