[The Acton Forum] Are rising powers inevitably threatening: The case of China

Siwon Kwak
Bachelor of International Security Studies,

Australian National University
4 October 2014

Since the announcement of the new open door policy in 1978, China has grown tremendously over the past few decades and the issue of China’s rise became the heated debate in the Asia-Pacific region. With regard to China’s rise, the arguments can be classified under two groups. The first group argues that China, as a revisionist state, might impose a threat to the system which its economy and security have been dominated by the United States (U.S) over the past half-century. The latter group, on the other hand, argues that China benefits from the U.S-led system and is therefore unlikely to mount a challenge.

This essay argues that the rise of China is threatening because it will create instability in the region by challenging the U.S-led system. The essay will discuss this topic by using offensive realism as a main pillar of support; however, this does not mean the exclusion of other theories and ideas. The first section of the essay explains why China’s rise is threatening by using key tenets of offensive realism; it will then consider other ideas that supplement this theory. The second and the third section will discuss counterarguments, namely liberal institutionalism and the idea of ‘Concert of Asia’; the essay will rebut their assumptions on China’s rise. The essay concludes by arguing China’s rise is inevitably threatening.

Neo-realism is one of the major branches from realism and has been developed from classical realism. Although neo-realism has substantial differences between other realist theories, it still shares some of the key tenets. For instance, it regards states as the primary actors in international system because there is no actor above states in international politics.[1] The absence of world government means states have to find their own ways to survive, and this has made them constantly seek for opportunities to dominate others.[2] Where neo-realism differs from classical realism is that, unlike classical realism, which emphasizes human nature’s limitless lust for power to explain the causes for power competitions, neo-realism argues power competitions among states are derived from the anarchic structure of the international system.[3] The theory is divided into two groups and one of them is called offensive realism. It encourages states to increase power rather than preserving because that is the optimal way to guarantee survival. In this context, Mearsheimer argues that the ultimate goal of any state is to be the regional hegemon.[4]

According to offensive realism, China’s rise would definitely pose threats to the current system at some time in the future. Mearsheimer argues, if China continues its growth in both economy and military, it would attempt to maximize the gap between neighbouring states such as Japan and Russia. There is no reason why China would choose not to do this because being powerful would certainly reduce provocations from neighbouring states; the Chinese leaders know the consequences for being weak in the past century and therefore, they would choose to be “Godzilla” rather than “Bambi”.[5]

In addition to widening the gap between rivals, Mearshiemer predicts a much stronger China would try to diminish the U.S sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific, which is the same thing that the U.S did to European powers in the nineteenth century. A powerful China has no reason to see the U.S military forces in its backyard and it is expected that China would try to push U.S military forces beyond the ‘Second islands chain’ in the future.[6] Such attempts will threaten the U.S allies in the region (South Korea, Japan and the Philippines) because they cannot receive the U.S military support if the U.S really drops back. Thus, as China continues its development, the neighbouring states are likely to unite against China and this would lead to conflicts in the region.

Mearsheimer’s offensive realism provides insightful explanations of China’s rise, but it is still criticized for its insufficiency. Offensive realism focuses on the anarchic structure of the system and therefore, overlooks domestic features of states by treating them as black boxes. Domestic features such as historical factors or inclination of decision makers would not affect the decision of states based on offensive realist approaches.[7] Hence, discussing China’s domestic features is necessary to supplement deficiencies.

China’s domestic features would still contribute to its threatening rise. First, China’s historical turbulence had changed Chinese perceptions on the outer world. China was the most powerful states in Asia before the arrival of European powers. Neighbouring states such as Korea, Japan, Laos and Ryukyu Empire were all under Chinese influences and they were once categorized as Sinicised states.[8] These neighbours had never challenged the Chinese dominance and this created Sinocentrism which refers to a historical ideology that claimed China as the greatest nation in the world where Chinese culture was superior to the others.[9] However, this ideology began to collapse as China engaged in conflicts with European powers in the nineteenth century. China’s defeat in the Opium War triggered the collapse of the Chinese empire and this had marked the beginning of a century long humiliation. When China restored its sovereignty after the Second World War, the century long humiliation shaped China’s new perspective on the outside world, that being weak in international politics would become a prey.[10]

China’s new perspective on outside world had a strong influence on the decision makers of China. Chinese leaders learned the international politics was like a jungle, and maximizing power was the key way to prevent recurrences. Thus, Chinese leaders became sensitive to sovereignty issues and this was evident from deploying troops to the Northeast during the Korean War; to the Southeast during the Taiwan Strait crisis.[11]

The offensive realist approach has been criticized for not taking account domestic features; however, after examining China’s historical experiences and inclination of its leaders, China would act the similar way as Mearshiemer has predicted. China will attempt to maximize its power to prevent the repetition of history. During this process, China is likely to engage in conflicts with other states; China would not back down because they know the consequences of being weak. Thus, China’s domestic features also explain why China’s rise would be inevitably threatening.

