China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
G. John Ikenberry
Most observers would agree with John Mearsheimer that the liberal bet on China did not work out (“The Inevitable Rivalry,” November/December 2021). Welcoming the country into the world economy after the Cold War did not cause it to open up, liberalize, and become a responsible stakeholder in the global order. Worse, under President Xi Jinping, the country has taken a dangerous autocratic and illiberal turn. But Mearsheimer goes further, arguing that the United States’ strategy of engagement with China ranks as one of its worst foreign policy disasters and that an alternative strategy, containment, would have prevented or at least delayed the emergence of China as a threat.
What Mearsheimer misses is that U.S. policy toward China was just one piece of a broader approach that sought to strengthen the foundations of the American-led liberal international order after the Cold War, a strategy that brought considerably more benefits than costs. Building on a long tradition of order building, the United States pushed and pulled the international system in a direction that broadly aligned with its interests and values, promulgating rules and institutions to foster liberal democracy, expanding security cooperation with European and East Asian allies, and generating international coalitions for tackling the gravest threats to humanity.
Abandoning this strategy once China started to rise would have put the United States in a dramatically worse position not just globally but also in terms of countering China. In Mearsheimer’s world, the United States would have fewer allies and partners. And it would face a China with accrued enmity and grievances in a global order that was less stable and prosperous—and less capable of generating the cooperation needed to grapple with the problems of the twenty-first century.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last great alternative to the U.S.-led liberal order suddenly disappeared, and countries clamored to join the free world. The proportion of democracies more than doubled, rising from under 30 percent of all countries in the early 1980s to almost 60 percent in the first decade of the twenty-first century. NATO and the European Union expanded. Regional free-trade agreements proliferated, and in 1995, the World Trade Organization was created. The United States presided over an expanding global system that was creating more wealth, security, and glimmers of social justice than had been seen in any previous era. This was the overarching liberal bet, and it was a world-historical success. U.S. officials obviously hoped that China would become a stakeholder in this expanding order, but that was never the main purpose. The far more important goal was to build a liberal-oriented international order dominated by the United States and its allies.
The brand of realism that Mearsheimer is offering as a guide to confronting China simply could not see, explain, or appreciate this accomplishment. When the Cold War ended, Mearsheimer and other leading realists argued that the U.S.-led alliance system would unravel. “The Soviet threat provides the glue that holds NATO together,” Mearsheimer observed in The Atlantic in 1990. “Take away that offensive threat and the United States is likely to abandon the Continent; the defensive alliance it has headed for forty years may well then disintegrate, bringing an end to the bipolar order that has kept the peace of Europe for the past forty-five years.” But the opposite occurred in both Europe and East Asia. The Soviet threat disappeared, and yet the U.S. alliance system survived, and solidarity among liberal democracies deepened.
Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, many realists, including Mearsheimer, are again voicing questions about U.S. alliances and, under the banner of “offshore balancing,” arguing for a smaller American security footprint in the world. In their view, Washington should focus on defending the Western Hemisphere, while playing a more limited, backup role in protecting allies in Europe and East Asia. But U.S. retrenchment would surely be an invitation for China and Russia to extend their imperial reach, heralding a return to a realist world with a familiar and tragic logic to it. As China grows more powerful, everyone should be grateful that the United States did not follow Mearsheimer’s realist script.
Mearsheimer also fails to appreciate that U.S. strategy toward China was always about more than just engagement. Across the post–Cold War administrations, the United States did seek to draw China into the global order. After all, Beijing was already inside—a member of the UN Security Council and a host of other regional and global bodies, including, from 1992 on, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But there were two other components to this U.S. strategy.
First, Washington built counterweights to Chinese power through an invigorated and deepened alliance system in East Asia. The Clinton administration renewed the U.S.-Japanese alliance and redefined the security pact as a force for stability, a feat that surely ranks as one of the great accomplishments in post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy. In a 1995 article in these pages, the political scientist Joseph Nye, then serving in the Pentagon and reflecting the thinking of the Clinton administration, noted “the rise of Chinese power” and made the case for a strategy of “deep engagement” in East Asia. It was not altogether obvious that the United States would stay in the region after the Cold War or remain a security provider there through the forward deployment of its forces. But the case was made, and deep engagement remains at the core of U.S. strategy to this day.
