The realists have won, the liberals have lost. This would most likely be history’s verdict on the Western debate over China’s rise and its emerging conflict with the U.S.
As we worry about the prospect of this looming 21st century great power struggle, there has been increased talk about a possible “hegemonic war” — a contest for world domination between the existing dominant superpower and a rising challenger.
Historians and scholars of international relations have long observed such a pattern of conflict and have called it the “Thucydides Trap” after the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who chronicled this dynamic in writing about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.
Several scholars of international relations, such as John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Aaron Friedberg at Princeton University, have long sounded the alarm about a coming struggle for hegemonic status between the U.S. and China.
However, these realists were countered by liberals, who believed that a “hegemonic war” between the U.S. and China was not only unnecessary, but also preventable. Their underlying assumption was that a rising power could be accommodated if it was integrated into the existing security and economic order and became a stakeholder. As is typical of policymaking in Washington, U.S. administrations since Bill Clinton opted for a middle course — the U.S. provided economic incentives to entice China to integrate into the global economic system while maintaining America’s forward military deployment and alliance system in East Asia to guard against a potentially aggressive China.
Such a policy of “engagement with strategic hedging” operated well for a while, until the underlying balance of power between the U.S. and China rendered it unworkable.
One can see why by a quick look at the size of the Chinese gross domestic product as a share of the U.S.’s, a common measurement of national power. Between the early 1990s, during the Clinton administration, to 2010, when China began its assertive foreign policy, the Chinese economy grew in dollar terms from 6% of U.S. GDP to 11.7% in 2000 and 40.7% by 2010.
An axiom in international relations is that a country’s intentions are determined by its power. This applies to Chinese strategic thinking perfectly. The principles of Chinese foreign policy laid down by the late Deng Xiaoping included three parts — keep a low profile, focus on building up national power, and seek accomplishments when opportunities arise. In the West, the first two principles are far better known than the last one.
It was clear from the outset that Chinese leaders, as consummate realists, knew that keeping a low profile was necessitated by China’s weak position relative to the U.S. The vast disparity of power between the U.S. and China meant that Washington could make Beijing pay a high price for challenging its interests. The flip side of Chinese realism was that as the country continued to grow and narrow the power gap with the U.S., it would be less afraid to confront the U.S. The notion that China can say “no” to the U.S. existed long before China actually did say no. A best-selling book with the title of “China Can Say No” was published in China in 1996, but Beijing did not start challenging Washington until after 2008. With Western economies then wrecked by the global financial crisis, Chinese leaders apparently concluded that the balance of power had shifted in China’s favor.
Besides changing Beijing’s strategic calculus, the growth of Chinese power can generate its own expansionist dynamics. National interests are defined by the power available to a country. As a country gains greater power, as China has done since the early 1990s, its definition of national interests has similarly expanded. Because of the paradox of power, more power can persuade a country that it is becoming more vulnerable and encourage it to extend what it considers its zone of defense.
Hopes of containing rise of the Asian superpower now look illusory
In the Chinese case, this sense of strategic vulnerability was initially felt most acutely in terms of natural resources. With its insatiable appetite for minerals and energy supplies, China naturally began to fear that potential adversaries could choke off its growth by cutting off access to such resources. As a result, a national policy of strengthening resource security was implemented. Chinese state-owned companies fanned out across the world and competed aggressively for rights and concessions for natural resources. Even though these efforts caused disquiet in the West because they either smacked of “resource colonialism” or impinged on Western interests, China not only saw them as fully legitimate but justified them on the ground that Western countries have previously engaged in similar activities.
Over time, the extension of China’s national interests has become self-reinforcing. Countries far away from China have become part of its critical interests mainly because China has invested heavily in the relationship with those countries in the hope of improving its resource security.
For the West in general, and particularly the U.S., the expansion of China’s economic footprint and influence was initially viewed as a cause for concern, but not a step that crossed an invisible red line. In retrospect, China did cross that red line in 2013 when it started building large artificial islands in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
This fateful step can be best explained by the growth of Chinese power and the expansion of its national interests. Chinese leaders took this risky gambit in the belief that it was strong enough to resist any pushback from the U.S. They were also convinced that Chinese security and economic interests could not be fully protected without the effective control of the most vital parts of the South China Sea.
Whatever concerns Chinese leaders might have about the potential fallout from their newly assertive foreign policy, their South China Sea gamble was the last straw for the U.S. Realists skeptical about the efficacy of liberal-inspired engagement now have convincing evidence to argue that engagement, instead of making China a responsible stakeholder in the existing world order, has created a powerful strategic adversary.
Confronted with such evidence and argument, liberals can no longer defend the engagement policy toward China. Western sentiment has decisively and quickly shifted in the last few years. Engaging China may have been a noble experiment, but now is the time to go for realpolitik .