This article was written by Constance GIRARD. Constance is a Politics and International Relations student at the University of Exeter and is currently in her second year.

According to the World Bank, China has “experienced the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history—and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.”[1] In fact, in only forty years, China has undergone unforeseen development at all levels. Following the end of M. Zedong’s leadership, China began a gradual restructuring of its economy and its political ideology. The transition to a market-driven economy, the interactions with the outside world, and the possibility of individual gains led to unprecedented economic growth and projected it at the forefront of the international stage. From being a closed communist economy, China has now become the second-largest global economy and a $ 420.7 billion trading partner with the United-States (U.S.). Today, China and the U.S. combined represent 40% of the global GDP[2]. However, rapid changes are a cause of new geopolitical demands, thus fostering uncertainty about China’s future. “Modernity breeds stability, but modernisation breeds instability[3] wrote Huntington, in this respect the new relations between the two giants will be the most important issue to monitor in the upcoming decade. In this essay I will look at what a liberal theorist should expect to happen in U.S.-Chinese relations if China continues to grow and democratise and consider how these expectations differ from those of a realist theorist. On the one hand, for liberal theorists, democratic states chose to be at peace with each other, they engage in mutual gains and consequently their relationships are pacified by trade and interdependency[4]. On the other hand, for realist theorists, the principle of anarchy is too strong, and two democratic states remain rivals for power and security[5]. Moreover, as their interests grow closer together, they will become mutually exclusive, thus inexorably leading to conflict[6]. The global order has remained mainly unchallenged since the end of the Cold-War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but China’s rise is shifting the geopolitical terrain. It will “bring the United States’ unipolar moment to an end[7]. The implications of China’s growing economic and military power of raises concerns for America’s global political influence as well as for its security[8]. Nonetheless, this does not mean that China will necessarily be a threat to the U.S. or cannot be integrated alongside other democracies in the liberal international order. It is in this last assertion that realist and liberal theorists differ. In the first part of this essay, I will explain the expected evolution of the Sino-American relations based on the liberal approach and how it would translate in terms of foreign policy according to this doctrine. In the second part, I will engage with the realist scenario and how it would predict the evolution of American relations with China.

Liberal theorists base their core assumption on the fact that in a democratic state, citizens will choose war only in self-defence[9]. In fact, according to Kant “nonrepublican constitution[s]” go more to war because the ruler is the “nation’s owner, and war does not affect his table”. Therefore, if China continues to democratise it will be less prone to war and conflict. The Democratic Peace Theory[10], the Interdependency Theory[11], and the possibility of surpassing the security dilemma prompts liberal theorists to expect peaceful and profitable relations between the U.S. and China.

In Liberal Peace, Doyle[12] identifies a paradigm in international relations, stating that “states founded on such individual rights as equality before the law, free speech and other civil liberties, private property, and elected representation.” -i.e. liberal states-  are peaceful, at least among themselves. Great powers rise and fall, the balance of power changes but the liberal peace remains. Therefore, according to this paradigm, as long as China respects the core principles of liberalism peace and cooperation should be chosen above conflict[13]. Moreover, the respect of such principles generates rights and institutions alleviating uncertainty and facilitating communication[14]. Liberal theorists note that liberal democratic states respect and communicate with other democratic countries, always preferring negotiation over the escalation of the tensions which could eventually lead to inter-liberal conflict[15]. For a developing and democratising state like China, the liberal order is so attractive they cannot afford to turn down the offer of entering it. Their rise and status of Great Power are tightly interwoven with that of other liberal states and their implication in international institutions. The liberal international order has low costs of entry, and participation renders legitimacy and profitable trade[16]. Thence, for the liberal school of thought, a scenario of co-optation is feasible. China will try to integrate into the liberal international order and adopt its norms and tenets[17]. This approach would be a win-win situation, prompting the U.S. to encourage this process with a strategy of ‘liberal engagement’[18]. China will perceive its prospects for profit in the development of interdependence between the world’s two biggest economies.

