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The Flaws of Defensive Realism and the False Promise of Re-engaging China

Michael Beckley

Associate Professor, Political Science, Tufts University

Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Published July 2023

As U.S.-China relations have become more hostile than at any time in the past fifty years, a prominent group of analysts and former government officials have called for the United States to re-engage China to prevent a slide to war and to address global challenges, such as climate change and pandemics.[1] Advocates of re-engagement adopt core assumptions from defensive realism, a well-known but controversial strand of international relations theory.[2] According to the theory, most states seek security, not dominance, and “security is plentiful” because conquest is difficult and because the world is large enough to accommodate all but the most rapacious countries.[3] In any rivalry, the theory holds, there exist numerous potential deals that could satisfy both sides. Thus, wars occur mainly because of misperception, not conflicts of interest, as steps one state takes to bolster its security (such as modernizing its military) get misinterpreted by others as acts of aggression.

The proposed solution to this security dilemma is straightforward: eliminate uncertainty through vigorous diplomacy. With ample summitry and back channeling, rivals can clarify redlines and send credible signals of reassurance. If the main issues at stake are indivisible (such as sacred territory), then diplomats can craft grand bargains that compensate disadvantaged parties with side payments on other issues. Over time and through myriad points of contact, great powers can demonstrate benign intentions and settle into peaceful, if still competitive, coexistence. 

From this perspective, the belligerent state of U.S.-China relations is not the inevitable result of two powerful nations clashing over irreconcilable interests, but rather a product of unnecessarily hawkish U.S. and Chinese policies—and the domestic deformities that spawn them.[4] Militaristic bureaucracies, showboating politicians, defense contractors, sensationalist media, and a host of other self-serving actors fan the flames of rivalry for profit, creating an echo chamber that crowds out more enlightened perspectives. As fatalism and groupthink take hold, even enlightened individuals start parroting hawkish narratives. As one China scholar asserted after spending a year in the U.S. State Department: “I fear that people in the United States . . . are saying things not because they are analytically true, but because they are politically what needs to be said in order to get confirmed, or have a seat at the table, or be invited to meetings.”[5] 

The bottom line, according to re-engagers, is that U.S. efforts to contain China are dangerous and driven by parochial interests and psychological delusions. If only those interests and delusions could be suppressed, the United States and China might live in peace. 

It is an attractive thesis. The world would certainly be more peaceful and prosperous if states could use reason, rather than competition and war, to settle disputes. But the history of great power rivalry is not reassuring. There have been at least a dozen great power rivalries during the past two centuries, and none ended through diplomacy alone. Instead, rivalries lasted until one side could no longer compete or until both sides were forced to put their differences aside to gang up on a shared adversary. Moreover, none of the rivalries could be described as misunderstandings among modest, security-seeking states. Instead, they were struggles for dominance among ambitious power maximizers. Even in cases where grand bargains were struck, détente rarely lasted long because at least one side could not credibly commit to uphold its end of the deal. In some cases, détente paved the road to war by undermining the balance of power and clarity of intentions necessary to preserve deterrence. 

Can the United States and China chart a different course? There are certainly reasons for hope. The two countries share common interests in avoiding war, maintaining commerce, and addressing climate change and pandemics. The Sino-American ideological divide, though significant, may be less stark than the Cold War clash between capitalism and communism. The 2020s are not the 1930s: nuclear weapons, precision-guided missiles, knowledge-driven economies, and nationalism have made conquest and aggression less profitable, more costly, and, perhaps, less likely. Finally, the United States and China are separated by an ocean and a large gap in relative power, whereas most of the past great power rivalries took place between evenly matched neighbors. Geographic proximity and power parity are two of the most significant predictors of war. Thankfully, those factors are relatively attenuated in U.S.-China competition today. 

Despite these positive factors, however, there are several barriers to competitive coexistence, and re-engagers have yet to explain how they can be surmounted. The main issues in U.S.-China relations are essentially zero-sum, and the two countries espouse fundamentally different visions of international order. Re-engagers argue that diplomacy can bring the two sides together, but the history of U.S.-China relations suggests otherwise. The United States engaged China in many ways from the 1970s to the early 2010s, yet Chinese leaders often viewed American engagement, particularly the U.S. attempt to bring China into the Western order, as a deceptive form of containment designed to erode the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) monopoly on power domestically and stifle its clout abroad. The offers the United States made to China during this period went far beyond the concessions that re-engagers advocate today. Yet they did not dispel Chinese perceptions of hostile U.S. intent or convince CCP leaders to abandon their quest for hegemony in East Asia. 

Re-engagers argue that diplomacy can bring the two sides together, but the history of U.S.-China relations suggests otherwise.

