OPINION | Realism as a Theoretical Approach to the U.S.- China - Taiwan Relationship

OPINION | Realism as a Theoretical Approach to the U.S.- China - Taiwan Relationship

By Dario Kuntić


Realism is the oldest paradigm of international relations. Although realists constitute a diverse group, they share the core assumption that international politics is defined as a struggle for power. According to the realist paradigm, states are the most important actors in world politics that seek power, calculate their interests in terms of power and are motivated primarily by their national interests. The basic motive driving states is survival. No state can ever be certain another state will not use its offensive military capabilities. Realists assume that law and morality have a subordinate place in international relations, share a generally pessimistic view of human nature and believe that the international system is anarchic. Under these conditions, each state struggles to ensure its security. In sum, realists emphasize the constraints on politics imposed by human selfishness (egoism) and the absence of international government (anarchy), which require the primacy of power and security in all political life (see Donnelly in Burchill and Linklatter 2013: 32).


Image Attribute: The daily flag-lowering ceremony at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂), Taipei.  / Source: Wikimedia Commons


Image Attribute: The daily flag-lowering ceremony at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂), Taipei.  / Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the international system, realists argue, states answer to no higher authority and are in constant conflict with other states. Hans Morgenthau writes that anybody who operates in international relations enters a conflict with others who also strive to achieve their interests by force (Morgenthau 1985). In their view, a gain to one party means a loss to the other. Regardless of variations, all realists tend to view power politics as a zero-sum game and anticipate conflicts of interests between the established major power and rising challengers. Thucydides and Machiavelli demonstrated that the quest for dominance in any competitive political environment is, by necessity, continuous and relentless, with all political entities, whether they be individuals or states, seeking to expand their power whenever they can do so without undue penalty because their circumstances simply permit it (Tellis in Shambaugh 2013: 82).

Some realists believe that a conflict can be postponed, and a rising peer competitor deterred in the short to medium term, but in the longer term the intrinsic imperative of survival drives states into prolonged – and dangerous – competition (Shambaugh 2013: 82). Since the world is composed of opposing interests, conflict among competing states is inevitable. Realists only disagree over the degree of its intensity.

Realists identify major powers that constitute the system’s poles in the international system, as well as middle powers and smaller states that seek to define their relations with the major powers. The classic power transition pathway pits a rising great power against the status quo leading state and it expects that conflict –and perhaps war – will be generated as the rising state reaches parity with the declining lead state (Ikenberry 2008: 111).

When a major power is gradually displaced by a new rising power, whose ascent to primacy would challenge the existing international order, the international system becomes highly unstable. This is known in neorealist thinking as power-transition theory. The term “power transition” comes from Kenneth Organski’s classical work, World Politics. It refers to several important aspects of international relations. First, it is about a significant increase of national power in a big nation (in terms of its territorial and demographic size) as a result of its genuine and rapid economic development. Second, it is the impact of this growing power on the international system, especially on the hegemonic position of the dominant nation in this international system (Lai 2011: 5). Power transition theory holds that the period when a rising power approaches parity with the established power is the most unstable and prone to conflict – what Organski and Kugler described as the “crossover” point (see Shambaugh 2013: 10-11). Historically, such great power transitions have been fertile ground for confrontation, since the established power typically resists the rising country’s efforts to strengthen its military, seize territory and colonies, and otherwise remake its region into a sphere of influence in which the other countries must constrain their foreign and sometimes domestic politics in ways acceptable to the new hegemon (Weiz 2013: 9).

As a new rising entity challenges the existing balance of security in the system, the established power has to deal with the issue whether and to what extent this is a peaceful shift or a conflictual transition. The sense of strength and weakness upsets the balance of security in the international system and results in a security dilemma. According to classical realists, “structural anarchy,” or the absence of a central authority to settle disputes, is the essential feature of the contemporary system, and gives rise to the “security dilemma”: in a self-help system one nation’s search for security often leaves its current and potential adversaries insecure, any nation that strives for absolute security leaves all others in the system absolutely insecure, and it can provide a powerful incentive for arms races and other types of hostile reactions (Holsti 2004: 54). As a result, a vicious circle of spiraling (in)security arises in the international system.

