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By Zhao Gang and Travis Sevy


In a January/February 2005 special report of Foreign Policy magazine, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Zbigniew Brzezinski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies debate the impact of China’s rise on Sino-U.S. relations. Mearsheimer argues that China cannot rise peacefully, and that if it continues its dramatic economic growth over the next few decades, the two countries are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.[2] Brzezinski counters that China’s focus on maintaining economic growth will prevent it from adopting a “confrontational foreign policy” and enable it to continue rising peacefully.[3]


According to Mearsheimer, a great power survives by maximizing its offensive capability until it becomes the hegemonthe only great power in the system.[4] Mearsheimer asserts that China is the only country with the potential to emerge as a global peer competitor to the United States because of the size of its economy and population. He holds that Washington’s approach of “engaging rather than containing” is misguided and that a wealthier China will be a more aggressive China. Based on these assumptions, Mearsheimer argues that “engagement” with China is doomed to fail and that the United States should do everything in its power to slow the rise of China.[5]


Recent interaction between the United States and China, however, refutes Measheimer’s conclusion and lends empirical support to Brzezinki’s case. In late 2003, senior Chinese leaders began expounding the notion of a “peaceful rise” as the new strategic choice for China. Testing both arguments against the policies that the United States and China have adopted since the end of the Cold War indicates that Mearsheimer’s conclusions are exaggerated, and that Brzezinki’s argument more closely describes the future of Sino-U.S. relations.


First, Mearsheimer greatly exaggerates China’s ambitions. The subordination of China’s national defense buildup to the nation’s overall development has been in practice for more than twenty years and will continue for decades to come. While China’s economy in the past two decades has been growing at a rate of 7%~8% annually, its defense spending has been increasing at a much slower rate. In 2003, China's defense expenditure amounted to only 5.69% of that of the United States. Since the mid-1980s, China has twice downsized its military by a total of 1.5 million troops. In September 2003, China determined to reduce an additional 200,000 troops by the end of 2005.[6] In contrast to its military downsizing, China’s participation in international organizations has increased rapidly. According to Harvard Professor Alastair Iain Johnston, “the PRC has become more integrated into and more cooperative within international institutions than ever before.” [7]


Second, Mearsheimer greatly overstates China’s capabilities. Though America’s economy is not growing as rapidly as China’s, the absolute gap between the two countries is still vast and may continue to widen in the coming decades. World Bank data shows that China’s economy in 2002 was still just one-eighth of America’s in aggregate terms.[8] In addition, the United States holds the uncontestable lead in key areas of technology. Coping with a weak economic foundation, uneven development, and ecological deterioration, China still faces many challenges of a developing country. In addition, China’s enormous population compounds many of these problems. The Chinese leadership must foster rapid economic growth simply to maintain the well being of such a large population. Even considerable amounts of financial and material resources, when divided by China’s huge population, have limited impact. By the same token, seemingly small economic and social difficulties, multiplied by this enormous figure, result in severe consequences.


Third, Mearsheimer asserts that cooperation between countries is short-lived at best because of constantly high levels of fear and confict that exist in the international community. This conclusion, however, starkly contrasts the significant amount of cooperation between China and other major powers. As China continues to acquire capital, technology and resources for its modernization drive, it will further integrate into the global economy. Economic relations between China and the United States, in particular, have become increasingly interdependent. In 2004, Sino-U.S. trade was up 34 percent with the total volume amounting to more than $169 billion.[9] China has now become America's second largest importer and fifth largest exporter.[10]


In recent years, new forms of bilateral cooperation in the field of non-traditional security and global issues such as terrorism, anti-proliferation, environment deterioration, drug trafficking and refugees has created a favorable international environment for China’s peaceful rise. Instead of offering an interpretation of these contemporary issues, Mearsheimer’s theory simply attempts to diminish their significance. After September 11, 2001, the United States and China, through a series of high level visits and strategic dialogues, determined to build a “candid, constructive and cooperative” relationship.[11] Since that time, both sides have taken an increasingly pragmatic approach to Sino-U.S. security cooperation. For example, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have assisted China in dealing with terrorist activities such as the Al Qaeda-linked East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang.[12] The establishment of dialogue mechanisms between the two countries has not only enhanced mutual trust and cooperation, but has also prevented serious misunderstanding and conflict.


A stronger China will generate new momentum for bilateral economic growth and regional peace and stability. As Brzezinski argues, “China’s leadership is not inclined to challenge the United States militarily, and its focus remains on economic development and winning acceptance as a great power.”[13] Against Mearsheimer’s argument, the current Sino-U.S. relationship is actually closer to, as Colin Powell says, its “best shape” since normalization[14]. A more realistic and mature relationship between the United States and China has led both sides to put aside disputes, manage conflicts, and build on common interest. As the United States and China increase economic, institutional, and strategic cooperation, the likelihood of serious conflict will continue to be subdued by mutually benefiting practices.

[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski and John J. Mearsheimer: Clash of the Titans, Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2005

[2] John J. Mearsheimer: Better to Be Godzilla than Bambi, in Clash of the Titans: debate China-US relations, Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2005, p. 47.

[3] Zbigniew Brzezinski: Make Money, not War, in Clash of the Titans, Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2005, p.46

[4] John J. Mearsheimer: The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Northon, 2001),vpp.30-32.

[5] Ibid,pp.401-402.                               

[6] White Paper of Chinese Government, China’s National Defense in 2004. Available at > .

[7] Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, Vol.27, No.4(Spring 2003), p49.

[8] World Development indicators 2004. Available at <http://www.worldbank.org/data/wdi2004/>.

[9] The Information on Import & Export Statistics, Ministry of Commerce of China. Available at  <http://gcs.mofcom.gov.cn/article/200502/20050200344031_1.xml>.

[10] Trade balance with China, U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division. Available at <http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html#questions>.

[11] Tom Plate, The Bush Administration Lays Out the Three 'Cs' of Its New China Policy, Asia Pacific Media Network, 13 February 2002.

[12] Richard Boucher, “U.S., China Conclude Two Days of Talks on Counter-Terrorism”, June 21, 2002. Available at .

[13] Zbigniew Brzezinski: Make Money, not War, in Clash of the Titans, Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2005, p.46.

[14] Colin L. Powell: A strategy of Partnerships,Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004

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