This record suggests that the U.S.-China rivalry is unlikely to end until one side loses the ability to compete. Such a shift could come sooner than many analysts currently expect because China faces potentially crippling demographic, economic, and strategic challenges. But for at least another decade, the intensity of Sino-American competition likely will remain high. If the United States wants to forge a lasting peace with China in the long term, it first needs to blunt Chinese aggression in the short term.[6] 

The Flaws of Defensive Realism

The case for competitive coexistence is based on defensive realism, which became popular among international relations scholars during the 1970s and 1980s amid debates about how to avoid Vietnam-style quagmires and maintain strategic stability with the Soviet Union. With Cold War tensions flaring, scholars looked for ways to prevent the two superpowers from sleepwalking into World War III the way European powers had supposedly stumbled into World War I. Prominent defensive realists—including Kenneth Waltz, Robert Jervis, Jack Snyder, Stephen Walt, Stephen Van Evera, and Charles Glaser—were steeped in nuclear deterrence theory and sought to transpose the presumed stability of mutual assured destruction to the conventional military balance.[7] Toward that end, they espoused several core ideas: modern military technologies had rendered great power war suicidal; recognizing that reality should prevent war; the main threat to peace is misperception; and stability could be enhanced through diplomatic overtures, unilateral arms reductions, and defensive military postures.

Then president Ronald Reagan and his administration rejected this guidance, seeing the fundamental problem as Soviet aggression rather than unfounded mutual fear. But policymaker neglect did not stop defensive realists from generalizing their analyses into grand theories that purported to explain world politics across the ages. In works with sweeping titles—such as Theory of International Politics, Causes of War, and Rational Theory of International Politics—defensive realists claimed that the international system incentivized states to adopt modest foreign policies. Deviations from humble security seeking would be counterbalanced and crushed. Thus, most states would avoid “greedy” aggression altogether,[8] and the few that tried would inevitably “fall by the wayside,”[9] leaving “a world of all cops and no robbers,” as one critic put it.[10] The foreign policy implications of this perspective are clear: assume one’s rival has limited aims, and do what can be done to satisfy them.

The irony is that defensive realism, a supposedly generalizable theory, explains very little international history.[11] Consider that the vast majority of interstate wars since 1816 have occurred among “strategic rivals,” meaning states that have waged security competition against one another for decades.[12] These states did not misperceive one another. They clashed repeatedly over entrenched interests, not abstract calculations of the offense-defense balance, and their mutual hostility was fueled by historical hatreds, ideological divisions, and other human traits that defensive realists consider abnormal.

The irony is that defensive realism, a supposedly generalizable theory, explains very little international history.

Defensive realism even struggles to explain the two cases that gave rise to the theory—World War I and the Cold War. As detailed scholarship has revealed, European leaders did not slide inadvertently into World War I; rather, an anxious and ambitious Germany launched a preventive war for regional hegemony.[13] Similarly, the Cold War was not a tragic spiral of hostility between two status-quo states. Instead, as Robert Jervis concluded in 2001 after reviewing newly available Soviet documents, it was a zero-sum struggle between ideological power maximizers. Soviet leaders genuinely wanted to spread communism worldwide and become the world’s dominant power. They never seriously considered long-term peaceful coexistence with the West, not least because tensions abroad helped them justify repression and absolute power at home.[14] The United States, for its part, might have accepted a freezing of the international status quo in return for lower tensions, but only because that status quo perpetuated U.S. primacy. “Given the basic beliefs and conceptions of self-interest on each side,” Jervis concluded, “there is little reason to believe that even the best diplomacy could have brought an end to the Cold War.”[15]

That pessimistic assessment is not unique to the Cold War. Few if any great power competitions in modern history have ended through diplomacy alone. Since 1800, there have been more than a dozen hegemonic rivalries.[16] Most culminated in war, and the few peaceful cases were cold wars that ended only when the two sides allied together to confront a common threat or when one side suffered severe relative decline and conceded defeat to the other. In short, major shifts in the balance of power were necessary to produce lasting settlements. For example, the United States and the United Kingdom (UK) waged a fierce rivalry until the late-nineteenth century when British power declined significantly relative to that of the United States and Germany. Unable to contain two hegemonic rivals simultaneously, the UK ceded the Western Hemisphere to the United States and recruited it as an ally against Germany.[17] A century later, the Soviet economy stagnated while the U.S. economy zipped into the information age. Unable to sustain a superpower arms race or control its sprawling empire, Moscow called off the Cold War.[18] 

Few if any great power competitions in modern history have ended through diplomacy alone.

Faced with this history, advocates of U.S.-China re-engagement might respond that they do not seek a decisive end to the U.S.-China rivalry, but rather a period of détente in which the two sides could establish crisis communication mechanisms and discuss issues of common concern.[19] Historically, however, episodes of détente rarely lasted long, and when conflicts of interest between rivals were severe, détente sometimes proved dangerous because concessions caused one or both sides to underestimate the other’s resolve. For example, British attempts to appease Germany helped catalyze both World Wars.[20] During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used détente to gather themselves for renewed competition.[21] 

In sum, great power rivalries are typically driven by deep divisions that cannot be resolved through diplomacy alone. To be sustained, peace settlements must be based on stable balances of power. Unfortunately, much of the literature in political science suggests that those balances are extremely difficult to achieve.

