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US, China heading toward face-off, says Mearsheimer

TOKYO -- If China continues to grow economically and militarily, the possibility of armed conflict in Asia will grow as countries such as Japan and the U.S. step up their security efforts, says John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago in a recent interview with The Nikkei. The American scholar and author said he came to this conclusion after conducting copious research on how the world's great powers have behaved throughout history.

John J. Mearsheimer

Q: How will China's rise impact regional and international security from a long-term perspective?

A: I think that if China continues to grow economically, that it will translate that economic might into military might and it will try to dominate the region here in East Asia, much the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. China will try to make sure that it is by far the most powerful state and that it dominates countries like Japan.

Q: If China tries to dominate Asia and challenge the hegemonic power of the U.S. in the region, can it coexist peacefully with other nations, or will there be conflict?

A: If China continues to rise and tries to dominate the region, the United States and Japan will go to great lengths to make sure that China does not dominate the region. Both Japan and the United States will work together; they'll work closely together to try to contain China. The United States is a jealous god. The United States prefers to be the most powerful state in East Asia and to do everything it can to maintain the present order in East Asia.

     Now the Japanese also do not want a situation where China dominates the region. The Japanese are very happy with the present situation, where the United States maintains stability in East Asia. I think that most Japanese correctly see the United States as acting as a pacifier or as a force for peace in East Asia, and they don't want to see that situation change.

Q: China says it can rise peacefully, and that it will cooperate with other countries and respect their core interests. Do you believe that?

A: China sends mixed signals when it talks -- it says very different things. China talks about rising peacefully and it tries to assure its neighbors, countries like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, that as it grows more powerful, those neighbors have nothing to worry about.  However, at the same time the Chinese have made it clear that: No. 1, they want the Senkaku Islands back or they want to make them part of China; No. 2, they intend to make Taiwan part of China once again and, No. 3, they plan to turn the South China Sea into a giant Chinese lake.

     What the Chinese are saying is that as we get more powerful we're going to try to change the status quo. This is going to frighten all of China's neighbors, and it's sending the opposite message from the one that says China can rise peacefully and that China is a benign power in the region. I think in the end that message that China is a benign power will be drowned out by China's behavior.

Q: It sounds like you are saying a conflict between the U.S. and China is unavoidable unless China changes its behavior. But are you also saying that China will not change if its economy continues to grow?

A: My argument is that it makes good sense for China, if it continues to grow economically in an impressive way, to try to dominate Asia. It's not foolish for any country to want to dominate its area of the world. It makes very good sense for China to be in a position where it is by far the most powerful state in Asia and the United States is no longer in Asia. That's the ideal situation from China's point of view, just as from the American point of view, the ideal situation is to dominate the Western Hemisphere.

     But to go back to Asia, it may be in China's interest to dominate Asia. But it is not in Japan's interest and it is not in America's interest to have a China that is what we call a "regional hegemon." Now, what will happen if China continues to grow is that you will get an intense security competition between China on the one hand and countries like Japan and the United States on the other. Whether or not that security competition leads to an actual war is difficult to say. It might not lead to a war, but there is at least a good chance that you'll have a fight, an armed conflict over the Senkakus or Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Q: Is it accurate to say that your analysis is not based on any hatred or mistrust of China, but rather stems from your view as a political scientist that every nation has a tendency to try to dominate its region as it grows in power?

A: Yes. I actually believe that the Chinese would be smart to try to dominate Asia, just as I believe that Japan was smart to try to dominate Asia between the Meiji Restoration [of 1868] and 1945. So my argument is that if Japan was very powerful today, if it was Japan and not China that was powerful, Japan would try to dominate Asia today the way it did in the past. And my argument is that all great powers become more aggressive and more interested in dominating their region in the world as they grow more powerful.

     Their appetites grow as they become more powerful, and I think what you'll see in the Chinese case is that as they get more powerful over the next 10-20 years, their appetite will grow and, of course, this is not because I think Chinese culture or Chinese domestic politics or particular Chinese leaders are aggressive. It's because all states think in terms of dominating their region, because that's the best way to be secure. Like the more powerful you are relative to all your neighbors the more secure you are. The Chinese understand this full well because China was very weak for about 100 years, roughly from 1850 to 1950.

     The European great powers, the United States and the Japanese all took advantage of China when China was weak, and the Chinese refer to this 100-year period as their century of national humiliation. They have no intention of ever letting that happen again and they believe that the best way to prevent that outcome is to be much more powerful than Japan, Russia, India and to push the Americans out of Asia so that they can't cause China any trouble in its neighborhood.

Q: Your analysis is based on massive amounts of research, such as on Germany before World War I or France under Napoleon. Could you elaborate on why you think in terms of a historical narrative?

A: About 20 years ago, what I began to do was to try and think systematically about the history of great power relations and see if I could find a pattern that explained how states behaved as they grew more powerful. I came to the conclusion that if you look at Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and especially if you look at the United States, what you see is that as these states all got more powerful, they all made an effort to dominate their region of the world. They all made an effort to make sure that they were the most powerful state on the planet.

