Offensive Realism and the Rise of China: A Helpful Framework for Evaluation?


Throughout the final decade, the rise of China has emerged as in all probability one of many foremost points within the Western world and past. Worldwide relations students and policymakers alike are grappling with the implications of an more and more extra highly effective Individuals’s Republic of China (PRC). What appears to be the almost certainly trajectory for Chinese language overseas coverage? And which methods must be carried out to satisfy what presently seems to be essentially the most consequential problem to the Western liberal worldwide order?

In quest for analytical frameworks to make sense of the rise of China, evidently the teachings from offensive realism—carefully related to John J. Mearsheimer—have attained typical knowledge: As China’s relative energy grows, it would undertake an more and more assertive and aggressive technique (Shifrinson, 2020, p. 175). Subsequently, an intense US-Chinese language safety competitors with ample potential for armed battle would seem possible; “China can not rise peacefully,” writes Mearsheimer (2010, p. 382).

Nevertheless, I’ll argue that regardless of its widespread recognition, offensive realism is of somewhat restricted utility, if not outright harmful, with regards to analysing the rise of China. Firstly, analysis on rising state technique and energy transitions highlights each empirical and theoretical issues with Mearsheimer’s argument concerning the rise of China. Secondly, offensive realism takes into consideration solely the structural stage, however not the person or the state stage—thus leaving main blind spots within the evaluation. Lastly, Mearsheimer’s strict emphasis on navy capabilities seems to overestimate the danger of battle—and underestimate US-Chinese language competitors in different domains, e.g. with regard to rising applied sciences.

The Basis for Offensive Realism seems uncertain

The elemental assumption of Mearsheimer’s offensive realism is a daring one. He portrays nice powers as revisionist predators in pursuit of survival. The last word aim for any highly effective state is to achieve regional hegemony—that’s, being the strongest nation in its a part of the world. As well as, nice powers additionally need to ensure that there aren’t any contenders dominating different areas (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 363). This picture is each persuasive and parsimonious, however not backed by empirical proof.

In actual fact, rising states don’t at all times appear to make use of aggressive methods towards their declining rivals. Fairly, historical past means that rising states even cooperate with their declining friends. Though Wilhelmine Germany competed with Nice Britain for maritime primacy, it additionally supplied Austria-Hungary with diplomatic and navy assist within the years earlier than 1914. Each america and the rising Soviet Union tried to assist a weakening United Kingdom after the tip of World Conflict II. Finally, Britain acquired exceptional financial, navy and diplomatic help from america (Shifrinson, 2020, pp. 176–177). However the Soviet Union was additionally desirous to cooperate with the UK; it even explored the feasibility of a proper navy alliance with Britain in early 1947—a couple of yr earlier than america began to debate an identical proposal (Shifrinson, 2018, p. 90).

Equally, a big physique of literature on energy transitions apparently calls into query Mearsheimer’s offensive realist worldview, since there seems to be solely a weak hyperlink between energy shifts and the outbreak of battle (Shifrinson, 2020, p. 180). For instance, Lebow and Valentino (2009) not solely discovered that energy transitions are pretty unusual, but in addition that energy shifts are often the impact of armed conflicts—not their trigger. Nice powers historically eschew making battle in opposition to their friends. As an alternative, they like to assault smaller states or gravely declining nations. It’s true that these smaller wars have repeatedly escalated in ways in which dragged different nice powers into the battle as effectively (Lebow and Valentino, 2009, p. 406). However these conflicts—inadvertent escalations, so to talk—differ significantly from the extraordinary safety competitors which Mearsheimer is anticipating. Most significantly, there’s even analysis indicating that dominant navy powers are extra possible than rising states to start out main battle, supplied that they’re apprehensive about their lack of standing (Copeland, 2000, p. 3).

