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'The US won't tolerate China as peer competitor'

Rodion Ebbighausen Interview
September 23, 2020

The neorealist international relations scholar John Mearsheimer has predicted for years that China's rise will bring it into conflict with the US. He tells DW about what he expects for the future of the US-China rivalry.

US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, in the background are US and Chinese flags
Image: imago images/B. Trotzki

John Mearsheimer sees international relations as a "nasty and dangerous business." His theory, "offensive realism," is based on the premise that states are the main actors in international politics and their ultimate goal is survival.  

As part of the realist school of thought, Mearsheimer believes that the international system is anarchic, and that no state can know the intention of another with certainty. This uncertainty drives states to maximize their power and security and achieve dominance to preempt challenges from other states. 

Becoming a global hegemon today is nearly impossible. And therefore, states rather seek to dominate as regional hegemons.

Mearsheimer concluded in 2001 that China's strategic goal was to become Asia's hegemon and that the United States would try to prevent that. His book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, predicted many things we see today in US-China relations.  

Both countries consider the other as a primary threat. China has become a regional hegemon in Asia, and is building military capacity to back this up. Southeast and East Asian nations are spending more and more money on defense, and are under pressure to choose a side — either China or the US.

DW asked Mearsheimer about how this rivalry could develop further — and what that means for Asia and the world.

DW: Under President Xi Jinping, China's approach to projecting its power has become more aggressive. Will China confront the US in the near future?

John Mearsheimer: I think, from China's point of view, it's best not to confront the US in any serious way right now. China will be in a much better position to confront the US in 20 years.

But two factors are pushing China towards aggression. One, it is almost impossible for any country as it grows more powerful, not to become somewhat more aggressive in its foreign policy.

This is exactly what's happening with China. A lot of people like to blame it on Xi Jinping, but I don't think it's his personality or his interests that really matter here.

He inherited a China that's much more powerful than it was in the 1990s. And he can throw his weight around in ways that his predecessors could not.

The second factor is that China's neighbors and the US are pushing back. The US began to contain China regionally with the 2011 pivot to Asia. This created a spiral mechanism that is now in play: the Americans and their Asian allies are pushing back against China, and China is responding.

International relations expert John J. Mearsheimer
'I'm slightly more pessimistic now about the possibility of an actual war between the US and China,' says MearsheimerImage: LSE/Nigel Stead

You mentioned the pivot to Asia. How serious was this engagement by the US? Many Southeast Asian countries feel they have been left to fend for themselves?

I think there's no question that, when former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the pivot to Asia in 2011, the US was just beginning to think about containing China. During the Barack Obama presidency, not much was done.

But, since Donald Trump became US president, there's no question the US is pursuing an ambitious containment policy that goes beyond containment. The US has tried to roll back China's economy, it is targeting China's technology sector. The bottom line here is that the US does not tolerate peer competitors.

Some argue that the US cannot stop China from becoming a regional hegemon. It may be true in 40 years that China's power relative to the US means China cannot be stopped from becoming a regional hegemon.

But I doubt that it will be the final outcome. There's every reason to think that the US will be able to contain China for the foreseeable future.

Alliances and coalitions play an important role in international politics. How do you see Asia in this regard? 

When you look at China's neighbors, most of them will ally with the US against China in a balancing coalition. There will be two alliance structures for sure, much like there were two alliance structures during the Cold War: NATO on one side, and the Warsaw Pact on the other.

Pakistan, North Korea, Cambodia, Laos and probably Myanmar will likely side with China. Japan, India, Singapore and Vietnam will be allied with the US.

In July, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the US-China rivalry a "Cold War 1.5." What do you think about the historical analogy?

On a very general level, there is a similarity between the Cold War and what's happening now with the United States and China.

In both cases, you have a country that is interested in dominating its region of the world. The United States dominates the Western Hemisphere, and today, there's no question that China is interested in dominating Asia. In that sense, there are similarities.  

But there are also fundamental differences. First, the initial Cold War took place in the wake of World War II, and it revolved around the German question. But you don't have a similar situation in Asia. China hasn't fought a war in a long time and the geography is fundamentally different.

The main points of potential conflict between the US and China are places like the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Taiwan. During the Cold War, the principal point of conflict or potential conflict was in Central Europe. So that's a very important difference.

Another important difference is that the Soviet Union had an economy that was not very efficient because it was communist. It never had more than a third of the US's wealth, although its population was similar. 

China is a fundamentally different adversary. It has over four times as many people, with a highly dynamic capitalist economy. Therefore, it has the potential to become much wealthier than the US. So, the US could end up opposing a country much larger than itself.  

Read more: Taiwan: The threat that the world ignores

Taiwan: China's next target?

In 2001, you were pessimistic about the chances of the US and China avoiding conflict. Has your opinion changed?

I'm slightly more pessimistic now about the possibility of an actual war between the US and China. I've always believed that there would be an intense security competition.

But in recent years, especially since the Trump administration came to power, I've begun to think that the possibility of war is somewhat greater than I anticipated.

And I've come to appreciate how important geography is in Asia for allowing the possibility of war.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union focused mainly on Central Europe. To have a war between the US and the Soviet Union would have involved World War III in Central Europe with potentially nuclear weapons. And it was almost impossible to start a war like that.

The geography in East Asia today is much different. Potential conflict points involve the South China Sea, Taiwan and the East China Sea.

It's much easier to imagine a war breaking out in the South China Sea. Of course, it would be a limited war, but that it would take place at sea and it would involve largely air and naval forces makes it more thinkable than a war in Central Europe would have been during the Cold War.

Now, again, I'm not saying that's likely, but it's a plausible scenario and that is very worrisome.

Read more: What is the South China Sea row about?

Do you see a way out?

No, I don't see any way out of this basic dilemma. That's why my 2001 book is entitled The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. This is the tragic nature of international relations.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.

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