Rational Rivalry

A central puzzle in political science is that wars are extremely costly yet occur frequently. For defensive realists, much of this fighting is unnecessary and pathological. In their view, rational states should skip the violence and strike diplomatic settlements based on their relative power. Given the ruinous costs of geopolitical competition, states should always be able to craft deals that would make both sides better off by remaining at peace. So how can experts explain all the costly conflict in the world? Defensive realists have traditionally pointed the finger at domestic actors, such as megalomaniacal leaders, virulent ideologues, war profiteers, and yellow journalists.[22] Today, re-engagers usually blame U.S.-China hostility on some combination of General Secretary Xi Jinping, former U.S. president Donald Trump, the U.S. military-industrial complex, Taiwanese lobbyists, organized labor, human rights activists, and hawkish groupthink within the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The idea that international conflict is driven by a few bad domestic actors, rather than structural forces, is appealing because it gives policymakers and scholars a sense of control. With wise statesmanship and earnest scholarship, the thinking goes, warmongers and violent pathologies can be suppressed, and historical enmities can be swept away. Yet rigorous studies cast doubt on the idea that conflict can be contained simply by naming and shaming evil domestic actors. Rivalry and war can in fact be rational responses to certain circumstances, even when countries have complete information.[23] 

Rivalry and war can in fact be rational responses to certain circumstances, even when countries have complete information.

One of those circumstances is issue indivisibility.[24] Certain stakes cannot be easily shared. Territory, for example, can become an all-or-nothing element if it is considered sacred or strategically vital by both sides: Jerusalem and the Fulda Gap in divided Cold War–era Germany are just two of many oft-cited examples. Even when states agree to share a piece of territory, they often end up fighting over the most valuable parts: the high ground, the oil reserves, or the riverheads, for instance. In addition, territory often defies easy terms of diplomatic settlement because securing it requires a physical presence. For these reasons, territorial disputes are common and intractable; roughly 65 percent of the dyadic interstate wars from 1816 to 1945 and 72 percent of those in the post-1945 period involved disputes over territory.[25] 

Another indivisible issue is ideology: it is not easy for countries to be half-communist and half-capitalist, for example, or half-fascist and half-democratic, and steps that one regime takes to promote its ideology can threaten the way of life and legitimacy of others.[26] As Mark Haas has shown, the “ideological distance” between two great powers is a reliable predictor of the degree of conflict between them because ideology fundamentally shapes both sides’ vital interests and choice of allies.[27] Economic issues can become zero-sum too.[28] For example, the UK and Germany clashed in the nineteenth century over which nation would set international telegraph standards and wire the world with submarine cables.[29] Similarly, contests over the rules of the international order are often win-lose affairs, and power competition is almost by definition zero-sum in the context of a rivalry: the more power your competitor has, the less you have. Finally, there are disputes over people, the proverbial Solomon’s baby. Negotiations to end the Korean War, for example, became protracted over what to do with prisoners of war (POWs). The Americans demanded that all North Korean POWs be given a choice to remain in the South or return to the North. The North Koreans insisted that all POWs be forced to return to the North.

Most international negotiations are not made over a single issue, so it is theoretically possible for the side that wins the all-or-nothing issue to compensate the loser with side payments. In practice, however, such grand bargains often prove impossible. The all-or-nothing issue may be priceless: what could the Palestinians possibly offer Israel in exchange for Jerusalem? In addition, losing the all-or-nothing element can undermine a state’s bargaining leverage in other areas, resulting in a cascade of losses. Fear of such losses drives a second rational cause of war: the so-called credible commitment problem.[30] States often have trouble making believable promises to one another because reassuring a rival often means losing some ability to hold it accountable.[31] For example, if North Korea were to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for U.S. security guarantees, Pyongyang would lose its main check on a U.S. attack. The United States could sign a treaty pledging never to attack North Korea, but Washington would struggle to make that promise credible, given U.S. conventional military superiority. 

A related rational cause of conflict is the so-called dynamic commitment problem. Even when rivals could reach a deal in the present, they may fear that future developments, such as a shift in the balance of power, would ultimately undermine the agreement. The shadow of the future looms large over international negotiations, especially in the context of power transitions: rising powers cannot credibly commit to remain restrained as their power grows, and declining powers cannot credibly commit to refrain from taking preventative action.[32] Even when confidence-building mechanisms are theoretically possible—rivals could erect fortifications between themselves, for instance—they may not be affordable. For example, China attacked U.S. forces in the Korean War partially out of fear that if the United States conquered the Korean Peninsula, China would have to be on a permanent war footing to deter future American incursions. Such border defenses would have been ruinously expensive at a time when China needed to recover from decades of strife. The long-term price of peace was simply too expensive, so a fledgling CCP regime instead gambled on a bloody war against a nuclear-armed superpower.[33]

The Drivers of U.S.-China Conflict

Issue indivisibility, commitment problems, and a high price of peace: all of these conflict drivers plague U.S.-China relations today. For starters, most of the core issues in the relationship are win-lose in nature, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, internet governance, and Russia.[34] Even transnational issues have become infused with zero-sum competition, as recent disputes over responsibility for climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have shown. Re-engagers call for both sides to clarify their redlines, but achieving a sustained thaw in bilateral relations would require the United States and China to abandon those redlines altogether. China wants the United States to, among other things, halt arms sales to Taiwan, reduce the U.S. military presence in East Asia, give U.S. technology to Chinese companies, reopen the American market to a glut of Chinese exports, and stop promoting democracy. The United States wants China to tone down its military modernization, limit shows of force in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, swear off the use of economic coercion, and roll back support for autocratic regimes. Yet neither side could grant such concessions without undermining its ability to deter opportunistic aggression from the other. 