In sum, empirical proof means that rising states undertake way more nuanced methods than offensive realism would predict. This appears to carry true even for nice powers with revisionist propensities (Shifrinson, 2018, p. 181). One potential rationalization for this divergence between actuality and what offensive realism teaches might be case choice. Certainly, Mearsheimer’s case research have been suspected of choice bias by varied students (Snyder, 2002, p. 161; Toft, 2005, pp. 395–396). Additionally it is value noting that—at odds with Mearsheimer’s predictions—NATO has but to break down (Kaplan, 2011). Neither has Germany acquired nuclear weapons, neither is there a vicious nice energy competitors in Europe (Toft, 2005, p. 396). In different phrases: Mearsheimer has been off the mark by an amazing margin. Given the somewhat weak empirical foundation and the speculation’s debatable predictive potential, it could appear cheap to imagine that offensive realism will not be significantly helpful with regards to the evaluation of the rise of China.

In actual fact, the Individuals’s Republic of China doesn’t appear to harbour expansionist proclivities. It’s true that China’s territorial claims—e.g. Taiwan or massive swaths of the South China Sea—are substantial. As well as, Chinese language efforts to construct synthetic islands within the South China Sea have been extensively considered expansionist and aggressive by China’s neighbours. Nevertheless, Chinese language territorial claims are all firmly rooted in historic possession or exploration, not in offensive realist considering (Nathan and Scobell, 2014, p. 21; Yergin, 2020).

In addition to that, theoretical insights from steadiness of energy idea would additionally forged doubt on offensive realism’s core tenet, as Shifrinson (2020) has famous. If rising powers have been to have interaction in all-out predation on their declining friends, they could expedite the formation of a large counterbalancing coalition. In multipolar programs, a rising energy may additionally want help from different nations in its proximity to offset challengers. All-out predation on declining nations would appear to foreclose future cooperation with different states and thus seems strategically unwise (Shifrinson, 2020, pp. 181–183). For these causes, rising states would appear to pursue extra nuanced methods towards their declining friends. Extra to the purpose, one would count on rising powers to comply with both predatory or supportive methods in various intensities—relying on the decliner’s strategic worth and navy posture, respectively (Shifrinson, 2018, chap. 2). Since China faces a number of challengers in its neighbourhood with each India and Japan, and america is prone to retain a strong navy posture for the foreseeable future, it seems possible that China will train restraint—or, the truth is, could even need to cooperate with america (Shifrinson, 2020, p. 199).

A complete analytical framework discovered wanting

Along with the empirical and theoretical points introduced above, offensive realism precludes two essential ranges of study when used as a instrument for finding out the rise of China. In his influential guide Man, State, and Conflict, Waltz (1954) conceived of three “photos” of worldwide relations: people, the state, and the worldwide system. Now, offensive realism is a structural idea. It holds that state behaviour is decided by the anarchic construction of the worldwide system. Particular person leaders and home politics are excluded from consideration—offensive realism is an oversimplification of actuality. As a consequence, the speculation will probably be of restricted utility when private beliefs or home politics are the predominant variables which form a state’s overseas coverage (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 10).

With regards to China, cheap proof means that people and their concepts could certainly dominate the decision-making course of. Chinese language overseas coverage has at all times been formed by its supreme chief’s private concepts. Though it’s true that the chief’s function has turn out to be much less important from Mao Zedong to Hu Jintao (Nathan and Scobell, 2014, pp. 37–38), there will be little doubt that the rise of Xi Jinping, China’s supreme chief since 2012, has reversed this development. “Xi Jinping thought” has been included within the Chinese language Communist Occasion’s structure within the nineteenth Nationwide Congress in October 2017 (Corre, 2018). And after an unprecedented centralisation of energy, Xi holds extra sway than every other Chinese language chief since Mao. He has quelled dissenting voices, eliminated the time period restrict for his workplace as president and established a persona cult that bears resemblance to authoritarian leaders resembling Vladimir Putin in Russia and even Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Therefore, a sound understanding of Xi is of a lot better significance than it has been for any of his instant predecessors (Wasserstrom, 2021).

