China's emergence and the balance of power

Textbook, 2018

167 Pages





Power Strategy
From ‘Latent’ Power to ‘Actual’ Power
Asserting without Provoking
Great Power Diplomacy

1.1 Power: A Multifaceted Concept
1.2 Power Criteria
1.3 Power in the Emerging of International Relations as a Discipline
1.4 Power as States’ Capacity
Power as the capacity to impose or destroy
Power as capacity for action and leeway
Power as the capacity to structure one’s international environment
1.5 Power and its Modes of Action

2.1 Realism as a Paradigm
2.2 Offensive Realism as a Theory of International Politics
Buck-passing vs Balancing
The Balancing Strategy
Soft Balancing vs Hard Balancing

3.1 Offensive Realism and the Economic Variable in the Power Equation
3.2 Economic Development: a Central Pillar of China’s Strategy
A Unique View of Peaceful Development
The Economy: An Internal-External Security Imperative
The Economy: A Preferred Lever of ‘Balancing’
3.3 The ‘Hard Economic Power’ Tool
World Trade Driver
Global Investor
Geopolitical Implications

4.1 Offensive Realism and the Quest for Military Power
4.2 Military Doctrine
Initial Doctrine
First Doctrinal and Strategic Shift
Recent Doctrine
An Active Defense Strategy
4.3 Military Budget
4.4 A Prospective Military Superpower

5.1 China’s Policy through the Lens of Offensive Realism
5.2 Multilateralism
5.3 Bilateralism
Relations with the Third World
5.4 Influence in Africa
The Aid Tool
An alternative development model
Altering the balance of power
Perceptions in the West
The win-win approach
5.5 Influence in Asia
Policy in Central Asia in the 1990s and early 2000s
Recent Development in the Asia Pacific Region




Table 1. China, Japan and US GDP and Per Capita GDP in Nominal USD and a PPP Basis: 2012 61

Table 2. China’s Major Trading Partners in 2012 (billions USD) 66

Figure 1. China and US Real GDP and Growth (1978-2014) 60

Figure 2. Average Real GDP Growth (in %) among Major Global Economies (2008-2012) 61

Figure 3. Projection through 2017 of China and US GDP as a Percent of Global Total: 1990-2012 (%) 62

Figure 4. Gross Value Added Manufacturing in China, the United States, and Japan: 2004-2011 (USD billions) 65

Figure 5. China's Annual FDI Outflows: 2000-2012 68

Figure 6. Major Sources of Global FDI Outflows in 2012 69


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


The global political system resulting from the end of the Cold War, which consecrated the implosion of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1990s, remains marked with the American superpower. China, which has naturally always been a great nation in the international system, is on a steady and tremendous growth, a development process which is leading to a dramatic change in the global power distribution and the positioning of China as a potential contender of the U.S. the world affairs. While China needs to pursue its economic, security and political goals, it must also deal with the security dilemma induced by its emergence as a great power. This study discusses how China pursues its rise with the constraint of the American dominance of the international system. Essentially a theoretical undertaking, this thesis proposes an analysis of China’s emergence from the assumptions of offensive realism developed by John J. Mearsheimer. It results from this analysis that China appears to follow a strategy that combines three complementary dimensions: on the internal level, economic and military reforms; and externally, an assertive and effective diplomacy in line with its strategic goals. Such an approach is innovative in the sense that it aims to raise the national and international profile of China through mainly economic power rather than military.

Key words: China, offensive realism, strategy, power.


Regarded by many as the main challenger to United States (U.S.), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) switched into the 21st century within a particular context of the international system. The global political system resulting from the end of the Cold War, which consecrated the implosion of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1990s, remains marked with the American superpower. In 1990, the U.S. produced more than 20 percent of the world economy and accounted for 45 percent of global military expenditure. More recently in 2013, the U.S. represent about 16 percent of the world economy and still holds the lion’s share (about 36 percent) of global military expenditures[1]. In modern history, no other State has registered such preponderance in terms of wealth, power and influence. Currently the main emerging power, China, on its part, with its population of 1.3 billion (one-third of the world’s population and five times that of the United States), its high and sustained economic growth (approximately 9.4 percent for at least three decades), ranks second in the world production and holds the second largest defense budget in the world. Rather than mere coincidence, this development has at its center rational calculations and anticipations dictated by goals and constraints faced by any major power.