More broadly, the two countries espouse opposing visions of international order. China is portraying itself as the world’s defender of order and hierarchy against a hedonistic and imperialist West; meanwhile, the United States is rallying coalitions to make the world safe for democracy and contain Chinese power. Re-engagers call for both countries to set ideology aside, but that is not so easy to do because ideology is inextricably linked to both countries’ regime stability. The CCP may not want to export a specific ideology, but Chinese leaders naturally want there to be more authoritarian governments in the world because fellow autocrats will be less likely to criticize or sanction China for its abysmal human rights record. Chinese leaders also would prefer democracies to look shambolic and dysfunctional because then the Chinese people will be less likely to admire liberal systems and demand greater political rights from the CCP.[35] The United States, on the other hand, wants an international environment conducive to maintaining its own democratic institutions, especially now that the stability of those institutions can no longer be taken for granted. In short, both countries promote their regime types abroad to secure their regimes at home.[36] This ideological competition can be partially contained—the United States and China, for example, could forswear direct attempts to topple each other’s regimes—but it cannot be set aside entirely.

Re-engagers say that the United States should be “testing the proposition” that diplomatic concessions could kickstart a spiral of cooperation with China.[37] But Washington engaged Beijing from the 1970s to the 2010s and still failed to change the CCP’s long-term goals or Chinese perceptions of hostile U.S. intent. Engagement succeeded in pushing back the date of a U.S.-China showdown while lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty.[38] But it did not provide a sustainable solution to the U.S.-China rivalry because the United States ultimately proved unwilling to aid China’s rise indefinitely, and China was unwilling to abandon its goals of regional hegemony and global power without a struggle. As Rush Doshi and others have shown, internal Chinese documents reveal that Chinese leaders consistently interpreted American overtures as insincere or even threatening and viewed engagement as a temporary opportunity to amass comprehensive national power, which would one day be used against the United States. 

For example, just three weeks after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, then president George H.W. Bush sent an apologetic letter and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, to reassure Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that the United States would quickly get back to business as usual with Beijing. Deng responded by accusing the United States of being “deeply involved” in the “counter-revolutionary rebellion” to “overthrow the socialist system in China.”[39] To contain this perceived threat, Deng initiated a “crisis education” campaign within the party emphasizing that if the CCP fell from power, many of its members would be incarcerated or killed, much the way Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were lined up and shot against a wall on Christmas morning in 1989 just days after losing power.[40] Deng also mobilized party members to study the causes of the Soviet collapse to ensure that China did not suffer the same fate. The main lessons learned were to avoid splits within the party and never give in to Western pressure to liberalize the country’s political system.[41] 

Deng’s eventual successor, Jiang Zemin, took a similarly dim view of U.S. intentions. “From now on and for a relatively long period of time, the United States will be our main diplomatic adversary,” Jiang declared shortly after assuming the position of head of state in 1993.[42] Five years later, his opinion had not changed: 

Some in the United States and the other Western countries will not give up their political plot to westernize and divide our country. It doesn’t matter whether it is adopting a ‘containment policy’ or a so-called ‘engagement policy,’ all of which may vary in 10,000 different ways without ultimately departing from their central aim, which is to try with ulterior motives to change our country’s socialist system and finally bring our country into the Western capitalist system . . . This struggle is long-term and complex . . . In this regard, we must always keep a clear head and must never lose our vigilance . . . When I was in New York with Clinton, he clearly told me that the U.S. policy on China is neither isolation nor deterrence nor confrontation, but full engagement…We must realize that the U.S. policy on China is still two-sided. The attempt by the U.S. anti-China forces to evolve us will not change . . . The United States is trying to construct a unipolar world . . . and dominate international affairs.[43]

Chinese leaders even interpreted the centerpiece of U.S. engagement, the granting of most-favored-nation trade status and support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, as a ruse to weaken the CCP. As Jiang explained in 2002 in a speech to provincial and ministerial-level cadres:

The United States finally reached an agreement with us not because of sudden good intentions and benevolence. On the one hand, our strength lays bare before them, so if they didn’t let us join that won’t be good for them. On the other hand, they had their own strategic considerations, and we must not be naive. Promoting the so-called political liberalization through the implementation of economic liberalization is an important strategic tool for certain political forces in the West to implement Westernization and splittist political plots in socialist countries. The United States and China have reached a bilateral agreement on China’s accession to the WTO, and this is closely linked to its [American] global strategy. On this point, Clinton had been quite clear. In a statement to the Congress on the issue of granting China’s permanent [most-favored-nation] status, he said, “Joining the WTO will bring an information revolution to millions of Chinese people in a way the government cannot control. It will accelerate the collapse of Chinese state-owned enterprises. This process will make the government further from people’s lives and promote social and political changes in China.” With regard to this [intention], we must keep a clear head, clearly see the essence, avoid the danger through precaution and preparedness, work hard to fulfill our strategic intentions, and promote China’s economic development.[44]