To confront a rising power, the dominant state can sustain its primacy through “balancing” and “strategic hedging” tactics. Realists differentiate internal balancing, which reallocates resources from other purposes to national security, from external balancing, carried out through alliances and other (formal and informal) agreements (Donnelly in Burchill and Linklatter 2013: 38). Morgenthau observed that alliances constitute “the most important manifestation of the balance of power” in international systems (See Tow in Robinson and Shambaugh 1994: 119). Already Thucydides wrote that a state must care of its security by making alliances with other states. It is possible for a dominant state to engage with a rising power.

This engagement can be based on either balancing or containment strategy to serve as insurance against uncertain current and future intentions of a rising power. Henry Kissinger emphasizes that the balance of power is the only way to ensure international peace. In other words, no single entity within the international system should be allowed to gain predominance over others. Thus, security is enhanced when power is distributed to limit or curb the quest for hegemony.

With respect to middle powers and smaller states, they seek either to align (bandwagon) with or against (balancing) a superior power. Bandwagoning means that a state aligns itself with a threatening power to either neutralize the threat or benefit from the spoils of victory (Kang 2007: 51). Conversely, a weaker state can balance a major power by aligning itself to another great power to avoid submission or destruction. A state’s inability to provide for its own security forces it to rely on external assistance. Maintaining close relations with a powerful ally, a small state can increase its stake in the balance of power game and preserve its freedom and independence from absorption by a preponderant power. Realists argue that stability and order in the international system are the result of skillful manipulations of flexible alliance systems (Evans and Newnham 1998: 466).

Realists use a concept of power shift to explain the rise of China and the challenge this rise poses to the global domination of the United States. As rapid economic growth and technological modernization enabled China to expand its political and military power, some observers argue that this trend, if it continues, could undermine the U.S.-dominated unipolar international system and even dethrone the United States from a position of a sole global superpower. According to the realist paradigm, a gain for China would result in a loss for the United States.

That China might already be on the way to overtake the US raises a prospect of a power transition within the international system. Thus, whether China is a status quo power or one that seeks to revise the international system has become a critical issue in Sino-American relations. As China’s rise includes not only economic and political power, but also the policy that enhances its military capabilities, the United States feels less secure and consequently threatened. Whether China’s rise will be peaceful or violent is a question that preoccupies scholars and statesmen alike … Scholars who examine the consequences of China’s rise through the lenses of either power transition theory or offensive realism predict a future of conflict (Fravel 2010: 505). Under these assumptions, the push to change the existing distribution of power in China’s favor will raise the stakes between the two powers so high that this could send China and the United States on a collision course.

Many realists treat China as an assertive destabilizing power. From a regional perspective, many argue that Beijing is challenging Washington’s interests in East Asia. They see China as a country that could become a global superpower accompanied by an aggressive foreign policy contradicting U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Some U.S. observers suspect that China’s strategic ambition is to push the United States out of East Asia and become the dominant regional hegemon, akin to the Sino-centric order of China’s imperial period (Bergsten at al 2006: 125). Henry Kissinger highlights that some American strategic thinkers argue that Chinese policy pursues two long-term objectives: first, to displace the United States as the preeminent power in the Western Pacific; and second, to consolidate Asia into an exclusionary bloc deferring to Chinese economic and foreign policy interests (Kissinger 2012: 499). In his writings, John Mearsheimer expounds his “iron law”: that all powers seek hegemony, are discontent with balance of power, and therefore the United States and China are no exceptions. This presents, in his view, a grave and future danger to the United States and its own hegemonic position in Asia and the world. Aaron Friedberg essentially shares Mearsheimer’s view that the United States and China are locked in a “contest for supremacy” (Shambaugh 2013: 11). Robert Kagan emphasizes that China aims “in the near term, to replace the United States as the dominant power in East Asia and in the long term to challenge America’s position as the dominant power in the world (See Dou in Peng Er and Wei 2009: 12). Zbigniew Brzezinski anticipated that a strong China could seriously challenge U.S. interests in the region and might be much more tempted to resolve the issue of Taiwan by force, irrespective of America’s attitude (Brzezinski 1997).

