Crouching Tiger: John Mearsheimer On Strangling China And The Inevitability of War
As part of the research for my Crouching Tiger book on the rise of China’s military and its companion documentary film, I interviewed 35 of the top experts in the world from all sides of the China issue. These are key edited excerpts from my sit-down at the University of Chicago with Professor John Mearsheimer, author of the realist classic work The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
"My argument, in a nutshell, is that if China continues to grow economically over the next 30 years, much the way it has over the past 30 years, that it will translate that wealth into military might. And it will try to dominate Asia, the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. And my argument is that this makes good strategic sense for China. Of course, the United States will not allow that to happen if it can. And the United States will, therefore, form a balancing coalition in Asia, which will include most of China's neighbors and the United States. And they will work overtime to try to contain China and prevent it from dominating Asia. This will lead to a very intense security competition between the United States and China's neighbors on one hand, and China on the other hand. And there will be an ever-present danger of war."
Of course from this observation rises the imperative if not to strangle China’s economy then to certainly slow it down.
"There's no question that preventive war makes no sense at all, but a much more attractive strategy would be to do whatever we could to slow down China's economic growth. Because if it doesn't grow economically, it can't turn that wealth into military might and become a potential hegemon in Asia. I mean, what really makes China so scary today is the fact that it has so many people and it's also becoming an incredibly wealthy country. Our great fear is that China will turn into a giant Hong Kong. And if it has a per capita GNP that's anywhere near Hong Kong's GNP, it will be one formidable military power. So the question is, Can you prevent it from becoming a giant Hong Kong?
My great hope is that China's economy will slow down on its own. I think it's in America's interest, and it's in the interest of China's neighbors to see the Chinese economy slow down in terms of its growth rate in really significant ways in the future because if that happens, it then can't become a formidable military power."
As for the possible hegemonic intentions behind China’s rapid military buildup, Professor Mearsheimer is unequivocal:
"I think it's very clear that China is a revision of state. The Chinese have made it clear that they think that Taiwan should be made part of China. They believe that the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea, should become Chinese. The Japanese, of course, now control them. And they believe that they should dominate the South China Sea in ways that they don't at the moment. And what the Chinese would like to do, is they'd like to push the United States back towards the United States. And the first step would be to push them beyond the First Island Chain, which would allow them to control all of the waters in between that First Island Chain and the Chinese mainland. And then, of course, if they push the Americans out beyond the Second Island Chain, they'd control most of the West Pacific. They'd control the waters off their coastline."
On the inevitably of conflict between the US and China, its roots lie in the necessity of adopting a “containment strategy” much as the US had to do with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Says Mearsheimer:
"I think that the optimal strategy for the United States for dealing with China is to pursue a containment strategy similar to the one that we pursued with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There will be some people who will argue for preventive war or for a rollback strategy, but it would be remarkably foolish, in my opinion, to pursue that option. It makes much more sense for the United States just to work with China's neighbors to try and contain it and to prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon.
The problem that we face, however, is that as we move towards a containment strategy now, we almost certainly guarantee that there will be an intense security competition between the United States and China. One might say to me: "John, the argument you're making for containment now, basically creates a situation where you have a self-fulfilling prophecy, where it guarantees that China and the United States will compete for security and they will always be a danger of war.”
My response to that is it's true, but we have no choice because we cannot afford to let China grow and dominate Asia for fear that it might have malign intentions. So, therefore, we have to contain it now, and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And my argument is that this is the tragedy of great power politics."
As for whether the Hillary Clinton “pivot to Asia” is simply an old-style containment in a new rhetorical bottle, there is this bit of history:
"Now, in the 1990s, the Clinton administration did pursue engagement. There was little evidence of containment: and you could do that in the 1990s because China was then weak enough that it didn't matter.
So I believe in the 1990s that the Clinton administration really did believe in engagement and thought that containment was a bad idea and pursued this policy of engagement.
But we're now reaching the point where China is growing economically to the point where its going to have a lot of military capability, and people are getting increasingly nervous. So what you see is we're beginning to transition from engagement to containment; and this, of course, is what the pivot to Asia is all about.
Hilary Clinton, who is married to Bill Clinton and pursued engagement in the 1990s, is now the principle proponent of the pivot to Asia; and she fully understands that it is all about containment.
Of course, what's going to happen here given that we live in the United States is that we're going to use liberal rhetoric to disguise our realist behavior. So we will go to great lengths not to talk in terms of containment even though we're engaged in containment and even though the Chinese know full well that we're trying to contain them. But for our own sake and for our public we will talk in much more liberal terms. So it's liberal ideology disguising realist behavior."
