John Mearsheimer on US-China Relations

John Mearsheimer on US-China Relations

13 December 2021

On December 13th, MGIMO University organized an online meeting with John Mearsheimer, Professor at the University of Chicago and one of the leading researchers in international relations.

Referring to his recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, the American expert shared his views on the evolution, current state and prospects for the development of US-China relations, as well as took numerous questions from the audience. The event was moderated by the Vice-Rector for Science and Research Andrey Baykov and the Associate Professor at the Department of Applied International Analysis and Senior Research Fellow at the IIS Center for Advanced American Studies Igor Istomin.

Professor Mearsheimer started his lecture by pointing out that Washington’s policy towards Beijing after the Cold War was based on liberal ideas as the USA expected China to become more prosperous and transform into a more democratic and friendly state. This strategy ignored the huge Chinese potential with the population of over one billion people. In the early 1990s, China was a poor state unable to challenge the USA, but the economic growth of the last three decades turned it into an intimidating rival of the superpower.

John Mearsheimer is convinced that the American establishment is to blame for this situation as they have continuously ignored the warnings of the realists, being carried away by the liberal utopia. He considers the current growing tensions as the logical product of the US policy and the natural rise of Chinese ambitions with the country becoming more powerful economically. Due to its geographical location, China is destined to seek hegemony in East Asia, while the USA is interested in limiting other countries’ power projection capabilities in the crucial regions in Eurasia, and the current tensions only exacerbate the confrontational nature of relations between Washington and Beijing.

Professor Mearsheimer also notes that the US strategic myopia is reflected not only in promoting the rise of China, but also in alienating Russia and the West. After the Cold War, Moscow stopped posing such a threat to Washington as it used to pose in the Soviet times. It no longer had the potential to dominate the important regions of Eurasia. Moreover, having a long common border with China, Russia seemed to be a natural ally of the United States in containing Beijing. Nevertheless, the Washington’s policy of increasing its presence in Eastern Europe, NATO’s expansion and promotion of democracy created serious threats for Moscow. Russia, as any great power, is very sensitive to the presence of strong actors near its borders. The most vivid illustration of the US lack of strategic wisdom is its approach towards Ukraine, which stimulated further rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing and the breakdown of the relations with the West.

The lecture by Professor Mearsheimer aroused great interest among MGIMO students and professors, in particular, and the Russian expert community, in general. Most of the 90-minute lecture was devoted to the Q&A session, covering not only the general logic behind the US-China relations, but also current event and the wider international relations agenda. During the event the American expert managed to comment on over ten topics that were of interest to the audience.

In particular, the participants asked to what degree China is ready to compete with the United States, taking into account the gaps in development, military potential and the number of allies in the international arena. Professor Mearsheimer agreed that the most important front of the US-China confrontation would be the fight for technological dominance, whose outcome is not yet clear. As for the reliance on allies, he admitted that he was not sure about the usefulness of military and political alliances which present both assets and liabilities.

He also noted that one of the important US advantages in the long run is its ability to accept and assimilate migrants. Now, both China and the United States are faced with the natural population decline, but America can make up for it thanks to migrants. China doesn’t have any similar experience of integrating migrants which creates limits for its potential growth in the future. However, this aspect can significantly influence the power balance only in the long term.

Answering the question on the prospects of US-China rivalry around Taiwan, John Mearsheimer stated: “We will defend Taiwan. We should defend Taiwan.” To substantiate this stance, he stressed that China could be contained by limiting its military activity within the “first island chain”, surrounding the mainland Asia. Taiwan is part of the natural barrier of the Chinese sea periphery, and that’s why Washington will do its best to prevent it from falling under the influence of Beijing. At the same time, Professor Mearsheimer criticized a number of other steps made by Joe Biden’s administration with regard to China. Among other things, he noted that the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing winter Olympics only gives rise to Chinese nationalism without providing any strategic advantages.

Commenting on the questions regarding the current state of the theory of international relations, Professor Mearsheimer said that the evolution of US-China relations since the 1990s proved again the legitimacy of the realist approaches. However, he complained that the US scholars are a priori skeptical of realism, and especially the structural realism. John Mearsheimer believes that it is connected with the American cultural focus on the ability of an individual to control their destiny. At the same time, the structural realism posits that not much depends on individual politicians and diplomats.

In conclusion of the meeting, Professor Mearsheimer underlined that it would be extremely wise of the current American administration to present Moscow with safeguards regarding NATO’s expansion. He would advise Washington to reach agreement with Russia on Ukraine, recognizing its security interests near its borders. However, he doubts that the United States would take such steps due to the internal political limitations which impede the rational dialogue with Russia.

Substantive answers of Professor Mearsheimer on numerous and various questions aroused genuine interest among the audience. The participants were extremely thankful for his deep and at the same time clearly articulated assessments. Without a doubt, it would be hard to cover all the questions to one of the leading strategic thinkers of today in one meeting. That’s why the moderators and most participants expressed their hope for continuing the discussion in the future.