By Rongfei Gou Contributing Writer October 7, 2014

Offensive realism, a major school of international relations theories pioneered by John Mearsheimer, consistently argues that states must always assume the worst because they can never have perfect information about the intentions of other states. Offensive realists thus argue that while China may not have the military capability to challenge the status of the United States yet, China will adopt a more offensive grand strategy in the future. The argument continues that, given China’s economic growth and shift in strategy, the United States needs to prepare itself for such a change, which will eventually lead to an inevitable confrontation between the U.S. and China.

Such an offensive realist concern is overblown. China has been contained by its unfriendly neighbor states and Chinese military modernization only focuses on defensive capability to deter its neighbors and internal opponents. Thus, the United States does not need to increase its military presence in East Asia, as China has already been “contained” by neighboring states.

First, China’s geopolitical condition serves as a crucial constraint preventing China from becoming a regional hegemon. Second, the defensive military doctrines of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) focus on defending China’s sovereign territory and maintaining internal stability.

Unlike the United States, which has relatively unthreatening neighbors and two oceans as natural defense lines, China is surrounded by powerful countries. Although the end of the Cold War eliminated the largest land-based threat to China since 1949, Russia retains powerful military capabilities. To its southwest, China still has major territorial disputes on its land border with India. Japan, a strong economic power that invaded China in World War II, is a permanent concern for the Chinese government. China also remains engaged in maritime sovereignty disputes with many of its neighbors in the South China Sea. Internally, the longtime ethnic uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang continue to smolder. Given these threats, it is reasonable for China to maintain a modernized military force to meet its defensive purposes.

Even if China tries to become the regional hegemon in the future, the surrounding countries, such as Japan and India, are likely to work together to stop Beijing’s expansionary tendencies. The rise of China is a more direct threat to neighboring states than it is to the United States. Furthermore, surrounding countries can muster the geopolitical strength to create sufficient deterrent effects on China. For instance, India has enjoyed rapid economic growth since its economic reforms in 1991. Both Russia and India maintain nuclear arsenals. Scholars like Charles Glaser argue that “a major U.S. withdrawal, moreover, would not automatically yield Chinese regional hegemony, because Japan and South Korea might then acquire stronger conventional military capabilities and nuclear capability of their own.”1

One cannot ignore the possibility that China may use “salami-slicing” tactics, or micro-aggression, to divide and conquer its regional adversaries. However, China’s recent overt activities to highlight issues with many of its neighbors do not support this concern. For example, China’s adoption of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” was immediately protested by all surrounding states in the East China Sea. The maritime sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea only increased the collective fear toward China among the Southeast Asian countries. If China truly wishes to use “salami-slicing” tactics, it would be much wiser to deal with each neighbor individually, rather than provoking them altogether as it has done recently.

Writing on Chinese strategy, MIT associate professor Fravel Taylor notes, “China is not pursuing broadly expansionist goals, nor is it investing heavily in forces that are inconsistent with its strategic goals [namely regime security, territorial integrity, national unification, maritime security, and regional stability].”2 Chinese military forces focus on three capabilities: internal control, periphery area denial, and limited regional force projection. The latest research from the U.S. Army War College suggests that the PLA’s “New Historical Mission—a military doctrine created by former president Hu Jintao—emphasizes defending China’s sovereign territory, again demonstrating China’s concern over the possible conflicts with surrounding states.”3

Additionally, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fears any political force that could challenge its rule. Since the Party is unelected, it requires a strong military force to keep it in power. Such fears also manifest in People’s Liberation Army doctrine. In official PLA doctrine, the first principle above all else is that the army must “provide an important guarantee for the Party to consolidate its ruling position.”4 The 1989 Tiananmen Square incident was an obvious demonstration by the CCP to show how it can use the PLA to maintain a ruling position. Such an important mission of the PLA has nothing to do with challenging the United States’ position in the world.

Similarly, the ethnic uprisings and riots in Tibet and Xinjiang require a large military presence. As stated by CCP leaders, “the March 2008 demonstrations and riots [in Tibet] only reinforce the view…that ethnic unrest is a ‘strategic issue.’”5 Therefore, 660,000 troops make up an internal control force to deal with political enemies and uprisings.6 As Xinjiang has experienced an uptick in violence this year, more military personnel and resources have been assigned to bring stability back to the province. Such operations provide evidence that the premier responsibility of the PLA remains to focus on internal stability, rather than on territorial expansion or overseas operations. Thus, while China is in the midst of modernizing its military, there is no clear evidence from PLA doctrine supporting the claim that China will try to challenge the status of the United States in East Asia.

Given the above evidence, offensive realists are probably wrong to posit unavoidable confrontation between the United States and China. Unlike the United States, China is surrounded by powerful neighbors who have direct conflicts or territorial disputes with the country. Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army’s military doctrine was designed to maintain regional deterrence and internal stability.7 Neither of these two missions aims to challenge the broad U.S. military position.

China’s military modernization imposes a more direct threat to its surrounding states than to the United States. For Washington, allowing regional powers in Asia to play more important roles in power-balancing by reducing their dependency on U.S. military support will help to deter China’s possible expansionary moves. Given the economic and military capabilities of China’s neighbors and their bitter relations with Beijing, they are likely to work together to prevent China from becoming the hegemon in East Asia.

1. Glaser, Charles L. “Realism.” In Contemporary Security Study, edited by Collins, Alan. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

2. Fravel, M. Taylor, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International & Strategic Affairs. (2011), 138.

3. Daniel M. Hartnett, “The ‘New Historic Missions’: Reflection on Hu Jintao’s Military Legacy” In Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in Hu Jintao Era (Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2014).

4. Ibid., 40.

5. Fravel, M. Taylor, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea,” 127.

6. Ibid., 130.

7. Chambers, Michael R. “Framing the Problem: China’s Threat Environment and International Obligations.” In Right Sizing the People’s Liberation Army, ed. by Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell. (2007), 19-20.

Rongfei Gou finished his undergraduate study at the College of Saint Benedict and John’s University (CSB/SJU) in 2013 with double majors in Political Science and History. He is currently a master’s student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Before joining the Elliott School, he was an associate at the International Law Institute (ILI) in Washington, DC.