Sino-US Relations from a Realist Perspective

January 24, 2007

Next week we begin our course exploration into the theories of international relations.  Since we will start with Realism, I thought the following articles would help us get our feet wet.   

Clash of the Titans is a January 2005 Foreign Policy debate about future prospects for Sino- US relations.  Don’t expect any deep insights.  I included it because Mearsheimer’s comments provide an excellent example of “realist” thinking on a subject that most of you know well.

HK’s own Frank Ching demonstrates some sympathy to Mersheimer’s point of view in his editorial in today’s South China Morning Post (“Credibility Lost in Space”).  In it, he contrasts China’s rhetorical opposition to the development of anti-satellite weapons with its recent admission of its own anti-satellite missile test.  China’s actions are of course defensible (and predictable from a realist perspective) when one takes into account the Bush administration’s spaced-based weapons expansion.  Yet, for those of us who were holding out hope that China might follow a different, less “realpolitik” path in its rise as a global power, this recent news is unwelcome.

Who among you will admit to being persuaded by Mersheimer’s realist logic as applied to Sino-US relations?


5 Responses to “Sino-US Relations from a Realist Perspective”

  1. May Says:

    Indeed, China has achieved her goal she was trying to set in the 1970s: the well-being of the people in China has been improved, though the scope of the development was somehow narrow and slow. China would also like to push this reform to show to the world the magnitude of China’s creativity, manpower and her commitment to develop better. I would belive once all these potential factors are mobilized, China’s contribution to the world as a leader of growth will be unprecedented.

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    May —

    What “reform” are you referring to? Also, what “potential factors” do you mean? How will China’s contribution be “unprecedented”?

    Best, LMC

  3. Philip McClellan Says:

    Trying to assess China’s intentions is like trying to peer into a crystal ball. As Mearsheimer says, it’s impossible to predict the state of the region in 2025. I would have to say though that I disagree with his dire predictions, although he does have a point that at current rates of growth (and military expenditure), China will be a force to be reckoned with. However, it is also important to not forget the potential of the other powers in the region, as well as the fact that China is, and is likely to remain, closely linked to the global economy.

    In terms of the other regional players, Japan is likely to remain a powerful economic, and technologically advanced, power, and as Brzezinski says, it has the potential to go nuclear practically overnight. India is another critical variable. At current rates of growth, India is also likely to be a leading world power by 2025. An aggressive, hegemonistic China could encourage India to formally ally with the United States and Japan, providing a formidable balance to China, no matter how strong it was. I have the feeling that worries of this sort would help push China in a direction in which it figured that it would be best served acting as a sort of benevolent big brother to the other countries in the region, rather than an aggressive hegemon. As I mentioned earlier, China’s economy is also inextricably linked with the outside world; I can’t imagine that they would go down a path that would threaten the gains they have won from those ties.

  4. lmcinhk Says:

    Philip —

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. To play devil’s advocate….

    Traditonal realists would agree with you that it is foolish to pretend to know another country’s intentions. Realists would also not look at Sino-US relations in isolation, but would factor in the interests and actions of other powerful global players, as you have done. That said, when one does this (discounts intentions and factors in the regional balance of power) it is difficult to be optimistic. Why? Because of what realists describe as the security dilemna.

    For example, when one looks at China’s growing military capacity, one doesn’t have to assume that China has aggressive intentions, simply that it is taking logical steps to protect its expanding national interests (which, when you look at the importance of its export markets and energy needs, now extends beyond its borders). Other countries in turn will take steps to defend themselves against China’s expansion, even if they believe China is inherently peaceful now, as a hedge against an unforeseen turn of events. And so the cycle would continue.

    Of course, this cycle doesn’t necessarily have to turn violent. But traditional realists would say that history sadly points in that direction over the long run. The key question then becomes what evidence would you need to see in order to believe that China’s rise to power might follow a different historical path?

    As for an “agressive” foreign policy posture threatening China’s international economic links, I don’t see this. Tiananmen, a poor human rights record, military threats against Taiwan, and a recent missile test have not had any impact on China’s global economic links. Nor do you see a negative economic impact against the US for its invasion of Iraq. One could say that this is because China’s actions have been defensive in nature and that the US economy is simply too big for any country to mount an effective economic challenge. In response, I would argue that China’s economy will have similar global “muscle” which will give it a high level of leeway with its foreign (and domestic) policies. Thus, I’m not persuaded by the argument that China’s economic ambitions will tame its political ambition. I think the opposite is more likely.

  5. Haha I want to play safe in the meantime. I am still not sure whether I should take Mearsheimer’s very traditional realist’s point of view in assessing Sino-US relations. But I agree with Philip more to be sure. (Forgive me~~ I don’t know much about realism and liberalism…) I think that the major identifiable, functional player in today’s international relations are still the states, and that the states always seek for their own interests. But this doesn’t mean that the rise of China should be inevitably at the expense of the US hegemon in world politcs or even in the Asia-Pacific region. China is not more ethical and principled than US (I agree with Mearsheimer’s view here). But China is now facing constraints different from the US did in the past. The US did not have to spend its resources to reunify any states (but China has the reunification of Taiwan as it major political agenda); US security in North America is relatively safe (China has to face the potential danger from Japan); Because of the US democratic election system, Republicans and Democrats can often have hopes to come to office based on the relatively fair game. (But the CCP has to always legitimize its ruling in its biggest effort to prevent its fall. It could hardly accept to be kicked out of the throne. Economic growth in China can be seen as a means to maintain CCP’s ruling. So I think economic ambitions / aims will tame China’s political ambition in the near term.) And Philip just mentioned how the rise of China will and has already triggered containment policy of various countries.

    Taking all these and many more constraints such as the conflicts between provincial governments and the CCP into account, why should we expect China to act in the US way then? I like Philip’s words so much – “Trying to assess China’s intentions is like trying to peer into a crystal ball.” And I wonder if China itself actually knows where it will and it should go?

    But having said all these, I still think China will try its best to be the leader in the region or even in the World. It’s because of the greed of states. Gosh. [Frankie]

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