Tensions in the South China Sea between Chinese and U.S. naval forces, deadly clashes with India on the Tibetan border, Chinese incursions, and threats against Taiwan, and growing global opposition to Chinese belligerence are all increasing the chances of armed conflict. One U.S. geopolitics expert is pessimistic war can be avoided but believes China can be contained.
John Mearsheimer, author of the 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, predicted much of what we see today in U.S.-China relations. He concluded that “China’s strategic goal was to become Asia’s hegemon and that the United States would try to prevent that.”
While I may disagree with Mearsheimer’s contention that “Becoming a global hegemon today is nearly impossible. And therefore, states rather seek to dominate as regional hegemons,” his other observations are very much on point.
For one, he is very clear about the different approaches toward China between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), Mearsheimer said, “I think there’s no question that, when former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the pivot to Asia in 2011, the U.S. was just beginning to think about containing China. During the Barack Obama presidency, not much was done.”
But, Mearsheimer adds, “since Donald Trump became US president, there’s no question the US is pursuing an ambitious containment policy that goes beyond containment. The US has tried to roll back China’s economy, it is targeting China’s technology sector.”
Following Ronald Reagan’s playbook to defeat the Soviet Union, Trump is the first U.S. president to seriously take on the Chinese threat before it becomes unbeatable.
While he believes there’s “every reason to think that the US will be able to contain China for the foreseeable future,” Mearsheimer says he “is slightly more pessimistic now about the possibility of an actual war between the US and China.”
He makes the distinction between the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and China today:
…the US and the Soviet Union focused mainly on Central Europe. To have a war between the US and the Soviet Union would have involved World War III in Central Europe with potentially nuclear weapons. And it was almost impossible to start a war like that.
The geography in East Asia today is much different. Potential conflict points involve the South China Sea, Taiwan and the East China Sea.
It’s much easier to imagine a war breaking out in the South China Sea. Of course, it would be a limited war, but that it would take place at sea and it would involve largely air and naval forces makes it more thinkable than a war in Central Europe would have been during the Cold War.
Mearsheimer notes he is ‘not saying that’s likely, but it’s a plausible scenario and that is very worrisome.”
As President Trump expands the U.S. coalition against China, Mearsheimer predicts there will be two alliance structures developing “like the two alliance structures during the Cold War: NATO on one side, and the Warsaw Pact on the other.” In his equation, “Pakistan, North Korea, Cambodia, Laos and probably Myanmar will likely side with China. Japan, India, Singapore and Vietnam will be allied with the US.”
To the latter anti-China group I would add Australia.
All this should help to constrain China, but if Trump’s ‘rollback’ strategy is undermined by a future Biden-Harris administration, the threat may become very different.
As Mearsheimer notes, “China is a fundamentally different adversary. It has over four times as many people, with a highly dynamic capitalist economy. Therefore, it has the potential to become much wealthier than the US. So, the US could end up opposing a country much larger than itself.”