Power Strategy

In order to achieve their goals, political leaders need methods and means. That is what the French general Jean Salvan called ‘strategy’, a term he defines as “the set of methods and means used by political leaders to attain their ends”[2]. Christopher Layne defines grand strategy as a three-step process which comprises: (1) the determination of a state’s vital security interests; (2) the identification of threats to these interests and (3) the decision on how best to make use of the state’s political, military and economic resources in order to protect those interests[3]. Thus a comprehensive strategy design will include a wide range of factors such as economic resources, productive capacities, culture, ideology, political institutions, etc. A grand strategy, therefore, represents a roadmap outlining a state’s main objectives of its foreign policy. Although this is a difficult thing to design and its outcomes impossible to accurately predict, nevertheless, having a reading grid always allows policymakers to define or redefine their priorities in relation to the world. According to Avery Goldstein, on an operational level, grand strategy is the “distinctive combination of military, political, and economic means by which a state seeks to ensure its national interests”[4]. Such an approach involves the balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard power’ in foreign policy and the interaction between states, suggests Ben D. Mor, adding that “the level at which these two sources of national influence interact is the level of grand strategy”[5]. These assertions correspond to the behavior of the U.S., whose strategy’s key elements have always been, since the late 1940s, the “creation and maintenance of a U.S.-led world order based on preeminent U.S. political, military, and economic power, and on American values; maximization of U.S. control over the international system by preventing the emergence of rival great powers in Europe and East Asia; and maintenance of economic interdependence as a vital U.S. security interest.”[6] Similarly to all great powers, China’s behavior on the international stage over the past decades has been consistent with its own strategy. As write Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, “China, like any other state, has indeed pursued a grand strategy conditioned substantially by its historical experience, its political interests, and its geostrategic environment”[7]. Avery Goldstein also notes that at the end of the Cold War, period during which China faced the challenges of American unilateralism, a consensus emerged among its leaders. This consensus is a de facto grand strategy enacting the (outline) of its foreign policy[8]. According to Goldstein, this grand strategy can be defined as the continuation of what China perceives as its interests in light of its capabilities and the constraints characterizing the context in which those interests should be achieved. The ultimate goal of this grand strategy is to propel China to the status of great power within the constraints of a unipolar system dominated by the United States[9]. In an effort to mark the difference between China’s strategy and that of the traditional powers, Chinese policymakers have, since 2004, begun to explain the thesis of China’s ‘peaceful development’. The Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stated that “China’s rise (…) will not come at the cost of any other country, will not stand in the way of any other country, nor pose a threat to any other country.”[10] In its Defense White Papers, Beijing formulates more clearly its security objectives: “Consolidating national defense, resisting aggression, curbing armed subversion, and defending the state's sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security”, without losing sight on the existing constraints: “However, as long as hegemonism and power politics still exist, a country must have the capability to defend its sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security by military means.”[11]. Analyzing the implications of such objectives, Yuan-Kang Wang, writes: “to protect theses interests, China must increase its political, military, and economic capabilities. In short, China must rise.”[12]

From ‘Latent’ Power to ‘Actual’ Power

China was naturally always a great nation in the international system: large territory, vast resources and a large population. However its weight in world politics has undergone a steady and tremendous growth since the launching, in 1978, of the reforms that quickly transformed China’s latent potential into effective power. This process is significant, not only as the internal transformation of the oldest civilization in the world, but also its successful pursuit is leading – not without political consequences – to a dramatic change of power distribution within the international system. This induced change attracts a great deal of attention and many have rightly predicted that it could be the most important global phenomenon in the 21st century. If the United States has possessed, for more than a century period, and still has the largest economy in the world, it has become recently very likely that this position will be held by China. Based on The IMF predictions, China would, at end of 2014, make up 16.48 percent of the world's purchasing-power adjusted GDP (or USD 17.632 trillion), and the US would make up just 16.28 percent (or USD 17.416 trillion). But in nominal terms, China’s GDP still ranks about 7 trillion lower than that of the US. In all the cases, as Fareed Zakaria noted, “China’s rise is no longer a prediction. It is a fact. It is already the world’s fastest-growing large economy (…). It has the world’s largest army (2.5 million men) (…). Whether or not it overtakes the United States economically, (…) it is the powerful new force on the global scene.”[13]

In other words, it can be said that China is emerging with an obvious change in the global power distribution. This has led many observers to see China as a ‘peer competitor’ of the United States, i.e., a state having the power to compete with the United States internationally on a sustained basis and to a sufficient level, at least sufficient enough to raise the question of whether this trend will have a happy ending, given the uncertainty of the outcome of a hypothetical conflict even if the United States had to use their resources effectively.

