Realism and the diverging foreign policy approaches of the United States and China

The COVID pandemic has showcased a proliferation of blame, acrimony and military aggression between the United States and China. Additionally, we have witnessed the fragility of international institutions as the WHO which struggled to balance the strategic interests of China with the health of the global community. Core realist tenants of the anarchical, state-centric international order are proving relevant in the study of modern international relations.

The emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic has inspired varying international responses from the United States and China. China severely mismanaged the outbreak of the coronavirus through censorship and denial. As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, officials of the Communist Party of China made extensive preparations to protect their population, while only selectively sharing information with the international community. Amid the global pandemic, the Chinese government has continued to advance its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea and has been accused by the United States government of exploiting the crisis to gain territory. On April 2, Vietnam reported a Chinese military ship deliberating sinking a Vietnamese fishing ship in the disputed territory. In March, the Chinese government commissioned two research stations with defence capabilities on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The US international response has differed significantly from China’s approach.

America’s democratic values and trusted institutions have enabled more accurate reporting of COVID-19 figures, this has allowed epidemiologists to develop policies to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the virus. The US Centre for Disease control also continues to publish information that helps American citizens gain access to medical services and minimise community transmission. The US has prioritised holding China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus and has scaled up its military presence in the South China Sea. In March, the US military conducted live-missile testing in the Philippine Sea, sending a message of deterrence to China. On March 31, President Trump announced the suspension of all US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to concerns of its mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and “China-centric nature.”

Structural realists assert that the architecture of the international system forces states to compete for limited power. For this reason, cooperation within international institutions often proves fragile. The COVID pandemic provides a vivid reminder of the relevance of these realist precepts. States are fearful that cooperation may enable another state to advance their capabilities and gain greater power and influence relative to them. In this case, President Trump declared the suspension of all funds to the World Health Organisation, perceiving the benefits of US cooperation within the WHO to be waning relative to the growing influence of China. Structural realist theory also provides valuable insight into China’s behaviour within the WHO. States will engage in international institutions when they perceive opportunities to gain power relative to their competitors. President Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party has established the priority to challenge the American global order by strengthening Beijing’s multilateral clout. The World Health Organisation’s response to the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated the influence China wields in the institution relative to the US. Until mid-January, the WHO stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on a large scale, this statement was made without independent investigation into China’s claims.  Following the US decision to halt funding, China identified a US leadership void and stepped in to fill it, announcing a 30 million dollar increase in their contributions to the institution, enabling greater Chinese influence in global health and the portrayal of China as the new champion of multilateralism. So long as China continues to benefit from this institution relative to others, structural realists predict they will continue to amplify cooperation and influence within the World Health Organisation. 

According to realists, the main goal of states within the international system is survival. States understand the best way to ensure their territorial integrity is to be more powerful relative to others. These conditions place a premium on the possession of military power as states are aware of the inherent risks of conflict. China has historically undertaken expansionist strategies to guarantee security and survival, during the global COVID pandemic China has scaled up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, seizing the strategic opportunity presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the disputed Paracel Islands. Beijing blamed the Vietnamese ship for fishing illegally in Chinese waters. In the previous month, China commissioned two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The reefs are equipped with defence silos and military-grade runways. John Mearsheimer asserts that hegemony is the most effective way to secure the survival of a state. For this reason, the rivalry among the great powers for hegemony is a constant feature in the international system. 

The US government and military officials have criticised China for its increased militarisation in the South China Sea during the global pandemic. From the US perspective, the waterway is a vital channel for US-style sea power. In mid-March, US military vessels and aircraft conducted live-fire missile testing in the Philippine Sea. By demonstrating US military capabilities, a clear message of deterrence was sent to China. Structural realism offers a simple explanation for the recent foreign policy of China and the US. China is an emerging global hegemon and is pursuing as much power as possible within the South China Sea while discouraging others as a means of guaranteeing their security. The US seeks to maintain the status quo of American regional hegemony within the South China Sea and is attempting to balance against the increasingly combative behaviour of China.  

While structural realism provides unique and helpful insights into understanding recent COVID-inspired foreign policies of the US and China, the theory fails to grapple with the influence of domestic politics on a state’s external behaviour. Structural realists assert that the driving forces for international relations are systemic and uninfluenced by domestic politics. States are considered interchangeable ‘black boxes’ that will behave similarly as the international system creates the same basic incentives for all states. This level of analysis has limited structural realism in its understanding of the diverging COVID strategies of the US and China. Differences in the domestic political systems of China and the United States have proven relevant to recent international relations. Neo-classical realists have attempted to reconcile this criticism of structural realism by recognising the impact that domestic politics may have on a state’s external behaviour. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping protecting the reputation and authority of the Chinese Communist Party is prioritised above human life. China’s authoritarian leadership and communist political system led to the censorship of COVID information and prevented China from signalling early warnings to the international community. 

The United States is a democratic republic and stresses the importance of free communication between people and government. These internal values within the US have led to high rates of testing and the transparent disclosure of these figures to the international community. At current, the US has recorded the highest COVID death toll in the world, surpassing China. In saying this, it is important to remember that while the Chinese government claims to be ahead of the US in containing the virus with no reports of new cases, we have reason to doubt China’s information due to its censorship of early COVID warnings and lack of cooperation throughout the pandemic. We will likely never know how many Chinese citizens were infected and died due to COVID-19. In the US, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus and offered advice which conflicted medical experts. However, the democratic system in the US underpins the leadership of the President. When a US president fails, citizens can count on the objectivity of trusted institutions such as the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to provide accurate and objective information. The Disease Centre’s weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between government and the public since 1946 and this has continued throughout the COVID pandemic. 

Neo-classical realist theory inspires the contemplation of alternate foreign policy decisions which may have emerged had COVID-19 first broken out in New York rather than Wuhan. Internal conditions within the United States uphold democratic values enabling stronger communication between government and citizens. These societal underpinnings are likely to have guided a different foreign policy approach to China. While we can never truly be certain of this assumption, in order to prevent the COVID-19 global pandemic, an approach focused on saving lives rather than preserving power, based on transparent reporting and international cooperation was required, the US has exhibited these priorities in their COVID response while China did not.

The relevance of structural realism in the study of modern international realtions has been reinforced by the COVID-inspired external behaviours of China and the United States. The theory provides a useful framework for understanding inter-state completion, the fragility of international cooperation and military security. While it is limited by its system level of analysis, neo-classical realism has built upon previous work of structural realists and can assist in our understanding of the domestic forces behind foreign policy.


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One thought on “Realism and the diverging foreign policy approaches of the United States and China

  1. Hello there! This post could not be written any better! Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept talking about this. I most certainly will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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