China: Goodwill or Bad will?

Policymakers and political analysts are currently in a state over the new global order that is somewhat being shaped by China’s rapid rise in world affairs. The possible effect and consequence of the country’s growing power and influence has stimulated a lot of convergent and divergent views. In a head-to-head dialogue between Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Mearsheimer, the former conjectured that China is too preoccupied with its economic ascent and therefore not inclined to destabilize the United States’ influence in the region. The latter however, firmly states that China cannot rise peacefully. Just as all the rising great powers in the world history does, China will have to take measures in order to survive and secure her position as a super. An increasingly powerful China is most likely going to try to dislodge the threat of the United States out of Asia. One scholar paints a picture of an ideal rising China who is more reasonable, flexible and nonviolent; another draws a dark image of a calculating rising China who is aware of her weaknesses (especially in the military capability), and who is wisely trying to extricate herself from the internal and external threats of these weaknesses so as to secure the commanding position in the global balance of power in the future. In lieu of the principles of debate, Mearsheimer’s arguments shine through.

He was able to defend his stance by providing public historical accounts of the actions of past powerful nations. However, this does not prove that Brzezinski’s view is not well-founded. There are, in fact several scholars who share his notion of a reasonable and powerful China based from the country’s present peaceful dealings. But just as Mearsheimer had stated, we cannot know what political reality is going to look like in the year 2025. At present, China’s actions possibly is a sincere attempt for peaceful progress but 45 years from now when China has grown powerful and far-reaching, who will be capable of preventing them from trying to dominate Asia, prevent them from dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior in their region and prevent them from translating their economic strength into military might that could create all sorts of trouble for the current regional hegemon that is the United States? As competition in all aspects goes, one dedicated player strategizes and tries to outmaneuver his competitor in order to be on top. China is competing for economic prosperity and the United States is trying to preserve his position as title holder. Conflicts are inevitable.

China is a threat to the United States. Goodwill or bad will? It depends on the players’ future behaviors. There will be inevitable frictions as China’s role increases and as Chinese “sphere of influence” develops however, Brzezinski believes many negative consequences that often accompany the rise of new powers can be avoided. True. It is possible in an ideal world. Unfortunately, we are not living in one. Everything depends on the stage players’ actions.  According to Brzezinski, the current Chinese leaders appear much more flexible and sophisticated than many previous aspirants to great power status and therefore would not follow the path of violence like the past great nations have done. Mearsheimer rebuts that China is expected to act the same way as the US—She will want to maintain regional hegemony to get back Taiwan as well as dominate Asia the way US does Western hemisphere. In his words: Are they more principled, more ethical, less nationalistic or less concerned of their survival? Mearsheimer believes China is none of these things. In my perspective however, who is Mearsheimer to assume authority over the Chinese leaders’ intentions?  And again I state, China is a threat but the reality of this threat depends on the stage players’ future actions.

Over a decade ago, China did not enjoy full diplomatic relations with several countries due to border disputes, the June 1989 killing of civilians in Beijing, their public attempt to export their “leftist” ideology and due to many other painful legacies that the Chinese government has imprinted in the minds of other countries (Shambaugh, 77). Distrust and suspicion has been imprinted in the minds of their neighbors. However, with China’s new proactive regional posture and increase activism on the global stage, the negative tinges of concern in Asia over China’s rising power have been muted. David Shambaugh supports Brzezinski’s positive view of China’s expanding regional influence and power. He gave reflections on the motivation behind China’s acquirement of diplomatic voice and increase involvement in regional multilateral ties which has earned praise around the region as well as far back in Europe and some Latin countries. When the International Monetary Fund and international creditors took a dictatorial posture during the Asian Financial Crisis, China had offered aid packages and low-interest loans to several Southeast Asian states. In addition, Beijing’s policies successfully arrested the fiscal crisis which boosted the confidence of China’s leaders in their role as regional actors (Shambaugh, 67). Furthermore, China’s Deng Xiaoping’s 1985 dictum spurred the idea that to pursue economic development, China needed a peaceful environment. The idea had been bred—possibly currently being applied as evidenced by China’s current diplomatic dealings; also possibly being utilized as a calculated defense tactic to pursue international and regional ties to increase respect and influence and therefore increase power.