The second part of the U.S. strategy was to strengthen regional institutions in the broader Asia-Pacific region. Looking beyond the traditional boundaries of East Asia, Washington worked with Australia, India, and the Americas to bolster the Asia-Pacific’s security and economic architecture, the idea being that a larger region would be more open and less dominated by China. Given these efforts, it is not surprising that many observers in the 1990s—including, one might note, many Chinese—referred to U.S. policy toward China as “congagement,” a mix of containment and engagement.
U.S. retrenchment would surely be an invitation for China and Russia to extend their imperial reach.
The major failure of U.S. strategy toward China was to not make the country’s integration into the liberal capitalist system more conditional. During the Cold War, the liberal order was a club, a sort of mutual aid society in which members embraced liberal democratic principles in return for access to the Western-oriented system of trade and security. After the Cold War ended, this logic of conditionality broke down. The liberal order became more like a shopping mall, in which states could pick and choose which aspects of the order to buy into. China joined and benefited from parts of the order, such as favorable trade terms, while ignoring others, such as the commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and openness. Mearsheimer writes that “U.S. leaders should have negotiated a new bilateral trade agreement that imposed harsher terms on China.” But such conditionality would have required a strong and unified liberal order—not his realist world of divided and competing states.
Mearsheimer argues that the United States, beyond demanding more of China on trade, should have pursued something more radical: a post–Cold War grand strategy aimed at systematically limiting Chinese economic
growth and power. In his counterfactual history, the United States would have sought to keep China weak, poor, and peripheral. But there are reasons to doubt that such an alternative course was desirable—or even possible.
For one thing, the American public was unlikely to have supported a grand strategy of, in effect, putting a boot on China’s throat. Most Americans would have found this policy politically offensive and morally suspect. Many would also have wondered what Chinese threat demanded this illiberal realpolitik. Even realists at the time were not seized by the idea of China as a future peer competitor. In 1992, for example, a quintessentially realist report, written by advisers to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and leaked to the press, argued that the United States’ mission in the new era was to ensure that no rival superpower emerged in Europe or Asia—yet it identified Germany and Japan, not China, as the potential future challengers to U.S. leadership.
Washington should help to strengthen liberal democracy while looking for opportunities to work with its chief rival.
The problems with Mearsheimer’s counterfactual go beyond this. Full-throttle containment of China would have required allies and partners that were willing to cooperate. In all likelihood, however, other states would have calculated correctly that China was not a threat to them in the way that it might have been to the United States. Just as important, the U.S. government itself would have found it impossible to sustain a decades-long strategy of containment. Pursuing that path would have required a unified political class, business community, and foreign policy elite—all of which seem fanciful at best. Mearsheimer has long voiced deep misgivings about the ability of liberal democracies to soberly pursue their long-term national interests. Imagining that the United States could have done so to prevent a power transition that is, even now, decades in the future—and that might not even happen—is a bit rich. Yet in his article, Mearsheimer suggests that such a careful and coherent grand strategy not only was possible but also could have been sustained for generations.
Were it somehow pursued, Mearsheimer’s strategy would have been an act of national self-harm. Containment would have left the United States and its partners more divided and the liberal international order in greater disarray. The United States would have lost out economically to other states that benefited from trade with China. Its reputation as a global leader would have been weakened, perhaps irreparably. And ultimately, the strategy would have failed to prevent the rise of China. Worse, China would have emerged from this failed effort at containment more powerful, more aggrieved, and more disconnected from liberal internationalist principles and norms. In Mearsheimer’s counterfactual world, the United States would be getting even less cooperation from China than it gets today, precisely at a moment when cascading planetary threats, such as global warming, health pandemics, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation, require more cooperation.
Mearsheimer is right that China presents a formidable challenge to the United States. The two countries are hegemonic rivals with antagonistic visions of world order. One wants to make the world safe for democracy; the other wants to make the world safe for autocracy. The United States believes—as it has for more than two centuries—that it is safer in a world where liberal democracies hold sway. China increasingly contests such a world, and therein lies the grand strategic rub. But in the face of this challenge, the United States would do well to work with its allies to strengthen liberal democracy and the global system that makes it safe—and to do so while looking for opportunities to work with its chief rival.
G. JOHN IKENBERRY is Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a Global Scholar at Kyung Hee University, in South Korea.
