Can China Rise Peacefully?

If the China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer and competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.

by John J. Mearsheimer, The National Interest  (October 25, 2014)

(Editor’s Note : The following is the new concluding chapter of Dr. John J. Mearsheimer’s book The Tragedy of the Great Power Politics. A new, updated edition was released on April 7 and is available via Amazon.)

With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, the United States emerged as the most powerful state on the planet. Many commentators said we are living in a unipolar world for the first time in history, which is another way of saying America is the only great power in the international system. If that statement is true, it makes little sense to talk about great-power politics, since there is just one great power.

But even if one believes, as I do, that China and Russia are great powers, they are still far weaker than the United States and in no position to challenge it in any meaningful way. Therefore, interactions among the great powers are not going to be nearly as prominent a feature of international politics as they were before 1989, when there were always two or more formidable great powers competing with each other.

To highlight this point, contrast the post–Cold War world with the first ninety years of the twentieth century, when the United States was deeply committed to containing potential peer competitors such as Wilhelmine Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. During that period, the United States fought two world wars and engaged with the Soviet Union in an intense security competition that spanned the globe.

After 1989, however, American policymakers hardly had to worry about fighting against rival great powers, and thus the United States was free to wage wars against minor powers without having to worry much about the actions of the other great powers. Indeed, it has fought six wars since the Cold War ended: Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001–present), Iraq again (2003–11), and Libya (2011). It has also been consumed with fighting terrorists across the globe since September 11, 2001. Not surprisingly, there has been little interest in great-power politics since the Soviet threat withered away.

The rise of China appears to be changing this situation, however, because this development has the potential to fundamentally alter the architecture of the international system. If the Chinese economy continues growing at a brisk clip in the next few decades, the United States will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force. It is still an open question as to whether China’s economy will continue its spectacular rise or even continue growing at a more modest, but still impressive, rate. There are intelligent arguments on both sides of this debate, and it is hard to know who is right.

But if those who are bullish on China are correct, it will almost certainly be the most important geopolitical development of the twenty-first century, for China will be transformed into an enormously powerful country. The attendant question that will concern every maker of foreign policy and student of international politics is a simple but profound one: can China rise peacefully? The aim of this chapter is to answer that question.

To predict the future in Asia, one needs a theory of international politics that explains how rising great powers are likely to act and how the other states in the system will react to them. We must rely on theory because many aspects of the future are unknown; we have few facts about the future. Thomas Hobbes put the point well: “The present only has a being in nature; things past have a being in the memory only, but things to come have no being at all.” Thus, we must use theories to predict what is likely to transpire in world politics.

Offensive realism offers important insights into China’s rise. My argument in a nutshell is that if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The United States, however, will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony. Most of Beijing’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, will join with the United States to contain Chinese power. The result will be an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. In short, China’s rise is unlikely to be tranquil.

It is important to emphasize that my focus is not on how China will behave in the immediate future, but instead on how it will act in the longer term, when it will be far more powerful than it is today. The fact is that present-day China does not possess significant military power; its military forces are inferior to those of the United States. Beijing would be making a huge mistake to pick a fight with the U.S. military nowadays. Contemporary China, in other words, is constrained by the global balance of power, which is clearly stacked in America’s favor. Among other advantages, the United States has many consequential allies around the world, while China has virtually none. But we are not concerned with that situation here. Instead, the focus is on a future world in which the balance of power has shifted sharply against the United States, where China controls much more relative power than it does today, and where China is in roughly the same economic and military league as the United States. In essence, we are talking about a world in which China is much less constrained than it is today.

The remainder of the chapter is organized as follows. The next section contains a brief review of the core elements of my theory, which are laid out in detail in Chapter 2. I then summarize my discussion of America’s drive for hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, which is considered at length in Chapter 7. It is clear from this story that the United States has acted according to the dictates of offensive realism for most of its history. The subsequent section focuses on how an increasingly powerful China is likely to behave. I maintain that it, too, will act according to my theory, which is another way of saying it will effectively emulate the United States. In the next section, I explain why the United States as well as Beijing’s neighbors are likely to form a balancing coalition to contain China. Then I consider the chances that a Sino-American war will break out, making the argument that it is more likely than a war between the superpowers was during the Cold War. In the penultimate section, I attempt to refute the two main counterarguments to my gloomy forecast. Finally, I argue in a brief conclusion that the best reason to think my prognosis may be wrong has to do with the limits of social science theory.


In its simplest form, my theory maintains that the basic structure of the international system forces states concerned about their security to compete with each other for power. The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system. In practical terms, this means that the most powerful states seek to establish hegemony in their region of the world while also ensuring that no rival great power dominates another area.

The theory begins with five assumptions about the world, which are all reasonable approximations of reality. First of all, states are the key actors in international politics, and no higher authority stands above them. There is no ultimate arbiter or leviathan in the system that states can turn to if they get into trouble and need help. This is called an anarchic system, as opposed to a hierarchic one.

The next two assumptions deal with capabilities and intentions, respectively. All states have offensive military capabilities, although some have more than others, indeed sometimes many more than others. Capabilities are reasonably easy to measure because they are largely composed of material objects that can be seen, assessed, and counted.

Intentions are a different matter. States can never be certain about the intentions of other states, because intentions are inside the heads of leaders and thus virtually impossible to see and difficult to measure. In particular, states can never know with complete confidence whether another state might have its gun sights on them for one reason or another. The problem of discerning states’ intentions is especially acute when one ponders their future intentions, since it is almost impossible to know who the leaders of any country will be five or more years from now, much less what they will think about foreign policy.

The theory also assumes that states rank survival as their most important goal. This is not to say it is their only goal, for states invariably have numerous ambitions. However, when push comes to shove, survival trumps all other goals, basically because if a state does not survive, it cannot pursue those other goals. Survival means more than merely maintaining a state’s territorial integrity, although that goal is of fundamental importance; it also means preserving the autonomy of a state’s policymaking process. Finally, states are assumed to be rational actors, which is to say they are reasonably effective at designing strategies that maximize their chances of survival.

These assumptions, when combined, cause states to behave in particular ways. Specifically, in a world where there is some chance—even just a small one—that other states might have malign intentions as well as formidable offensive military capabilities, states tend to fear each other. That fear is compounded by what I call the “9-1-1” problem—the fact that there is no night watchman in an anarchic system whom states can call if trouble comes knocking at their door. Accordingly, they recognize they must look out for their own survival, and the best way to do that is to be especially powerful.

The logic here is straightforward: the more powerful a state is relative to its competitors, the less likely its survival will be at risk. No country in the Western Hemisphere, for example, would dare attack the United States, because it is so much stronger than any of its neighbors. This reasoning drives great powers to look for opportunities to move the balance of power in their favor, as well as to prevent other states from gaining power at their expense. The ultimate aim is to be the hegemon: that is, the only great power in the system.

When people talk about hegemony today, they are usually referring to the United States, which is often described as a global hegemon. However, I do not believe it is possible for any country—including the United States—to achieve global hegemony. One obstacle to world domination is that it is very difficult to conquer and subdue distant great powers, because of the problems associated with projecting and sustaining power over huge distances, especially across enormous bodies of water like the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This problem is less acute when dealing with minor powers, but even so, the power of nationalism makes it extremely difficult to occupy and rule a hostile country. The paramount goal a great power can attain is regional hegemony, which means dominating one’s surrounding neighborhood. The United States, for example, is a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere. Although it is plainly the most powerful state on the planet by far, it is not a global hegemon.

Once a state achieves regional hegemony, it has a further aim: to prevent other great powers from dominating their geographical regions. In other words, no regional hegemon wants a peer competitor. The main reason is that regional hegemons—because they are so dominant in their neighborhood—are free to roam around the globe and interfere in other regions of the world. This situation implies that regional hegemons are likely to try to cause trouble in each other’s backyard. Thus, any state that achieves regional hegemony will want to make sure that no other great power achieves a similar position, freeing that counterpart to roam into its neighborhood.

Most Americans never think about it, but one of the main reasons the United States is able to station military forces all around the globe and intrude in the politics of virtually every region is that it faces no serious threats in the Western Hemisphere. If the United States had dangerous foes in its own backyard, it would be much less capable of roaming into distant regions.

But if a rival state achieves regional dominance, the goal will be to end its hegemony as expeditiously as possible. The reason is simple: it is much more propitious to have two or more great powers in all the other key areas of the world, so that the great powers there will have to worry about each other and thus be less able to interfere in the distant hegemon’s own backyard. In sum, the best way to survive in international anarchy is to be the sole regional hegemon.


The United States is the only regional hegemon in modern history. Five other great powers—Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union—made serious attempts to dominate their respective regions, but they all failed. The United States did not end up dominating the Western Hemisphere in a fit of absentmindedness. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers and their successors consciously and deliberately sought to achieve hegemony in the Americas. In essence, they acted in accordance with the dictates of offensive realism.

When the United States finally gained its independence from Britain in 1783, it was a relatively weak country whose people were largely confined to the Atlantic seaboard. The British and Spanish empires surrounded the new country, and hostile Native American tribes controlled much of the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. It was a dangerous neighborhood for sure.