Xi’s rise to energy has been accompanied by what’s described as an more and more assertive Chinese language overseas coverage. This was first famous in 2009 by varied Chinese language and overseas pundits (Friedberg, 2014, p. 133), and has culminated in an unparalleled Chinese language diplomatic offensive in 2020. The Chinese language Communist Occasion tightened its grip on Hong Kong and handed a controversial nationwide safety legislation that has successfully terminated the precept of “one nation, two programs.” Chinese language troopers began a lethal brawl on the disputed border with India. The Chinese language navy repeatedly probed Taiwan’s air defences and elevated its patrols across the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, that are claimed by each China and Japan. Likewise, maritime presence within the South China Sea was intensified. Domestically, Beijing stepped up its clampdown in opposition to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in what many have described as an try of cultural genocide. Lastly, the Australian authorities’s request for an unbiased investigation into the roots of the COVID-19 pandemic was met with harsh commerce sanctions and cyberattacks, and Chinese language diplomats began utilizing very belligerent language (Campbell and Rapp-Hooper, 2020).

What could account for this dramatic change of course within the PRC’s overseas coverage? Campbell and Rapp-Hooper (2020) have prompt that each Xi’s perception that the time to revive China’s historic would possibly has arrived and this consolidation of energy possible performed a key function, whereas staunch nationalism could have served as a catalyst. H. R. McMaster (2020), former White Home nationwide safety adviser, has equally argued that the Chinese language management is underneath the impression that its window of alternative to perform the “China dream” is narrowing. He has additionally emphasised the significance of historical past with regards to understanding China. Small and Jaishankar (2020) have put ahead 4 conceivable explanations for the PRC’s new assertiveness. These theories maintain that weaknesses in the remainder of the world, an internalisation of the Chinese language leaders’ personal success, a response to present challenges posed by the pandemic or inside and exterior insecurity might be the rationale of China’s diplomatic offensive.

To this point, there isn’t a systemic evaluation which might attribute Beijing’s latest assertiveness to particular determinants on the person, home or structural stage. Nevertheless, Liao (2016) has employed a classical ranges of study strategy to make sense of China’s assertiveness after 2009. Based on his evaluation, prevalent structural and home explanations are usually not supported by empirical proof and thus fail to supply a believable rationalization. Most significantly, there was no correlation in time between changes of worldwide or home preconditions and China’s elevated assertiveness. Thus, the evaluation means that the perceptions and concepts of China’s elite and the state chief’s preferences are essentially the most convincing rationalization for the modifications in Chinese language overseas coverage (Liao, 2016, pp. 831–833).

It’s true that China’s new assertiveness may be half of a bigger plan to realize the PRC’s strategic goals, as Friedberg (2014, pp. 143–146) has argued. As well as, the management argument is nearly unattainable to refute (Liao, 2016, p. 829). However no matter that, the proof introduced above strongly suggests {that a} single-level perspective as offensive realism could also be too parsimonious with regards to the evaluation of the rise of China. In actual fact, even Mearsheimer has devoted one part of his chapter on China’s rise to “hypernationalism,” which he expects to exacerbate the US-Chinese language safety competitors—while sustaining that realist logic will stay the important thing issue (Mearsheimer, 2014, pp. 399–403). On this regard, realism seems to be not only a idea, but in addition an ideology, as McFaul has so aptly famous: Realism is devised as a descriptive and a prescriptive idea; states must comply with its classes with the intention to achieve success in worldwide affairs. But, this would appear to undercut the core argument of realism—particularly that leaders and their beliefs are irrelevant (McFaul, 2020, p. 113).

Mearsheimer’s Unduly Deal with Army Capabilities

The third and remaining purpose why offensive realism would appear to be of somewhat restricted utility within the evaluation of the rise of China is the speculation’s unduly concentrate on navy capabilities. Mearsheimer grasps on the idea of energy solely in a really slender sense—states’ capabilities are measured in purely navy phrases (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 363). Though navy potential is definitely simple to estimate, this view disregards different methods to wield energy and coerce one’s adversaries—as an example via financial warfare (Toft, 2005, p. 384). Within the context of US-China relations, an unabating concentrate on navy pressure seems problematic; Mearsheimer’s anticipated safety competitors may very well play out within the financial enviornment, not within the navy area. Certainly, a tech competitors between China and america is already effectively underway.

Particularly underneath Donald Trump’s four-year tenure as United States president, beforehand uncontroversial financial cooperation has been more and more thought of via the lens of nationwide safety. This has led to a major reappraisal of US-China relations; america believes that it’s shedding its aggressive technological and navy edge resulting from shut industrial ties with the PRC (Foot and King, 2019, p. 47).