Andrew J. Nathan
John Mearsheimer is right to look at the fundamentals of demographics, geography, and the structure of the international system to assess the threat China poses to U.S. interests. In his view, China’s massive population will make the country almost twice as wealthy as the United States by 2050, the absence of a clear geographic dividing line in Asia between rival camps makes war more “thinkable” than during the Cold War, and China’s lack of allies will give it “greater flexibility to cause trouble abroad.” As the power balance shifts, “China is acting exactly as realism would predict,” he writes. “Who can blame Chinese leaders for seeking to dominate Asia and become the most powerful state on the planet?”
But a proper understanding of these factors does not lead to the dire forecast Mearsheimer provides. In each area, China suffers from major weaknesses. It will not become, as he says it wants to, “the most powerful state in its backyard and, eventually, in the world.” Rather, it will remain one among several major powers both regionally and globally, presenting threats to important, but not existential, U.S. interests.
China’s demographic structure is full of problems. For one thing, Beijing must build a modern nation-state within the boundaries of a traditional multiethnic empire. It inherited from the Qing dynasty 55 officially recognized “national minorities” that occupy strategic territories around the rim of the Han Chinese heartland. Among these, the Kazakh, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur ethnic groups are severely alienated from central rule and present a continuing problem of domestic security and territorial integrity, despite the extreme measures Beijing is taking to assimilate them.
In the Han heartland, China’s population is aging and will start shrinking sometime in the next decade. With an economic growth rate that has declined since the go-go years of the 1990s and the following decade and is likely to fall further as its economy matures, China is unlikely to reach even half the United States’ per capita income by 2050—the more modest of the scenarios Mearsheimer envisions in his article. Meanwhile, the government is under pressure to provide better living standards to the growing middle class and to aspirant rural dwellers and the working class. That is why a 2015 Chinese law defined national security primarily in domestic terms, as “the relative absence of international or domestic threats to the state’s power to govern, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, the welfare of the people, sustainable economic and social development, and other major national interests.” And it is why in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping identified the “principal contradiction” facing his government as that “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”
The country’s geographic position is also unfavorable. Along its land and sea borders, China confronts distrustful neighbors. Among them are seven of the 15 most populous countries in the world (India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Vietnam) and five countries with which China has fought wars within the past 80 years (India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam). None of China’s neighbors is culturally Chinese or ideologically aligned with the Chinese Communist Party. All may cooperate with China at various times and to varying degrees for strategic or economic reasons, but all seek to hedge against Chinese domination, often by cultivating relations with the United States. As Chinese behavior has become more assertive, this counterbalancing behavior is growing more evident. India has compromised its traditional strategic autonomy in order to participate in joint military exercises with Australia, Japan, and the United States as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. Japan has taken the unprecedented step of officially declaring stability in the Taiwan Strait to be a national interest. And Australia has reaffirmed its U.S. alliance by accepting help in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the 2021 AUKUS agreement. China is unlikely to achieve anything like hegemony over any but the smallest of its neighbors.
Geography helps explain another Chinese weakness: its lack of allies other than North Korea. There are countries that are nearby enough to receive substantial help from China in the case of a military conflict, but they all fear China more than they fear any other state. The lack of allies is more a liability than an asset, for it deprives China of ways to multiply the pressure it can put on uncooperative neighbors and of the ability to position sizable military forces around the world. To be sure, none of the United States’ 60-some allies and partners has interests identical to Washington’s. None can be counted on to follow every component of U.S. strategy toward China. But U.S. alliances and partnerships still complicate China’s military calculations, increase the pressure on Beijing to comply with the international norms preferred by other states, and expand the alternatives available to countries considering whether to accept Chinese investments.
Nor is the structural distribution of international power favorable to Chinese global dominance. Barring catastrophic mismanagement by other states, China will continue to face five powerful rivals—India, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the European Union—in a multipolar system that is not going to disappear. A unipolar moment, if one ever really existed, cannot be re-created, not by the United States and certainly not by China.
The challenge the United States faces from China is bad enough without exaggerating it. As realism would predict, Beijing is dissatisfied with the status quo: it is closely hemmed in by Washington’s allies, partners, and military forces; its supply lines are vulnerable to U.S. interdiction; and its society is influenced by American culture. China wants to push the United States away from its shores and weaken its alliances, and this means a real chance of conflict, especially over Taiwan. I agree with Mearsheimer that if such a war occurred, it would probably be a limited war, albeit highly destructive and tragic. I also agree that it would have the potential—not a great one, but more than zero—to escalate to a nuclear exchange.
