28 October 2011

The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia

John J. Mearsheimer, The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3 (2010): 381–96.

The United States has been the most powerful state on the planet for many decades and has deployed robust military forces in the Asia-Pacific region since the early years of the Second World War. The American presence has had significant consequences for Australia and for the wider region. This is how the Australian government sees it, at least according to the 2009

Defence White Paper: ‘Australia has been a very secure country for many decades, in large measure because the wider Asia-Pacific region has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and stability underwritten by US strategic primacy’. The United States, in other words, has acted as a pacifier in this part of the world.

However, according to the very next sentence in the White Paper, ‘That order is being transformed as economic changes start to bring about changes in the distribution of strategic power’. The argument here, of course, is that the rise of China is having a significant effect on the global balance of power. In particular, the power gap between China and the United States is shrinking and in all likelihood ‘US strategic primacy’ in this region will be no more. This is not to say that the United States will disappear; in fact, its presence is likely to grow in response to China’s rise. But the United States will no longer be the preponderant power in the Asia-Pacific region, as it has been since 1945.

The most important question that flows from this discussion is whether China can rise peacefully. It is clear from the Defence White Paper—which is tasked with assessing Australia’s strategic situation out to the year 2030—that policymakers in Canberra are worried about the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. Consider these comments from that document: ‘As other powers rise, and the primacy of the United States is increasingly tested, power relations will inevitably change. When this happens there will be the possibility of miscalculation. There is a small but still concerning possibility of growing confrontation between some of these powers’. At another point in the White Paper, we read that, ‘Risks resulting from escalating strategic competition could emerge quite unpredictably, and is a factor to be considered in our defence planning’. In short, the Australian government seems to sense that the shifting balance of power between China and the United States may not be good for peace in the neighborhood.

Australians should be worried about China’s rise because it is likely to lead to an intense security competition between China and the United States, with considerable potential for war. Moreover, most of China’s neighbors, to include India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, Vietnam—and Australia—will join with the United States to contain China’s power. To put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.

It is important to emphasize, however, that I am not arguing that Chinese behavior alone will drive the security competition that lies ahead. The United States is also likely to behave in aggressive ways, thus further increasing the prospects for trouble in the Asia-Pacific region.

Naturally, not everyone will agree with my assessment of the situation. Many believe that China can rise peacefully, that it is not inevitable that the United States and a powerful China will have confrontational relations. Of course, they assume that China will have peaceful intentions, and that welcome fact of life can help facilitate stability in this region, even though the underlying balance of power is expected to change dramatically. …