The possibility of positive-sum games between democratic states is a fundamental claim of liberalism. This renders the pacification of relations through trade and commerce not only possible but also fundamental in the long run. The fostering of strong partnerships between nations creates dependency ties between them, thus raising the cost of conflict and making it even less likely to happen[19]. “Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who traffic with each other become reciprocally dependent […] their union is founded on their mutual necessities.”[20]Neo-liberal institutionalism holds that states have rational interests in cooperating and depict international organisations as the keystone in inter-state cooperation[21]. In this regard, peace and stability will always be preferred, as it is needed for the economic development of all actors. The deepening of the Americano-Chinese cooperation and the construction of mutual institutions strengthens interdependence and mutual concerns, also promoting political security and economic growth. Moreover, economic relations promote contacts and communication between private agents and governments, which in turn foster cooperative politic relations. Consequently, the existence of other great liberal states is not a threat but a source of opportunity for mutually beneficial trade. The integration of China in international organisations and more generally speaking, in the liberal international order, will inspire it to behave in a way consistent with U.S. interests and international norms[22]. Interdependency would allow American foreign policy to create pacifist and prosperous relationships, as well as creating and taking opportunities to build on joint interests in the Asia-Pacific region with regards to many global concerns[23]. In this continuity, liberal institutionalists see that international institutions can moderate the security dilemma. Moreover, the absence of hostility between great powers is an essential condition for trade, development and prosperity -i.e. the fundamental wish of all liberal states. Therefore, both China and the U.S. will take the best rational decisions they can to build a profitable relationship[24].

The liberal international order is rules-based in so far as its institutions – which have been established by and centred on the U.S.- are respected and recognised as legitimate authorities[25]. The overpowering American military also underpins this order with an unchallenged global reach since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The end of the Cold War left the American hegemony to act as the unchallenged bondsman of the global order’s stability. The rise of China challenges this formerly unequivocal hegemony. Such a drastic shift in the balance of power is a prominent source of danger and uncertainty. In the following section, I will look at how liberals came about the security dilemma problem in the relations between the U.S. and a rapidly rising China. Adler and Barnett assert that the security dilemma is a “transcendable problem”  in the sense that fear can be eliminated from the equation although uncertainty remains[26]. In their view; from social interactions and long-term political cooperation, arises the construction of common interests which allows the creation of a strong security community. For liberals, the security dilemma in the liberal zone of peace can be resolved by accommodation – not balancing as Realists suggest[27]. In fact, up until now, China has accommodated to the liberal guidelines set within US-dominated institutions rather than trying to confront them – China is acting as a supporter of the current system[28]. Empirically, China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 and has been complying with its rules ever since[29]. For liberals, if China continues to democratise, the logic of the separated peace theory[30] can apply to the Sino-American relations. The solid foundation provided by the separated peace is crucial for the coalitions between the U.S. and other liberal powers[31]. The consequence of liberalism on foreign relations of liberal states is the creation of a peace among them exclusively. China’s rise in the global U.S. led order is a similar scenario to the rise of the U.S. in the global U.K. led order back in the XIXth century. Once the Reform Act of 1832 was established, the British parliament was legitimised and both Britain and the USA settled their disputes diplomatically[32]. Liberal democracies also foster this peace by integrating institutions and alliances. Back in 2002, President Bush identified India, Russia and China as its “cooperative partners” in the facing their major threats. In recent years this liberal scenario has proven to be true, as China and the U.S. have extensively been collaborating on issues like counterterrorism as well as security in other areas of Asia–Pacific. This partnership is neither a power strata nor ad hoc. On the contrary, it is the basis for a stable trade relation with positive exchange terms[33]. The synergy of these two powerful states encourages the continuing of peace among liberal states and foresees the possibility of a self-enforcing global peace without establishing a world state. The incorporation of China into the fabric of the liberal international order allows the balancing of China’s growing military power, and for all the actors of the global economy to play by the same rules in matters of trade, human rights and security[34].

Finally, the peaceful development policy[35]of China implemented to rebut the “China threat theory[36]. This official policy is constitutive of the orientations taken by the Chinese government. They are dedicated to acting constructively and diplomatically, especially regarding regional issues. The Chinese government is mindful of how their development is perceived and treated by their neighbours. China’s neighbouring countries are not necessarily sceptical of its rise per se,because its influence on the international stage helped boost economic growth in the whole region[37].

