Though offensive realists overestimate the likelihood of Sino-American conflict, the United States must still take steps to guard against a Chinese push for regional hegemony.
Offensive realists such as John Mearsheimer miss the mark with their pessimistic predictions surrounding China’s rise. Offensive realists’ belief that the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be characterized by expansionism and aggression also ignores historical factors that indicate China’s rise can avoid “inevitable” conflict with the United States. Realists are correct, however, that the PRC will eventually challenge U.S. predominance within Asia. China is not contained by neighboring states, nor will it be in the future. Though domestic concerns currently dominate China’s focus, such a focus does not preclude the country from becoming a regional hegemon. Offensive realists’ predictions are overly pessimistic, but the United States should still prepare for a more powerful PRC by taking steps to maintain its influence in the region while avoiding overly provocative moves—especially relating to Taiwan.
Domestic conditions in China directly influence its rise. Critically, the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy rests on two legs: nationalism and continued economic growth. Nationalism within China partially arises from the notion that the country has undergone a century of humiliation, beginning with Western imperialism and extending until the end of China’s civil war. Today, a majority of the public feels that it is China’s time to return to its position as the major power in Asia. For centuries before Western imperialism, China had been the center of a tributary system in which neighboring countries kowtowed to the emperor in exchange for gifts and legitimacy stemming from the leader’s formal recognition.1 Though the tributary system recognized China as the center, the country did not invade its neighbors or even interfere in their domestic matters. The tributary system illustrates, if nothing else, that China’s hegemony in the Asian region does not automatically mean that China will be aggressive or expansionary toward its neighbors. The PRC does not have to invade its neighbors to achieve regional hegemony.
With the exception of Japan, China’s neighbors show no signs of actively balancing against Beijing to curb its rising power. Though neighboring countries in Southeast Asia express concern over whether China’s increased military and economic power will harm their interests, both China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries have gone to extensive lengths to manage their relations. Territorial disputes between China and several ASEAN members do present challenges to China’s relations with its neighbors, but it has so far refrained from using its superior military force to secure its claim. Increasingly, ASEAN foresee China as being a “constructive actor” and “potentially the preeminent regional power” in the future.2 As a result, ASEAN countries would rather socialize China into their regional order than align themselves with the U.S. in an attempt to stop China’s growth.
By contrast, Sino-Japanese relations remain rocky. Historical wounds and the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea lead to frequent political friction between two of Asia’s most powerful countries. Though Japan is the most likely candidate to align itself with the U.S. should it attempt to contain China, it is not certain that Japan would do so. Per Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, Tokyo can only act militarily in its own defense. Article 9 limits Japan’s capacity to work with other states to contain China’s rise. Furthermore, Japan’s relations with its neighboring states, including Russia, also suffer strains from historical wounds and territorial disputes that lessen the likelihood of cooperation with Japan against China.
One of the strongest assertions of offensive realists is that the United States must prepare for a growing China. It is certain that the PRC will continue to gain in economic and military power. Yet it remains unclear whether this rise will result in a conflict between China and the United States. Power Transition Theory, for example, which states that a rising hegemon will come into conflict with the declining hegemon, fails to explain the most recent transition from British to U.S. hegemony.
Even though China and the United States are not on an assured collision course, Taiwan remains the issue most likely to challenge future Sino-American relations. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) strategic focus on ensuring territorial integrity emphasizes China’s determination to prevent Taiwan from unilaterally declaring its independence. The PLA has expanded its military expenditures to build up short and medium range ballistic missiles and other technologies that would prove useful in “punishing” Taiwan for declaring independence. This mix of capabilities also serves to discourage an outside power, namely the United States, from interfering.3 Even with this increase in military expenditures, it will take time for China to compete militarily with the U.S. By focusing on periphery area denial, China presents a challenge to U.S. military actions in the region that Washington would be unwise to ignore.
U.S. involvement with Taiwan creates tensions in Sino-American relations, but the disagreement does not need to end in military conflict. Neither country would benefit from such conflict. China’s economic growth would suffer from any conflict with the United States, and though frictions exist, the Party is “conscious not only of China’s rise, but also of its continued weakness.” While the PRC is not yet able to directly challenge U.S. dominance in the region, it will be able to do so in the future. The historical legacy of China’s position as the center of Asia before Western colonialism, its improved relations with neighboring countries, and increased military expenditures indicate that China is poised to present a challenge to U.S. predominance in Asia. The U.S. should be taking steps to ensure its continued influence in the region while recognizing that China’s neighbors do not want to be forced to choose sides. Countries in East Asia would like to maintain good relations with both the United States and China, so U.S. policy should not attempt to balance against China, but should work to maintain peaceful relations that benefit all parties involved.
1. David C. Kang, “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900,” Asian Security 1:1 (2005): 61.↩
2. Joshua Kurlantzick, “China’s Charm Offensive in Southeast Asia,” Current History 105 (2006): 270.↩
3. Avery Goldstein, “Parsing China’s Rise: International Circumstances and National Attributes,” in China’s Ascent: Power, Secuirty, and the Future of International Politics, ed. Robert S Ross and Zhu Feng (Cornell University Press, 2008): 58.↩
Nicole Golliher graduated from Seattle University in 2014 with a double degree in International Studies and Political Science and a minor in Japanese. She is a first-year student at the Elliott School of International Affairs, studying International Affairs with a concentration in Asia. She also works as a program assistant at the United Nations Association: National Capital Area.
The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, by Wing, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0