After Jiang’s tenure, the next CCP general secretary, Hu Jintao, similarly stressed the U.S. threat while in power. Leaked documents from the Sixteenth Party Congress, which marked Hu’s coronation, warned of a gathering storm of U.S. encirclement. As Hu told the assembled officials: “They [the United States] have extended outposts and placed pressure points on us from the east, south, and west. This makes a great change in our geopolitical environment.”[45] Other top leaders echoed this assessment. Even Li Ruihuan, a Politburo Standing Committee member that had supported modest political reforms, described the United States as unshakably hostile: “They want to contain us, they want to implement a carrot-and-stick policy. It’s useless for us to use a lot of words to refute their ‘China threat theory.’ The Americans won’t listen to you.”[46] Throughout his reign, Hu described the United States as “the main adversary that we need to deal with internationally” and regularly warned comrades to be vigilant of Western plots.[47] As he told officials in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2003, “We must also recognize the grim reality that Western hostile forces are still implementing Westernization and splittist political designs on China.”[48] 

These perceptions were widespread throughout the Chinese state and CCP during the 2000s, the supposed high point of U.S.-China engagement. Perhaps these suspicions are unsurprising: the United States had, after all, toppled two illiberal governments by military force and rhetorically adopted a “Freedom Agenda” dedicated to spreading democracy “in all the world,” as then president George W. Bush put it in his second inaugural address in early 2005.[49] But his administration also courted Beijing in various ways: first, to try to convince China to vote in favor of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions authorizing the use of force against Afghanistan and Iraq, and second to keep the CCP from stirring up trouble in Asia while the U.S. military was bogged down in the Middle East. To improve U.S.-China relations, the Bush administration stopped calling China a strategic competitor and sketched out a new role for China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.[50] The hope was that giving Beijing a seat at the table in the world’s major international institutions would induce China to help sustain an American-led order. Toward that end, Bush launched the Strategic Economic Dialogue in 2006, which became a series of biannual negotiations in which U.S. cabinet secretaries met with their Chinese counterparts to negotiate agreements on trade, finance, energy, air travel, tourism, the environment, and long-term strategic challenges. 

Yet this flurry of diplomatic activity did not win hearts or minds in Beijing. As China scholars Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell concluded in 2012 after a review of Chinese sources from that era: 

The Chinese believe the United States is a revisionist power that seeks to curtail China’s political influence and harm China’s interests . . . Chinese analysts . . . see Western strategic culture—especially that of the United States—as militaristic, offense-minded, expansionist, and selfish . . . The United States uses soothing words; casts its actions as a search for peace, human rights, and a level playing field; and sometimes offers China genuine assistance. But the United States is two-faced. It intends to remain the global hegemon and prevent China from growing strong enough to challenge it.[51]

Re-engagers contend that U.S. officials need to explain to Chinese counterparts that they want to integrate them into a shared international order. But Chinese leaders believe that aspects of the order the United States upholds, and would integrate them into, are dangerous for them and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.[52] To avoid a similar fate, the CCP has developed an authoritarian capitalist system designed to milk the open system for mercantilist gain. Chinese leaders have touted the benefits of free trade in speeches while using subsidies and espionage to help CCP-favored firms dominate global markets and insulate the Chinese domestic market with nontariff barriers. The CCP freely has accessed the global internet to steal intellectual property and spread propaganda while censoring foreign ideas and companies on its own self-proclaimed sovereign internet. China has assumed leadership positions in liberal international institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council and then bent them in an illiberal direction. China has enjoyed secure shipping for its exports, thanks to the U.S. Navy, while building up its own military to take control over large swaths of the East China and South China Seas. From a U.S. perspective, this was far from an ideal bargain—a limited Chinese integration that strengthened the CCP’s comprehensive national power for a future struggle against the West.

Chinese leaders believe that aspects of the order the United States upholds, and would integrate them into, are dangerous for them and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That contest now seems to be dawning. Xi has spent his time in power building a hulking “fortress” around China and himself.[53] His national security strategy, officially adopted in 2015, entails significant military modernization and expansion, economic decoupling, and political warfare and repression—in essence, the opposite of the Soviet concessions that helped end the Cold War peacefully.[54] He has paired those policies with speeches that seem designed to rally the Chinese nation for intense geopolitical competition. “Get the house in good repair before rain comes,” Xi instructed cadres at the Twentieth Party Congress in October 2022, “and prepare to undergo the major tests of high winds and waves, and even perilous, stormy seas.”[55] “History has repeatedly proven that using struggle to seek security leads to the survival of security, while using compromise to seek security leads to the death of security,” he elaborated at the First Plenum of the CCP’s Twentieth Central Committee in late 2022.[56] The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is nigh, Xi declared in 2021, and anyone that gets in the way “will have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”[57]


The sad reality is that the United States and China seem destined for a cold war in which they build up their militaries, decouple parts of their economies, and promote opposing views of world order. Perhaps the two sides will find ways to address shared threats. After all, the United States and the Soviet Union managed to work together to eradicate smallpox even as they competed for dominance.[58] However, even rudimentary U.S.-China cooperation looks unlikely at present. Witness how the two sides handled the coronavirus pandemic or consider that China explicitly rejected the establishment of military crisis communication mechanisms in June 2023. 