But Mearsheimer is wrong to describe China’s determination to gain control over Taiwan as either “emotional” or “expansionist,” because these descriptors make China sound irrationally aggressive. Mearsheimer’s own theory of realism better explains why Beijing will not lose its appetite for Taiwan, given the long-standing legal basis of its sovereignty claim and the island’s strategic, economic, and technological importance to Chinese security. Also consistent with realism is China’s preference for avoiding a premature strike on Taiwan and instead deterring Taiwanese independence as long as it takes to achieve what Beijing calls “peaceful reunification.” But deterring Taiwanese independence has meant that China has had to build up military assets capable of threatening the aircraft carriers and forward air and naval bases that the United States has long relied on to stave off any attempt to take Taiwan by force. The result: a U.S.-Chinese arms race that raises the risk of war through miscalculation.
Overestimating the China threat is just as dangerous as underestimating it.
And Mearsheimer is wrong to describe Beijing’s goal as global dominance. In a multipolar world, China will seek to shape global institutions to its advantage, just as major powers have always done. But it has no proposal for an alternative, Beijing-dominated set of institutions. It remains strongly committed to the global free-trade regime, as well as to the UN and that organization’s alphabet soup of agencies. It participates actively in the UN human rights system in order to help its allies and frustrate its rivals. Its Belt and Road Initiative operates alongside, rather than in place of, long-standing Western-funded development programs. China seeks influence, but it has little prospect of dominance as long as other powers also stay active in these institutions.
Overestimating the China threat is just as dangerous as underestimating it. Hyping the hazard makes it harder to manage, by creating panic among both the American public and Chinese policymakers. Whether or not engagement was the mistake that Mearsheimer claims, whether or not there was ever an option to constrain China’s growth as he believes, we are where we are. I agree with Mearsheimer that what the United States must do now is manage the situation—which should mean not exacerbating what is already, on cold realist grounds, a serious challenge.
ANDREW J. NATHAN is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.
John Mearsheimer’s article engenders a sense of foreboding and doom. “Engagement may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history,” he writes. As a result, “China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war. . . . And this cold war is more likely to turn hot.”
I cannot agree that the U.S. policy of engaging China was a major strategic blunder. During the Cold War, that policy succeeded at convincing China to stop sponsoring communist revolutions in East Asia and helped counter the Soviet Union. After the Cold War ended, engagement enabled massive economic growth in China that lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty—a significant reason that the share of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, by the World Bank’s definition, fell from 36 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2015. Surely, this counts as a major human achievement.
What would be a strategic blunder, however, is whatever series of missteps might lead to a military conflict between China and the United States. Mearsheimer argues that structural factors are inexorably leading to such a conflict. But his realist view of the situation disregards modern international realities.
For a war to break out between China and the United States, the international system would have to fail.
There are a number of formidable restraints in place to keep the peace. The United States has worked hard over the decades to build these barriers—often as part of the very engagement strategy that Mearsheimer criticizes. These bulwarks have helped preserve peace and promote prosperity for the last 70 years, and they are still strong enough to prevent a U.S.-Chinese conflict. Although accidents or incidents connected to military brinkmanship may occur, they would almost certainly not lead to a wider war. That would require something exceedingly unlikely: the simultaneous failure of every restraint.
First, bilateral diplomacy would have to break down. Engagement is the opposite of estrangement, which describes the absence of U.S.-Chinese relations from 1949 to 1972. The purpose of engagement is to forestall misperceptions, provide reassurance, and prevent conflict. It is true that diplomacy and communication between China and the United States have been anemic for the past five years. And it is difficult to discern authoritative policy amid the current cacophony of diplomatic posturing on Twitter and elsewhere, creating an environment ripe for confusion and overreaction. But these deficiencies are not structural; they can be remedied. If top-level leaders in both countries consistently communicate and work to reduce public posturing, as they should, then the diplomatic barriers to war can be reinforced.
For a war to break out, the international system would also have to fail. China and the United States are connected to a global network of countries and institutions that have a stake—in some cases, an existential stake—in preventing conflict between these two countries. Almost every government and institution on the globe would be grievously damaged by a U.S.-Chinese war, and so they all would try to prevent an imminent conflict through diplomatic pressure, mediation, or acts of resistance, such as denying overflight and basing rights. Critics may be quick to deny the influence of others in heading off a major-power clash. But in the current international system, there is no way for either side to emerge victorious, and those outside China and the United States would see this most clearly.