Counterargument ①: Liberal institutionalism

Even though offensive realism and historical evidence suggest China’s rise will be inevitably threatening, there are still counterarguments that contend China will rise peacefully.

Liberalism is another traditional thought in International Relations; it acknowledges realists’ argument that the international system is anarchic where every country in potentially an enemy of every other. However, it argues that various methods such as cooperation, democratization, economic interdependence could alleviate the conflicts and promote peace.[12] Liberal institutionalism is derived from liberalism and it focuses on the role of institutions. It believes institutions or organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) can increase communications between states which would result in a more peaceful world. Although it would be difficult to sustain cooperation between states under anarchy, liberal institutionalists contend that as the level of interdependence increases, states would get more benefits from the institutions. In such situation, states will more likely to follow the norms of the institutions which would contribute to peace and stability.[13]

According to liberal institutionalists’ assumptions, China’s rise would not pose a threat to the Asia-Pacific because it benefits from U.S-dominated system; this is evident from China’s behavior in regional institutions. Since the announcement of economic reform in 1978, China has endeavored to engage in regional institutions and showed reasonable cooperation. By adopting ‘charm offensive’ strategy, it has strived for gaining positive recognition from neighboring states and convinced them that China is a status-quo power with no intention to create confrontations with others.[14] In addition, China also engaged in several dialogues and treaties to show their commitment to the region. In 2003, China became the first non-Southeast Asian states to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. This is a peace treaty which was first signed in 1976 by founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The main objectives of this treaty are to promote peace and mutual cooperation on issues related to Southeast Asia, and resolving disputes through rational and effective measures.[15] As China’s involvement in regional institutions increased, many intellectuals believed that China was finally moving away from putting emphasis on narrow national-interest to support for greater institutionalization.[16]

Although liberal institutionalists’ elucidations seem quite persuasive, the theory is still questioned for durability of China’s commitment. Offensive realism argues that states have no ways to detect other states’ intention since leaders can always lie about their policies.[17] This indicates states can abandon its commitment at any time and the most probable time would be when the rising power’s ability approaches parity with the status-quo power.[18] This is called power-transition theory which is derived from realism. It argues that revisionist states are always seeking opportunities to establish a new place for themselves. If they believe their power is about to surpass the dominant nation, they would refuse to accept subordinate position and might challenge the status-quo.[19] China is currently situated in a subordinate position in the Asia-Pacific while the U.S is maintaining dominant position. If China realizes its power is now close to the U.S, it might attempt to overthrow the current system by replacing with the one it favors.

In practice, China is already attempting to diminish the U.S dominance in the Asia-Pacific and this can be seen from the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The AIIB is proposed by China that aims to provide financial support in Asia.[20] This financial institution is now regarded as rivals to the World Bank, which is dominated by the U.S. The U.S believes the increase in AIIB membership will weaken its economic influence in Asia. Such consequence is possible because by the time the AIIB is officially launched presumably at the end of 2015, China would occupy the biggest shares in this institution which would allow them to exercise greater economic influence. There is a high chance that China would do this because it is dissatisfied with the current system where the U.S is dominant. Overall, liberal institutionalism contends China’s rise would not be threatening as China increases its commitments to regional institutions. Nonetheless, these commitments are easy to be broken if China acts differently to satisfy its own interest in the future.

Counterargument ②: The Concert of Asia

Finally, offensive realist approaches to China’s rise are also criticized by Hugh White. While White acknowledges that China’s rise has created instability in the region, he claims the argument that China’s rise makes inevitable conflict with the U.S is forcefully put by offensive realism.[21] The rise of China is indeed inevitable, but White argues this does not indicate it would be always threatening. As a result, he provides a new vision called “A Concert of Asia” which would allow the U.S and China to share leadership in Asia. The idea of the concert is originated from the Europe in the early nineteenth century. During the postwar period of the Napoleonic Wars, the leaders of great powers gathered in Vienna to discuss ways to prevent the possibility of another major war. In the end, they created the order which was called the Concert of Europe.[22] Within this order, all great powers agreed not to seek primacy and this had proven to be successful until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

It seems that the Concert of Asia would be the optimal choice for Asia’ future, but the current situation shows that this model is difficult to be adopted. Unlike the balance of power where states do not agree not to seek primacy in the region, the concert requires an explicit agreement among the great powers that none would seek primacy; this is the reason why the Concert of Europe was maintained for more than a hundred years. The balance of power is created naturally, whereas the concert is formed artificially.[23] To create a concert in Asia, the system should be carefully built and maintained, which is certainly not easy.