The persistence of U.S.-China rivalry highlights the limitations of defensive realism and its policy prescriptions. The United States and China appear just as incapable of talking their way out of the security dilemma as past great power rivals. So instead of calling for the United States to re-engage China and accommodate its rise, a better route would be to build up the capabilities necessary to deter China from military conquest in East Asia and to insulate the United States and its allies from Chinese coercion. 

The persistence of U.S.-China rivalry highlights the limitations of defensive realism and its policy prescriptions.

During the Cold War, U.S. strategy was designed to check Soviet advances until the weaknesses of communism drained Moscow’s power and compelled Soviet leaders to reduce their international ambitions. That basic approach should guide U.S. policy toward China today, and Americans may not have to wait four decades to achieve a favorable outcome. China’s rise is already stalling as a result of a slowing economy and a shrinking population.[59] Many of China’s neighbors are building up their militaries, and many of the world’s wealthiest nations are starting to “derisk” their economies by reducing ties with Beijing in strategic sectors.[60] China gained popularity in developing countries by loaning out hundreds of billions of dollars in the 2010s.[61] But the bulk of those debts will come due around 2030, and many will not be repaid.[62] At that point, the CCP either will have to write those loans off at a massive financial loss or seize assets in partner countries—hardly a great way to attract allies. If these and other headwinds facing China continue to grow, then the CCP’s dream of regional hegemony may start to look unattainable, and the next generation of Chinese leaders may decide to address their country’s predicament through diplomatic moderation and internal reform. The United States could then extend an olive branch from a position of strength. To get there, however, the United States and its allies will have to deter Chinese aggression this decade and avoid concessions that disrupt favorable long-term trends.

About the Author

Michael Beckley is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


[1] For a few of many examples, see New York Times Editorial Board, “Who Benefits From Confrontation With China?” New York Times, March 11, 2023; Jessica Chen Weiss, “The China Trap: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Perilous Logic of Zero-Sum Competition,” Foreign Affairs 101, no. 5 (September/October 2022): 40–58; Scott Kennedy and Wang Jisi, “America and China Need to Talk: A Lake of Dialogue, Visits, and Exchanges Is Raising the Risk of Conflict,” Foreign Affairs, April 6, 2023; Charles L. Glaser, “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice Between Military Competition and Accommodation,” International Security 39, no. 4 (Spring 2015): 49–90; Graham Allison, “The New Spheres of Influence: Sharing the Globe With Other Great Powers,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 2 (March/April 2020): 30–40; Yuan Yang, “Escape Both the ‘Thucydides Trap’ and the ‘Churchill Trap’: Finding a Third Type of Great Power Relations Under the Bipolar System,” Chinese Journal of International Politics 11, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 193–235; “Coexistence 2.0: U.S.-China Relations in a Changing World,” Harvard University Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the Harvard Kennedy Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia, November 18, 2022,; Wang Yi, “The Right Way for China and the United States to Get Along in the New Era,” Asia Society, September 22, 2022,; Ryan Haas, Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021); Patricia M. Kim, “Working Toward Responsible Competition with China,” Brookings Institution, Order From Chaos (blog), October 8, 2021,; and Robert A. Manning, “The U.S. Doesn’t Need China’s Collapse to Win,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2021,

[2] Core works include Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” World Politics 30, no. 3 (January 1978): 167–214; Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Massachuseets: Addison-Wesley, 1979); Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991); Charles L. Glaser, Rational Theory of International Politics: Logic of Competition and Cooperation (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010); Barry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984); Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity,” International Organization 44, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 137–168; Stephen Van Evera, “Offense, Defense, and the Causes of War,” International Security 22, no. 4 (Spring 1998): 5–43; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999); Stephen Van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War,” International Security 9, no. 1 (Summer 1984): 58–108; Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984); Ted Hopf, “Polarity, the Offense-Defense Balance, and War,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 2 (June 1991): 476–493; and Charles L. Glaser, “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help,” International Security 19, no. 3 (Winter 1994/95): 50–90.

[3] Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 49. 

