Will China's Rise Lead to War?

Why Realism Does Not Mean Pessimism

The rise of China will likely be the most important international relations story of the twenty-first century, but it remains unclear whether that story will have a happy ending. Will China's ascent increase the probability of great-power war? Will an era of U.S.-Chinese tension be as dangerous as the Cold War? Will it be even worse, because China, unlike the Soviet Union, will prove a serious economic competitor as well as a geopolitical one?

These issues have been addressed by a wide range of experts -- regionalists, historians, and economists -- all of whom can claim insight into certain aspects of the situation. But China's unique qualities, past behavior, and economic trajectory may well turn out to be less important in driving future events than many assume -- because how a country acts as a superpower and whether its actions and those of others will end in battle are shaped as much by general patterns of international politics as by idiosyncratic factors. Such broader questions about the conditions under which power transitions lead to conflict are precisely what international relations theorists study, so they, too, have something to add to the discussion.

So far, the China debate among international relations theorists has pitted optimistic liberals against pessimistic realists. The liberals argue that because the current international order is defined by economic and political openness, it can accommodate China's rise peacefully. The United States and other leading powers, this argument runs, can and will make clear that China is welcome to join the existing order and prosper within it, and China is likely to do so rather than launch a costly and dangerous struggle to overturn the system and establish an order more to its own liking.

The standard realist view, in contrast, predicts intense competition. China's growing strength, most realists argue, will lead it to pursue its interests more assertively, which will in turn lead the United States and other countries to balance against it. This cycle will generate at the least a parallel to the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and perhaps even a hegemonic war. Adherents of this view point to China's recent harder line on its maritime claims in the East China and South China seas and to the increasingly close relations between the United States and India as signs that the cycle of assertiveness and balancing has already begun.

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