- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
For the past fifteen years or so, there’s been a continuing debate on the likelihood of a serious rivalry between the United States and China. On one side are realists who believe that if China continues to increase its economic power, then significant security competition between the two countries is virtually inevitable. On the other side are those (mostly liberal) theorists who believe that the potential for trouble will be muted by economic interdependence and the socializing effects of China’s growing participation in various international institutions. (This was Bill Clinton’s rationale for getting China into the World Trade Organization, for example). And if China were to make a gradual transition to democracy, so the argument runs, then democratic peace theory will kick in and there’s nothing to worry about.
On Saturday, the New York Times published an important story supporting the realist view. It described the rapid expansion of China’s naval capabilities (a classic manifestation of great power status), as well as the more ambitious new strategy that this growing capacity is designed to serve. Briefly, as China’s economic power and dependence on overseas raw materials (e.g., oil) has grown, it is seeking to acquire the ability to protect its access. In practice, China’s new strategy of "far sea defense" means acquiring the ability to project naval power into key ocean areas (including the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf), while denying other naval powers the ability to operate with impunity in areas close to China.
Needless to say, this is precisely what realism would predict, and some prominent realists (e.g., my co-author John Mearsheimer) have already explained the logic behind this prediction very clearly. And the one country that shouldn’t be at all surprised is the United States, because China appears to be doing something akin to what we did during the latter part of the 19th century. To be specific: Beijing is seeking to build its economy, then expand its military capacity, achieve a position of regional dominance, and then exclude other major powers from its immediate neighborhood.
In the U.S. case, we expanded across North America ("Manifest Destiny") and other great powers to stay out of the Western hemisphere (the Monroe Doctrine). It took a long time before the United States was strong enough to enforce the latter idea, but eventually we could and we did. This position has been a huge strategic advantage ever since: not only is the United States the only great power that didn’t have to worry about foreign invasion (because it had no great power rivals nearby), this position also allowed us to intervene all over the globe without having to devote much blood or treasure to defending our own shores.
If you were a Chinese strategist, wouldn’t you like to be in similar position? Ideally, you’d like to be the strongest power in East Asia and you wouldn’t want any other great powers (like the United States) to have a major strategic role there. Achieving that goal is not easy, however, because China has some strong neighbors (Japan, India, Vietnam, etc.) and many Asian states already have close security ties with the United States.
So here’s what I’d expect to see over the next few decades. I’d expect China to speak softly (for the most part) while it builds a bigger stick. If they are smart, they won’t throw their weight around too much lest they provoke more vigorous balancing behavior by their neighbors (and the United States). I would also expect them to continuing developing military capabilities designed to make it more dangerous for the United States to operate near China, and eventually build power projection capabilities that will complicate our operations in other areas that matter (like the Persian Gulf). At the same time, look for them to forge relations in some areas that have been traditional U.S. "spheres of interest," so that the United States has to devote more time and attention to these regions too. I’d expect them to play "divide-and-conquer" closer to home as well, and try to persuade some of their neighbors to distance themselves from Washington. Lastly, Beijing would dearly love to keep the United States bogged down in places like Afghanistan, distracted by disputes over Iran’s nuclear program, and stymied by the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while they exploit the anti-American sentiments that these problems exacerbate and stay focused on the bigger picture. So don’t expect a lot of help from them on those fronts.
There are at least three caveats worth noting in this otherwise gloomy picture. First, as the Times article makes clear, China remains much weaker than the United States today, and it has a long way to go before it becomes a true "peer competitor." So there’s no need for panic, just a timely and prudent response. The good news (such as it is) is that China’s rise should make it relatively easy for the United States to stay on good terms with its current Asian allies.
Second, Chinese economic growth is likely to slow in the years ahead, especially as its population ages and as its emerging middle class demands additional social benefits. This situation will force Beijing to make some hard choices about domestic and international priorities and may limit the speed with which economic might is translated into military power and overseas presence.
Third, and most important, nothing I’ve said above implies that open war between the United States and China is inevitable. Nuclear deterrence is likely to keep the competition within bounds, and prudent and sensible diplomacy may be able to defuse or limit potential clashes of interest. Nonetheless, if China continues on the course laid out here, you should expect significant security competition between Washington and Beijing in the decades ahead. To expect anything else is . . . well . . . unrealistic.