Over the next seven decades, the Americans responded to this precarious situation by marching across their continent to the Pacific Ocean, creating a huge and powerful country in the process. To realize their so-called Manifest Destiny, they murdered large numbers of Native Americans and stole their land, bought Florida from Spain (1819) and what is now the center of the United States from France (1803). They annexed Texas in 1845 and then went to war with Mexico in 1846, taking what is today the American southwest from their defeated foe. They cut a deal with Britain to gain the Pacific northwest in 1846 and finally, in 1853, acquired additional territory from Mexico with the Gadsden Purchase.

The United States also gave serious thought to conquering Canada throughout much of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Americans invaded Canada in 1812 with that goal in mind. Some of the islands in the Caribbean would probably have become part of the United States had it not been for the fact that numerous slaves were in that area and the northern states did not want more slaveholding states in the Union. The plain truth is that in the nineteenth century the supposedly peace-loving United States compiled a record of territorial aggrandizement that has few parallels in recorded history. It is not surprising that Adolf Hitler frequently referred to America’s westward expansion as a model after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. “Here in the East,” he said, “a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.”

There was another job to be done to achieve regional hegemony: push the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere and keep them out. This goal is what the Monroe Doctrine is all about. The United States was not powerful enough to act on those principles when President James Monroe articulated them in 1823; but by the end of the nineteenth century, the European great powers had become minor players in the Americas. The United States had achieved regional hegemony, which made it a remarkably secure great power.

A great power’s work is not done once it achieves regional hegemony. It must then ensure that no other great power follows suit and dominates its own area of the world. During the twentieth century, four countries had the capability to strive for regional hegemony: Wilhelmine Germany (1890–1918), imperial Japan (1937–45), Nazi Germany (1933–45), and the Soviet Union (1945–90). Not surprisingly, each tried to match what the United States had achieved in the Western Hemisphere in the preceding century.

How did the United States react? In each case, it played a key role in defeating and dismantling those aspiring hegemons.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917, when it looked as if Wilhelmine Germany might win the war and rule Europe. American troops played a critical role in tipping the balance against the Kaiserreich, which collapsed in November 1918. In the early 1940s, President Roosevelt went to great lengths to maneuver the United States into World War II to thwart Japan’s ambitions in Asia and especially Germany’s ambitions in Europe. After entering the war in December 1941, the United States helped to demolish both Axis powers. Since 1945, American policymakers have taken considerable pains to limit the military capabilities of Germany and Japan. Finally, the United States steadfastly worked to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia during the Cold War and then helped relegate it to the scrap heap of history between 1989 and 1991.

Shortly after the Cold War ended, George H. W. Bush’s administration boldly stated in its famous “Defense Guidance” of 1992, which was leaked to the press, that the United States was now the lone superpower in the world and planned to remain in that exalted position. American policymakers, in other words, would not tolerate the emergence of a new peer competitor. That same message was repeated in the equally-famous National Security Strategy issued by George W. Bush’s administration in September 2002. There was much criticism of that document, especially its claims about the value of “preemptive war.” But hardly a word of protest was raised regarding the assertion that the United States should check rising powers and maintain its commanding position in the global balance of power.

The bottom line is that the United States worked hard for over a century to gain hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, and it did so for sound strategic reasons. After achieving regional dominance, it has worked equally hard to keep other great powers from controlling either Asia or Europe.

What does America’s past behavior tell us about the rise of China? In particular, how should we expect China to conduct itself as it grows more powerful? And how should we expect the United States and China’s neighbors to react to a strong China?


If China continues its striking economic growth over the next few decades, it is likely to act in accordance with the logic of offensive realism, which is to say it will attempt to imitate the United States. Specifically, it will try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. It will do so primarily because such domination offers the best way to survive under international anarchy. In addition, China is involved in various territorial disputes and the more powerful it is, the better able it will be to settle those disputes on terms favorable to Beijing.

Furthermore, like the United States, a powerful China is sure to have security interests around the globe, which will prompt it to develop the capability to project military power into regions far beyond Asia. The Persian Gulf will rank high on the new superpower’s list of strategically important areas, but so will the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, China will have a vested interest in creating security problems for the United States in the Western Hemisphere, so as to limit the American military’s freedom to roam into other regions, especially Asia. Let us consider these matters in greater detail.

Chinese Realpolitik

If my theory is correct, China will seek to maximize the power gap with its neighbors, especially larger countries like India, Japan, and Russia. China will want to make sure it is so powerful that no state in Asia has the wherewithal to threaten it. It is unlikely that China will pursue military superiority so that it can go on a rampage and conquer other Asian countries. One major difference between China and the United States is that America started out as a rather small and weak country located along the Atlantic coastline that had to expand westward in order to become a large and powerful state that could dominate the Western Hemisphere. For the United States, conquest and expansion were necessary to establish regional hegemony. China, in contrast, is already a huge country and does not need to conquer more territory to establish itself as a regional hegemon on a par with the United States.

Of course, it is always possible in particular circumstances that Chinese leaders will conclude that it is imperative to attack another country to achieve regional hegemony. It is more likely, however, that China will seek to grow its economy and become so powerful that it can dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries, and make it clear they will pay a substantial price if they do not follow the rules. After all, this is what the United States has done in the Western Hemisphere. For example, in 1962, the Kennedy administration let both Cuba and the Soviet Union know that it would not tolerate nuclear weapons in Cuba. And in 1970, the Nixon administration told those same two countries that building a Soviet naval facility at Cienfuegos was unacceptable. Furthermore, Washington has intervened in the domestic politics of numerous Latin American countries either to prevent the rise of leaders who were perceived to be anti-American or to overthrow them if they had gained power. In short, the United States has wielded a heavy hand in the Western Hemisphere.

A much more powerful China can also be expected to try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region, much as the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. We should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as imperial Japan did in the 1930s. In fact, we are already seeing inklings of that policy. For example, Chinese leaders have made it clear they do not think the United States has a right to interfere in disputes over the maritime boundaries of the South China Sea, a strategically important body of water that Beijing effectively claims as its own.

China also objected in July 2010 when the United States planned to conduct naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which is located between China and the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the U.S. Navy planned to send the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea. Those maneuvers were not directed at China; they were aimed instead at North Korea, which was believed to have sunk a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea. However, vigorous protests from China forced the Obama administration to move the exercises out of the Yellow Sea and farther east into the Sea of Japan. Sounding a lot like President Monroe, a Chinese spokesperson succinctly summed up Beijing’s thinking: “We firmly oppose foreign military vessels or planes entering the Yellow Sea and other waters adjacent to China to engage in activities that would impact on its security and interests.”

More generally, there is considerable evidence that Chinese leaders would like to develop the capability to push the U.S. Navy beyond the “first island chain,” which is usually taken to include the Greater Sunda Islands, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. If this were to happen, China would be able to seal off the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Yellow Sea, and it would be almost impossible for the U.S. Navy to reach Korea in the event of war. There is even talk in China about eventually pushing the U.S. Navy beyond the “second island chain,” which runs from the eastern coast of Japan to Guam and then down to the Moluccan Islands. It would also include the small island groups like the Bonin, Caroline, and Marianas Islands. If the Chinese were successful, Japan and the Philippines would be cut off from American naval support.

These ambitious goals make good strategic sense for China (although this is not to say China will necessarily be able to achieve them). Beijing should want a militarily weak and isolated India, Japan, and Russia as its neighbors, just as the United States prefers a militarily weak Canada and Mexico on its borders. What state in its right mind would want other powerful countries located in its region? All Chinese surely remember what happened over the last century when Japan was powerful and China was weak.

Furthermore, why would a powerful China accept U.S. military forces operating in its backyard? American policymakers object when other great powers send military forces into the Western Hemisphere, because they view those foreign forces as potential threats to American security. The same logic should apply to China. Why would China feel safe with U.S. forces deployed on its doorstep? Following the logic of the Monroe Doctrine, would not China’s security be better served by pushing the American military out of the Asia-Pacific region? All Chinese surely remember what happened in the hundred years between the First Opium War (1839–42) and the end of World War II (1945), when the United States and the European great powers took advantage of a weak China and not only violated its sovereignty but also imposed unfair treaties on it and exploited it economically.

Why should we expect China to act differently than the United States? Are the Chinese more principled than we are? More ethical? Are they less nationalistic? Less concerned about their survival? They are none of these things, of course, which is why China is likely to follow basic realist logic and attempt to become a regional hegemon in Asia.

Although maximizing its prospects of survival is the principal reason China will seek to dominate Asia, there is another reason, related to Beijing’s territorial disputes with some of its neighbors. As Taylor Fravel points out, China has managed to settle most of its border conflicts since 1949—seventeen out of twenty-three—in good part because it has been willing to make some significant concessions to the other side. Nevertheless, China has six outstanding territorial disagreements, and there is little reason—at least at this juncture—to think the involved parties will find a clever diplomatic solution to them.

Probably China’s most important dispute is over Taiwan, which Beijing is deeply committed to making an integral part of China once again. The present government on Taiwan, however, believes it is a sovereign country and has no interest in being reintegrated into China. Taiwanese leaders do not advertise their independence, for fear it will provoke China to invade Taiwan. In addition, China has ongoing disputes with Vietnam over control of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands, which are also located in the South China Sea.

More generally, China maintains that it has sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, a claim disputed not only by its neighbors but by the United States as well. Farther to the north in the East China Sea, Beijing has a bitter feud with Japan over who controls a handful of small islands that Tokyo calls the Senkaku Islands and China labels the Diaoyu Islands.

