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Perspective | Would a realist approach to China have been better for the United States? – The Washington Post

In recent years, both U.S. policymakers and the American public have adopted much more hawkish views toward China. John Mearsheimer is wondering what took everyone so long.
Twenty years ago, Mearsheimer closed his magnum opus, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” with some stark advice about American foreign policy toward China. He noted that “what makes a future Chinese threat so worrisome is that it might be far more powerful and dangerous than any of the potential hegemons that the United States confronted in the twentieth century.” He concluded that “the United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead.” Blasting the engagement strategy that dominated U.S. foreign policy back then, Mearsheimer warned that China would not become either democratic or a status-quo power, concluding: “The U.S. policy on China is misguided.”
Foreign Affairs recently invited Mearsheimer to do a victory lap on his prognostications and he does not disappoint. His essay “The Inevitable Tragedy” is typically unsparing in its critique of U.S. foreign policy: “Engagement may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history: there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor. And it is now too late to do much about it.”
As the post-Cold War engagement strategy continues to be dissected, it sure seems like Mearsheimer is arguing from a position of strength. Even he acknowledges, however, that he has the benefit of hindsight, and back in the early nineties “U.S. policymakers seemed to have little cause for concern — and especially not about China, a weak and impoverished country that had been aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union for over a decade.”
There are some more serious questions to ask, however, about his counterfactual economic reasoning and assessment of the current situation. Because both of these rest on some shaky empirical ground.
Mearsheimer’s preferred path would have been one in which, after the Cold War ended, U.S. leaders “negotiated a new bilateral trade agreement that imposed harsher terms on China. They should have done so even if the agreement was also less favorable to the United States.” The United States would have pressured allies like Japan and Taiwan to do the same, thereby limiting China’s rise.
One question is just how much this would have deferred Chinese economic growth. Mearsheimer acknowledges that “If the United States had played hardball on trade and investment, China would surely have turned to other countries for help.” Why, yes, particularly the European Union! In our actual history, the E.U. exports a considerable amount to China and is now that union’s largest trading partner. In Mearsheimer’s counterfactual, the E.U. would have become a much more important source of trade and technology for China. In our actual history, the United States and European Union have bickered over how much to accommodate China. In Mearsheimer’s counterfactual history, that bickering could have mushroomed into a full-fledged divorce. It is not obvious to me whether a history that includes a transatlantic rupture would have been better for the United States than the current one.
The other thing to consider is how a China that rose despite U.S. containment policies would have viewed Washington. Mearsheimer acknowledges that “Given its market reforms and latent power potential, China would still have risen despite these policies. But it would have become a great power at a much later date.” Perhaps, but it also would have become a great power that viewed the United States as a hostile, enduring rival. (Side note: in this counterfactual, someone like Avery Goldstein or Audrye Wong writes a Foreign Affairs article in 2025 decrying the stupidity of the containment strategy launched 30 years earlier.)
As it stands, the United States and China might be viewing each other warily, but they are also doing so with sufficient levels of economic interdependence to make both sides to think twice about escalation. As Fareed Zakaria noted last week:
Anyone familiar with the lead-up to the First World War knows that this constraint is not ironclad — but it is far more potent than realists like Mearsheimer comprehend.
Mearsheimer’s implicit assumption is that China’s power will continue, but that is far from certain. China is, in the words of Denny Roy, a “low productivity superpower.” Most of China’s recent economic growth has been fueled by debt and very little of it by productivity gains. Future growth looks more daunting, given the distortions under Xi Jinping’s failed reform efforts. As Hal Brands and Michael Beckley recently noted in Foreign Policy, “any country that has aged, accumulated debt, or lost productivity at anything close to China’s current pace has lost at least one decade to near-zero economic growth.”
Brands and Beckley agree with Mearsheimer on a near-term containment strategy. Indeed, that might be the best policy in the short run. Mearsheimer’s claim that the current situation would have been better if the United States had done this decades ago, however, seems far from clear.
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