Then there is the restraint created by globalization. Mearsheimer argues that it was a catastrophic mistake for the United States to help China grow wealthy, as its resulting strength will inevitably lead it to challenge the United States. But it is also plausible that the inextricably integrated nature of the global economy, and specifically of the Chinese and U.S. economies, makes any war unwinnable and thus acts as a deterrent to conflict. It is true, as critics will point out, that economic dependencies failed to prevent World War I. But the economic relations of the early twentieth century were nothing like the complex entanglements of today’s international economic system. In the case of China and the United States, they create a situation of mutual assured economic destruction.
China and the United States are not prisoners of history.
Another restraint is public opinion, at least on the U.S. side. Politicians in the United States respond to various incentives, but they cannot ignore the sentiments of their voters. And after a 20-year fight against terrorism, the American public is decidedly wary of protracted and costly overseas conflicts. If U.S. policymakers appeared poised for a conflict with China, one would also expect that the press, having learned its lesson from the war in Iraq, would perform its watchdog function, question the official narratives, and activate public concern.
All these barriers should work to prevent a conflict. But if they somehow didn’t, there is a final fail-safe that is even harder to imagine not working: military deterrence. Taiwan is the most likely issue over which a U.S.-Chinese war could break out. But the quantity and quality of the weaponry on both sides translates to certain catastrophic losses for all, which should provide a sufficient deterrent to war. And because the devastation of a conflict over Taiwan would spiral out of control quickly, one cannot rule out the use of nuclear weapons. Strange as it may sound, that is good news: just as the nuclear age prevented direct military conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States for more than 40 years, so it should between China and the United States, both of which are nuclear-armed powers with survivable second-strike capabilities. Although China has many fewer missiles and warheads than the United States—something China is working on remedying—the doctrine of mutually assured destruction still operates. The balance of terror holds.
Looking through this list of potential failures, one might find cause for pessimism, given that each restraint has seen its share of erosion in recent years. But China and the United States are not prisoners of history. The two countries will find that they cannot escape one another, and eventually, they will have to seek accommodation. This may now seem a distant vision, but it is a far more likely outcome, given the countervailing currents, than an apocalyptic war.
SUSAN THORNTON is a Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. From 1991 to 2018, she was a career diplomat at the U.S. State Department, most recently serving as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
In John Mearsheimer’s view, China is on a single-minded quest to dominate the United States, and therefore conflict between the two powers is all but inevitable. But this argument rests on a misreading of what Beijing wants. In reality, China is in the midst of a process of soul-searching, with multiple perspectives inside the country on the future of U.S.-Chinese relations. China’s thinking is not monolithic, and its strategic direction is not preordained.
There are a number of Chinese views on relations with the United States. One is that due to domestic constraints, the two countries will inevitably grow apart and decouple, at least in key areas such as science and technology. Another is that Washington is determined to contain Beijing and diminish its power, making compromise impossible and cooperation futile. Still another view emphasizes the confrontational nature of interactions between the two countries and sees a decisive battle on the horizon for which China must prepare, in part by working more closely with Iran, North Korea, Russia, and even Taliban-led Afghanistan. These overlapping perspectives share a sense of pessimism and hostility. They all reflect a zero-sum mindset.
Mearsheimer sees this type of thinking as guiding Chinese policy. But there is in fact another, contrary outlook that he ignores. This position still holds out hope for productive relations with Washington. As Chinese President Xi Jinping said himself in 2017, “There are a thousand reasons to make the China-U.S. relationship work, and no reason to break it.” Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, has repeated this message, saying in July 2021 that cooperation was “the call of the times and the will of the people.” He added, “China and the United States are entering a new round of mutual exploration, understanding, and adaptation, trying to find a way to get along with each other in the new era.” In this optimistic view, bilateral ties can be sustained, even in the most antagonistic moments.
The debate over China’s strategy toward the United States will continue. Some Chinese media figures and policy practitioners are advocating a much firmer line, but most mainstream strategic advisers are insisting on a more accommodating policy. Indeed, Xi and the rest of the current Chinese leadership are decidedly cautious. They have generally refrained from openly criticizing American leaders, especially the president. (In August 2020, Beijing did sanction 11 U.S. politicians and leaders of pro-democratic organizations who had denounced China, but the group was carefully selected, and the sanctions came only after Washington imposed restrictions on an equal number of Chinese officials.) China’s leaders understand that their country will suffer greatly if a sweet relationship goes sour, if win-win gives way to mutual destruction. Inside Chinese diplomatic circles, this policy for handling the relationship with the United States even has a slogan: “Criticize but don’t alienate; fight over core interests but don’t break the relationship.”