Finally, China has land border disputes with Bhutan and India. In fact, China and India fought a war over the disputed territory in 1962, and the two sides have engaged in provocative actions on numerous occasions since then. For example, New Delhi maintains there were 400 Chinese incursions into Indian-controlled territory during 2012 alone; and in mid-April 2013, Chinese troops—for the first time since 1986—refused to return to China after they were discovered on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. It appears that China has been stepping up its cross-border raids in recent years in response to increased Indian troop deployments and an accompanying growth in infrastructure.

Given the importance of these territorial disputes to China, coupled with the apparent difficulty of resolving them through the give-and-take of diplomacy, the best way for China to settle them on favorable terms is probably via coercion. Specifically, a China that is much more powerful than any of its neighbors will be in a good position to use military threats to force the other side to accept a deal largely on China’s terms. And if that does not work, China can always unsheathe the sword and go to war to get its way. It seems likely that coercion or the actual use of force is the only plausible way China is going to regain Taiwan. In short, becoming a regional hegemon is the best pathway for China to resolve its various territorial disputes on favorable terms.

It is worth noting that in addition to these territorial disputes, China might become embroiled in conflict with its neighbors over water. The Tibetan Plateau, which is located within China’s borders, is the third-largest repository of freshwater in the world, ranking behind the Arctic and Antarctica. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as the “third pole.” It is also the main source of many of Asia’s great rivers, including the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, the Salween, the Sutlej, the Yangtze, and the Yellow. Most of these rivers flow into neighboring countries, where they have a profound effect on the daily lives of many millions of people.

In recent years, Beijing has shown much interest in rerouting water from these rivers to heavily populated areas in eastern and northern China. Toward that end, China has built canals, dams, irrigation systems, and pipelines. This plan is in its early stages and has yet to change the flow of these rivers in a meaningful fashion. But the potential for trouble is substantial, because the neighboring countries downstream are likely to see a marked reduction in their water supply over time, which could have devastating economic and social consequences. For example, the Chinese are interested in diverting the Brahmaputra River northward into the dying Yellow River. If this happens, it would cause major problems in India and especially in Bangladesh. China is also working to redirect water from the Mekong River, a diversion that is almost certain to cause big problems in Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In its efforts to begin rerouting the rivers flowing out of the Tibetan Plateau, China has acted unilaterally and shown little interest in building international institutions that can help manage the ensuing problems. Given that water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in Asia, this problem is likely to get worse with time and, given the enormous stakes involved, might even lead to war between China and one or more of its neighbors.

In addition to pursuing regional hegemony, a rising China will have strategic interests outside of Asia, just as the United States has important interests beyond the Western Hemisphere. In keeping with the dictates of offensive realism, China will have good reason to interfere in the politics of the Americas so as to cause Washington trouble in its own backyard, thus making it more difficult for the U.S. military to move freely around the world.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union formed a close alliance with Cuba in good part for the purpose of interfering in America’s backyard. In the future, relations between the United States and a country like Brazil will perhaps worsen, creating an opportunity for China to form close ties with Brazil and maybe even station military forces in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, China will have powerful incentives to forge ties with Canada and Mexico and do whatever it can to weaken America’s dominance in North America. Its aim will not be to threaten the American homeland directly, but rather to distract the United States from looking abroad and force it to focus increased attention on its own neighborhood.

This claim may sound implausible at present, but remember that the Soviets tried to put nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, had more than 40,000 troops in Cuba that same year, and also provided Cuba with a wide variety of sophisticated conventional weapons. And do not forget that the United States already has a huge military presence in China’s backyard.

China will obviously want to limit America’s ability to project power elsewhere, in order to improve Beijing’s prospects of achieving regional hegemony in Asia. However, China has other reasons for wanting to pin down the United States as much as possible in the Western Hemisphere. In particular, China has major economic and political interests in Africa, which seem likely to increase in the future. Even more important, China is heavily dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf, and that dependence is apt to grow significantly over time. China, like the United States, is almost certain to treat the Persian Gulf as a vital strategic interest, which means Beijing and Washington will eventually engage in serious security competition in that region, much as the two superpowers did during the Cold War. Creating trouble for the United States in the Western Hemisphere will limit its ability to project power into the Persian Gulf and Africa.

To take this line of analysis a step further, most of the oil that China imports from the Gulf is transported by sea. For all the talk about moving that oil by pipelines and railroads through Myanmar and Pakistan, the fact is that maritime transport is a much easier and cheaper option. However, for Chinese ships to reach the Gulf as well as Africa from China’s major ports along its eastern coast, they have to get from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean, which are separated by various Southeast Asian countries. The only way for Chinese ships to move between these two large bodies of water is to go through three major passages. Specifically, they can go through the Strait of Malacca, which is surrounded by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, or they can go farther south and traverse either the Lombok or the Sunda Strait, each of which cuts through Indonesia and leads into the open waters of the Indian Ocean just to the northwest of Australia.

Chinese ships then have to traverse the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to reach the Persian Gulf. After that, they have to return to China via the same route. Chinese leaders will surely want to control these sea lines of communication, just as the United States emphasizes the importance of controlling its primary sea routes. Thus, it is hardly surprising that there is widespread support in China for building a blue-water navy, which would allow China to project power around the world and control its main sea lines of communication.

In brief, if China continues its rapid economic growth, it will almost certainly become a superpower, which means it will build the power-projection capability necessary to compete with the United States around the globe. The two areas to which it is likely to pay the greatest attention are the Western Hemisphere and the Persian Gulf, although Africa will also be of marked importance to Beijing. In addition, China will undoubtedly try to build military and naval forces that would allow it to reach those distant regions, much the way the United States has pursued sea control.

Why China Cannot Disguise Its Rise

One might argue that, yes, China is sure to attempt to dominate Asia, but there is a clever strategy it can pursue to achieve that end peacefully. Specifically, it should follow Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim that China keep a low profile and avoid becoming embroiled in international conflicts as much as possible. His exact words were “Hide our capacities and bide our time, but also get some things done.” The reason it makes sense for China to bide its time is that if it avoids trouble and merely continues growing economically, it will eventually become so powerful that it can just get its way in Asia. Its hegemony will be a fait accompli. But even if that does not happen and China eventually has to use force or the threat of force to achieve hegemony and resolve its outstanding disputes, it will still be well positioned to push its neighbors and the United States around.

Starting a war now, or even engaging in serious security competition, makes little sense for Beijing. Conflict runs the risk of damaging the Chinese economy; moreover, China’s military would not fare well against the United States and its current allies. It is better for China to wait until its power has increased and it is in a better position to take on the American military. Simply put, time is on China’s side, which means it should pursue a low-key foreign policy so as not to raise suspicion among its neighbors.

In practice, this means China should do whatever it can to signal to the outside world that it has benign intentions and does not plan to build formidable and threatening military forces. In terms of rhetoric, Chinese leaders should constantly emphasize their peaceful intentions and make the case that China can rise peacefully because of its rich Confucian culture. At the same time, they should work hard to keep Chinese officials from using harsh language to describe the United States and other Asian countries, or from making threatening statements toward them.

In terms of actual behavior, China should not initiate any crises with its neighbors or the United States, or add fuel to the fire if another country provokes a crisis with China. For example, Beijing should go out of its way to avoid trouble over sovereignty issues regarding the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It should also do what it can to limit defense spending, so as not to appear threatening, while working to increase economic intercourse with its neighbors as well as the United States. Chinese leaders, according to this logic, should emphasize that it is all to the good that China is growing richer and economic interdependence is on the rise, because those developments will serve as a powerful force for peace. After all, starting a war in a tightly connected and prosperous world is widely believed to be the equivalent of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Finally, China should play an active and cooperative role in as many international institutions as possible and work with the United States to keep the North Korean problem under control.

While this approach is intuitively attractive, it will not work in practice. Indeed, we already have evidence that China cannot successfully employ Deng Xiaoping’s prescribed foreign policy over the long run. Before 2009, Beijing did a good job of keeping a low profile and not generating fear either among its neighbors or in the United States. Since then, however, China has been involved in a number of contentious territorial disputes and is increasingly seen as a serious threat by other countries in Asia.

This deterioration in China’s relations with other countries is due in part to the fact that, no matter what Beijing does to signal good intentions, they cannot be sure what its real intentions are now, let alone in the future. Indeed, we cannot know who will be in charge of Chinese foreign policy in the years ahead, much less what their intentions will be toward other countries in the region or the United States. On top of that, China has serious territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors. Therefore, China’s neighbors already focus mainly on Beijing’s capabilities, which means they look at its rapidly growing economy and increasingly formidable military forces. Not surprisingly, many other countries in Asia will become deeply worried because they know they are probably going to end up living next door to a superpower that might one day have malign intentions toward them.

This problem is exacerbated by the “security dilemma,” which tells us that the measures a state takes to increase its own security usually wind up decreasing the security of other states. When a country adopts a policy or builds weapons that it thinks are defensive in nature, potential rivals invariably think that those steps are offensive in nature. For example, when the United States moves aircraft carriers near the Taiwan Strait—as it did in 1996—or when it redeploys submarines to the western Pacific, American leaders honestly believe those moves are defensive in nature. China, on the other hand, sees them as an offensive strategy of encirclement, not as part of a defensive strategy of containment. Thus, it is not surprising that the Economist reported in 2009, “A retired Chinese admiral likened the American navy to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home.’”