     You also see, when you look at the historical record, that states that are powerful but not very powerful don't try and pursue regional hegemony, because they don't have the military might. This all led me to conclude that as states become more powerful their appetite grows, and as their appetite grows their interest in dominating the balance of power grows, because it's the best way to survive in a very dangerous world. I could not find a single example of a country that became very powerful that didn't try to dominate its region of the world.

Q: What about the U.K.?

A: The problem with the U.K. is that it's an island that's physically separated from the European continent and it didn't have a large army on the European continent to actually make an attempt [at] trying to dominate Europe. And instead, because it was an island with a big navy, it built the colonial empire and it came to East Asia. You see all sorts of evidence in the historical record of the other European countries coming together to try to contain Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany, coming together with the United States to try to contain the Soviet Union, because those are continental powers. Britain is not. There has never been a balancing coalition, an alliance that was trying to contain Britain. 

Q: What about Japan? Like Britain, it is an island nation, but it nevertheless expanded on the continent.

A: I think you're exactly right. In the Japanese case, China was remarkably weak after 1850. Remember, the Meiji Restoration of 1868?  Countries like Vietnam, Korea -- all very weak -- and Russia, was a very weak country in the late 19th century, early 20th century ... which explains why in 1904-1905 the Japanese clobbered the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War.

Q: What do you think of the argument that economic interdependence can lower the risk of conflict?

A: I've given my talk on why China can't rise peacefully probably about 135 times, and the single argument against me that is used the most often is economic interdependence theory, which says that because of all the economic interdependence in East Asia and between the United States and China, no one in their right mind would start a war because the economic costs would be so great. I think this is wrong.

Q: Why?

A: Because I think in many cases when you get into a conflict situation, political considerations trump economic considerations. Let me give you one example that highlights this, I think, quite clearly. The Chinese have made it very clear that if Taiwan were to declare its independence, de jure independence, China would go to war immediately against Taiwan, even though it would involve significant economic cost. What the Chinese are saying is that political considerations are more important than economic considerations.

Q: And parallels can be drawn with the situation leading up to World War I?

A: Yes. Probably the most powerful example against economic interdependence theory is the fact that you had a huge amount of economic interdependence in Europe before World War I. Germany was economically interdependent with Russia, France and Britain. Nevertheless, you had World War I. 

Q:What if Japan at some point loses its ability to act as a counterbalance to China despite maintaining its security alliance with the U.S.?

A: Japan and the United States will go to great lengths to balance, to try to contain Chinese power for as long as they possibly can.

     It is possible, however, given the size of the Chinese population and all that wealth, that if China becomes a giant Hong Kong or a giant Taiwan or a giant South Korea, which is to say, if China becomes incredibly wealthy, it will become militarily so powerful in East Asia that there's nothing that Japan and the United States can do to contain China. All of this is to say that we should all hope that the Chinese economy does not grow impressively in the years ahead and indeed the Chinese economic growth slows down substantially.

     Now, this will not be good economic news for China, for Japan, for the United states or for any other country in Asia. However, from a strategic point of view, it would be very good news. And in my world view, strategic considerations are much more important than economic considerations.

Q: You envision a world where there are two regional hegemonic powers competing with each other -- a U.S.-dominated Western Hemisphere up against a China-dominated Asia. Would that be acceptable for the U.S.?

A: It's not acceptable for the United states to have a situation where China dominates Asia. But it is possible that China will become so powerful that the United States cannot prevent China from dominating Asia.

     Given the size of the Chinese population, it may grow economically to the point where it is a goliath that is uncontainable. In that case, the United States will have no choice but to accept Chinese dominance. Now, this will be disastrous for Japan because they will surely lose.

     In a situation where the United states is a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere and China is a hegemon in Asia, those two hegemons will go to great lengths to undermine each other's hegemony. The Chinese will try to intervene in the Western Hemisphere and form alliances with countries like Brazil and Mexico and do everything that they can to create a situation where the United States has to concentrate on its region of the world and is not free to roam into Asia and cause trouble there.

Q:  You opposed U.S. intervention in Ukraine and Iraq. Is that because you think the U.S. should not waste its resources on those regions?

A: The China threat is the single most important development that is happening in the world today, and the United States has a deep-seated interest in privileging East Asia and going to great lengths to contain China. This means that the United States has to pivot to some extent out of Europe, the Persian Gulf or the Middle East to Asia. It has to go to great lengths to build up its military capabilities in East Asia and to put together a balancing coalition that includes the Russians.

     What's happening, however, is that the United States foolishly caused a crisis with Russia over Ukraine, which means that we are in effect driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. We have to now strengthen our forces in Europe ... instead of pivoting away from Europe, if anything.

     Furthermore, we have foolishly declared war against ISIS, which makes it even more difficult to pivot to Asia. So because of our policies on Ukraine and because we have decided to fight yet another war in the Middle East, we see two negative consequences in East Asia. One, we're driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese and two, we're not pivoting -- in any meaningful way -- in East Asia. This is strategic foolishness of the first order.

Interviewed by Nikkei senior staff writer Hiroyuki Akita

The full transcript of the interview can be found on the Nikkei Asian Review website at

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