Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Mearsheimer articulated a bold thesis- the great-power rivalry was not over. While Mearsheimer was ignored, Covid-19 has exposed the intense Sino-American security competition that he predicted.
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer, argued that insecurity and conflict remained inevitable structures of the anarchic international system. Further, Mearsheimer argued that as China increased in power and ambition it would become more assertive in protecting its security and prosperity depended. As the global hegemon, the US would go to great lengths to stop the rising power from dominating Asia.
Two decades ago, Realism the long-standing theory of international relations took a hit following the unexpected end to the Cold War. Theories of Liberalism and Constructivism flourished and analysed what appeared to be a new world entering an era of increased globalisation and interdependency. State rivaries and military power seemed to matter less. The prevailing wisdom was that rapid economic growth ensured the emergence of a democratic polity in China, as it had in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. China was categorised as a developing country, afforded grace for its communist rule while it “peacefully” progressed and lifted millions out of poverty. It was thought that the more China embraced global capitalism, the more likely it would integrate peacefully in the rules-based international order.
However, Mearsheimer contested such Wilsonian thinking, arguing that the brutal competition of power is a root function of the structure of the international system, a reality which has been true since the time of Thucydides. He called this the “tragic nature of great- power politics.” In an anarchical international community, without a central body to enforce rules and norms, great powers find it impossible to trust each other. The tragedy is that striving for security leads to heightened tensions, a concept known by international scholars as the ‘security dilemma.’
For Mearsheimer, the consequences were clear: by growing enchanted with the Chinese market, the world was choosing to play with fire. Far from progressing to become a responsible democratic nation, Beijing was bound to upset the strategic sensibilities of neighbouring states, from Japan and South Korea to India and Vietnam. As a result, Mearsheimer advised the US to pivot strongly in Asia, deepen security ties with its allies and develop new strategic partnerships with old foes.
Alas, after America’s Cold War victory, both Democratic and Republican administrations indulged in what Mearsheimer’s academic colleague Stephen Walt calls the “hubristic fantasy” of global “liberal hegemony”, which both scholars warned would cost the US dearly in prestige and influence. Meanwhile, China’s rise continued. The CCP advanced its defence mechanisms, developed persistent cyber-espionage and pushed nationalism supported by wide-spread propaganda. Today, China plans to forcefully takeover Hong Kong alongside its relentless intimidation of Taiwan and aggressive build-up of military islands in the South China Sea. China is now showing every possible sign of seeking to overthrow the US-led security system in the region.
We now have an important and pressing choice to make. Will the United States follow the advice of Mearsheimer and lead a coalition to pursue a containment strategy. Or, adopt an approach of “engaging and constraining” China, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese suggests.