All of this is to say that almost anything China does to improve its military capabilities will be seen in Beijing as defensive in nature, but in Tokyo, Hanoi, and Washington it will appear offensive in nature. That means China’s neighbors are likely to interpret any steps it takes to enhance its military posture as evidence that Beijing not only is bent on acquiring significant offensive capabilities but has offensive intentions as well. And that includes instances where China is merely responding to steps taken by its neighbors or the United States to enhance their fighting power. Such assessments make it almost impossible for Chinese leaders to implement Deng Xiaoping’s clever foreign policy.

In addition, China’s neighbors understand that time is not working in their favor, as the balance of power is shifting against them as well as the United States. They therefore have an incentive to provoke crises over disputed territorial claims now, when China is relatively weak, rather than wait until it becomes a superpower. It seems clear that Beijing has not provoked the recent crises with its neighbors. As Cui Tiankai, one of China’s leading diplomats, puts it, “We never provoked anything. We are still on the path of peaceful development. If you look carefully at what happened in the last couple of years, you will see that others started all the disputes.” He is essentially correct. It is China’s neighbors, not Beijing, that have been initiating most of the trouble in recent years.

Nevertheless, it is mainly China’s response to these crises that has caused its neighbors as well as the United States to view China in a more menacing light than was the case before 2009. Specifically, Chinese leaders have felt compelled to react vigorously and sometimes harshly because the disputes “concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and there is strong public sentiment on these issues.” As Suisheng Zhao notes, since 2008, the Chinese government “has become increasingly reluctant to constrain the expression of popular nationalism and more willing to follow the popular nationalist calls for confrontation against the Western powers and its neighbors.”

This means in practice that Beijing boldly restates its claims and emphasizes not only that there is no room for compromise but that it will fight to defend what it considers to be sovereign Chinese territory. In some cases, the Chinese feel compelled to deploy military or paramilitary forces to make their position crystal clear, as happened in April 2012, when a crisis flared up between China and the Philippines over control of Scarborough Shoal, a small island in the South China Sea. The same kind of intimidating behavior was on display after September 2012, when China and Japan became embroiled in a crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Chinese government has also shown little hesitation in threatening or employing economic sanctions against its rivals. Naturally, such hard-nosed pronouncements and actions raise the temperature and undermine Chinese efforts to pursue a low-profile foreign policy.

Finally, at the most basic level, the United States and almost all of China’s neighbors have powerful incentives to contain its rise, which means they will carefully monitor its growth and move to check it sooner rather than later. Let us look more closely at how the United States and the other countries in Asia are likely to react to China’s ascendancy.


The historical record clearly demonstrates how American policymakers will react if China attempts to dominate Asia. Since becoming a great power, the United States has never tolerated peer competitors. As it demonstrated throughout the twentieth century, it is determined to remain the world’s only regional hegemon. Therefore, the United States will go to great lengths to contain China and do what it can to render it incapable of ruling the roost in Asia. In essence, the United States is likely to behave toward China largely the way it behaved toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

China’s neighbors are certain to fear its rise as well, and they, too, will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. Indeed, there is already substantial evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, as well as smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are looking for ways to contain it. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and eventually China, joined forces with the United States during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union.

Uncle Sam versus the Dragon

China is still far from the point where it has the military capability to make a run at regional hegemony. This is not to deny there are good reasons to worry about potential conflicts breaking out today over issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea; but that is a different matter. The United States obviously has a deep-seated interest in making sure that China does not become a regional hegemon. Of course, this leads to a critically important question: what is America’s best strategy for preventing China from dominating Asia?

The optimal strategy for dealing with a rising China is containment. It calls for the United States to concentrate on keeping Beijing from using its military forces to conquer territory and more generally expand its influence in Asia. Toward that end, American policymakers would seek to form a balancing coalition with as many of China’s neighbors as possible. The ultimate aim would be to build an alliance structure along the lines of NATO, which was a highly effective instrument for containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States would also work to maintain its domination of the world’s oceans, thus making it difficult for China to project power reliably into distant regions like the Persian Gulf and, especially, the Western Hemisphere.

Containment is essentially a defensive strategy, since it does not call for starting wars against China. In fact, containment is an alternative to war against a rising China. Nevertheless, war is always a possibility. There is no reason the United States cannot have substantial economic intercourse with China at the same time it implements a containment strategy. After all, Britain, France, and Russia traded extensively with Wilhelmine Germany in the two decades before World War I, although they had also created the Triple Entente for the purpose of containing Germany. Even so, there will probably be some restrictions on trade for national security reasons. More generally, China and the United States can cooperate on a variety of issues in the context of a containment strategy, but, at root, relations between the two countries will be competitive.

Given its rich history as an offshore balancer, the ideal strategy for the United States would be to stay in the background as much as possible and let China’s neighbors assume most of the burden of containing China. In essence, America would buck-pass to the countries located in Asia that fear China. But that is not going to happen, for two reasons. Most important, China’s neighbors will not be powerful enough by themselves to check China. The United States will therefore have little choice but to lead the effort against China and focus much of its formidable power on that goal. Furthermore, great distances separate many of the countries in Asia that will be part of the balancing coalition against China—think of India, Japan, and Vietnam. Thus, Washington will be needed to coordinate their efforts and fashion an effective alliance system. Of course, the United States was in a similar situation during the Cold War, when it had no choice but to assume the burden of containing the Soviet Union in Europe as well as in Northeast Asia. In essence, offshore balancers must come onshore when the local powers cannot contain the potential hegemon by themselves.

There are three alternative strategies to containment. The first two aim at thwarting China’s rise either by launching a preventive war or by pursuing policies aimed at slowing Chinese economic growth. Neither strategy, however, is a viable option for the United States. The third alternative, rollback, is a feasible strategy, but the payoff would be minimal.

Preventive war is an unworkable option simply because China has a nuclear deterrent. The United States is not going to launch a devastating strike against the homeland of a country that can retaliate against it or its allies with nuclear weapons. But even if China did not have nuclear weapons, it would still be hard to imagine any American president launching a preventive war. The United States is certainly not going to invade China, which has a huge army; and crippling China with massive air strikes would almost certainly require the use of nuclear weapons. That would mean turning China into a “smoking, radiating ruin,” to borrow a phrase from the Cold War that captures how the U.S. Air Force intended to deal with the Soviet Union in the event of a shooting war. The nuclear fallout alone from such an attack makes it a nonstarter. Furthermore, it is hard to know for sure whether China will continue its rapid rise, and thus whether it will eventually be a threat to dominate Asia. That uncertainty about the future also cuts against preventive war.

Slowing down Chinese economic growth is certainly a more attractive option than nuclear war, but it, too, is not feasible. The main problem is that there is no practical way of slowing the Chinese economy without also damaging the American economy. One might argue that the Chinese economy would suffer greater damage, thus improving America’s relative power position vis-à-vis China at the same time Chinese growth was slackening. But that is likely to happen only if the United States can find new trading partners and China cannot. Both conditions are necessary.

Unfortunately, many countries around the world would be eager to increase their economic intercourse with China, thus filling the vacuum created by Washington’s efforts to cut back its trade with and investment in China. For example, the countries in Europe, which would not be seriously threatened by China, would be prime candidates to take America’s place and continue fueling Chinese economic growth. In short, because China cannot be isolated economically, the United States cannot slow its economic growth in any meaningful way.

Britain actually faced the same problem with a rising Germany before World War I. It was widely recognized in the British establishment that Germany’s economy was growing at a more rapid pace than Britain’s, which meant the balance of power between the two countries was shifting in Germany’s favor. A fierce debate ensued about whether Britain should try to slow German economic growth by sharply curtailing economic intercourse between the two countries. British policymakers concluded that this policy would hurt Britain more than Germany, in large part because Germany could turn to other countries that would take the exports it sent to Britain, as well as provide most of the imports Germany received from Britain. At the same time, the British economy would be badly hurt by the loss of imports from Germany, which would be hard to replace. So, Britain continued to trade with Germany—even though Germany gained power at Britain’s expense—simply because it was the least-bad alternative.

The third alternative strategy to containment is rollback, in which the United States would seek to weaken China by toppling regimes that are friendly to Beijing and perhaps even by fomenting trouble inside China. For example, if Pakistan is firmly in China’s camp, which is certainly possible in the future, Washington could seek to help bring about regime change in Islamabad and help put in place a pro-American leader. Or the United States might attempt to stir up unrest inside China by supporting irredentist groups in Xinjiang or Tibet.

Although the United States mainly pursued a containment strategy against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, we now know that it engaged in elements of rollback as well. Not only did it try to foment unrest inside the Soviet Union during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it also tried to overthrow numerous government leaders around the world who were perceived to be pro-Soviet. In fact, Washington launched several covert operations targeting China directly in the 1950s and 1960s. These efforts at rollback had only a small effect on the balance of power between the two superpowers and did little to hasten the demise of the Soviet Union. Still, American leaders pursued rollback where and when they could, and there is little reason to think future policymakers in Washington will eschew this policy against a powerful China. However, containment will be America’s most effective strategy by far.

