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Mearsheimer's big question: Can China rise peacefully?

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15 April 2014 15:35

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 posssible 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.

For me sitting here in Hong Kong, there are a few important (and perhaps hopeful) implications from this bleak assessment.

Mearsheimer seems surprised by the revival of the wuwang guochi ('never forget national humiliation') narrative, which lies at the core of hypernationalism. He shouldn't be. Wuwang guochi has been the hairshirt (as Geoff Dyer recently put it) of China's 'rejuvenation' for more than a century. It has powerful resonance and motivation for Chinese people. The troubling paradox for Mearsheimer, though, is that as China has become more successful in the international system, its resentment has also risen. He puzzles on why the foremost beneficiary of this order in the last three decades increasingly appears set to challenge it, and to dig up old bones of contention in doing so.

So it would seem obvious that the outside world should strain especially hard to deflect, and where necessary politely challenge, any revanchist challenges. Rather than bait China, we should embrace it and help it celebrate its revival by acknowledging it as a winner (a 'responsible stakeholder') with legitimate interests and painful memories.

This is the liberal argument for engagement: allowing greater Chinese emigration and investment, and reducing barriers (while protecting mutually sensitive sectors, obviously), so that Chinese people view the world as open and welcoming. For example, wouldn't China act differently if there were 50 million ethnic Chinese living and prospering in the West?

But as Mearsheimer would immediately recognise, this effort will be complicated by the rise of other Asian nationalist leaders, with their own agendas quite separate from the US interest. It would be a disaster if Japan, long a champion of the liberal international project, chose this very moment to abandon it. And in which direction is India headed?

Another possibility is that Chinese hypernationalism 'isn't about us, it's about them'. In other words, although it is manifested as anger at foreigners, it may be essentially a domestic debate aimed at establishing nationalist credibility within a complex factional political system.

There are two sides to this argument. The first is that it's essentially benign, and the second that it's, well, not. The benign view is that hypernationalism is just harmless antics, a tirade for domestic audiences, and will burn itself out. The less friendly view is that no matter what foreigners do, there's no pleasing China. And there is nothing that, say, a balancing coalition of 'reasonable' states could do to assuage a bellicose dragon state. More than a few American realists thus think the ball is basically in Beijing's imperial court now; the burden for China's peaceful rise rests largely on its own shoulders.

Mearsheimer also addresses the issue of economic coercion. The problem of 'interdependence' or 'mutual vulnerability' is well known to historians. For example, in the late 19th century, the British political-industrial establishment understood very well that Germany was overtaking it in both power and prowess, yet chose to continue to trade with Germany because it needed Germany's specialised manufactured goods. More importantly, London recognised that Germany would compete hard to find alternative customers for its wares overseas, so a British-led boycott-embargo was essentially futile; in hurting Germany, it might actually inflict more economic pain on Britain's own commerce.

It does not require great imagination to see the parallels today in the US and China. Economic 'containment' would be devastatingly costly for both sides, yet as Mearsheimer points out, it is unfortunately quite feasible because states (or governments) 'will always value security over prosperity, because without security there can be no prosperity'.

There is, however, one additional variation of the economic coercion theme that Australians should ponder: one-way or asymmetric vulnerability. If one state needs another far more than vice versa, there exists the potential for outright coercion. Coercion in the realist sense need not mean military threats; political suasion might suffice.

Consider for example New Zealand's extreme dependence on China for dairy product exports. It is said in Hong Kong that 80% of Chinese infant formula imports come from New Zealand, and 80% of those are from Fonterra. Prima facie, it might seem that Fonterra has great sway over the People's Republic of China!

In fact, the very opposite is the case. When there is a milk safety scare, not only the CEO of Fonterra but the prime minister of New Zealand must get on the next jet to Beijing to attend to the matter. Mearsheimer would surely delight in such delicate exhibitions of power politics. To be sure, assuring important customers about product quality is simply good business. So too is diversification. But try as Fonterra might, there is no substituting the giant Chinese market for infant milk formula. The potential for coercion clearly exists, and anyone who doubts the ultimate power of economic coercion should visit Ukraine this fine spring. We should not be surprised if some New Zealand interests vocalise against joining any future 'balancing coalition' directed at China.

Mearsheimer would recognise New Zealand's dilemma: China is a hegemon in the sense that, perhaps short of all-out war, Beijing will become sufficiently influential to compel its neighbours and partners to its will.

Finally, a word on worst-case scenarios. Mearsheimer is a professor of international relations, not a Marines Corps commander. But he understands well the nature of violent military conflict. The original The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is a sober history of long, agonising wars, gangrene, disease and starvation. The remarkable Prussian blitzkrieg-style advance on Paris in 1870-71 was about the nearest thing we got to a 'short, sharp war' between great powers. I use that term in speech marks because there is a general worry, recently expressed, that China's strategic culture values first-strike advantage (also known in military terms as 'initiative') as a means to trump an enemy quickly and deter escalation. As Mearsheimer and others have noted, this is a risky gamble, especially when facing down great powers with vast strategic depth and resources. China, Russia and the US are three examples of countries that you wouldn't bet on backing down with a whimper.

Mearsheimer and other realists have asked whether nuclear weapons have somehow changed the essential nature of great-state relations. The general conclusion is that they have not.

What nuclear weapons do, however, is raise the risk and consequences of rapid escalation. No sane leader would wish to be in a nuclear-on-nuclear stare-down with minutes running down on the clock. Therefore, given the great annoyance that China must feel at the prospect of being surrounded on several sides, and the emotions which can whip up the Chinese public, it behooves the US and its allies to construct a defence arrangement that is the least provocative it can be. This is more easily said than done; security is a relative concept and one man's defence may look to his adversary like a threat. The US and its allies should explicitly design a doctrine of deliberate, slow, defensive and non-military escalation using diplomacy, time and strategic depth to avoid making hasty choices they'll later regret.

That is my lesson from Mearsheimer's book.

Air Sea Battle (ASB) is confidential and I don't know what it contains (it may all be bluff) but it hints at 'suppression', which is mil-speak for taking out enemy stuff proactively. That is not a recipe for strategic reassurance.

There were a couple of telling exchanges during US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's recent visit to China. The Chinese defence chief Chang Wanquan told him that 'China can never be contained', a statement that is true to a large degree. Containment, a word Mearsheimer uses repeatedly, is a red flag to Beijing. I recommend in future we use the word 'constraint'. Every great power must be constrained, and all can surely agree that is a good thing. To this day, many Europeans (and some Australians no doubt) regret that they had not more effectively constrained and dissuaded Washington from its mad Iraq misadventure in the last decade.

Last week, China's Washington ambassador Cui Tiankai warned against forming an 'Asian NATO'. Alas, Mearsheimer (and Luttwak too) insists that balancing coalitions are inevitable in response to unbalanced multi-polarity, as will likely arise in Asia. Mearsheimer's specific concern is not that an Asian NATO would irritate China (it most certainly would), but that it would be much less effective than the European variety because of Asia's much greater cultural and geographic distances and diffusion. He does not name names, but he recognises that certain Asian states are likely to bandwagon with an assertive China, while other more independent and pricklier ones will be keener to join the balancing coalition. Given their very prickliness, he doubts they will remain cohesive enough to face a China-centric bloc.

Mearsheimer has written a stark and provocative essay which is deeply pessimistic. It will be our great collective project this century to disprove his thesis.

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