On the opposite side of the spectrum, for realist theorists, it is impossible for China to rise to a level of power comparable to that of the U.S. without becoming a threat to the pre-existent order. Realists refute the democratic peace theory[38]. In their view, States operate under conditions of anarchy in the international system and are in constant competition for power and security. They see balancing as the way to address the security dilemma; accommodating the security threat is not an option in this self-help world. Finally, they observe that major wars arise from severe changes in the balance of power and the principle “offence–defence balance” is of critical importance in order to palliate the uncertainty caused by this shift in the balance of power.

Offensive realists and defensive realists alike, disapprove of the democratic peace theory because it amalgamates correlation with causation. Also, the academic definitions ‘war’ and ‘democracy’ can be exploited to manufacture an artificial trend[39]. Where realist scholar’s views differ is in their conception of to what end states utilise power. For offensive realists, power is an end in itself – as Mearsheimer puts it, in a strategic sense states should try to gain as much power as possible and, if the circumstances are right, they should try to pursue hegemony. Having overwhelming power is the best way to ensure one’s survival[40]. Whereas for structural realists, power is a means to an end and the ultimate end is survival[41] and structure or architecture of the international system that forces states to pursue power. Nevertheless, a state’s capacities of power depend on the capabilities that a state controls. Both in terms of hard-power – i.e. military: armoured divisions and nuclear weapons – and in terms of soft-power – i.e. socioeconomic factors, wealth, size population, technological knowledge[42]. China is increasing its material military capabilities[43] which is raising concerns for the rest of the international community. Because states – who are the main actors of the international system –  operate under conditions of anarchy, power is the currency of international politics as, in the end, all is a matter of relative power and security. Security is also relative to time and context; endemic asymmetry of information and uncertainty make international institutions incapable of ensuring security effectively. There can be no guarantee that China has the intention to remain pacifist; it may very well become a revisionist state. Providing assurance through institution and treaties does not work because of the lack of trust among states. China already uses unfair trade practices (such as an undervalued currency and subsidies given to domestic businesses) to flood U.S. markets which have already led to a trade war between the two countries[44] .As we can see, states cannot rely on international institutions for their survival.  As a result, they strive for regional or global hegemony which is giving rise to a constant security competition among all great powers. This is otherwise known as “Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, with “security-seeking states forced to engage in conflict to ensure their security[45]. This paradox shows from a pragmatic point of view that the prospect of “China’s peaceful rise” is unrealistic[46]. Realists argue that seeking to improve one’s security has the inevitable consequence -due to the structure of the international system-  of decreasing the security of other states.

The core of the problem is that “security is a relative concept: all actors cannot have more of it[47]. Their greatest fear is that another state might have the capability, as well as the motive, to attack them[48]. As China is accumulating wealth, power, and is growing its hegemony, it is likely to try to push U.S. military forces out of Asia (in the same way that the U.S. forced the powers of Europe out of their regional hegemony sphere in the XIX century). In the years to come, China can be expected to come up with its own version of the Monroe Doctrine[49]. According to offensive realists the U.S. is a regional hegemon, not a global hegemon – therefore, it has to ensure that no other regional hegemon becomes global. This means that China’s rise will be in direct conflict with U.S. interests. However, in their view, the best situation for a hegemon is to be a regional hegemon. So, we should see the U.S. try to stop China from becoming a dominant regional hegemon[50].

China’s rise is challenging the U.S. “offence-defence balance”, forcing it to readjust to the new deposition of power. In fact, China is unlikely to remain a status quo state as it is now getting in a position where it could shift the balance of power. In realists’ opinions, this is dangerous because major wars are caused by sharp changes in the balance of power[51]. For offensive realists, if China develops offensive military capabilities the balance will be tilted, and the U.S. will have to readjust – either by increasing their offensive military capabilities or by forming alliances with other powers to counterbalance China’s gains[52]. On the other hand, defensive realists argue that it is strategically foolish to pursue global hegemony as it would amount to overexpansion. It is way more profitable of power to try to gain only the ‘appropriate amount of power’, as past this point balancing will inexorably occur[53]. Moreover, China is a nuclear power, and so are many of its neighbouring countries. India, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and Japan could go nuclear very fast if they felt the need to. These countries are likely to build a core of “anti-China balancing coalition [54]. China will not be able to over-expand its hegemony much further as they have nuclear weapons[55]. Nonetheless, the response of East Asian states to the Chinese power rise is motley. The variation in their policies alignment reflects the variations of how the rise of China impacts their country. Those like South Korea and Taiwan, who are becoming vulnerable to Chinese military power, tend to accommodate. Contrastingly, East Asia’s secondary states – like Japan and the ASEAN States, whose developments are limited by their dependency on China’s economy – are more inclined to consolidate their prior alignments with the United States[56]. These countries adopt the same strategy as European countries joining NATO during the Cold War to balance off the Soviet power. The United States do not permit peer competition, and will impose a containment policy on China just like the one they imposed on the Soviet Union during the Cold War[57]