There is a small possibility China will eventually become so powerful that the United States will not be able to contain it and prevent it from dominating Asia, even if the American military remains forward deployed in that region. China might someday have far more latent power than any of the four potential hegemons the United States confronted in the twentieth century. In terms of both population size and wealth—the building blocks of military power—neither Wilhelmine Germany, nor imperial Japan, nor Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union came close to matching the United States. Given that China now has more than four times as many people as the United States and is projected to have more than three times as many in 2050, Beijing would enjoy a significant advantage in latent power if it had a per capita GNI (gross national income) equivalent to that of either Hong Kong or South Korea.

All that latent power would allow China to gain a decisive military advantage over its principal rivals in Asia, especially when you consider that China would be operating in its backyard, while the Unites States would be operating more than 6,000 miles from California. In that circumstance, it is difficult to see how the United States could prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon. Moreover, China would probably be the more formidable superpower in the ensuing global competition with the United States.

But even if China’s GNI does not rise to those levels, and it ends up with not quite as much latent power as the United States, it would still be in a good position to make a run at hegemony in Asia. All of this tells us the United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead. That outcome might not be good for American prosperity, much less for global prosperity, but it would be good for American security, which is what matters most.

What Will the Neighbors Do?

Regarding China’s neighbors, the key question is whether they will join forces with the United States and balance against China, or bandwagon with a rising China. Some observers might argue that there is a third option, which is to sit on the sidelines and remain neutral. It will not be possible, however, for countries in Asia to sit this one out. Almost every state will have to choose sides, not just because Beijing and Washington will put enormous pressure on them to choose their side, but also because most of those states—which are much weaker than either China or the United States—will reasonably want to have a powerful protector in the event their security is threatened.

Given the survival imperative, most of China’s neighbors will opt to balance against it, much the way most of the countries in Northeast Asia and Europe that were free to choose in the Cold War opted to join with the United States against the Soviet Union. The reason is simple: China poses a more serious threat to most countries in Asia than the United States does, and states invariably balance against their most dangerous foe, not bandwagon with it. China is more threatening for largely geographical reasons. Specifically, China is a local power in Asia; it sits either right next door or within easy striking distance of the countries in its neighborhood. The same was true of the Soviet Union during the Cold War; it was a direct threat to conquer West Germany and Japan, among other countries in Europe and Northeast Asia.

The United States, on the other hand, is much less threatening to China’s neighbors. Although America is obviously the most powerful player in the Asia-Pacific region and will remain so for some time, it is a distant great power that has never had substantial territorial designs in either Asia or Europe. The main reason is that it is too far away to engage in conquest in those regions. The United States has to project its power over huge distances as well as two massive bodies of water—the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans—just to reach those strategically important regions. Thus, there is little danger of being swallowed up or dominated by the United States, as there was with the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1990, and will be with China as it grows more powerful.

None of this is to deny that the United States has used military force against various countries in Asia and Europe. After all, it fought two major wars in Asia (Korea and Vietnam) during the Cold War. The key point, however, is that the American military did not threaten to conquer and subjugate those countries, as a potent China might do.

Another dimension of America’s position in Asia highlights why it is less threatening than China’s. As a distant great power, the United States has the option of greatly reducing its military presence in that region, and it could conceivably bring all of its troops home. China obviously does not have that option. In fact, the greatest fear China’s neighbors have regarding the United States is that it will not be there for them in a crisis, not that the American military might attack and vanquish them. This is the main reason why the Obama administration announced in the fall of 2011 that the United States would “pivot to Asia,” which is a pithy way of saying it would actually increase its presence in the region. Washington was trying to reassure its Asian allies that, despite its focus on the greater Middle East and the closely related war on terror in the decade after September 11, they could still depend on the United States to guard their backs.

One might argue that China has an ace in the hole that will allow it to force at least some of its neighbors not to balance with the United States and instead bandwagon with Beijing. A number of Asian countries, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, trade extensively with China and heavily invest there as well. Thus, their prosperity is dependent on their maintaining good relations with China. This situation, so the argument goes, gives China significant economic leverage over those trading partners, which means that if they join an American-led balancing coalition, Beijing can threaten to cut economic ties and undermine their prosperity. Indeed, it should be able to use that economic leverage to coerce those countries into joining forces with China.

It is important to emphasize that in this story the Chinese economy is not seriously hurt if economic intercourse with one or more of these neighbors is curtailed or even halted. In other words, this is not a case of mutual vulnerability, which is what underpins the theory of economic interdependence, a subject I deal with below. Here there is one-way vulnerability, which is what gives Beijing the capability to blackmail its neighbors and thus undermine or at least seriously weaken any anti-China balancing coalition the United States might try to organize.

In essence, this is a situation in which economic and political-military considerations are in conflict; that raises an important question: which factor will ultimately prevail? My argument is that security considerations almost always trump economic considerations and that states opt for balancing over bandwagoning whenever they must choose between those strategies. The underlying logic of my position should be clear by now. Countries balance against powerful rivals because it is the best way to maximize their prospects of survival, which must be their highest goal. Bandwagoning with a more powerful state, in contrast, lessens the bandwagoner’s prospects for survival, because the more formidable state is free to become even more powerful and thus more dangerous.

The economic-coercion argument, however, has a different logic; it stresses prosperity over survival. The core claim is that a state with significant market power can seriously hurt the economy of the target state, and that the threat of economic punishment will be enough to coerce the vulnerable country into bandwagoning with the more powerful state. There is no question that severe economic pain is a scary prospect, but not surviving looms as an even greater peril. Survival, in other words, is a more powerful imperative than prosperity, which is why realist logic usually trumps arguments based on economic coercion, and why China’s neighbors will balance against it.

Indeed, there is already considerable evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, along with smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are beginning to look for ways to contain it. India and Japan, for example, signed a “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation” in October 2008, mainly because they are worried about China’s growing power. India and the United States, which had testy relations throughout the Cold War, have become good friends over the past decade, in large part because both fear China. In July 2010, the Obama administration, which is populated with individuals who preach to the world about the importance of human rights, announced that it was resuming relations with Indonesia’s elite special forces, despite their rich history of human rights abuses. The reason for this shift is that Washington wants Indonesia on its side as China grows more powerful, and, as the New York Times reported, Indonesian officials “dropped hints that the group might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban remained.”

Singapore, which sits astride the critically important Strait of Malacca and worries about China’s growing power, badly wants to improve its already close ties with the United States. Toward that end, it built a deepwater pier at its Changi Naval Base so that the U.S. Navy could operate an aircraft carrier out of Singapore if the need arose. And the decision by Japan in mid-2010 to allow the U.S. Marines to remain on Okinawa was driven in part by Tokyo’s concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the region and the related need to keep the American security umbrella firmly in place over Japan. As China becomes more powerful, relations among China’s neighbors will grow even closer, as will their relations with the United States.

Finally, a word about Taiwan’s future is in order. Given Taiwan’s importance for controlling the sea-lanes in East Asia, the United States has a powerful incentive to prevent China from seizing it. Moreover, American policymakers care greatly about credibility and reputation, which makes it even less likely that the United States would abandon Taiwan. This is not to deny that China might eventually become so powerful that the U.S. military cannot defend that island. In the meantime, however, Taiwan is likely to be part of an American-led balancing coalition aimed at China, which will surely infuriate Chinese of all persuasions and intensify the security competition between Beijing and Washington.

In sum, my theory says if China continues its striking economic growth over the next few decades, it is likely to end up in an intense security competition with the United States and its neighbors. I have said much about the specific policies we would expect the relevant actors to pursue. For example, we should expect to see China articulate its own version of the Monroe Doctrine and seek to push the U.S. military out of the Asia-Pacific region. And we should expect most of China’s neighbors to join an American-led balancing coalition aimed at checking Beijing.

But more must be said about what a security competition between China and the United States would look like. In particular, we need to know what indicators to keep an eye on in the years ahead to determine whether my prediction is proved correct.

What Would Security Competition Look Like?

If a Sino-American security competition developed, it would have twelve main ingredients. To begin with, there would be crises, which are major disputes between the two sides in which there is a serious threat that war will break out. Crises might not occur frequently, but it would be surprising if there were none over long stretches of time. Arms races would be another central feature of the rivalry. Both superpowers, as well as China’s neighbors, would expend significant amounts of money on defense in order to gain an advantage over the other side and prevent it from gaining an advantage over them.

We should expect to see proxy wars, in which Chinese and American allies fight each other, backed by their respective patrons. Beijing and Washington are also likely to be on the lookout for opportunities to overthrow regimes around the world that are friendly to the other side. Most of those efforts would be covert, although some would be overt. We should also see evidence of each side’s pursuing a bait-and-bleed strategy when there is an opportunity to lure the other side into a costly and foolish war. And in cases where there is no baiting, but the other side nevertheless finds itself in a protracted war, we would expect to see its rival pursue a bloodletting strategy, in which it seeks to prolong the conflict as much as possible.

Moving away from the battlefield, we would find abundant evidence of government officials in Beijing and Washington identifying the other side as their number one threat. Public and classified documents outlining military strategy would clearly depict the other country as a dangerous adversary that needs to be countered. Furthermore, American and Chinese think tanks that deal with national security issues would devote a large portion of their attention to scrutinizing the rival superpower and portraying it as a formidable and threatening adversary. Of course, some people in both countries will reject this confrontational approach and instead recommend deep-seated cooperation with the other side, perhaps even including appeasement of the adversary on certain issues. Over time, we would expect these individuals to be marginalized in the discourse and policy debates.