In the past, someone had stated that a country without influence is without power. China is currently being viewed as an exporter of goodwill and consumer durables instead of revolution and weapons (Shambaugh, 64). On the other hand, the United States influence is declining as nations including the European Union are disquieted by the country’s extent and use of global power, particularly military power and the doctrine of preemption. In fact, the European Union’s proposed act of lifting of its arms embargo is symbolic of “a moment when Europe had to make a choice between the strategic interests of America and China—and chose China.” (Chirac 2004).The US also dismisses the significance of regional summit conferences of Asia such as the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) as mere “talk shops,” whereas the Chinese has been diligently building confidences and relationships within the region through the said summits. There is a tilt of balance of power and influence at the expense of the United States.

The call for ‘multipolarity’—preference for many different, competing power centers rather than ‘unipolarity’ of the U.S. as a single hyper-power (Johnson, 2005)—is becoming an emerging reality. China’s strategic promotion of this demand is evidenced by her expanding relations with Iran, the European Union, Latin America, and ASEAN. China’s interest and billion dollar investments in oil reserve and oil development has also greatly affected the United States’ and Japan’s long-standing relation with the foreign oil suppliers. Along with greater economic weight, China’s purchasing power parity will become the world’s largest economy as conservatively predicted by Shahid Javed Burki, former vice president of the World Bank’s China Department and former finance minister of Pakistan (Johnson 2005). These two trends alone are already alarming to U.S. regional hegemony.

Mearsheimer had said that China is a threat to U.S. The question that arises is what kind of threat a powerful China would impose on the country that has enjoyed long-standing unipolarity? According to Chalmers Johnson, it is a salient characteristic of the established powers (Great Britain and U.S.) in the international arena to adjust peacefully to the emergence of new centers of power (Germany, Japan, and Russia). Both bloody and cold wars have ensued due to this arrogance. Mearsheimer added that the United States do not tolerate peer competitors. This is currently evidenced by the United States’ resolute persuasion for Japan to remilitarize which is worrying a segment of the Japanese public and opposed throughout East Asia by all the nations Japan had victimized during World War II (Johnson 2005). The Bush administration and their Japanese followers continue to insult China in every way, particularly over the status of China’s divergence with Taiwan. The Chinese has also become deeply alarmed with the U.S. “Operation Summer Pulse ‘04” which is perceived as an attempted rerun of the 19th century gunboat diplomacy aimed at them. Johnson quoted the distinguished economic analyst, William Greider, when he said “American leadership has…become increasingly delusional…and blind to the adverse balance of power accumulating against it.” If these provocations continue, China would have no choice but to go to war because as Johnson noted, failure to do so would invite domestic revolution against Chinese Communist Party for violating the national integrity of China.

Yes, China is a threat to the United States and unless the U.S. contain China’s growing economic weight, China could easily dislodge the country from Asia and occupy its seat as the hyper-power in the world. Does China have an underlying motive behind her diplomatic negotiations, as political theories go; the intentions of these two nations are not transparent. China’s progress appear non-violent and the United States preemptive actions are being criticized by political analysts. But taking the U.S. government’s view on China’s progress, it is clear that to protect the country’s regional stake in the world stage, the U.S. has the obvious option to do whatever it takes to prevent China from expanding now OR take the unanticipated option of adjusting itself to China’s progress just as the other nations of the world are. Politics has always been a nasty and dangerous business as Mearsheimer pointed out. I agree with Mearsheimer. No amount of good will can ameliorate the intense security competition that is being set between the United States and China. We can hypothesize all sorts of scenarios but we can only hope that war does not come into fruition.


Chalmers Johnson, No Longer the “Lone” Superpower: Coming to Terms with China. JPRI Working Paper No. 105. ( March 2005).

David Shambaugh, China Engages Asia. Reshaping the regional Order. 64-99.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, John Mearsheimer. Clash of the Titans. January/February 2005.

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