Engagement, which Mearsheimer spends much of his article criticizing, can take some of the credit for this pacifistic strain of Chinese thinking. He may call it “a risky policy,” but the bet paid off. Engagement modernized China to an extraordinary degree. The policy slashed the number of China’s poor and generated in their place a large cosmopolitan and increasingly liberal-minded middle class. Domestically, this middle class overwhelmingly prizes such values as freedom and property rights; on foreign policy, it prefers peace and negotiation. Although this group does not have the power to direct China’s future, the leadership cannot afford to ignore it entirely. And its influence in China will only diminish if the U.S.-Chinese relationship becomes more hostile.
China’s thinking is not monolithic, and its strategic direction is not preordained.
Mearsheimer views China as robotically destined for war: once you wind it up, it will march toward power expansion. China’s power, its nationalism, and its lack of allies that might restrain it, he says, will lead the country to try to revise the status quo abroad. But this portrayal of Chinese intentions neglects the fact that engagement with Western countries, especially the United States, helped China integrate into the world system. Given China’s emphasis on sovereignty and negotiation, it is more accurate to call the country a conservative, status quo power. It is the United States, in contrast, that has shown itself to be revisionist. The country tried to export democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. In Asia, it is now seeking to encircle China by forging the aukus security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom and reinvigorating the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with Australia, India, and Japan. Mearsheimer is wrong to see China as a growing hegemon whose only goal is to challenge the United States. Rather, China sees itself as a victim of bullying. As a rising, but not fully risen, power, it has by no means given up hopes of coexisting and even cooperating with the United States within the current international system.
Mearsheimer’s prescriptions are as wrong-headed as his diagnosis. Since the source of U.S.-Chinese competition is “structural,” he writes, “the problem cannot be eliminated with clever policymaking.” He concludes that “at best, this rivalry can be managed in the hope of avoiding a war.” Then he offers two pieces of advice to Washington: “maintain formidable conventional forces in East Asia to persuade Beijing that a clash of arms would at best yield a Pyrrhic victory” and “work to establish clear rules of the road for waging this security competition—for example, agreements to avoid incidents at sea or other accidental military clashes.” The first recommendation assumes that China can be deterred from starting a war; the second, that China will be rational enough to follow a clear code of conduct. If Mearsheimer is convinced that these policies offer the best way out of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, then he is essentially arguing that with wise leadership and rational decision-making on both sides, the worst outcomes can be prevented. Therefore, contrary to what he claims, structure alone does not determine the future; agency also matters.
Instead of subscribing to Mearsheimer’s gloomy view of U.S.-Chinese relations, Washington should recognize that those relations can be characterized by decency, understanding, and pragmatism. The Biden administration appears to grasp this. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in 2021, “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” Mearsheimer may criticize this policy as naive and dovish, just as he has done with engagement. But the history of U.S.-Chinese relations has shown that leaders in both countries need not be enchained by structural forces. Whether voluntarily or through pressure, they can choose cooperation over conflict.
SUN ZHE is Co-Director of the China Initiative at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of State Governance Studies at Peking University.
It is good to see John Ikenberry acknowledge that engagement failed abysmally: in his words, China and the United States are now “hegemonic rivals with antagonistic visions of world order.” Unable to defend engagement with China, he instead focuses on the broader policy of liberal hegemony that U.S. policymakers pursued during the so-called unipolar moment. He maintains, oddly, that “it was a world-historical success.”
The facts do not support that claim. Consider the U.S. position in the world today compared to in 1990. Back then, the United States was the sole great power on the planet; today, it faces two hostile and dangerous great powers, China and Russia. The liberal international order that Ikenberry has championed for decades is in tatters. U.S. policy in the greater Middle East has failed at almost every turn and has caused an enormous amount of death and destruction. Democracy, which appeared to be on the march after the Cold War, is now in retreat. Worse, American democracy is under siege, in part thanks to the excesses and failures of liberal hegemony. Ikenberry tells us that the United States “is safer in a world where liberal democracies hold sway.” But the policies he has long endorsed have undermined democracy at home and abroad, making the country less safe by his logic.