Beijing and Washington can also be expected to put travel restrictions on visitors from their rival, as the Soviet Union and the United States did during the Cold War. We would, furthermore, anticipate seeing the United States bar Chinese students from studying subjects at American universities that have direct relevance for the development of weapons and other technologies that might affect the balance of power between the two countries. In related moves, both countries would surely place selected export controls on goods and services that have a significant national security dimension. The likely model here for the United States is CoCom, which it established during the Cold War to limit the transfer of sensitive technologies to the Soviet Union.

None of this is to deny the likelihood of substantial economic intercourse between China and the United States in the midst of their security competition. Nor is it to deny that the two superpowers will cooperate on a handful of issues. The key point, however, is that the relationship between the two countries will be conflictual at its root and that the struggle between them will manifest itself in the ways described above. Of course, my argument is not just that there will be an intense security competition but that there will also be a serious chance of war between China and the United States. Let us consider in more detail the possibility that China’s rise will lead to a shooting war.


The United States and the Soviet Union fortunately never came to blows during the Cold War, although both countries fought wars against smaller states, some of which were allied with their rival. The fact that both sides had large nuclear arsenals is probably the key reason the superpowers never fought against each other. Nuclear weapons, after all, are a major force for peace simply because they are weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of their use are so horrible that it makes policymakers extremely cautious if they think there is even a small chance they might be used in a conflict.

Given the history of the Cold War and given that China and the United States both have nuclear arsenals, one might surmise there is little chance those two countries will shoot at each other in the foreseeable future. That conclusion would be wrong, however. Although the presence of nuclear weapons certainly creates powerful incentives to avoid a major war, a future Sino-American competition in Asia will take place in a setting that is more conducive to war than was Europe during the Cold War. In particular, both geography and the distribution of power differ in ways that make war between China and the United States more likely than it was between the superpowers from 1945 to 1990.

Of course, one cannot predict the likelihood of a Sino-American war with a high degree of certainty, but one can make informed estimates.

The Geography of Asia

Although the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States spanned the globe, its center of gravity was on the European continent, where massive armies and air forces equipped with nuclear weapons faced off against each other. Both superpowers cared greatly about two other regions, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, but they cared the most about the balance of power in Europe. Indeed, the core of American and Soviet military power was located near what was called the Central Front, in the heart of Europe. Not surprisingly, when the Pentagon ran war games simulating a major superpower conflict, Europe was the centerpiece of the fight.

In the thirty years prior to the Cold War, Europe was a remarkably deadly region; in fact, both the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia before 1917) fought on the same side in World War I as well as in World War II. Nevertheless, there was no war in Europe after 1945, and although there were a handful of crises over Berlin, they did not escalate to the use of force. The main reason is that a war in the center of Europe would probably have turned into World War III with nuclear weapons, because there was a serious prospect of inadvertent, if not purposeful, escalation to the nuclear level. No policymaker on either side was willing to countenance a conflict in which his or her country stood a reasonable chance of being annihilated. This terrifying prospect explains not only why Europe was so stable during the Cold War but also why the American and Soviet militaries never clashed with each other.

The geography of Asia is fundamentally different from that of Europe in the Cold War. Most important, there is no equivalent of the Central Front in Asia to anchor stability, as China grows more powerful. Instead, Asia has a number of places where fighting might break out, but where the magnitude of any individual war would be nowhere near as great as it would have been in Europe between 1945 and 1990. This is due in large part to the fact that the likelihood of nuclear escalation in these potential conflicts is much smaller than it was in Europe during the Cold War. First of all, there were thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, and they formed an integral part of NATO declaratory policy and military doctrine throughout the Cold War. Furthermore, 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. Nuclear weapons are unlikely to play anywhere near as prominent a role in Asia’s potential trouble spots. In effect, this means that the costs of all the likely wars in Asia will be significantly less than what would have been the costs of a war in the heart of Europe during the Cold War. Given that the likelihood of war increases as the potential costs decrease, this makes a Sino-American conflict more likely than was a Soviet-American war.

One might argue that the risk of war is still low because the stakes in these potential Asian wars are rather small, thereby giving China and the United States little incentive to fight with each other. But, as discussed above, the stakes in a Sino-American security competition are enormous. China’s security would be greatly enhanced if it drove the American military out of Asia and established regional hegemony, while the United States has a deep interest in maintaining its present position in Asia. Therefore, both parties will be sensitive to reputational concerns in virtually every crisis and unwilling to back down.

In essence, leaders will tend to think that even though the prospective wars in Asia might be small-scale compared with a war on the Central Front, all those conflicts are nevertheless closely linked to one another, and thus it is imperative not to let the other side prevail in any crisis. At the same time, both parties will be prone to see the costs of using force as relatively low. This situation is not conducive to stability and peace in the region.

Consider the Korean Peninsula, which is probably the only place where China and the United States might conceivably end up fighting a major conventional land war. The odds of such a conflict are low, but it is more likely than was a war between the superpowers in Europe. For one thing, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios where South and North Korea become involved in a war, and both China and the United States—which has about 19,000 troops stationed in South Korea—get dragged into the fight. After all, that is what happened in 1950; Chinese and American forces then fought against each other for almost three years. Furthermore, the scale of the war would be less in a future Korean conflict than it would have been in a NATO–Warsaw Pact conflict; that makes war in Asia more thinkable.

In addition to Korea, one can imagine China and the United States fighting over control of Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the sea lines of communication that run between China and the Persian Gulf. The costs associated with these potential conflicts (as with the one in Korea) would be nowhere near as great as the costs of a superpower war in the heart of Europe would have been during the Cold War. Furthermore, because a number of the possible conflict scenarios involve fighting at sea—where the risks of nuclear escalation are lower—it is easier to imagine war breaking out between China and the United States than between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It is also worth noting that no territorial dispute between the superpowers—Berlin included—was as laden with intense nationalistic feelings as Taiwan is for China. Thus, it is not hard to imagine a war erupting over Taiwan, though the odds of that happening are not high.

A final point about nuclear weapons is in order. The preceding discussion emphasized that war is more likely in Asia than it was in Europe during the Cold War, in part because of the reduced risk of escalation to the nuclear level. Nevertheless, there will always be some chance of inadvertent nuclear use in a future Asian war, and that possibility will work to buttress stability in a crisis. In other words, one should not think that nuclear weapons would have hardly any deterrent effect in Asia. Indeed, the mere presence of those weapons in the arsenals of the key countries in the region will have a significant impact on how the relevant leaders will think and act in a future crisis. Still, the likelihood of escalation, and even the consequences, will be much lower than would have been the case in a NATO–Warsaw Pact conflict, thus making a future conventional war involving China and the United States a more serious possibility.

Polarity and War

The second reason Asia is likely to be more war-prone than Europe was during the Cold War has to do with the different distribution of power between the two cases. Bipolarity prevailed in Europe, where the Soviet Union ruled the eastern half of the continent and the United States dominated the western half. One might think Asia is likely to be bipolar if China continues its rise, with the Americans on one side and the Chinese on the other. But this is unlikely, because there will be other great powers in Asia. Russia already qualifies as one, and if Japan gets nuclear weapons, it will as well. India, which now has a nuclear arsenal, is not far from the point where it will be considered a great power. All of this is to say that Asia will be a multipolar system. Indeed, it will be an unbalanced multipolar system, because China is likely to be much more powerful than all the other Asian great powers, and thus qualify as a potential hegemon.

War is more likely in multipolarity than in bipolarity, in part because there are more great powers in multipolar systems and therefore more opportunities for great powers to fight with each other as well as with smaller countries. In addition, imbalances of power are more common in multipolarity, because the greater number of countries in multipolarity increases the chances that the underpinnings of military power will be distributed unevenly among them. And when you have power asymmetries, the strong are hard to deter when they are bent on aggression. Finally, there is greater potential for miscalculation in multipolarity, in terms of assessing both the resolve of opponents and the strength of rival coalitions. This is due in good part to the more fluid nature of international politics in a multipolar world, where there are shifting coalitions and significant potential for states to buck-pass to each other.

To make matters worse, unbalanced multipolarity is the most dangerous distribution of power, because it contains a potential hegemon, which not only has markedly more power than any other state in the region but also has strong incentives to use the sword to gain hegemony. A potential hegemon can, moreover, elevate the level of fear among its rivals, which sometimes causes them to pursue risky strategies that might lead to war.

In short, the bipolarity of the Cold War was a more peaceful architecture of power than the unbalanced multipolarity that lies ahead if China’s economy continues to grow rapidly. In addition, the geography of the Central Front was more conducive to peace than is the geography of Asia. These two considerations taken together do not mean that a Sino-American war is sure to happen, but they do tell us it is more likely than was a Soviet-American war between 1945 and 1990.

Communism and Nationalism

One might counter this pessimistic assessment by arguing there was an ideological dimension to the Cold War that made it especially dangerous—communism versus liberal capitalism—which will be absent from the growing rivalry between China and the United States. For example, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, says, “Unlike U.S.– Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.”