As for the idea that economic engagement itself is a viable peace strategy, Professor Mearsheimer sees this as decidedly counter-historical:
"Many people find it hard to believe that countries that engage in security competition also continue to trade with each other economically. But if you look at Europe before World War I-- and, indeed, if you look at Europe before World War II, what you see is that there was a great deal of economic interdependence on the continent and with Britain before both world wars. So I believe that if China continues to grow economically, there will still be much economic intercourse between China and its neighbors and China and the United States. And I still think that you will have a lot of potential for trouble between these two countries. And don't forget, even though you had all this economic intercourse between World War I and World War II, you still got World War I and you still got World War II.
If you look at Europe before World War I, there were extremely high levels of economic interdependence between Germany and virtually all of its neighbors, certainly between Germany and Russia, Germany and France, and Germany and Britain, these were the main players. And despite this economic interdependence, these high levels of economic interdependence, you still got World War I.
Another example would be the period before World War II. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. And for the previous two years, Germany and the Soviet Union-- this is Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union-- had been close allies in Europe. In fact, in September 1939 they had invaded Poland together and divided it up.
So there was a great deal of economic intercourse between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union between 1939 and 22 June, 1941. Nevertheless, that economic interdependence did not prevent World War II from escalating into a major war between Moscow and Berlin.
And, in fact, there are all sorts of stories about the German forces invading the Soviet Union and passing trains that were going into the Soviet Union that were carrying German goods, and trains coming from the Soviet Union towards Germany that were carrying Soviet raw materials and some Soviet goods as well. So there was economic interdependence between Germany and the Soviet Union and yet you still got a war."
Closely related to the argument that economic engagement will prevent war between the US and China is the economic interdependence argument. In Professor Mearsheimer’s world that’s a dangerous gamble because politics and nationalism can often trump economics.
"I've talked about the fact that I think China cannot rise peacefully, probably a hundred times; and the argument that is used against me most often is clearly the economic interdependence argument, and it goes like this:
The United States and China, and China and its neighbors are all hooked on capitalism and everybody is getting rich in this world of great economic interdependence; and nobody in their right mind would start a war because you would, in effect, be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. So that what is happening here is that economic interdependence has created a situation where it's a firm basis for peace.
I think this is wrong. Let me explain. I think there's no doubt that there are going to be certain circumstances where economic interdependence will be enough to tip the balance in favor of peace; but I think as a firm basis for peace, it won't work because there will be all sorts of other situations where politics trumps economics.
People who are making the economic interdependence argument are basically saying that economics trumps politics. There are no political differences that are salient enough, right, to override those economic considerations?
Again, there will be cases where that's true. But there will be many more cases, in my opinion, where political considerations are so powerful, so intense, that they will trump economic considerations.
And just to give you an example or two. Taiwan: The Chinese have made it clear that if Taiwan were to declare its independence now, they would go to war against Taiwan, even though they fully understand that that would have major negative economic consequences for Beijing. They understand that, but they would go to war anyway. Why? Because from a political point of view, it is so important to make Taiwan a part of China, that they could not tolerate Taiwan declaring its independence.
Another example is the conflict in the East China Sea between Japan and China, over the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. It is possible to imagine those two countries, China and Japan, actually ending up in a shooting match over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea. How can this possibly be because it would threaten the economic prosperity of both countries? It would have all sorts of negative economic consequences.
But the fact is, from the Chinese point of view and the Japanese point of view, these rocks are sacred territory. The politics of the situation are such that it is conceivable that should a conflict arise, it will escalate into a war because politics will trump economics."
One of the equally enduring themes of American foreign policy is that the existence of nuclear weapons will insure the peace in Asia. However, Professor Mearsheimer is not so sure of that at all – and makes a powerful case the existence of nuclear weapons actually opens the door to more limited conflicts in Asia over key flashpoints like Korea and the Senkaku Islands.
"The existence of nuclear weapons makes it virtually impossible for the United States and China to end up fighting World War III, in other words, a large conventional war. I think that the presence of nuclear weapons makes that one scenario impossible; but I do think it's possible that the United States and China could end up in a limited war over, let's say, Taiwan, over Korea, over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, or over a series of islands in the South China Sea. These are more limited conflicts, and I think that nuclear weapons do not make them impossible.