Whether China is a status quo power or one that seeks to revise the international system has become a critical issue in the United States. In recent years, a number of analysts argued that the rise of modern China resembles the rise of Wilhelmine Germany a century ago. Fareed Zakaria has written that “like Germany in the late 19th century, China is also growing rapidly but uncertainly into a global system in which it feels it deserves more attention and honor. China’s military is a powerful political player, as was the Prussian officer corps” (Zakaria 1996). Charles Krauthammer has written that “modern China is the Germany of a century ago – a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun” (Krauthammer 2010). As Wilhelmine Germany seized the opportunity to confront Britain as the ruling hegemon, some scholars and policy advisers argue that the perceived decline of U.S. power could encourage China to challenge U.S. hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

The realist paradigm has its protagonists among Chinese scholars and its military establishment as well. This concept stems from ideological orthodoxy of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought. China may have discredited Maoist ideology, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has definitely not abandoned Marxist socialism or Leninist authoritarianism – and certainly has not abandoned the ideology of being a great power (Shambaugh 2013: 7). It has also remained attached to the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought that competition among great powers would inevitably lead to war. Although Marxism has waned in the post-Mao era, the perception that great powers are doomed to collide still persists in the minds of many Chinese leaders who in their youth have been socialized and imbued with Marxist notions such as hegemony, imperialism, exploitation, struggle, conflict, and the correlation of forces. Simply put, the generation of leaders schooled in Marxism and Maoism in China is sensitive to the notion and reality of power and conflict. This residual Marxist-Maoist legacy of viewing international relation as conflict and struggle is compatible to Western international relations theory of realism (Dou in Peng Er and Wei 2009: 12-13). Many younger Chinese policy analysts embraced the theory of offensive realism which holds that a country will try to control its security environment to the full extent that its capabilities permit. According to this theory, the United States cannot be satisfied with the existence of a powerful China and therefore seeks to make its ruling regime weaker and more pro-American. Chinese analysts see evidence of this intent in Washington’s calls for democracy and its support for what China sees as separatist movements in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang (Nathan and Scobell 2012).

Some leading strategists of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believe that “hegemonism of the superpower(s) is still the long term threat to national security” which may pose new security challenges to the PRC. It is implied that these superpowers are a “competing United States and Japan” (See Wang 1996: 45). Thus, hard-liners in the CCP and within the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army urged Beijing to adopt a more assertive policy toward Washington. One prominent example of this assertive policy is a book, Unrestricted Warfare, published in 1999 by two colonels in the PLA. In addition to the military analysis, the underlying assumption of Unrestricted Warfare is that the United States is an implacable enemy of China and that someday the PRC must confront its adversary militarily (Carpenter 2005: 3). In a clear reference to the United States, in April 2013, the official People’s Liberation Army Daily stressed that China needed to beef up its defenses to deal with a hostile West, bent on undermining it.2 As insecurity can easily give rise to hostility, whether Chinese leaders will translate perceived U.S. provocations in an aggressive policy toward the United States remains the central question in a Sino-American great power game. 

About The Author:

Dario Kuntić is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb. His doctoral thesis deals with the problem of global Jihad as a response to U.S. global supremacy. Dario earned his bachelor degree at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb and master degree at the University of Bologna. His research interests lie in the area of international relations, diplomacy, and security. Dario was a speaker and participant at numerous international conferences and workshops in Canada, the United States, Iran and Taiwan. He spent seven months as a visiting fellow at the European Union Centre in Taiwan, National Taiwan University. In 2013, he organized an international seminar “Taiwan: Challenges and Achievements” at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb. In 2014, Dario Kuntić became a coordinator of the international academic course “Politics and Economy of East Asia” at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb. 

Publication Details:

This work is an extract from an article - "The Ominous Triangle: China-Taiwanthe United States relationship by Dario Kuntić", Croatian International Relations Review. Volume 21, Issue 72, Pages 239–280, ISSN (Online) 1848-5782, DOI: 10.1515/cirr-2015-0008, March 2015.

© 2015. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
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