Ideology of any sort, of course, falls outside the scope of my realist theory of international politics. Nevertheless, the subject merits some discussion because ideology doubtless played a role in fueling the Cold War, although a subsidiary one. The conflict was driven mainly by strategic considerations related to the balance of power, which were reinforced by the stark ideological differences between the superpowers. Furthermore, it seems clear that this potent ideological cleavage will not matter much in shaping future relations between Beijing and Washington. After all, China is now hooked on capitalism, and communism holds little attraction inside or outside of China. So this development appears to point toward a Sino-American security competition that will be less fearsome than the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

That is the good news. The bad news, however, is that a different ideology—nationalism—is likely to play a role in energizing the rivalry between China and the United States, as well as between China and its neighbors. Nationalism, which is the most powerful political ideology on the planet, holds that the modern world is divided into a multitude of distinct social groups called nations, each desiring its own state. This is not to say every nation gets its own state or to deny that many states have more than one nation living within their borders.

The members of each nation have a strong sense of group loyalty, so powerful, in fact, that allegiance to the nation usually overrides all other forms of identity. Most members typically believe they belong to an exclusive community that has a rich history dominated by remarkable individuals and salient events, which can be triumphs as well as failures. But people do not simply take pride in their own nation; they also compare it with other nations, especially those they frequently interact with and know well. Chauvinism usually emerges as most people come to believe that their nation is superior to others and deserves special recognition. This sense of specialness sometimes leads nations to conclude that they are the “chosen” people, a perspective that has a rich tradition in both China and the United States, among other countries.

Nations at times go beyond feeling superior to other nations and wind up loathing them as well. I call this phenomenon “hypernationalism,” which is the belief that other nations are not just inferior but are dangerous, and must be dealt with harshly, if not brutally. In such circumstances, contempt and hatred of the “other” suffuses the nation and creates powerful incentives to use violence to eliminate the threat. Hypernationalism, in other words, can be a potent source of war.

One of the main causes of hypernationalism is intense security competition, which tends to cause people in the relevant nation-states to demonize each other. Sometimes leaders use hypernationalism as part of a threat-inflation strategy designed to make their publics aware of a danger they might otherwise not fully appreciate. In other cases, hypernationalism bubbles up from below, mainly because the basic nastiness that accompanies security competition often causes the average citizen in one nation-state to despise almost everything about the rival nation-state. A major crisis can readily add fuel to the fire.

Contemporary China is ripe for hypernationalism. In the years between Mao’s decisive victory over the Kuomintang in 1949 and his death in 1976, communism and nationalism were powerful forces that worked hand in hand to shape almost every aspect of daily life in China. However, after Mao’s passing, and certainly after the military crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, communism lost much of its legitimacy with the Chinese public. In response, China’s leaders have come to rely much more heavily on nationalism to maintain public support for the regime.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that nationalism is merely propaganda purveyed by the leadership for the purpose of sustaining the public’s allegiance to the state. In fact, many Chinese citizens passionately embrace nationalist ideas of their own volition. “The 1990s,” as Peter Gries notes, “witnessed the emergence of a genuinely popular nationalism in China that should not be conflated with state or official nationalism.” What makes nationalism in contemporary China such a potent force is that it is both a top-down and a bottom-up phenomenon.

Not only has nationalism become a stronger force in China in recent years, its content has also changed in important ways. During Mao’s rule, it emphasized the strengths of the Chinese people in the face of great adversity. They were portrayed as heroic fighters who had stood up to and ultimately defeated imperial Japan. Gries explains, “This ‘heroic’ or ‘victor’ national narrative first served the requirements of Communist revolutionaries seeking to mobilize popular support in the 1930s and 1940s, and later served the nation-building goals of the People’s Republic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. . . . New China needed heroes.”

That proud narrative, however, has largely been abandoned over the past twenty-five years, replaced by one that represents China as a victim of aggression by the world’s other great powers. In particular, great emphasis is placed on what the Chinese refer to as their “century of national humiliation,” which runs from the First Opium War (1839–42) until the end of World War II in 1945. China is depicted during that period as a weak but noble country that was preyed upon by rapacious great powers and suffered deeply as a consequence. Among the foreign devils are Japan and the United States, which are said to have taken advantage of China at almost every turn.

The theme of China as a helpless victim is not the only strand of Chinese nationalist thought. There are a number of positive stories as well. For example, Chinese of all persuasions take great pride in emphasizing the superiority of Confucian culture. Nevertheless, pride of place in Chinese present-day nationalist thought belongs to narratives that emphasize the “century of nationalist humiliation,” which, as Gries notes, “frame the ways that Chinese interact with the West today.” Indeed, “for China’s military, avenging humiliation remains a key goal.”

We have already seen evidence of how China’s lingering anger and resentment toward Japan and the United States can exacerbate a crisis and seriously damage relations between them. The accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war was seen by most Chinese as just another example of a powerful country taking advantage of and humiliating China. It generated large protests and outrage against the United States in China. The Chinese reacted similarly in 2001, when an American spy plane collided with and downed a Chinese military aircraft over the South China Sea. And skirmishing between China and Japan over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2012–13 ignited a firestorm of anti-Japanese protests across China, some of which were violent.

The intensified security competition that lies ahead will only increase China’s hostility toward Japan and the United States, and it is likely to turn into an acute case of hypernationalism. Of course, this development will, in turn, further intensify the security competition and heighten the possibility of war. In essence, ideology will matter in Asia in the future just as it mattered during the Cold War. But the content will be different, as hypernationalism in China, and possibly other Asian countries as well, will replace the dispute between communism and liberal capitalism. That said, the main driving force behind Sino-American relations in the decades ahead will be realist logic, not ideology.


There are various counterarguments to my claim that China cannot rise peacefully. Indeed, one frequently hears two optimistic stories about the future relationship between China and the United States. The first is based on a cultural theory. Proponents claim that China’s Confucian culture will allow a rapidly growing China to avoid an intense security competition with its neighbors as well as with the United States. The other argument is based on the familiar liberal theory of economic interdependence. Specifically, conflict is said to be unlikely because the major countries in Asia—as well as the United States—are economically intertwined, which means that if they fought with each other they would threaten the prosperity that is so important to all of them. On close inspection, however, neither of these theories provides a sound basis for avoiding trouble ahead in Asia.

Confucian Pacifism

An especially popular claim among Chinese is that their country can rise peacefully because it has a deeply Confucian culture. Confucianism, they argue, not only promotes moral virtue and harmony but also explicitly rules out acting aggressively toward neighboring countries. Instead, the emphasis is on self-defense. China, so the argument goes, has historically acted in accordance with the dictates of Confucianism and has not behaved like the European great powers, Japan, or the United States, which have launched offensive wars in pursuit of hegemony and generally acted according to the dictates of realism. China, in contrast, has behaved much more benignly toward other states: it has eschewed aggression and pursued “humane authority” instead of “hegemonic authority.”

This perspective is popular among academics as well as policymakers in China. Many Chinese scholars like it because they see it as an alternative to the principal international relations theories, which are said to be Eurocentric and therefore oblivious to China’s exceptional culture. Confucianism is obviously a China-centric theory. For example, Xin Li and Verner Worm write, “Chinese culture advocates moral strength instead of military power, worships kingly rule instead of hegemonic rule, and emphasizes persuasion by virtue.” Yan Xuetong, who is probably China’s best-known international relations theorist in the West, maintains, “The rise of China will make the world more civilized. . . . The core of Confucianism is ‘benevolence’. . . . This concept encourages Chinese rulers to adopt benevolent governance . . . rather than hegemonic governance. . . . The Chinese concept of ‘benevolence’ will influence international norms and make international society more civilized.”

Chinese policymakers offer similar arguments. For instance, the former premier Wen Jiabao told a Harvard audience in 2003, “Peace loving has been a time-honored quality of the Chinese nation.” And one year later, President Hu Jintao declared, “China since ancient times has had a fine tradition of sincerity, benevolence, kindness and trust towards its neighbors.” The clear implication of these comments is that China, unlike the other great powers in history, has acted like a model citizen on the world stage.

There are two problems with this theory of Confucianism. First, it does not reflect how Chinese elites have actually talked and thought about international politics over their long history. In other words, it is not an accurate description of China’s strategic culture over the centuries. More important, there is little historical evidence that China has acted in accordance with the dictates of Confucianism. On the contrary, China has behaved just like other great powers, which is to say it has a rich history of acting aggressively and brutally toward its neighbors.

There is doubtless a prominent Confucian strand in Chinese culture going back more than 2,000 years. But as Alastair Iain Johnston points out, a second and more powerful strand is at play in Chinese thinking about international politics. He calls it the “parabellum paradigm” and notes that it places “a high degree of value on the use of pure violence to resolve security conflicts.” This paradigm, he emphasizes, “does not make significantly different predictions about behavior from that of a simple structural realpolitik model.” That is why he uses the term “parabellum paradigm” interchangeably with “cultural realism,” which is the title of his book. Very important is Johnston’s contention that Confucianism and cultural realism “cannot claim separate but equal status in traditional Chinese strategic thought. Rather, the parabellum paradigm is, for the most part, dominant.”

The discussion up to now has assumed that Confucianism is essentially peaceful and does not advocate initiating war for any reason. But that assumption is not true. As Yan Xuetong makes clear, the high premium Confucianism places on morality does not rule out employing war as an instrument of statecraft. Indeed, it mandates that China be willing to wage just wars when another country is behaving in ways that China’s leaders deem immoral. Yan writes, “Some claim that Confucius and Mencius advocate ‘no war’ and are opposed to all war. In fact, they are not opposed to all war, only to unjust wars. They support just wars.” He further says, “Confucius thinks that reliance on preaching to uphold the norms of benevolence and justice is inadequate. Hence he thinks the way of war should be employed to punish the princes who go against benevolence and justice.”

