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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.