Trying extra carefully on the rhetoric of the Trump administration, it seems that each financial and civil society ties have been efficiently securitised (Abb, 2020). That’s, a reference object—i.e. financial relations with the PRC—has been outlined as an existential safety risk that warrants emergency measures outdoors the scope of regular political procedures (Buzan, Wæver and Wilde, 1998, pp. 23–26). One of the crucial obvious examples for this securitisation appears to be the 2017 US Nationwide Safety Technique as a result of it frames financial safety explicitly as a nationwide safety situation (United States, 2017, p. 17).

The Trump administration has acted accordingly. It imposed robust sanctions on the Chinese language tech big Huawei, slicing the corporate off from expertise manufactured in america, together with microprocessors (Abb, 2020, p. 2). After that, in summer time 2020, politicians in Washington mentioned whether or not or not TikTok—a social community owned by a Chinese language firm which is particularly well-liked amongst younger youngsters—may pose a risk to nationwide safety (Schuman, 2020). Some have even prompt that the White Home ought to declare a nationwide emergency and invoke the Worldwide Emergency Financial Powers Act (IEEPA) if the possession firm ByteDance will not be keen to promote its service to a non-Chinese language enterprise (Thompson, 2020). Subsequently, the Individuals’s Republic of China positioned TikTok’s advice algorithm on its export management listing (Mozur, Zhong and McCabe, 2020).

Because the Biden administration is reviewing Trump’s China coverage, the tech battle is presently on maintain—at the very least with regard to TikTok (Kruppa and Sevastopulo, 2021). However on condition that Joe Biden (2020) has additionally embraced technological competitors with China, it appears cheap to imagine that the arms race for high-tech superiority is right here to remain. Different tendencies, for instance the transition towards renewable vitality, would additionally counsel that management over expertise and mental property rights will turn out to be more and more extra essential (Overland, 2019, p. 38).

Conclusion and Outlook

General, there are quite a few causes to conclude that offensive realism could solely be of restricted utility with regards to the evaluation of the rise of China—I’ve introduced these in better element above. However, and maybe most significantly, following the dictates of offensive realism for coverage suggestions would appear much more regarding than simply using the speculation for finding out the rise of China. In spite of everything, an especially hostile navy posture towards the PRC may ultimately flip right into a self-fulfilling prophecy (Lebow and Valentino, 2009, p. 408; Kirshner, 2012, p. 71). Conflict with China would, then, certainly be within the offing.


Abb, P. (2020) Fraying Ties. The Securitization of the US-China Relationship. PRIF Highlight 11/2020. Frankfurt/Principal: Peace Analysis Institute Frankfurt. Accessible at: (Accessed: 24 February 2021).

Biden, J. R. (2020) ‘Why America Should Lead Once more’, Overseas Affairs, 30 November. Accessible at: (Accessed: 25 February 2021).

Buzan, B., Wæver, O. and Wilde, J. de (1998) Safety: a brand new framework for evaluation. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Pub.

Campbell, Ok. M. and Rapp-Hooper, M. (2020) ‘China Is Executed Biding Its Time. The Finish of Beijing’s Overseas Coverage Restraint?’, Overseas Affairs, 15 July. Accessible at: (Accessed: 20 February 2021).

Copeland, D. C. (2000) The origins of main battle. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press (Cornell research in safety affairs).

Corre, P. L. (2018) ‘China: Extra Authoritarianism, Extra Uncertainty’, Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace, 5 March. Accessible at: (Accessed: 21 February 2021).

Foot, R. and King, A. (2019) ‘Assessing the deterioration in China–U.S. relations: U.S. governmental views on the economic-security nexus’, China Worldwide Technique Evaluate, 1(1), pp. 39–50. doi: 10.1007/s42533-019-00005-y.

Friedberg, A. L. (2014) ‘The Sources of Chinese language Conduct: Explaining Beijing’s Assertiveness’, The Washington Quarterly, 37(4), pp. 133–150. doi: 10.1080/0163660X.2014.1002160.

Kaplan, R. D. (2011) ‘Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Proper (About Some Issues)’, The Atlantic, 20 December. Accessible at: (Accessed: 18 February 2021).