[4] Fareed Zakaria, “The New China Scare: Why America Shouldn’t Panic About Its Latest Challenger,” Foreign Affairs, 99, no. 1 (January/February 2020): 52–69; Bernie Sanders, “Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China: Don’t Start Another Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, June 17, 2021; Jessica Chen Weiss, “A World Safe for Autocracy? China’s Rise and the Future of Global Politics,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (July/August 2019): 92–102; Van Jackson, “America Is Turning Asia Into a Powder Keg: The Perils of a Military-First Approach,” Foreign Affairs, October 22, 2021; Michael D. Swaine, Ezra F. Vogel, Paul Heer, J. Stapleton Roy, Rachel Esplin Odell, Mike Mochizuki, Avery Goldstein, and Alice Miller, “The Overreach of the China Hawks: Aggression Is the Wrong Response to Beijing,” Foreign Affairs, October 23, 2020. 

[5] Jessica Chen Weiss, “Stepping Back From the Brink,” The Wire China, October 9, 2022,

[6] Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (New York: Norton, 2022).

[7] Richard K. Betts, “Must War Find a Way? A Review Essay,” International Security 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 175–184. For a critique of the defensive realist take on strategic stability in the Cold War, see Francis J. Gavin, “Politics, History and the Ivory Tower-Policy Gap in the Nuclear Proliferation Debate,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 4 (August 2012): 573–600.

[8] Glaser, “The Security Dilemma Revisited,” 181.

[9] Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 118

[10] Randall L. Schweller, “Neorealism’s Status-Quo Bias: What Security Dilemma?” Security Studies 5, no. 3 (1996), 91. 

[11] Fareed Zakaria, “Realism and Domestic Politics: A Review Essay,” International Security 17, no. 1 (Summer 1992): 190–196.

[12] Michael P. Colaresi, Karen Rasler, and William R. Thompson, Strategic Rivalries in World Politics: Position, Space and Conflict Escalation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 21. Examples include regional rivalries like those between Russia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iran, India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Chile and Peru, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Greece and Turkey as well as great power rivalries, such as the Cold War and the Anglo-German antagonism. 

[13] Hal Brands, “World War I History Is Wrong, Skewing Our View of China,” Bloomberg, July 24, 2022,; and Keir A. Lieber, “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory,” International Security 32, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 155–191.

[14] Robert Jervis, “Was the Cold War a Security Dilemma?,” Journal of Cold War Studies 3, no.1 (Winter 2001): 36–60,

[15] Ibid., 60.

[16] There are several rivalry databases. All show that there are only two cases—the United States versus the UK in the nineteenth century and the United States versus the Soviet Union in the twentieth century—of a great power rivalry ending peacefully. Graham Alison’s hegemonic rivalry database also codes the 1990s triumvirate of the UK and France versus Germany as a peaceful case, but all three countries were NATO allies, not rivals. See Graham Alison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2017); Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson, Strategic Rivalries in World Politics, 39–50; and James P. Klein, Gary Goertz, and Paul F. Diehl, “The New Rivalry Dataset: Procedures and Patterns,” Journal of Peace Research 43, no. 3 (May 2006): 331–348.

[17] The United States and the UK also developed common interests and identities that facilitated a peaceful end to their rivalry. On this point, see Kori Schake, Safe Passage: The Transition From British to American Hegemony (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[18] Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “Power, Globalization, and the End of the Cold War,” International Security 25, no. 3 (Winter 2000–2001): 5–53.

[19] Kevin Rudd, “Beware the Guns of August—in Asia,” Foreign Affairs, August 3, 2020,

[20] Sean M. Lynn Jones, “Détente and Deterrence: Anglo-German Relations, 1911–1914,” International Security 11, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 121–150.

[21] Jervis, “Was the Cold War a Security Dilemma?,” 53.

[22] For a critique of this approach, see Zakaria, “Realism and Domestic Politics.” 

[23] James Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 379–414; Robert Powell, “Uncertainty, Shifting Power, and Appeasement,” American Political Science Review 90, no. 4 (December 1996): 749–764; and Branislav L. Slantchev, “The Power to Hurt: Costly Conflict With Completely Informed States,” American Political Science Review 47, no. 1 (February 2003): 123–133.

[24] Monica Duffy Toft, “Issue Indivisibility and Time Horizons as Rationalist Explanations for War,” Security Studies 15, no. 1 (2006): 34–69; Ron E. Hassner, “‘To Halve and to Hold’: Conflicts Over Sacred Space and the Problem of Indivisibility,” Security Studies 12, no. 4 (2003): 1–33; and Stacie E. Goddard, Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy: Jerusalem and Northern Ireland (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[25] Monica Duffy Toft, “Territory and War,” Journal of Peace Research, 51, no. 2 (2014): 186. 

[26] Andrej Krickovic, “Catalyzing Conflict: The Internal Dimension of the Security Dilemma,” Journal of Global Security Studies 1, no. 2 (2016): 111–126.

[27] Mark L. Haas, The Ideological Origins of Great Power Politics, 1789–1989 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[28] Albert O. Hirschman, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945); Dale Copeland, Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015); Nuno P. Monteiro and Alexandre Debs, “An Economic Theory of War,” Journal of Politics 82, no. 1 (January 2020): 255–268; and Jonathan N. Markowitz, Perils of Plenty: Arctic Resource Competition and the Return of the Great Game (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020),

[29] Maruks Brunnermeier, Rushi Doshi, and Harold James, “Beijing’s Bismarckian Ghosts: How Great Powers Compete Economically,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 161–176.

