John Mearsheimer Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Through the Realist Lens: Conversation with John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago; April 8, 2002 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Realist View of China

Let's look at another problem, and that is future relations with the People's Republic of China. This is an area that you've written about, and your theory may be applicable there. How should we look at China as it emerges as a potential hegemon in the Asian theater?

The most important question about China is whether or not it will continue to grow economically over the next twenty or thirty years, the way it's grown over the past twenty years. It's almost impossible to say whether or not China is going to look like a giant Hong Kong, from an economic perspective, in the year 2030. It's just very hard to say. My argument is that if China continues to grow economically, it will translate that economic might into military might, and it will become involved in an intense security competition with the United States, similar to the security competition that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That intense security competition, in my opinion, is unavoidable.

Why do I say that? My argument, as I emphasized to you before, is that all states like to be regional hegemons, they like to dominate their backyard and make sure that no other state can interfere in their backyard. This is the way the United States has long behaved in the Western Hemisphere, it's what the Monroe Doctrine is all about. Well, if China continues to grow economically and militarily, why should we expect China not to imitate the United States? Why should we expect that China won't want to dominate its backyard the way we dominate our backyard? Why should we expect that China won't have a Monroe Doctrine, when we have a Monroe Doctrine?

Now, if China tries to dominate all of Asia, which I expect it will do for good strategic reasons related to realpolitik, the question you have to ask yourself is how will the United States react to that? Well, again, as I emphasized before, the United States has long wanted to be the hegemon in its own region, and to make sure that it has no peer competitors. If China becomes a hegemon in Asia, it is a peer competitor by definition. My argument is that the United States will go to great lengths to make sure China does not become a peer competitor. It will go to great lengths to contain China and cut China off at the knees, the way it cut Imperial Germany off at the knees in World War I, the way it cut Nazi Germany off at the knees in World War II, the way it cut Imperial Japan off at the knees in World War II, and the way it cut the Soviet Union off at the knees during the Cold War. The United States has a long and clear record of not tolerating peer competitors in either Asia or Europe, and, therefore, I think there is no reason to believe that we would tolerate Chinese hegemony in Asia any more than we would tolerate Japanese hegemony in Asia.

Now, what does that mean? What do you think we will do or we should do to prevent that inevitability from coming about?

There are two things, I think, that we will do. One is, I think that we'll go to considerable lengths to slow down Chinese economic growth, once it becomes apparent that they're headed toward the Hong Kong model. I'm not exactly sure what policies we'll pursue, and I tend to believe that it will be almost impossible -- I don't have a lot of hard evidence to support this, but I think it will be almost impossible to slow down Chinese economic growth.

It will be impossible.

It will be almost impossible. Yes, it will be very difficult, at the very least, to slow down Chinese economic growth. The second thing that we will do, which I think will be more effective, is that we'll put in place a containment policy, similar to the containment policy that we had against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, to prevent China from actually dominating Asia. And the balancing coalition will look like this: it will be Japan, Vietnam, Korea, India, Russia, and the United States. You can already see the first stirrings of that balancing coalition. The fact that the United States and India, who were not rivals, but basically soft adversaries during the Cold War, the fact that those two countries have now moved much closer to each other and are much more friendly with each other, is, I believe, due to the common threat of China. I think you will see the same thing happening with Russia. I don't think Russian-American relations will be as bad over the next twenty years as they were during the 1990s, in large part because a growing China will push us together.

Now, what particular form, or what particular action, will these alliances take? In other words, is the worry here that China will be on the move militarily, and these coalitions will stop it? What form will this balancing take? Will it be political? Will it be cultural? Or what?

It will be mainly political and military. Just to give you a couple of examples to highlight the potential problems that are out there. There's a dispute between Russia and China as to exactly where the border is between them, but, more importantly, there has been massive illegal Chinese immigration into Russia. It is possible that a border dispute could break out between Russia and China at some point in the distant future. The United States, I think, will go to great lengths to back up the Russians and to prevent that from happening, because the United States would not want a situation where China conquered any large portion of Russian territory.

To take another example, Japan, as you well know, is an island state that is highly dependent on imports and exports that come across water. Therefore, the Japanese are very concerned about the sea lines of communication that they're so dependent on. The Chinese, on the other hand, troll those same waters. In the scenario we're describing, they are sure to build a very large navy, and the Japanese and the American navies on one hand and the Chinese navy on the other hand are likely to move about in places like the China Sea. And one can hypothesize all sorts of scenarios where they crash into each other.

Another important issue which I won't talk about at any length because it's so obvious is Taiwan. It's probably going to be the case that Taiwan is not incorporated into China in the next five or ten years. It may happen, but certainly it's not likely. What happens if China becomes big and powerful and doesn't own Taiwan? At some point they're probably going to use military force to take Taiwan, and it may be the case that both Japan and the United States say, "That is unacceptable," and go to war on behalf of Taiwan.

So you can hypothesize all sorts of scenarios -- let's hope they don't come to fruition -- but you can hypothesize reasonable scenarios where a powerful China runs headlong into a powerful United States.

Next page: Lessons Learned

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