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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great-Power Politics

The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great-Power Politics

Author: John J. Mearsheimer

Affiliation: The University of Chicago, Department of Political Science 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: November/December, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 5078


Keywords: Realism, International Anarchy, Containment, Fail of Engagement Policy, the US-China Inevitable Rivalry, and Great Power Politics. 


Mearsheimer argues that the US is heading towards a dangerous second Cold War with China that may turn into a hot one in the foreseeable future. The competition between the two superpowers is inevitable due to the pressures that the international system structure has placed on great power politics. Mearsheimer believes the risk of war will increase as China continues its rapid economic growth, after which China will work to benefit from its economic and technological gains by building a military power challenging American supremacy. Moreover, China will completely imitate the US historical behavior, as it will seek complete domination of its region in the Eastern Hemisphere, while it seeks to expel any external power that tries to dominate there, after which it will roam more freely in the Western Hemisphere challenging the American influence there. Therefore, the US can slow this growth by abandoning its failed liberal engagement policy to deal with China and adopting the realist logic of containment. The article is divided into six parts. In the first one, the author explains the reason behind the inevitability of great power rivalry, based on the premise of his famous theory (offensive realism), which makes international anarchy a major structural cause. He argues that China will act in the same realistic logic that drove the US since the end of the nineteenth century, as its leaders worked to make the US the most powerful country in the Western Hemisphere. After it achieved this aim, Washington played a major role in preventing four superpowers from dominating Asia and Europe (Imperial Germany during World War I, Nazi Germany and military Japan during World War II, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War), which enabled it to impose its influence globally. Therefore, China will seek to dominate its own backyard before it begins to impose its global influence. There are many indications that reflect its revisionist behavior towards Taiwan and the South China Sea region. Also, Beijing does not hide its current desire to create an international order more suited to its interests. In the second part, the author asserts that the realistic logic in dealing with China would have enabled the US to slow China’s growth and maintain the wealth gap between the two powers. Since the 1990s, Washington could have pursued certain measures and distanced itself from others in order to achieve this aim. Washington’s biggest strategic mistake was its pursuit of the liberalist engagement policy with China since the end of the Cold War, which is based primarily on integrating China into the liberal international order and encouraging its growth with the aim of making it a liberal, peace-loving democracy and a responsible actor in a US-led international order. This is exactly what the author describes in the third part as “delusional thinking” that has dominated successive US administrations since the era of President George H. W. Bush until Obama, providing examples from each administration. This delusional liberal thinking was not limited to US administrations only but was embraced by many American businessmen, prominent media outlets, and journalists such as Thomas Friedman. This optimism extended to distinguished academic figures such as Brzezinski and Kissinger who believed in the engagement policy. Advocates of engagement did not anticipate the catastrophic repercussions of the failure of this policy. It seems that they did not take into account that China would become more powerful than the US thanks to this policy, in addition to their view of realpolitik as outdated thinking. This policy undermined any current efforts to contain China, and ultimately shifted the global balance of power in China’s favor. The fourth part describes engagement as a failed experiment that was given enough luck to prove its promises. Beijing benefited from the advantages of the liberal international order and was encouraged by Washington to engage in it, but China did not turn into a liberal democratic state. In addition, Chinese leaders view liberal values as a threat to their country’s stability and pursue an increasingly aggressive policy. The author argues that Trump broke with engagement policy and began to contain China by launching a trade war against it, as he developed closer relations with Taiwan and defied Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea; a second Cold War was underway in his period. As for Biden, he has continued to adopt the containment policy despite his support for engagement in the Obama period. Mearsheimer notes that there has been a marked shift within Congress and the American public toward a policy of containment at the expense of engagement. This is not seen as a major reason for the intensification of the US-China new rivalry, because the rivalry is likely to intensify regardless of who rules the White House. The fifth part argues that we have entered a second Cold War era that could conceivably turn into a hot war between the two powers, mainly because contemporary China is not comparable in strength to the Soviet Union—but far superior to it. To prove this, the author compares the two powers in terms of strengths and weaknesses (population, economic growth, the legacy inherited from the previous era, the nature of each party’s allies, and their regional commitments…). Mearsheimer emphasizes an important point that distinguishes contemporary China, the nationalism, which constitutes a strong ideological motive for China to pursue its revisionist policy towards some regional issues, such as Taiwan and China’s claims in the South China Sea. China sees Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland as a natural, sacred right it was historically denied by the West (Japan and the United States) when China was weak, or what is known to the Chinese as “century of national humiliation.” Thus, the author believes that the increasing security competition in East Asia will further increase in the coming years along with the Chinese hostility towards Japan and the US, which increases the possibility of a hot war. Moreover, the maritime geographical nature of the new war arena (East Asia) increases this possibility, in contrast to the first Cold War battlefield (European land) which made the direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow costly with the possibility of nuclear disasters on both sides, which constrained the two powers and pushed them to restraint. As for the new maritime battlefield in East Asia, it does not establish stability and makes the option of direct war a viable choice, because the war may seem to the two parties less harmful as it will take place in the high seas between their naval and air forces in particular. In the last part, Mearsheimer asserts that the competition between the two powers will continue, despite the presence of some advocates of engagement and cooperation on both sides, because it is related to the logic of the great power in international politics that is subject to the anarchic nature of the international system structure. There is no superpower willing to allow other great powers to become stronger at its expense. Perhaps the only thing preventing this is a major crisis halting the rise of China which is an unlikely prospect for it, so dangerous security competition is inevitable. The best that can be done is to manage the rivalry in the hope of averting war. This will require Washington to maintain massive conventional forces in East Asia to convince Beijing that a clash of arms will at best lead to a costly victory. “Convincing adversaries that they cannot achieve quick and decisive wins deters wars”. Not much can be done to minimize the dangers inherent in the growing US-Chinese rivalry. This is the price that Washington must pay for ignoring the realist logic during the past decades.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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