Kirshner, J. (2012) ‘The tragedy of offensive realism: Classical realism and the rise of China’, European Journal of Worldwide Relations, 18(1), pp. 53–75. doi: 10.1177/1354066110373949.

Kruppa, M. and Sevastopulo, D. (2021) ‘Joe Biden reconsiders Donald Trump’s effort to ban TikTok’, Monetary Instances, 11 February. Accessible at: (Accessed: 25 February 2021).

Lebow, R. N. and Valentino, B. (2009) ‘Misplaced in Transition: A Vital Evaluation of Energy Transition Idea’, Worldwide Relations, 23(3), pp. 389–410. doi: 10.1177/0047117809340481.

Liao, N.-C. C. (2016) ‘The sources of China’s assertiveness: the system, home politics or management preferences?’, Worldwide Affairs, 92(4), pp. 817–833. doi: 10.1111/1468-2346.12655.

McFaul, M. (2020) ‘Putin, Putinism, and the Home Determinants of Russian Overseas Coverage’, Worldwide Safety, 45(2), pp. 95–139. doi: 10.1162/isec_a_00390.

McMaster, H. R. (2020) ‘How China Sees the World’, The Atlantic, Might. Accessible at: (Accessed: 20 February 2021).

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2010) ‘The Gathering Storm: China’s Problem to US Energy in Asia’, The Chinese language Journal of Worldwide Politics, 3(4), pp. 381–396. doi: 10.1093/cjip/poq016.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2014) The Tragedy of Nice Energy Politics. Up to date Version. New York: Norton & Firm.

Mozur, P., Zhong, R. and McCabe, D. (2020) ‘TikTok Deal Is Difficult by New Guidelines From China Over Tech Exports’, The New York Instances, 29 August. Accessible at: (Accessed: 24 February 2021).

Nathan, A. J. and Scobell, A. (2014) China’s Seek for Safety. New York: Columbia College Press. Accessible at: (Accessed: 20 February 2021).

Overland, I. (2019) ‘The geopolitics of renewable vitality: Debunking 4 rising myths’, Vitality Analysis & Social Science, 49, pp. 36–40. doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2018.10.018.

Schuman, M. (2020) ‘Why America Is Afraid of TikTok’, The Atlantic, 30 July. Accessible at: (Accessed: 24 February 2021).

Shifrinson, J. (2020) ‘The rise of China, steadiness of energy idea and US nationwide safety: Causes for optimism?’, Journal of Strategic Research, 43(2), pp. 175–216. doi: 10.1080/01402390.2018.1558056.

Shifrinson, J. R. I. (2018) Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Nice Powers Exploit Energy Shifts. Unabridged Version. Ithaca: Mixed Tutorial Publ.

Small, A. and Jaishankar, D. (2020) ‘“For Our Enemies, We Have Shotguns”: Explaining China’s New Assertiveness’, Conflict on the Rocks, 20 July. Accessible at: (Accessed: 21 February 2021).

Snyder, G. H. (2002) ‘Mearsheimer’s World-Offensive Realism and the Battle for Safety: A Evaluate Essay’, Worldwide Safety, 27(1), pp. 149–173.

Thompson, B. (2020) ‘The TikTok Conflict’, Stratechery by Ben Thompson, 14 July. Accessible at: (Accessed: 24 February 2021).

Toft, P. (2005) ‘John J. Mearsheimer: an offensive realist between geopolitics and energy’, Journal of Worldwide Relations and Growth, 8(4), pp. 381–408. doi: 10.1057/palgrave.jird.1800065.

United States (2017) Nationwide Safety Technique of america of America. Washington, D.C.: President of the U.S. Accessible at: (Accessed: 24 February 2021).

Waltz, Ok. N. (1954) Man, the State, and Conflict: A Theoretical Evaluation. New York: Columbia College Press.

Wasserstrom, J. (2021) ‘Why Are There No Biographies of Xi Jinping?’, The Atlantic, 30 January. Accessible at: (Accessed: 20 February 2021).

Yergin, D. (2020) ‘The World’s Most Necessary Physique of Water’, The Atlantic, 15 December. Accessible at: (Accessed: 20 February 2021).

Additional Studying on E-Worldwide Relations