To conclude, China’s rapid expansion is reshaping the distribution of power, to apprehend the evolution of the relations between the two great powers is of critical importance. If we trust that China will continue to democratise along with its rise, how are the relationships going to change between this rising power and the long-established hegemon? Liberal theorists conceive that the two can engage in positive-sum games, and their relations will be peaceful because it is in their interest and because they will grow dependency ties, all of which make effective conflict highly unlikely. The security dilemma can be kept to a minimum by accommodating the shift in the balance of power, namely through institutions and by incorporating China to the very fabric of the international community. Realist theorists’ vision differs in that they see China’s rise as being a threat to the U.S. hegemony by essence, as there is no assurance that China will be using its power at peaceful ends. They expect the relationship to develop towards balancing strategies. Moreover, because the offence-defence balance explains much of international history, they expect China and the U.S. to develop the same kind of relationship that the U.S. had with the Soviet Union when it had the power to threaten its hegemony. On China’s side, they expect it to behave in the same fashion as the U.S. when they first became a hegemon. China will try to secure its “backyard” and instore its version of the Monroe doctrine[58].


[1]World Bank. (2019). Overview. [online] Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019].

[2]Data.worldbank.org. (2019). GDP (current US$) | Data. [online] Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019]

[3]Huntington, S. (1969). Political order in changing societies.. 2nd ed. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

[4] Doyle, M. (1983). Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 12(3), pp.205-235.

[5] Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001), The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton).

[6] Friedberg, A. (2005). The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?. International Security, 30(2), pp.7-45.

[7] Ikenberry, G. (2008). The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive? Foreign Affairs, 87(1), 23-37

[8] Waldron, A. (2005). The Rise of China: Military and Political Implications. Review of International Studies, 31(4), 715-733.

[9] Kant, I. (1983). Perpetual Peace. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Pub.

[10] Doyle, M. (2016). Liberalism And Foreign Policy. In: Smith, S., Hadfield, A. and Dunne, T. Foreign policy. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

[11] Keohane, R. and Nye, J. (1997). Interdependence in World Politics. In: G. Crane and A. Amawi, ed., The Theoretical evolution of international political economy: a reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

[12]Doyle, M. (2012). Liberal peace. New York: Routledge. Pp. 207–208

[13] De Graaff, N. and Van Apeldoorn, B. (2018). U.S.–China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions?. International Affairs, 94(1), pp.113-131.

[14] Pugh, Jeffrey. (2005). Democratic Peace Theory: A Review and Evaluation. CEMPROC Working Paper Series.

[15] Doyle, M. (2016). Liberalism And Foreign Policy. In: Smith, S., Hadfield, A. and Dunne, T. Foreign policy. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

[16] Ikenberry, G. (2008). The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive? Foreign Affairs, 87(1), 23-37.

[17] Pan, C. (2009). Peaceful Rise and China’s new international contract: the state in change in transnational society. In: L. Chelan Li, ed., The Chinese State in Transition, Processes and contests in local China, 1st ed. Routledge Studies on China in Transition, p.129.

[18] De Graaff, N. and Van Apeldoorn, B. (2018). U.S.–China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions?. International Affairs, 94(1), pp.113-131

[19] Keohane, R. and Nye, J. (1997). Interdependence in World Politics. In: G. Crane and A. Amawi, ed., The Theoretical evolution of international political economy: a reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

[20] Montesquieu, C. (2011). The Spirit of the Laws. Stilwell: Neeland Media LLC.

