[Professor John Mearsheimer spoke with Ejaz Haider in ThinkFest Online on “Why a Cold War between China and the United States is inevitable.” We are producing part of his talk here. You can watch the complete discussion here. Professor John Mearsheimeris an American political scientist and international relations scholar, who belongs to the realist school of thought. He is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.]

A cold war between China and the United States is inevitable and there would be intense security competition between the two sides. But it hard to say that it would be a shooting war.  I believe structure in the international system forces states to compete with each other and in this particular case, China will try to dominate Asia in the way the United States dominate its Western hemisphere.

The fact is that the international system has no higher authority that can protect states. The international system is anarchic. That means there is no higher authority that can help a country if it will get in trouble. Often times, very powerful have maligned intentions towards other states. So the best way to survive is to be the most powerful state in the system. It is extremely unlikely, if you are a regional hegemon in your region of the world, that any other country will attack you. Think about the United States. No country in the western hemisphere would ever think about attacking the United States.

From late 1840 to late 1940s, China was very weak. They called this hundred year period “the century of national Humiliation.” So, China is translating its economic might into a military might and determine to dominate Asia. China has determination to become regional hegemon.

However, the most of the China’s neighbors find this situation unacceptable. It is certainly true in regard to India, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Australia. Even more importantly it is unacceptable to the United States.

The United States does not tolerate peer competitors. In other words, the United States believes, it should be the original hegemon in the world. And in the 20th century, the United States went to great length to prevent four countries from becoming a regional hegemon. Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

What I am saying that although China is going to try to dominate Asia and be a regional hegemon- and that makes perfect sense from China’s point of view- but from the American perspective that is unacceptable. And Americans, therefore, would go to great length to prevent that from happening.  It would not be the Americans but it would be a number of China’s most powerful neighbours as well. So the end result of this that you are going to get an intense security competition. And you can see evidence of it in the places like the East China sea, the South China sea, the Line of actual control between India and China and Taiwan. The competition is already heating up. And it would become more intense with time.

And this competition is driven by the structure of the system. It is driven by the fact that states have powerful incentives to be the hegemon of their region of the world. Because in the system there is no higher authority that can help you if you get in trouble. There is no substitute for being really powerful.

And If you are not powerful and you are weak, you are liable to fall victim to the century of national humiliation. A super power is defined a super power as a great power that project its military might outside its own region. With the passage of time, in my opinion, Chinese will buildup significant power projection capabilities. Chinese are building blue water navy much like the United States. They want to have military capability to protect Build and Road project all around the world.  

Right now Chinese are concerned mainly with East Asia, but as times go by then they will be concerned about the periphery. The area they would be the most concerned with is the Persian Gulf. Because the Chinese get most of their oil from the Persian Gulf. And they think about Pakistan as a country that can help them to secure their oil resources in the Persian Gulf. And Pakistanis know this issue very well.

Chinese will say to you and to me that they have no interest in conflict and they want to maintain the status quo. But look at what is going on in the South China Sea? Look at what is going on in the East China Sea? Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese are interested in changing the status quo. And they have made it clear that they will use military force to change the status quo. Domination is all about having supreme military might in your region of the world. Just think about the United States in the western hemisphere, no country in the western hemisphere will pick a fight with the United States. The United States has Monroe Doctrine it says it does not want other great powers in its backyard. If you talk to the Chinese behind the closed door, they would tell you that they do not like the United States on their doorsteps. They would like to push the United States beyond the first island chain and push the United Stated beyond the second island chain.  I don’t blame the Chinese one bit. If I were the national security advisor in Bejing, I had wanted to push the Americans out of East Asia. I wanted to be much more powerful than Japan.

Up until Donald Trump moved into the White House, the United States used fundamentally a liberal policy towards China. And the United States foolishly, I am choosing my words carefully, United States under the Republican and Democratic administrations foolishly helped China grow into a potential peer competitor. When Trump moved into the White House, Trump recognized that China was a potential threat and he pursued a realist policy towards China. Trump was interested not simply in containing China but rolling back Chinese power. He wanted slow down Chinese economic growth and reverse it. He was a ruthless realist. Trump’s great liability was that he was unilateralist. He was either unwilling or incapable, or both, working with allies. And there is no way that United States can contain China without using Allies.

Now Joe Biden has replaced Donald Trump. And big question in the United States is today what would Biden do viz a viz China. Will he be the nice to the Chinese and emphasis cooperation instead of competition? And how would Biden interact with Allies?
My view is Biden would be as tough as Trump was. I am a structuralist and I believe in structural factors are the driving force in the international politics. It does not matter very much whether I am the President of the United States or you are the President or Donald Trump or Joe Biden so forth and so on. Structure dictates that the United States has to have a forceful containment policy at least towards China.

The great advantage of the Biden over Trump is that Biden is a multilateralist. Biden will be able to work with allies and put together a balancing correlation that can contain China. So, I think from the Chinese point of view coming of Biden is bad news in large part because Biden will be more effective at crafting an effective containment policy than Trump was.

Pakistan and Current Scenario:

All likelihood is that Pakistan will be allied with China. India will be allied with the United States. I think the United States will go to great length to peel Pakistan away from China and to have good relations with Pakistan and India. The United States will try to have Pakistan and India together in a balancing correlation against China. I do not think that is going to happen. I think Pakistanis will be closely allied with the Chinese in this emerging cold war. Pakistan can have decent relations with the United States but if it forced to choose, Pakistan will choose Chinese over Americans. Indian will be clearly allied with the Americans against the Chinese. So, there will be countries which will be caught in the middle of this competition.

Moving forward, we are going to have significant and intense security competition between the United States and China, but at the same time, I believe, there will be cooperation on numbers of issues. One is pandemic, and number two is climate change. The other area where we are going to see cooperation is at the economic level. So, there be economic cooperation and same time security competition. A good analogy is a time before World War I when there was economic cooperation between countries and intense security competition.


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