Recently, I debated the University of Chicago political theorist John Mearsheimer on the question of "Can China Rise Peacefully?" That debate took place amid torrents of international and domestic commentaries on China's seemingly more assertive foreign policy approach under the nation's new leader Xi Jinping.
Indeed, all is not well in the Pacific. Tensions are intensifying between China and Japan in the East China Sea over Diaoyu Island. Confrontations with the Philippines in the South China Sea have been two years in the running with no end in sight. America's "pivot" to Asia Pacific has confirmed to many Chinese their suspicion of containment by the superpower and emboldened China's adversaries in the region to escalate tensions. The most recent incident was China's declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone, which some have called provocative.
Mearsheimer, known for his "offensive realism" theory, put forth a hypothesis that, as China continues its rise as a great power, military conflicts are probable if not inevitable. He based his predictions on historic precedents. In a disorderly world without a supreme ruler, the theory goes, no nation can be sure of the intentions of other nations and the only way of survival is to maximize a nation's own relative strength.
The United States rose to superpower status by first achieving regional hegemony. This strategy was first articulated by the Monroe doctrine. As the young nation grew in strength the strategy was implemented by military conquests against virtually all of its neighbors from Canada to Mexico to almost all of Latin America and beyond.
It was followed by continuously defeating global challengers from Germany to Imperial Japan to the Soviet Union. America's path to world dominance was paved by countless wars. To maintain its global hegemony, America will necessarily seek to prevent China from dominating the Asia Pacific. China, on the other hand, will necessarily seek regional hegemony by driving the United States out of its backyard.
In this analysis, a single defining fault line that divides the United States as the reigning super power and China as its challenger will drive international relations for the world with war as the eventual determinant of the outcome.
While I agreed with Mearsheimer's theoretical assumptions I disagree with his predictions. Just as America's rise to dominance did not follow the path of colonial expansion taken by its predecessors Britain and France, China will also make use of alternative strategic options to achieve global leadership. In the age of nuclear weapons and globalization China has to invent new strategy for its rise.
President Xi has already signaled to the world China's strategic shift in its foreign policy outlook. Two core principles have guided Chinese foreign policy since the early 1990s. One was Deng's famous dictum of Tao Guang Yang Hui (keeping a low profile) for economic development. The other was to give the first priority to the relations with the United States.
The implications of these principles have been that China avoided confrontations at all costs and that China would never oppose the United States in any international conflicts which were not related to China.
Regarding those conflicts between the U.S. and its neighbors, China took neutral stance or even align itself with the U.S. This means for the last 20 years or so China has stood alone on the world stage, a completely neutral power without allies and assiduously avoiding making enemies, insularly focused on its internal development in the shadow of the U.S.-led global system.
Through several recent speeches, Xi has articulated a different strategic direction. China's new foreign policy outlook indicates an approach known as Fen Fa You Wei (striving for achievement) to engage its neighboring countries and to over time align their interests with China's rise. Xi specifically stressed friendship and loyalty between China and its neighbors. This shift is more significant than it sounds.
For more than twenty years, China has operated under a foreign policy framework within which it has neither friends nor enemies. With a few exceptions, all other countries were essentially treated as the same with the maintenance of an external environment most conducive to China's own economic development the paramount priority. Such a position is no longer attainable.
Under Xi, China will begin to treat friends and enemies differently. For those who are willing to play a constructive role in China's rise, China will seek ways for them to gain greater actual benefits from China's development.
By tying up certain nations' incentives along with China's development China will seek to build communities of common destinies with some of its key neighbors. We should expect these initiatives to cover much wider range of strategic elements beyond mere economic interests. A strong political dimension will be a must. Eventually this may even extend to providing security guarantees to select countries.
Specifically, the new leadership has named three strategic areas of focus: the "new silk road" with Central Asia, a maritime silk road with South East Asia, and the economic corridor through India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Nations in these regions should expect to see much increased willingness by China to underwrite substantive economic, security, and other benefits in exchange for political support for China's regional objectives.
For more than twenty years, even those nations that were generally supportive of China could not count on China to be a friend in times of need because China would make no commitments of alliance. In the future, China will decisively favor those who side with it with economic benefits and even security protections. On the contrary, those who are hostile to China will face much more sustained policies of sanctions and isolation.
China's new foreign policy outlook in the region will provide an expanded set of strategic options and ample chances to avoid using military conquests to achieve regional dominance, as America did more than a century ago.
Then, of course, there is the all important relationship with the United States. Many say the key risk in today's world affairs is the complete lack of trust between the two countries. I would argue that trust is not a prerequisite to a relatively peaceful accommodation.
China and the U.S. have not trusted each other since 1989 and are not likely to in the future. But interests will form the cornerstone of this relationship. China has risen far enough and the world has changed substantially enough that a complex web of interests bind the two countries together, not as friends but not necessarily as enemies.
Although China and the U.S. are strategic competitors, there are common interests, complementary interests and, of course, conflicting interests between them. Such complexity provides the two countries the room for active cooperation when interests converge and a degree of preventive cooperation where interests conflict.
China's rise is perhaps the most significant event for the world since the dawn of the modern era. No one can predict with precision its long-term implications. The risk of military conflict no doubt exists. But at least for the next generation, sufficient strategic options exist for peace. And Xi Jinping's new foreign policy outlook, though seemingly more assertive, puts China on a path more conducive to peace.