Ikenberry mischaracterizes my views on containment, claiming that I would have preferred that the United States try “to keep China weak, poor, and peripheral.” But I have never made that case, since this would have been an unrealistic goal; China was always destined to grow economically. What I actually argued was that Washington should have sought to slow the country’s growth, not only to delay the day it became a great power but also to make sure it never became a peer competitor.
Ikenberry is correct when he says that containment was not a viable option, given that it was opposed by U.S. allies and partners and by figures within the United States, including the foreign policy elite. That was precisely my point: the U.S. foreign policy establishment was enamored with engagement and had no time for realist arguments. I believe, however, that if U.S. leaders had been committed to realism, they could have fashioned an effective containment policy that would have enjoyed substantial support at home and abroad. Contra Ikenberry’s view, a powerful China poses an even greater threat to its Asian neighbors than it does to the United States.
Washington should have sought to slow China's growth.
Before dismissing containment as infeasible and saying that it “would have been an act of national self-harm,” Ikenberry claims the United States actually pursued “a mix of containment and engagement” of China. This policy of “congagement,” he writes, is exemplified by Joseph Nye’s 1995 article in these pages about “deep engagement” in East Asia, a strategy Ikenberry portrays as synonymous with deep containment. Problems abound with this argument. First, Ikenberry cannot logically maintain that containment was both politically impossible and a central element of U.S. policy. Second, engagement and containment are not complementary strategies: engagement accepts that the global balance of power will shift in China’s favor as that country develops, a stance that is directly at odds with containment. Third, U.S. policymakers invariably rejected containment—as Nye himself clearly did in the article Ikenberry cites. “It is wrong to portray China as an enemy,” Nye wrote. “A containment strategy would be difficult to reverse,” he added. “Enmity would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Clinton administration’s policy of engagement is a far better approach to dealing with emerging Chinese power.”
Ikenberry claims that as an advocate of “offshore balancing,” I have little use for allies and believe that “Washington should focus on defending the Western Hemisphere, while playing a more limited, backup role in protecting allies in Europe and East Asia.” I have never made that argument with respect to East Asia. On the contrary, I have long held that the United States has no choice but to directly confront China—including by defending Taiwan—and that it must work closely with its allies to contain China’s rise.
Lastly, Ikenberry’s recommendations for how to deal with a powerful China suggest he has learned little from recent experience. Having begun his response by acknowledging that engagement failed, he ends it by recommending that the United States focus on “looking for opportunities to work with its chief rival.” Been there, done that. The results speak for themselves.
Andrew Nathan focuses less on engagement than on how U.S.-Chinese strategic competition is evolving. He worries that I am “hyping” the China threat and “creating panic.” He does not say China is a paper tiger, but he leans in that direction. Specifically, he maintains that the country “suffers from major weaknesses” and is not going to become a regional hegemon, much less the most powerful state in the world.
I never said China was in fact going to dominate Asia or attain global primacy. Rather, I argued that as China grows more powerful, it will try to achieve those goals. In response, the United States and its allies will go to great lengths to contain China, as they did with imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Whether China succeeds remains to be seen. Regardless, the ensuing competition between Beijing and Washington is likely to be more dangerous than Nathan seems to think.
Taiwan is a case in point. Nathan recognizes that as China tries “to push the United States away from its shores and weaken its alliances,” there will be “a real chance of conflict, especially over Taiwan.” But he sees Taiwan from a purely realist perspective, rejecting my argument that nationalism might help fuel a conflict over Taiwan on the grounds that my characterization makes “China sound irrationally aggressive.” In fact, Beijing views Taiwan as sacred territory and is deeply committed to making it part of China. Japan and the United States stand in the way, however, which antagonizes many Chinese and makes the likelihood of conflict over that island greater than realist logic alone would predict.
The United States is China’s only great-power rival.
