Why China Will Not Rise Peacefully

An interview with John Mearsheimer about China's rise and why countries on both sides of the Pacific should be worried.
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February 12, 2014
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The Chinese economy has grown between seven and ten percent a year for the last four decades. Demographic problems, social unrest, or an economic crisis could eventually stifle this growth, but if China does continue to rise, it will not do so peacefully fears John Mearsheimer, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Professor Mearsheimer was invited to speak by the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales (CÉRIUM) at the Université de Montréal. OpenCanada contributor Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay sat down with him there.

Légaré-Tremblay: Why can’t China rise peacefully?

Mearsheimer: Really powerful states like to dominate their region so that there are no threats whatsoever in their own backyard. So, if China does indeed grow more powerful, I believe it will try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. It will try to push the United States as far away as possible from the Asia Pacific region. And it will try to dominate its neighbours. This doesn’t mean that China will try to conquer all of them, but it will be in a position where it “rules the roost.”

At the same time, the United States and China’s neighbours, who don’t want China to become a regional hegemon, will go to great lengths to contain its growth. These conflicting interests will lead to an intense security competition, with a real possibility of war.

There are two other reasons to be pessimistic. One is that China is clearly a revisionist power: it wants Taiwan back; it wants the Diaoyu Islands back; it wants to dominate the South China Sea; it has border disputes with India and Butan… This is a country that has very powerful incentives to use its military might to change the status quo in ways that it sees fit. 

The second reason is Chinese nationalism. The Chinese have a very profound sense of having been victimized by great powers in the past. Japan is especially important in this regard—and the United States, too. This nationalism is directed in important ways at them. So if we are to have a crisis somewhere down the road, that nationalism could fuel the crisis and lead to conflict. 

In the meantime, what is China’s approach regarding those territorial disputes with its neighbors: Taiwan, the Diaoyu islands, the South China Sea, India, and Bhutan?

If you look at almost all of the crises over the past decade that have involved China, almost every one of them has been started by one of China’s neighbours. I think China has overreacted in almost every case to the provocation, but the initial provocation has come from China’s neighbours. I think this is because those neighbours have an incentive to cause trouble and try and resolve particular problems now rather than wait 20 or 30 years, when China will certainly be much more powerful and in a much better position to dictate the terms of a final agreement. 

From China’s point of view, the smart strategy is to wait. This is why I think that the Chinese have been foolish to overreact to these various crises that have popped up over the past decade or so. They would be much better off toning down their rhetoric, appearing to be less bellicose, and wait until they get powerful enough to dictate the terms of any agreement.

In your book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, you write that the risk of war with China will be greater than with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Why?

It was extremely difficult to come to a war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War because the central point of conflict was in the heart of Europe. It’s what we call the Central Front. The Soviets and their allies had huge numbers of armoured divisions, mechanized divisions, and nuclear weapons on their side and the United States and its allies had a similar arsenal on their side. It meant that a conflict in Europe, which was the key focus of the competition, would have been World War 3 with nuclear weapons. And, nobody in his right mind wanted that. It would have been catastrophic. The more horrible the war is going to be, the less likely it is that you will have that war.

The situation in Asia is very different, because the geography is very different. There is no Central Front in Asia. And when we talk about potential conflict situations, we’re talking about a possible war over Taiwan, over the South China Sea, or over small islands in the East China Sea. These would be small wars, not World War 3 with nuclear weapons. This is why it is more likely that they will happen.

What steps would a rising China follow?

What a great power does, first of all, is try to establish hegemony in its region. Once it accomplishes that goal, it begins to move out on the world stage and act like a superpower. The superpower is a great power that has the ability to project military might into other regions of the world, like the United States today.

China today is a great power, but it has very little power projection capability outside of Asia. So what China will try to do first is to establish regional hegemony in Asia, which means getting to the point where it is much more powerful than all of its neighbours and where it has effectively pushed the United States out of Asia. Once it has done that, it will begin to think about projecting power in a serious way all around the globe.

In your book, you mention that the Persian Gulf and the Western Hemisphere will be two regions of a peculiar strategic value to Beijing. Why?

Regarding the Western hemisphere, China has a vested interest in making sure that the United States has to focus on its own backyard. Most Americans never think about the reason why the United States is free to roam all over the world, sticking its nose in everybody’s business. This is because the United States faces virtually no security threats in the Western Hemisphere. Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil – These are not threats to the United States. The United States is thus free to roam into other regions of the world. If the Chinese want this to stop, they have a vested interest in causing trouble in the Western Hemisphere, so that the United States has to focus on its background and is less able to pay attention to Asia.

This is the same reason we have a vested interest in making sure that there are other powers in Asia that can attract the attention of the Chinese, and force the Chinese to pay attention to them, so that Beijing is not free to roam into the Western Hemisphere.

As for the Persian Gulf, this is in large part because China already gets a large amount of oil from that region and will import even more oil from there over time. The Chinese will view that region more and more as a strategically important area. They will also want to have the capability to move that oil from the Gulf back to China.

The United States, of course, is a jealous god, and it does not like the idea of Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf any more than it liked the idea of Soviet influence there. This is why I think there will be a serious security competition between the United States and China involving the Persian Gulf.

Isn’t that already happening with Iran, from which China gets a lot of oil despite U.S. sanctions?

Yes. I think we have seen the beginnings of that rivalry. I also think that up until recently, American policy towards Iran has been remarkably foolish, because what we are doing in effect is driving the Iranians into the arms of the Chinese. If the United States continues to play hardball with the Iranians, they will have a deep-seated interest in trying to find allies, such as the Chinese, who are already looking for allies in the Persian Gulf. There would then be a marriage of interest between Tehran and Beijing and that would not be in America’s interest. This is why the United States should go to great lengths to improve its relations with Iran.

The United States has partly shifted its strategic focus eastward in 2012 by adopting the “Pivot to Asia.” In your opinion, is that a good strategic approach?

First, I think that the principal reason Washington enunciated the pivot to Asia is not because of China. It is because our allies in Asia have come to think that the United States is an unreliable partner. This is especially true with regard to Japan and South Korea. Both of them are very worried about the rise of China and about North Korea. Pyongyang and Beijing have nuclear weapons, but South Korea and Japan do not. They depend on the American nuclear umbrella. People in Seoul and Tokyo pay very careful attention to how America behaves on the world stage and how important American policy-makers seem to think Asia is.

If you are South Korean or Japanese and you look at how the United States has behaved since September 11th, you cannot be very confident in the Americans. They have been obsessed with the Middle East and they have behaved in remarkably foolish ways. So in Japan, in South Korea, and in places like Singapore as well, people are worried about the United States. I think that with the pivot to Asia, we were sending a clear signal to our allies that despite all that’s happened in the Middle East, we will be there for them.

In the meantime, should China be treated as a partner or a rival?

The United States should start to build up a containment strategy and this is what they are doing. By the way, independent of the United States, we can see that China’s neighbours are beginning to come together and co-operate with each other in ways they have not in the past. You would be surprised to see how much military cooperation has developed between India and Japan for instance over the past five years. We can already see the pieces of the balancing coalition moving into place. And I think it is imperative that the United States starts to balance now while being very careful that it does not precipitate a war.

So far, the Obama administration has done very well. It has not overreacted and it has not under reacted. China is still a long way off from having the military might to cause significant trouble in Asia. Therefore the United States does not have to do too much militarily at this point in time. But slowly, steadily, the assets are going to have to be shifted to Asia and the United States is going to have to work to put together an alliance to contain China.

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This interview was conducted under the auspices of the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal (CÉRIUM), of which the interviewer is a fellow.