So I think that nuclear weapons are a force for peace between the United States and China in the sense that they rule out World War III; but there are all sorts of other kinds of war, more limited in nature, that I believe are not ruled out by the presence of nuclear weapons.
And I would note to support this that during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both had thousands of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, they maintained large conventional forces, and they even thought about fighting a conventional war in the heart of Europe.
Of course, that was almost unthinkable because of the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe. World War III with nuclear weapons in Europe was virtually unthinkable.
But nevertheless, we still had very powerful conventional forces, and we worried about all sorts of contingencies where we could end up fighting against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the most prominent of which, by the way, was the Persian Gulf, where we thought there was some possibility after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 that they might invade the Middle East or the Persian Gulf. We, therefore, built the rapid deployment force; and that was built, in large part, to deal with a war against the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf."
As a final argument for that China’s rise will surely be peaceful, there is Confucian Pacifism. Professor Mearsheimer, however, wants no part of that argument:
Many Chinese believe that there will not be trouble in Asia because China is a Confucian culture. This is what I called the Confucian Pacifism argument; and the argument is that China has historically not behaved in an aggressive way towards its neighbors. It's behaved in a Confucian way, which is to say that it has behaved very defensively. It's not been aggressive at all; and to the extent that China has been involved in wars, it's due to aggression on the part of its neighbors. In other words, China is always the good guy, and its adversaries in wars are always the bad guys.
This is a lot like “American Exceptionalism,” right? Americans believe that they're almost always the good guy, and it's the other side that is the bad guy. We tend to see the world in very black and white terms, where we're the white hats and the other side is the black hats. The same thing is true with Confucian Pacifism. It's basically a story that says, you know, the Chinese are the white hats.
The fact is if you look at Chinese history, what you see is that the Chinese have behaved, over time, much like the European great powers, the United States, and the Japanese. They have behaved very aggressively whenever they can; and when they have not behaved aggressively, it's largely because they didn't have the military capability to behave aggressively.
But the idea that China is a country that has not acted according to the dictates of realpolitik and has always been the victim, not the victimizer, is clearly contradicted by the historical record. China is like everybody else."
As hard as Professor Mearsheimer is on China’s hegemonic intentions, he is equally critical of an American pattern of aggression that has, in his view, helped give rise to China’s own increasingly militaristic behavior.
"Many Americans think that because the United States is a democracy and it is a hegemon, that it is a benign hegemon. And those same Americans think that the rest of the world should view the Americans in those terms. They should see us as a benign hegemon. But that's not the way most other countries around the world see us, and it's certainly not the way the Chinese see us.
The United States has fought six separate wars since the Cold War ended in 1989, the first of which was against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991. Then we fought against Serbia over Bosnia in 1995, and again, in 1999 against Serbia, but this time over Kosovo. And then we went to war against Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th, and then in 2003, March 2003, we invaded Iraq. And in 2011 we went to war against Libya.
So anyone who makes the argument that the United States is a peaceful country because its democratic, right, is confronted immediately with evidence that contradicts that basic claim. It's not an exaggeration to say that the United States is addicted to war. We are not reluctant at all to reach for our six-shooter. And countries like China understand this.
And when countries like China see the United States pivoting to Asia, and they see what our record looks like in terms of using military force since 1989. And when they think about the history of US-Chinese relations, when they think about the Open Door policy and how we exploited China in the early part of the 20th century. And when they think about the Korean War – most Americans don't realize this, but we were not fighting the North Koreans during the Korean War, we were fighting the Chinese from 1950 to 1953. We had a major war, not with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but with China. China remembers all these things. So they do not view the United States as a benign hegemon. They view the United States as a very dangerous foe that is moving more and more forces to Asia and is forming close alliances with China's neighbors. From Beijing's point of view, this is a terrible situation."
On the inevitability of war between China and the US, Professor Mearsheimer sees it rooted in how the competition between China and the United States will ultimately play out on the world stage -- and on the high seas of the East and South China Seas.
"So one of the really interesting questions here is what is the competition between China and the United States going to look like? First of all, I think there's going to be a serious arms race. I think that the Chinese will spend increasing amounts of money on defense and they will build more and better military capability.
At the same time, the United States is going to increase defense spending, and it's going to send more and more of its military assessments to Asia than it has in the past because the United States is going to be bent on containing China, and this will lead to an arms race.
The Chinese will try and best us, and we will try and best them, much the way the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
I think it's almost for sure you'll have crises. You'll have crises in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. I wouldn't be surprised if you had a crisis on the Korean peninsula that threatened to bring the United States and China into the fray. That would be a very dangerous situation.