Of course, this justification for war is remarkably pliable. As almost every student of international politics knows, political leaders and policymakers of all persuasions are skilled in figuring out clever ways of defining a rival country’s behavior as unjust or morally depraved. Hence, with the right spinmeister, Confucian rhetoric can be used to justify aggressive as well as defensive behavior. Like liberalism in the United States, Confucianism makes it easy for Chinese leaders to speak like idealists and act like realists.

And there is abundant evidence that China has behaved aggressively toward its neighbors whenever it could over the course of its long history. In his survey of Chinese foreign policy since the second millennium BCE, the historian Warren Cohen writes, “In the creation of their empire, the Chinese were no less arrogant, no less ruthless, than the Europeans, Japanese, or Americans in the creation of theirs.” He adds, “Historically, a strong China has brutalized the weak—and there is no reason to expect it to act differently in the future, to behave any better than other great powers have in the past.” The political scientist Victoria Tin-bor Hui observes that when we look at Chinese foreign policy over time, what we see is “the primacy of brute force rather than ‘humane authority.’” She notes, “It is difficult to understand such prevalence of military conflicts throughout Chinese history from only the perspective of Confucian thought.”

Numerous other scholars make similar arguments. Yuan-Kang Wang, for example, writes, “Confucian culture did not constrain Chinese use of force: China has been a practitioner of realpolitik for centuries, behaving much like other great powers have throughout world history. . . . Chinese leaders have preferred to use force to resolve external threats to China’s security, take on a more offensive posture as the country’s power grew, and adopted expansive war aims in the absence of systemic or military constraints.” Finally, the historian Hans J. van de Ven writes, “No one even with only a casual interest in Chinese history can be unaware that China’s capacity for war in the last few centuries has proved truly awesome. . . . It is plain that China’s history has in fact been at least as violent as Europe’s.”

One might concede that China has done little more than pay lip service to Confucianism in the past, but argue that it has undergone an epiphany in recent years and now embraces that peaceful worldview while rejecting balance-of-power logic. There is little evidence, however, that such a change has taken place. Indeed, it is not unusual for experts on China to note that realism is alive and well there. Thomas Christensen, for example, argues that “China may well be the high church of realpolitik in the post–Cold War world,” while Avery Goldstein says, “China’s contemporary leaders, like their predecessors in Imperial China, prize the practice of realpolitik.”

In sum, there is little basis for the claim that China is an exceptional great power that eschews realist logic and instead behaves in accordance with the principles of Confucian pacifism. Almost all of the available evidence indicates that China has a rich history of trying to maximize its relative power. Furthermore, there is no good reason to think China will act differently in the future.

Make Money, Not War

Probably the most frequently heard argument that China’s rise can be peaceful is based on the theory of economic interdependence. This perspective has two components. First is the claim that China’s economy is inextricably bound to the economies of its potential rivals, including Japan and the United States. This linkage means not only that China and its trading partners depend on each other to keep prospering but also that prosperity in turn depends on peaceful relations among them. A war involving them would have disastrous economic consequences for all the belligerents. It would be tantamount to mutual assured destruction (MAD) at the economic level.

Second, prosperity is the main goal of modern states. Publics today expect their leaders to deliver economic growth; if they fail, they are likely to be thrown out of office. In some cases, there might be significant unrest at home and the regime itself be threatened. This imperative to get rich means no rational leader would start a war. Indeed, even security competition among the relevant countries is likely to be moderate, not just because leaders prefer to concentrate on maximizing their country’s wealth, but also because of the danger that an intense rivalry might inadvertently lead to war. In a world of economically interdependent states, leaders have a marked aversion to conflict, for fear it will put an end to prosperity as well as their political careers.

It would be wrong to argue that economic interdependence does not matter at all for the fostering of peace. Leaders do care greatly about their country’s prosperity, and in certain circumstances that concern will help dampen any enthusiasm they might have for war. The key question, however, is whether such calculations are likely to decisively influence policymakers in a wide variety of circumstances. In other words, will the impact of economic interdependence be weighty enough to serve as a firm basis for peace between China and its potential rivals over a long period of time? I believe there are good reasons to doubt that concerns about mutual prosperity will keep Asia peaceful as China grows more powerful.

At the most basic level, political calculations often trump economic ones when they come into conflict. This is certainly true regarding matters of national security, because concerns about survival are invariably at stake in the security realm, and they are more important than worries about prosperity. As emphasized, if you do not survive, you cannot prosper. It is worth noting in this regard that there was substantial economic interdependence and prosperity among the European great powers before 1914. Nevertheless, World War I happened. Germany, which was principally responsible for causing that conflict, was bent on preventing Russia from growing more powerful while at the same time trying to become a hegemon in Europe. Politics overwhelmed economics in this important case.

Politics also tends to win out over concerns about prosperity when nationalism affects the issue at stake. Consider Beijing’s position on Taiwan. Chinese leaders have stressed that they will go to war if Taiwan declares its independence, even though they believe the ensuing conflict would damage China’s economy. Of course, nationalism is at the core of Chinese thinking on Taiwan; that island is considered sacred territory. One might also note that history is littered with civil wars, and in almost every case there was substantial economic interdependence between the combatants before the fighting broke out. But political calculations proved to be more influential in the end.

There are three other reasons to doubt the claim that economic interdependence can sustain peace in Asia in the face of an increasingly powerful China. The theory depends on permanent prosperity to work, but there is no guarantee there will not be a trade war or a major economic crisis that undermines that assumption. Consider, for example, how the ongoing euro crisis is doing serious damage to the economies of many European countries. But even in the absence of a severe global economic downturn, a particular state might be having significant economic problems, which could put it in a position where it had little to lose economically, and maybe even something to gain, by starting a war. For instance, a key reason Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990—despite their close economic ties—is that Kuwait was exceeding its OPEC oil production quotas and driving down Iraq’s oil profits, which its economy could ill afford.

Another reason to question economic-interdependence theory is that states sometimes start wars in the expectation that victory will bring them substantial economic and strategic benefits and that those prospective benefits will be greater than the prosperity lost from damaged inter-dependence. For example, it is widely believed there are abundant natural resources on the floor of the South China Sea. However, China and its neighbors disagree significantly over who controls that large body of water. Although it is unlikely, one can imagine a more powerful China using military force to gain control over the South China Sea so that it can exploit its seabed and fuel Chinese economic growth.

The final reason for doubting this theory of peace is that economically interdependent countries can sometimes fight wars and still avoid incurring significant economic costs. To begin with, a country can take aim at a single rival, devise a clever military strategy, and win a quick and decisive victory. In fact, most states go to war thinking they will achieve a swift triumph, although it does not always work out that way. When it does, however, the economic costs are not likely to be significant, since the fight is with a single rival and success comes quickly.

The economic costs of war are usually greatest when states get involved in protracted wars with multiple countries, as happened in the two world wars. But leaders do not take their country to war expecting that outcome; indeed, they expect to avoid it. Furthermore, as discussed earlier, nuclear weapons make it extremely unlikely that China will end up fighting a major conventional conflict resembling World War II. In fact, any wars that break out in Asia are likely to be limited in terms of both goals and means. In such circumstances, the economic costs of fighting are likely to be limited and thus do not pose a significant threat to the prosperity of the belligerents. Winning a small-scale war might indeed add to a country’s prosperity, as might happen if China seized control of the South China Sea.

Furthermore, there is abundant evidence that states at war with each other often do not break off economic relations. In other words, states trade with the enemy in wartime, mainly because each side believes it benefits from the intercourse. Jack Levy and Katherine Barbieri, two of the leading experts on this subject, write, “It is clear that trading with the enemy occurs frequently enough to contradict the conventional wisdom that war will systematically and significantly disrupt trade between adversaries.” They add that “trading with the enemy occurs during all-out wars fought for national independence or global dominance as well as during more limited military encounters.” In short, it is possible for a country to fight a war against a rival with which it is economically interdependent, and not threaten its own prosperity.

All of these reasons make it hard to be confident that economic interdependence can serve as a firm foundation for peace in Asia in the decades ahead. This is not to deny, however, that it might serve as a brake on war in certain circumstances.


The picture I have painted of what is likely to happen if China continues to rise is not a pretty one. Indeed, it is downright depressing. I wish I could tell a more hopeful story about the prospects for peace in Asia. But the fact is that international politics is a dangerous business, and no amount of goodwill can ameliorate the intense security competition that sets in when an aspiring hegemon comes on the scene in either Europe or Asia. And there is good reason to think China will eventually pursue regional hegemony.

It is worth noting, however, that although social science theories are essential for helping us make sense of the remarkably complicated world around us, they are still rather crude instruments. The ability of even our best theories to explain the past and predict the future is limited. This means every theory confronts cases that contradict its main predictions. Given the grim picture I paint, let us hope that if China becomes especially powerful, the actual results of that development will contradict my theory and prove my predictions wrong.

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is on the advisory council of The National Interest .

“Excerpted from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John J. Mearsheimer. Copyright © 2014 by John J. Mearsheimer. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.”

Images: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Navy and White House Flickr.

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