Asserting without Provoking

In his famous 24-character strategy, the father of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics', Deng Xiaoping, urged his fellow citizens: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”[14] It can be said that, in their behavior, the current Chinese leaders remain, in many respects, faithful to this philosophy. Aware of the turmoil caused by the awakening of the 'Asian Dragon' and consecutive perception, particularly in the West, of a China threat, China has packed its grand strategy in the new concept of ‘peaceful development’ (heping fazhan 和平发展), also referred to as ‘peaceful rise’ (heping jueqi 和平崛起). In December 2005, the State Council of the PRC issued its White Paper in which are described the outline of China foreign policy. The title of the document "China's Peaceful Development Road" returns the concepts 'peace' and 'development' in the form of two sides of the same coin. China needs a peaceful international environment for its development. Conversely, global prosperity and peace is hardly achievable without one fifth of the world population represented by China. For many years China’s weight remained under-represented the international system. Li Jijun, a Chinese strategist, points out for example that “China was the top consumer of steel and the second biggest consumer of oil in the world in 2003, yet it had only 0.l percent of power in the international oil pricing mechanism.” So, it is normal that China “should take the initiative and adopt a positive stance in taking part in the regulation, the control and the reform of the international economic system as well as in the establishment of a fair and rational international economic order.”[15] Therefore, this discourse on foreign policy and current behaviors of China on the international stage involved a concerted effort to dispel the security dilemma generated by its accession to great power status. It is worth noticing that this notion of peaceful rise still contrasts with the perceived intentions of China fueled by its fast-growing (economic, military, technological, etc.) capabilities.

Great Power Diplomacy

China is certainly not the only new piece on the geopolitical chessboard of the post-Cold War era. Among the aspirant states to great power status, the most commonly mentioned include, alongside China, European Union, Germany, Japan, India, Russia, etc. However, with the U.S. and the European Union, China forms what David Shambaugh calls a ‘strategic triangle’ to which he invites careful watch.[16] He argues that these three continental powers increasingly concentrate the essential of economic and military power and political and normative influence.[17] China, nevertheless, appears to be the closest candidate to great power status. Because, if it is true that the European Union, for example, is an established economic power, it however remains politically hesitant. China, on the other hand, seems more proactive and not limited to Asia in its diplomatic reach which is successfully including Latin America, Africa, the Middle East. Analyzing the effect of the rise of China on global diplomacy, Joshua Kurlantzick writes: “For the first time in centuries, China is becoming an international power, a nation with global foreign policy ambitions. In fact, China may become the first nation since the fall of the Soviet Union that could seriously challenge the United States for control of the international system.”[18]

As currently the most important phenomenon of international relations, the emergence of China is happening within a context of US supremacy. This preeminent geopolitical position that the US has held since the end of the Cold War, and that Western nations have enjoyed since the 19th century, is undoubtedly being altered. The resulting concerns have given way to different – an often conflicting – responses both in politics and in the academic world. In this study, the main question is to investigate China’s ability to think a strategy without running the risk of upsetting the sole world superpower. The next question is how China develops and implements a grand strategy consistent with its power interests? And what meaning does the notion of power bear in the first place? This study aims to propose theoretical elements of response, by analyzing the emergence of China from the point of view the theory of structural realism, especially within the assumptions of offensive realism which considers that the primary concern of great powers is to maximize their relative power, the only way to ensure their survival in an anarchic international system. The subsequent pages focus in particular on the strategy of asserting of power, i.e. how China operates one of the most strategic tool of the post-Cold War era, the economic power, in order to consolidate its rise to great power status while assertively developing its defensive capabilities. By briefly reviewing ‘new’ China bilateral and multilateral relations, this study also attempts to assess some of the political and security implications of this rise on the world order.

