Will Washington and Beijing be mature enough to cooperate?

I’ve posted a few comments  on Sino-American relations in recent weeks, and as you might expect, a lot of them have been informed by conversations with my friend and sometime co-author, John Mearsheimer. He’s just returned from a trip to Australia, where he delivered a major public address on the emerging rivalry between Washington and ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

I've posted a few comments  on Sino-American relations in recent weeks, and as you might expect, a lot of them have been informed by conversations with my friend and sometime co-author, John Mearsheimer. He's just returned from a trip to Australia, where he delivered a major public address on the emerging rivalry between Washington and Beijing. If you know his work, you won't be surprised to learn that it is both a pessimistic appraisal and a decidedly realist take on the topic.  If you're interested,  you can find it here.

I’ve posted a few comments  on Sino-American relations in recent weeks, and as you might expect, a lot of them have been informed by conversations with my friend and sometime co-author, John Mearsheimer. He’s just returned from a trip to Australia, where he delivered a major public address on the emerging rivalry between Washington and Beijing. If you know his work, you won’t be surprised to learn that it is both a pessimistic appraisal and a decidedly realist take on the topic.  If you’re interested,  you can find it here.

I think there is considerable merit in what John says, although my own view is slightly more optimistic.  Given my own theoretical predilections, I think there is a slightly higher probability of a relatively benign outcome than John does. I agree that the continued increase in Chinese economic power is virtually certain to lead to increased security competition between the United States and China, and for many of the reasons John outlines. What is not certain is just how intense or dangerous that security competition will ultimately become. One can imagine a range of possible outcomes, therefore, ranging from a certain wary watchfulness punctuated by occasional low-level confrontations, to a full-blown Cold War style competition where each side competes actively for allies, seeks to weaken the other in various ways, and maybe even fights proxy wars in different places. 

As a hard-core structuralist, Mearsheimer tends to lean towards the harsher end of that spectrum. Because I put more weight on geography, on the offensive potential of deployed military power, and on perceived intentions, I see somewhat greater possibilities for keeping that future competition within bounds. In particular, a lot depends on the extent to which China develops large power-projection capabilities and begins to push for major changes in the East Asian status quo. Some movement in that direction is likely, I think, but the speed and intensity of these trends will determine how alarmed the United States and its allies become and how vigorously they respond. 

But here’s what really worries me. I can easily imagine a world in which the United States and China are both governed by sensible, prudent, and mature leaders who resist pressure from domestic factions or narrow interest groups, avoid hypernationalist rhetoric, and understand the need to act with a certain degree of forbearance and restraint. And if both sides have that sort of government over the next thirty or forty years, then China’s rise may take place without a serious explosion. 

But then ask yourself: based on what you know about these two countries, how likely is it that at some point you get a set of immature, ignorant, xenophobic, jingoistic, and highly risk-acceptant  leaders in either Beijing or Washington?  (That could NEVER happen, could it?) Or imagine what happens if you get leaders like that in both countries at the same time? 

In short, although structural factors do not make intense Cold War-style competition inevitable, all it takes is a confluence of structural elements and the wrong set of domestic-level variables and bingo! — we’re in the soup. And when I listen to a lot of what passes for "serious" strategic debate here in the good ol’ USA, I really begin to wonder if we are sufficiently mature to handle what is likely to be a very delicate political-military minuet.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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