Then there is Nathan’s claim that “China suffers from major weaknesses” that will severely hamper its efforts to dominate Asia. China does confront several challenges, but Nathan overstates them. It does contain numerous minority groups, for example, but 92 percent of its population is Han Chinese, and there is little evidence that ethnic unrest is sapping Chinese power. Nathan claims that China operates in a multipolar world in which it faces “five powerful rivals.” But the European Union is not a country, India and Japan are not great powers, and Russia is not an adversary. The United States is China’s only great-power rival. Of course, China will have to contend with a U.S.-led balancing coalition that includes India and Japan, but that is a far cry from facing five great powers well positioned to stop it from achieving regional hegemony. Making the situation even more favorable to China is the fact that India, Japan, and the United States are thousands of miles apart, which will impair their ability to work together to contain China. Moreover, China is not as friendless as Nathan portrays it to be: the country has fostered increasingly friendly relations with two of its most powerful neighbors, Pakistan and Russia.
The most serious difficulty Nathan identifies is China’s aging population, but it is hard to know what its effects will be in the foreseeable future. Beijing will surely turn to automation to mitigate the problem, which anyway will take a few decades to have a significant impact. Also, many of China’s competitors are dealing with similar demographic challenges, including Japan, South Korea, and even the United States to some extent. Nathan argues that China’s economy is likely to slow down markedly moving forward, and he may be right, but it is difficult to know how much that economy will grow in the next few decades (and how the U.S. economy will perform over that same period). After all, few experts predicted China’s spectacular growth over the past 30 years. But even if the country’s economy grows more slowly than it has in recent years, it will still be enormously powerful and will provide Beijing with the military wherewithal to cause its neighbors and the United States much trouble.
Susan Thornton disagrees with my categorization of engagement after the Cold War as a serious “strategic blunder,” arguing that the policy “lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty,” which is “a major human achievement.” I agree, but that accomplishment has little to do with the security of the United States, which is the issue on the table. Thornton never explains why a policy that hastened the emergence of a formidable peer competitor was not, from the U.S. perspective, a colossal misstep.
Thornton recognizes that China and the United States are now engaged in an intense security competition—which makes one wonder why she has no reservations about the policy of engagement that got us here. It may be because she is not worried that the rivalry will lead to war, arguing that “there are a number of formidable restraints in place to keep the peace.” She maintains that in contrast I believe that the rivalry is “inexorably leading” to “an apocalyptic war.” But I did not say that war is inevitable. Indeed, I emphasized that war is unlikely. After describing the different ways fighting might break out, I wrote, “None of this is to say that these limited-war scenarios are likely.” To be clear, I recognize that there are significant barriers to armed conflict. Those barriers are not impregnable, however, as logic and history make clear.
It is worth remembering that great powers were heavily engaged with one another before the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II. In some cases, they were also important trading partners. Yet major war happened anyway. And despite what Thornton may wish, victory is still possible in modern war; not every conflict leads to “certain catastrophic losses for all,” as she says a U.S.-Chinese war would. War is always a real possibility when great powers struggle over regional hegemony. Helping China rise rapidly made a clash of this sort more likely—even if it is not inevitable.
The United States mistakenly helped create a peer competitor that it may not be able to contain.
Like Thornton, Sun Zhe misrepresents my argument when he claims that I view China as “robotically destined for war,” making a U.S.-Chinese war “all but inevitable.” In fact, I maintained that security competition is inescapable but war is not—as Sun should recognize, since he quotes me saying, “This rivalry can be managed in the hope of avoiding a war.”
Sun seems to think that even an intense security competition can be avoided, but he is wrong. In his view, China is “a conservative, status quo power,” and the United States is moving toward a China policy that emphasizes cooperation over conflict. Neither characterization is accurate. China is explicitly committed to radically altering the political status quo regarding the East China and South China Seas, Taiwan, and its border with India. Meanwhile, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden shows no sign of returning to the failed policy of engagement. It is willing to talk with Beijing and manage bilateral relations, but the available evidence—such as the continuation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war and repeated signals of a growing commitment to defend Taiwan—suggests that Biden and his team intend to maintain a hard-nosed containment strategy.
Sun also emphasizes that although numerous Chinese are pessimistic about the future of U.S.-Chinese relations, there are also many who hold an optimistic view and want to improve ties. The same is true in the United States. At the end of the day, however, those debates are eclipsed by the competitive pressures inherent in an anarchic system, where each state must ultimately take care of itself. Those pressures will encourage China to strive for hegemony in Asia and lead the United States to try to prevent it—even if there are dissenters in both countries.
Sun writes that “engagement modernized China to an extraordinary degree.” He is correct, of course, and that is wonderful news for China. But it is not good news for the United States, which mistakenly helped create a peer competitor that it ultimately may not be able to contain.
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