[21] Keohane, R. and Martin, L. (1995). The Promise of Institutionalist Theory. International Security, 20(1), p.39.

[22] Buzan, B. (2010). China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3(1), pp.5-36.

[23] Morrison, W. (2019). China’s Economic Rise. congressional Research Service

[24] Hills, C., Blair, D. and Jannuzi, F. (2007). U.S.-China relations. New York: Council on Foreign Relations

[25]Ikenberry, G. (2012). Liberal Leviathan: the origins, crisis and transformation of the American world order. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[26] Barnett, M., & Adler, E. (1998). Studying security communities in theory, comparison, and history. In E. Adler & M. Barnett (Eds.), Security Communities (Cambridge Studies in International Relations, pp. 413-441). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[27] Miller, B. (2010). Contrasting Explanations for Peace: Realism vs. Liberalism in Europe and the Middle East. Contemporary Security Policy, 31(1), pp.134-164.

[28] Schweller, R. and Pu, X. (2011). After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline. International Security, 36(1), pp.41-72.

[29] McNally, C. (2012). Sino-Capitalism: China’s Reemergence and the International Political Economy. World Politics, 64(4), pp.741-776.

[30] Liberal states are peaceful between them but not towards undemocratic states and can even act in a very disorderly manner in certain instances. 

[31] Graham, A. (2018). The Myth of the Liberal Order From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom. Foreign Affairs.

[32] Hills, C., Blair, D. and Jannuzi, F. (2007). U.S.-China relations. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.

[33] Brooks, S. and Wohlforth, W. (2016). The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position. International Security, 40(3), pp.7-53

[34] Christensen, T. (2009). Shaping the Choices of a Rising China: Recent Lessons for the Obama Administration. The Washington Quarterly, 32(3), pp.89-104.

[35] Zhu, Z. (2007). China’s “Peaceful Rise” in the 21st Century: Domestic and International Conditions. Sujian Guo. The China Journal, 58, pp.228-230.

[36] Broomfield, E. (2003). Perceptions of Danger: The China threat theory. Journal of Contemporary China, 12(35), pp.265-284

[37] Xintian, Y. (2005). Understanding and preventing new conflicts and wars: China’s peaceful rise as a strategic choice. Global Change, Peace & Security, 17(3), pp.279-290.

[38] Pugh, Jeffrey. (2005). Democratic Peace Theory: A Review and Evaluation. CEMPROC Working Paper Series

[39] Ibid

[40] Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001), The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton).

[41] Mearsheimer, J. (2016). 3. Structural Realism. In International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[42] Friedberg, A. L. (2012). Bucking Beijing: An Alternative U.S. China Policy. Foreign Aff., 91, 48

[43] Data.worldbank.org. (2019). Military expenditure (% of GDP) | Data. [online] Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/ms.mil.xpnd.gd.zs [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

[44] The Economist. (2019). America and China are in a proper trade war. [online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2018/09/20/america-and-china-are-in-a-proper-trade-war [Accessed 30 Nov. 2019].

[45] Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001), The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton).

[46] Herz, J. (1950), Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma, World Politics, 2/2: 157–80.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Van Evera, S. (1999), Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

[49] Gill, B. (2007). Rising Star: China’s New Security Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7864/j.ctt6wpdt3

[50]. Kirshner, J. (2010). The tragedy of offensive realism: Classical realism and the rise of China. European Journal of International Relations, 18(1), pp.53-75

[51] Copeland, D. C. (2000), The Origins of Major War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

[52] He, K. (2008). Institutional balancing and international relations theory: Economic interdependence and balance of power strategies in Southeast Asia. European Journal of International Relations14(3), 489-518.

[53]  Walt, S. (1985). Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power. International Security, 9(4), p.3.

[54] Young, J., & Kent, J. (2013). 25. The Shifting Global Balance. In International Relations Since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ross, R. (2006). Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China: Accommodation and Balancing in East Asia. Security Studies, 15(3), pp.355-395.

[57] Lieven, A. (2018). 24. The future of U.S. foreign policy. In U.S. Foreign Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[58] Jacques, M. (2014). When china rules the world. New York: Penguin Books.

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