Balancing China and the Realist Road to War

The argument for balancing against China rests on some questionable assumptions.

Posted on 05/18/15
By Jie Dalei and Jared McKinney | Via The Diplomat
President Obama with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (Photo by U.S. Embassy The Hague, Creative Commons License)
President Obama with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (Photo by U.S. Embassy The Hague, Creative Commons License)

America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China began with containment in 1949: The victory of Mao’s communist forces in China’s civil war shocked Americans and created a fearful backlash of the monolithic advance of global communism. In 1972, the United States changed its policy of containing China and instead joined a quasi-alliance with it against the much more dangerous Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the U.S.-China relationship nonetheless remained generally positive, sustained by China’s relative liberalization, immense economic growth, and America’s distraction with interminable wars in the Middle East.


Now, in 2015, it is increasingly appearing as if T.S. Eliot was right and that “What we call the beginning is often the end.” “Washington is giving up on Beijing becoming a stakeholder in the present global order,” the Financial Times reports. China is “losing Washington,” declares Newsweek. “China has been ‘weaponized’ in U.S. domestic politics,” notes the National Interest. “Calls to punish China grow,” affirms Bloomberg. President Xi  Jinping “is moving in the other direction, (away) from [the] constructive engagement” of China’s last two presidents, asserts the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. It is in this context that two prominent American scholars and diplomats have written a primer on how the U.S. should revise its grand strategy to keep a rising China down, in order to maintain American primacy in Asia and beyond.


For years, in fact, prominent scholars – such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago – have called for America to balance against a rising China. They have made this appeal according to the abstract structural logic of international relations theory. The logic goes like this: American military primacy should be maintained at all costs, China’s rise threatens this primacy, so the U.S. should work to “balance” against – or, broadly, contain – a rising China by surrounding it with powerful American military capabilities, creating NATO-like adversarial alliances, isolating it economically, and, most recently, “imposing costs” when it does things the U.S. does not like.


The newest primer, “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China,” written by Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis and published by the prestigious New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, rehashes all of these “offensive realist” prescriptions (summarized by The Diplomat here), but with one difference: It does not own up to the logic of its position. Treating China according to the report’s recommendation would not force it to meekly back down, nor would it result in a simple realignment of the “balance of power.” Instead, it would create a new, volatile, zero-sum environment in which the U.S. and China would become rivals, the region would become polarized, arms races would flourish, and, inevitably, crises would ensue. Whether these crises would produce war no one can know, but the creation of such an environment is certain to make war far more likely. This is where “balancing” against China necessarily ends. John Mearsheimer has forthrightly acknowledged this to be the case, leading him to predict that the U.S. and China will fall into conflict. Blackwill and Tellis – and indeed, many other prominent advocates of balancing China – instead sustain a fiction that the U.S. can walk down the realist road to war without making great power politics tragic. This is mistaken and dangerous.


The Balance China Argument  

According to Blackwill and Tellis, the preeminent objective of the U.S. should be to maintain, and increase, its power. With this as their premise, they deduce that growing Chinese power threatens the U.S. In response, the U.S. should balance against China in all the traditional ways: Exclude it from economic pacts, restrict its technology imports, and threaten it by surrounding it with powerful U.S. military forces and strong U.S. allies. The way to respond to a rising power is to try to push it back where it came from.


Click here to read the complete article at The Diplomat.


Jie Dalei is an assistant professor at the School of International Studies of Peking University. Jared McKinney is a dual-degree graduate student at Peking University and the London School of Economics.

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