So I think, in addition to arms races, you'll have crises. And then, of course, you'll have the ever-present danger that those crises will escalate to wars. And given the geography of Asia, it is possibly that you could have a war between the United States and China. Just to give you one example:
If a conflict were to break out between Japan and China over the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands, the United States would almost certainly come in on the side of Japan; and it's possible to imagine shooting starting in that situation because you're talking about a war that would be fought at sea, and where there would be no need to use nuclear weapons.
This is not like a war on the central front during the Cold War where the United States and the Soviet Union, were they to fight, would end up fighting World War III with nuclear weapons; and because that possible scenario was so horrific, it was extremely unlikely.
We're talking about fighting a war over a series of rocks out in the East China Sea. It's easy to imagine such a war starting.
It's easy to imagine North Korea collapsing and a conflict breaking out between North and South Korea that pulls the United States and the Chinese in.
It's easy to imagine a war being fought over Taiwan and the United States coming in on the side of Taiwan, presenting a situation where the United States and China are fighting each other."
Against the backdrop of these rapidly rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific, Professor Mearsheimer offers some serious advice to a China that he sees badly misplaying its strategic hand of late:
"Where the Chinese have gone wrong, in my opinion, is they have overreacted in almost every case; and, as a consequence, they have scared their neighbors, and they have scared the United States. The Chinese argue that it's imperative in these crises to lay down markers and to make it clear where China stands on the conflict or the dispute in question; and I understand that, but they do it in ways that seem very aggressive in tone and -- or aggressive in nature, and they end up scaring people. And that's not smart.
Now, some people might say, a lot of countries have pursued hegemony in the past and they have ended up destroying themselves. Look at what happened to imperial Germany, look at what happened to imperial Japan, look at what happened to Nazi Germany. Look at what happened to the Athenians.
Now, there's no question that, in the past, countries have pursued hegemony and have ended up getting destroyed in the process. What subsequent countries do, looking back, is say to themselves: We're going to be much smarter the next time. We're going to pull it off. We're going to be like the United States.
Just take China for example. The Chinese understand full well what happened to Imperial Germany, what happened to the Soviet Union; and the Chinese do not want to end up committing suicide. So what the Chinese are doing is thinking about how to maximize their power in smart and sophisticated ways.
So my argument would be that, given the tragedy of great power politics, they will pursue regional hegemony. They will try to push the Americans out of Asia, they will try to dominate Asia, and they will try to do it smartly. Whether they're successful or not is another matter."
Finally, Professor Mearsheimer offers a firm rebuttal to the case for American isolationism. It is a rebuttal firmly rooted in his theory of Great Power Politics that says an American retreat will only invite an unwelcome Chinese advance.
"One might argue that what the United States should do if China continues to rise is that we should retreat to Hawaii or retreat to the continental United States; and we should pursue an isolationist strategy. And the argument here would be that it doesn't really matter whether China dominates Asia because it can't get at the United States anyway.
This is actually a very powerful argument. If you think about it, we're separated from China as we separated from Europe by two giant moats. The Chinese would have to come 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to get to California. There's not going to be an amphibious operation that's 6,000 miles long across the Pacific Ocean.
So not only do we have these oceans, we also have thousands of nuclear warheads, which are the ultimate deterrent. Furthermore, we dominate the Western Hemisphere.
So the United States is an incredibly secure country; and one can make a quite persuasive argument that, even if China dominates Asia, it's not going to affect the United States in any meaningful way.
My view is that there's one powerful counter to that argument; and it's the main argument again isolationism; and it says that if China dominates all of Asia, if it's a regional hegemon, it is then free to roam around the world much the way the United States, as a regional hegemon, is free to roam around the world.
Most Americans don't think about this, but the reason that the United States is wandering all over God's little green acre, sticking its nose in everybody's business, is because we are free to roam. We have no threats in the Western Hemisphere that pin us down.
Now if China is free to roam because it's a potential hegemon, it can roam into the Western Hemisphere. It can develop friendly relations with a country like Brazil or country like Mexico. It could put a naval base in Brazil much the way the Soviets were putting troops in Cuba, right?
So what the United States fears about China dominating Asia is the possibility that it will not invade the United States, but that it will move into the Western Hemisphere, form a close alliance with a country like Brazil or Cuba or Mexico, and become a threat to the United States from inside the Hemisphere."