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Offensive Realism and the rise of China


In his article, Mearsheimer (2006) argues that China’s attempts to gain power as a nation-state will spur the United States into action against them (Mearsheimer, 2006: 162). His reasoning for this is based on his formulated theory of Offensive Realism.

This essay will be briefly outlining the theory of Offensive Realism; after that, it will be evaluating the claims of Mearsheimer’s article and the Offensive Realist theory in the context of China.

This essay will ultimately find that Offensive Realism does not take into account the importance of Economic interdependence; and that the article overlooks the empirical factors of nuclear deterrents, geography and the dangers of hegemony.

Realists are fundamentally concerned with states (Sorenson & Jackson, 2010: 22). They argue that the international system is anarchic and that this causes states to become solely concerned with their security (Mearsheimer, 2006: 160). Power, seen often as the capacity to win wars, is used to assure security (Mingst & Arreguin, 2011: 73). Offensive Realists argue that passive security alone is not enough. States should be aggressive and make shows of force to gain respect and dominance (Mingst & Arreguin, 2011: 73). Mearsheimer (2006) argues that gaining dominance or hegemony over other states assures the greatest security, but as “global hegemony” is effectively impossible, states have to settle for “regional hegemony” (Mearsheimer, 2006: 160).

In the article, Mearsheimer argues that the United States (as a regional hegemony) does not wish to see China become a hegemony of its own region, as this threatens its security (Mearsheimer, 2006: 161). He contends that China will attempt to secure its security by becoming a hegemon, causing a war where the United States attempts to stop them (Mearsheimer, 2006: 162).

Offensive Realism fails to account for modern day globalisation and interdependent economies. China and the USA possess too many vested interests in each other’s economies and this will prevent an escalated conflict as both sides have too much to gain and too much to lose (Xinhau, 2013). Keck (2013) also argued that war between China and the USA was unlikely, but disagreed with the points made by Xinhau. Keck’s argument was that economic factors don’t prevent war, as seen by Britain and Germany during WW1 (Keck, 2013). Keck is wrong to dismiss globalisation as a uniting factor, as modern financial markets have proven to be ever more powerful and volatile across borders.

Keck (2013) argued that a conflict between China and America was unlikely due to the nuclear deterrent and geography (Keck, 2013). The former should have been noted by Mearsheimer as a Realist, as nukes play a big part in the “balance of power” of Realist theory (Mingst & Arreguin, 2011: 73). Geography also plays a key role as both nations possess large, diverse populations, huge territories, complex terrain and are seperated by an ocean (Keck, 2013). In this way, Mearsheimer’s theory fails as his perceived war becomes unlikely by empirical factors.

Steinsson (2014) maintained that Mearsheimer’s assertion was incorrect as “bidding for hegemony” poses too much of a risk to China (Steinsson, 2014). America’s hegemony formed with little local resistance and thus has a completely different context than China’s. South-East Asia possesses too much competition, above that of the threat of American intervention (Steinsson, 2014). Realists argue that states are fundamentally rational (Mingst & Arreguin, 2011: 71), and it is reasonable to presume that China will realise the dangers of attempting to dominate South-East Asia and let it be (Steinsson, 2014).

Offensive Realism cannot be applied to modern day China. Economic interdependence threatens both China’s and America’s economies in case of conflict; there is a pre-existing nuclear deterrent; geography makes a US/China War unlikely, and China should realise the overwhelming risks that an attempt at dominance will bring.

Ultimately, Offensive Realism is shown as an innaproppriate theory to describe China’s actions and predict its future.


Keck, Z. 2013. Why China and the US (Probably) Won’t Go to War.
Available: http://thediplomat.com/2013/07/why-china-and-the-us-probably-wont-go-to-war/ [2015, August 17].

Mearsheimer, J. J. 2006. China’s Unpeaceful Rise. Current History, 105(690): 160-162.

Mingst, K. A. & Arreguin, I. M. 2011. Contending Perspectives: How to think about International Relations Coherently. In: Essentials of International Relations. 5th ed. New York: WW Norton & Company. 65-92.

Sorenson, G. & Jackson, R., 2010. Why Study IR. In: Introduction to International Relations: Theories and approaches. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1-27.

Steinsson, S. 2014. John Mearsheimer’s Theory of Offensive Realism and the Rise of China. Available: http://www.e-ir.info/2014/03/06/john-mearsheimers-theory-of-offensive-realism-and-the-rise-of-china/ [2015, August 17].

Xinhau, 2013. China, U.S. can avoid “Thucydides Trap”. Available: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/indepth/2013-07/09/c_132525236.htm [2015, August 19].