Which Structural Realist Theory Offers the Best Guide for Us Policymakers as China Continues to Rise - Waltz’s Defensive Realism or Mearsheimer’s Offensive Realism?

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Which structural realist theory offers the best guide for US policymakers as China continues to rise - Waltz’s defensive realism or Mearsheimer’s offensive realism?

Donnelly (2005, p.29) stated ‘Realist theory is the oldest and most frequently adopted theory of international relations.’ Most realist work since the 1970’s has been relatively structural, largely as a result from the influence of Waltz’s ‘theory of international politics’ (Donnelly, 2005, p.35) When it comes to structural realists, there is a significant divide, disputing the underlying question, how much power is enough? Defensive realists like Kenneth Waltz (1979) maintain that it is unwise for states to try to maximize their share of world power, because the system will punish them if they attempt to gain too much power. The pursuit of hegemony, they argue, is especially reckless. Offensive realists like John Mearsheimer (2001) take the opposite view; they maintain that it makes good strategic sense for states to gain as much power as possible and, if the circumstances are right, to pursue hegemony. With the demise of the ‘Soviet threat’, a world no longer divided along strategic bipolar lines has been formed. (Lazar and Lazar, 2006) After collapsing the Soviet Union, it can be said America articulated unipolar global hegemony. Conversely, many economists have predicted a change in the balance of power with the rise of China increasing. It would seem the world is gravitating towards multipolar centres of power. Furthermore, an article in The Economist (2011) predicted China to be the global economic superpower by 2030. With the threat of China’s growth being a potential danger for US hegemony, the question arises to which structural realist theory offers the best guide to US policy makers; Waltz’s defensive realism or Mearsheimer’s offensive realism?

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union many realists argue that unipolarity has arrived (Wohlforth, 1999, p.9). The USA, in other words, is the sole great power. It has achieved global hegemony, a feat no other country has ever accomplished. However, the rising power of China is growing dangerously close to the US. Consequently, knowing its days at the pinnacle of power are numbered, offensive realist suggest the US has strong incentives to launch a preventive war against the challenger to halt its rise. Of course, the US as the declining state has to act while it still enjoys a decided power advantage over its growing rival. Evedent with Germany in WWI and WWII, as the dominant power in Europe before both conflicts, but each time it faced a rising challenger to its east: Russia before 1914 and the Soviet Union before 1939. To forestall decline and maintain its commanding position in the European balance of power, Germany launched preventive wars in 1914 and 1939, both of which turned into devastating central wars. (Copeland, 2000, p.126)

The Chinese economy has been growing at an impressive pace since the early 1980s, with experts predicting it to continue expanding at a similar rate over the next few decades. If so, China, with its huge population, will eventually have the wherewithal to build an especially formidable military. What China will do with its military muscle, and how the USA and China’s Asian neighbours will react to its rise, remain open questions. Snyder (2002, p.153) claims that ‘Potential hegemons always aspire to be hegemons, and they will not stop increasing their power until they succeed.’ Furthermore, Mearsheimer suggest that ‘China cannot rise peacefully.’ Instead, as its capabilities increase, China will become ‘an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony.’ The inevitability of this is such that the current US policy of engaging China is ‘misguided,’ and ‘doomed to failure.’ A powerful China will seek ‘to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the western hemisphere.’ Given these conclusions, Mearsheimer urges the US to...
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