Offensive realists anticipate that the concert has a bare possibility of realization because it requires China and the U.S to have shared interests and visions. Despite China and the U.S have endeavored to cooperate with each other in the last few years, their position in the Asia-Pacific is fundamentally different. If China is a revisionist state who wants to change the regional order, the U.S on the other hand, aims to uphold the existing order on behalf of itself and other Asian states. The U.S, as an existing hegemon, would strive to contain the rise of peer competitors because China might exercise its influence in the Western hemisphere if it becomes too powerful in the future.[24] The U.S has no reason to tolerate this and this has been evident in the twentieth century, when the U.S endeavored to bring down the Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union.[25]

The U.S announcement of ‘Pivot’ strategy implies the concert in Asia is rather pessimistic. This strategy was first introduced by Clinton in 2011 which called for America’s return to Asia for military and diplomatic rebalance.[26] Clinton claims the Asia-Pacific has entered a time of international turbulence, and hence the return of the U.S to the Asia-Pacific is essential to maintain peace and stability. Although the article does not address the cause of turbulence directly, the majority believes it would be China’s rise.

As the U.S attempts to contain China’s rise, it would lead to inevitable conflicts because China will definitely not remains as a spectator. The most recent example of this would be installation of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the Korean Peninsula. The purpose of this missile system is to detect North Korea aggression; however, it turns out that its radar would be able to cover the maximum range of 1,800 km which includes the major cities of China.[27] Although both the U.S and South Korea have rejected its capability of collecting Chinese militaries’ information, China regards this as a threat to their national security and has expressed their displeasure to South Korea.[28]


China’s rise will be inevitably threatening and this has been demonstrated by offensive realist theory. The theory encourages states to maximize their power because this is the best way to survive in an anarchic system, and China will rise in accordance with offensive realists’ predictions. Since a single theory does not explain everything, the essay has also considered China’s domestic features to supplement offensive realism.

Next, liberal institutionalism and the Concert of Asia rebut offensive realists’ assumptions on China’s threatening rise. Liberal institutionalism argues that China will abandon assertive policies as it increases engagement in regional institutions; however, such assumption is not durable because China might act differently in the future when it possesses enough power to surpass the others. The Concert of Asia is an idea that China (the revisionist) and the U.S (the status-quo) could share its leadership without provoking each other; however, this requires a strong agreement between two states. Historically, the U.S has not tolerated the emergence of new peer competitors so the coexistence of two great powers is unlikely to happen in Asia. Overall, China’s rise will be threatening because they might abandon its commitment in the future and the U.S ‘Pivot’ strategy which aims to contain China will lead to escalation of inevitable conflicts.


[1] Richard Devetak, “Realism.” In An Introduction to International Relations, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 35-47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, “Introduction.” In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (NY: Norton, 2001), 1-28.

[5] Zbigniew Brzezinski and John J. Mearsheimer, “Clash of the Titans.” Foreign Policy, October 22, 2009. Accessed April 15, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/22/clash-of-the-titans/

[6] Mearsheimer, 370-380.

[7] Timothy Dunne, “Structural Realism.” In International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, 3rd ed, (Oxford, 2013), 77-93.

[8] David C Kang. “War: The Longer Peace.” In East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 82-106.

[9] John K. Fairbank. “A Preliminary Framework” In The Chinese World Order; Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 1-19.

[10] Jian Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War, (NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 1-37.

[11] Ibid., p.85-117, 163-204.

[12] Devetak, 48-61.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Richard A. Bitzinger and Barry Desker, ‘Why East Asian War is Unlikely’ Survival 50:6 (2008):105-127.

[15] “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation 1976” ASEAN. Accessed May 3, 2015. http://www.asean.org/news/item/treaty-of-amity-and-cooperation-in-southeast-asia-indonesia-24-february-1976

[16] Bitzinger and Desker, 105-127.

[17] Mearsheimer, 29-54.

[18] David Shambaugh, Tangled Titans: The United States and China. (MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012), 3-26.

[19] David Lai, The United States and China in Power Transition. (PA: US Army War College, 2011).

[20] Tania Branigan, “Support for China-led Development Bank Grows despite US Opposition.” The Guardian. March 14, 2015, Accessed April 16, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/13/support-china-led-development-bank-grows-despite-us-opposition-australia-uk-new-zealand-asia.

[21] Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. (VIC: Black Inc., 2012.) 128-174.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Brzezinski and Mearsheimer.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”, Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/10/11/americas-pacific-century/.

[27] “S. Korea Faces Tough Decision on THAAD.” The Korea Herald. November 6, 2014. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141106001119; Robert E Kelly, “South Korea’s THAAD Decision.” The Diplomat, April 13, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/south-koreas-thaad-decision/.

[28] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea. 2015. Spokesperson’s Press Briefing. http://www.mofa.go.kr/webmodule/htsboard/template/read/engreadboard.jsp?boardid=303&typeID=12&tableName=TYPE_ENGLISH&seqno=314999.