[30] Robert Powell, “War as a Commitment Problem,” International Organization 60, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 169–203; and Sebastian Rosato, “The Inscrutable Intentions of Great Powers,” International Security 39, no. 3 (Winter 2014–2015): 48–88. 

[31] Evan Braden Montgomery, “Breaking Out of the Security Dilemma: Realism, Reassurance, and the Problem of Uncertainty,” International Security 31, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 151–185.

[32] Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000); Jack S. Levy, “Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War,” World Politics 40, no. 1 (October 1987): 82–107; and Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981). 

[33] Branislav L. Slantchev, Military Threats: The Costs of Coercion and the Price of Peace (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), chapter 6; Thomas J. Christensen, “Windows and War: Changes in the International System and China’s Decision to Use Force,” in New Approaches to China’s Foreign Relations: Essays in Honor of Allen S. Whiting, eds. Alastair Iain Johnston and Robert Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[34] The following two paragraphs draw from Michael Beckley, “Accepting a Cold War with China Is the Best Option,” Washington Examiner, December 6, 2022,

[35] M.E. Sarotte, “China’s Fear of Contagion: Tiananmen Square and the Power of the European Example,” International Security 37, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 156–182.

[36] Haas, The Ideological Origins of Great Power Politics; Krickovic, “Catalyzing Conflict”; and Hal Brands, “Democracy Vs. Authoritarianism: How Ideology Shapes Great-Power Conflict,” Survival 60, no. 5 (October/November 2018): 61–114.

[37] Jessica Chen Weiss, “The China Trap: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Perilous Logic of Zero-Sum Competition,” Foreign Affairs 101, no. 5 (September/October 2022): 56.

[38] World Bank, “Lifting 800 Million People Out of Poverty – New Report Looks at Lessons from China’s Experience,” World Bank, April 1, 2022,

[39] Deng Xiaoping, “The United States Should Take the Initiative in Putting an End to the Strains in Sino-American Relations,” China Daily, October 31, 1989,

[40] Cai Xia, “China-US Relations in the Eyes of the Chinese Communist Party: An Insider’s Perspective,” Hoover Institution, June 2021, 9,

[41] Ibid., 10. 

[42] Quoted in Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace the American Order (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021), 54.

[43] Ibid., 54.

[44] Ibid., 150.

[45] Quoted in Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files (New York: New York Review of Books, 2002). 207.

[46] Quoted in Ibid., 209.

[47] Quoted in Doshi, The Long Game, 58.

[48] Quoted in Ibid., 56.

[49] White House, “Freedom Agenda, White House,; and NPR, “President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address,” NPR, January 20, 2005,

[50] Robert Zoellick, “Whither China? From Membership to Responsibility,” National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, September 21, 2005,

[51] Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, “How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijing’s Fears,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 5 (September/October 2012): 33, 35–36.

[52] Hannah Beech, “For China’s Xi and Other Strongmen, Gorbachev Showed Exactly What Not to Do,” New York Times, September 1, 2022,

[53] Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “In Turbulent Times, Xi Builds a Security Fortress for China, and Himself,” New York Times, August 6, 2022,

[54] Jude Blanchette, “Ideological Security as National Security,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2, 2020,; and Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Preventive Repression: Internal Security and Grand Strategy in China Under Xi Jinping, unpublished manuscript, 2021. 

[55] Quoted in Chris Buckley, Keith Bradsher, Vivian Wang, and Austin Ramzy, “China’s Leader Strikes a Defiant Note, Warning of ‘Stormy Seas,’” New York Times, October 16, 2022,

[56] Quoted in Neil Thomas, “Xi Jinping’s Power Grab Is Paying Off,” Foreign Policy, February 5, 2023,

[57] Quoted in David Crawshaw and Alicia Chen, “‘Heads Bashed Bloody’: China’s Xi Marks Communist Party Centenary with Strong Words for Adversaries,” Washington Post, July 1, 2021,

[58] James Haynes and Cheng Li, “The US Cooperated With the Soviets on Smallpox—It Should Do the Same With China on COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution,” Brookings Institution Order From Chaos (blog), August 27, 2020,

[59] Brands and Beckley, Danger Zone, chapters 2–3.

[60] Global Trade Alert, “Data and Methodologies,”

[61] Sebastian Horn, Carmen M. Reinhart, and Christoph Trebesch, “China’s Overseas Lending,” Journal of International Economics, 133 (November 2021): 1–32.

[62] Sebastian Horn, Bradley C. Parks, Carmen M. Reinhart, and Christoph Trebesch, “China as an International Lender of Last Resort,” Kier Institute for the World Economy Kiel Working Paper, No. 2244, March 2023,; “The Belt-and-Road Express: China Faces Resistance to a Cherished Theme of Its Foreign Policy,” Economist, May 4, 2017,; and Lingling Wei, “China Reins In Its Belt and Road Program, $1 Trillion Later,” Wall Street Journal, Setpember 26, 2022.