17 April 2014

Mearsheimer’s Big Question: Can China Rise Peacefully?

Brilliant piece here by Julian Snelder. Here’s hoping that he’s able to publish more in the future!

Julian Snelder,Mearsheimer’s Big Question: Can China Rise Peacefully?The Lowy Interpreter, 15 April 2014.

The University of Chicago’s famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer has generously updated, and posted free of charge, the epilogue to his legendary realist book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

The original book, published in 2001, is frankly hard reading for any young IR or political science major, involving as it does many comparative counts of soldiers, horses and cannons through two centuries of Western European great-state warfare. Other historians like Kenneth Waltz and Rasler & Thomson have explored the nature of European imperial warfare for even longer periods, and have drawn essentially the same realist conclusion: that states seek to maximise their security and therefore their power, and inter-state military competition inevitably ensues.

In recent years, Professor Mearsheimer has turned his attention to the Asia Pacific, for the unsurprising reason that it is now the region of emerging great power competition. In his revised epilogue, he arrives at the equally unsurprising conclusion that China’s rise this century will be fraught with challenges.

Mearsheimer, by his own admission, is not an optimistic individual, and he poses a sharp and gloomy challenge to the liberal and constructivist versions of geopolitics. I have a few specific Asian observations on Mearsheimer’s new paper, which is impressive for both its completeness of argument and its reference to various specialist sources. But first, here is a quick synopsis for those time-constrained readers who want the punchline: 

1. China will seek the equivalent of a Monroe doctrine in Asia (ie. to be the unchallenged hegemon in its neighbourhood).

2. This will pose a security dilemma problem, likely leading to an Asian arms race.

3. It will also motivate a ‘balancing coalition’ to resist Beijing’s dominance.

4. The US, which will likely lead such a coalition, will respond with ‘containment’ efforts and other strategies such as ‘rollback’ and ‘bait & bleed’, well practiced in the Cold War.

5. We can therefore expect to see a mutual hardening of rhetoric and positions in the security competition.

6. Unlike central Europe in the Cold War, Asia’s expansive geography (especially in the maritime domain) will create lower barriers to conflict. In a sprawling, largely oceanic theatre of operations, security actors may feel that conflicts can be ‘managed’. Perversely, because the perceived cost and threat of nuclear escalation is lower than in Cold War Europe, this will reduce trigger thresholds and heighten dangers.

7. Even more perilous is the ‘unbalanced multi-polarity’ structure likely to arise in Asia where China clearly dominates several smaller — but still powerful — regional states. This is the worst possible architecture of all inter-state relations.

8. Mearsheimer is particularly concerned about the morphing of Chinese nationalism into hypernationalism since 1989. This is the displacement of ‘victor mentality’ into ‘aggrieved victimhood’, dwelling on historical injustice. Hypernationalism has replaced ideology. It goes beyond patriotism and exceptionalism; it is hatred of ‘the Other’, something regrettably all too common in Asia.

9. Chinese strategic philosophy values offensive realism as much as, or even more than, the US and USSR. Humane/benevolent Confucianist ideals were rarely practiced throughout China’s ancient and bloody history of conflict.

10. Mearsheimer rightly debunks the myth of ‘economic interdependence’ as a brake on conflict. WW1 is Exhibit A. There is a rich history of trading between countries at war.

11. Finally, in recent years China has complained of provocation, and Mearsheimer thinks such complaints are essentially justified. The US ‘pivot’ may have exacerbated this problem. But more likely it is because weaker states wish to assert their claims before the power imbalance tips even further against them. I think Washington is well aware of this dynamic, and is trying to arrest it.