Raising any question about states’ behaviors in the international system entails having to face a profusion of ideas and theories. And since it is impossible to satisfactorily survey the entire field of international relations within the scope of a study, our discussion will be narrowed down to the influential school of thought of offensive realism. Criticized for its simplistic assumptions that tend to place power balance at the center of states’ interests, the realist approach to international relations remains the most criticized and probably the widespread and referred political theory so far. On one hand, it is a fact that China has clearly held a non-interference discourse when it comes to other states’ internal affairs, and has sharply increased its presence in participation in rule-based international institutions, a move wanted by Beijing to be seen as a significant level of self-restraint. On the other hand, China’s continued increase of its offensive and defensive capabilities successfully fuels assumptions contending that states focus on and balance against objective and measurable capabilities rather than intentions.

Against the backdrop of this theoretical approach, we lay our main hypothesis which we try to confront with data made available by international institutions and research institutes, also with policy papers and previous related analysis that we exploit using a content analysis and deductive approach to present our arguments in relation with China’s rise and strategy. Such an approach obviously suffers the limitations inherent to any theory which is, by definition, a simplification of the reality.

As a main hypothesis, this analysis argues that, taking on board the important gap to fill, China undertook to balance the American superpower in a pragmatic way. For this purpose, it seems to operate a strategy that includes two main pillars: economic and military reforms on the internal level; and on the external level, an assertive and effective diplomacy in line with its goals. Such a strategy aims at avoiding in China at the moment any risk of direct confrontation that would have the main effect of harming his ascension. However, as its power increases, it will tend to show a more assertive posture while engaging, with the only superpower in the world, competition in Asia and beyond this region.

From a theoretical point of view, one can say that there are two main approaches to the role of power in international relations. The first, described as 'defensive realism', has been characterized by the work of Kenneth Waltz.[19]. Noting some common trends in the international behavior of states, defensive realism theory says that states tend to 'balance' each others’ power. Without doing so, they can suffer the consequences and may be removed from the system. But, according to Waltz, this observation is only a tendency that can only occur under certain conditions, or even can represent a late response to aggressive behavior on the part of other states[20]. The second approach, 'offensive realism', was developed by John Mearsheimer. It seeks to predict the behavior of nations when they face rival powers. The nations (who feel a sense of aggression), he said, will opt either for the 'balancing' strategy or for the 'buck passing' strategy, but never the 'bandwagoning' (advocated by defensive realism). The strong powers will seek to dominate their region and become a regional hegemon[21]. Taking into account the economic, military and political dimensions of China’s great strategy, we argue that its emergence can be analyzed from the point of view of offensive realism. “States that maximize relative power are concerned primarily with the distribution of material capabilities. In particular, they try to gain as wide as a power advantage as possible over their rivals.”[22] The offensive realism theory puts a strong emphasis on the military capabilities of great powers. “To qualify as a great power a state must have sufficient military assets to put up a serious fight in all-out conventional war against the most powerful state in the world.”[23] In addition, says Mearsheimer, major powers seek to become rich-in fact, richer than their rivals, because military power has an economic basis[24]. While this argument remains open to debate, this study propose some evidences supporting that China's strategy seems rooted in realism and achieves, a significant extent, the predictions of offensive realism.

As a developing country, China’s emergence, growing influence and ranking among the most powerful nations in the world has drawn the attention of countless analysts, theorists and commentators, with an interest and passion that we are not about to see dwindle anytime soon. This study is, to a much less extent, a manifestation of this interest for the fastest growing economy that the world has ever witnessed during the last three decades. While many have relevantly endeavored to investigate the magnitude and the impact of China’s relations with either particular states or group of states, and enriched the scientific literature with valuable data and empirical analysis on the topic, this thesis takes on to look at China’s emergence with a particular interest for International Relations theories. And this means deepening the theoretical discussion about the notion of power and the role that it plays in international relations.

The reflection will be structured as follows. Beginning by discussing the central and equivocal notion of power and in the first chapter, we then present, in the second chapter, the theoretical framework that guides this analysis. This chapter contains two main sections. As a first step, an explanation is given as to the relevance of realism as a general theory of international politics and a distinction is made between main schools of realistic thoughts, especially those that have been in recent years at the forefront of the debate on the peaceful rise or not of China. Finally, we tarry more on offensive realism which will constitute the main grid of analysis in this research.

The third chapter, which includes three sections, will be devoted to the economic dimension of the balancing approach. As a first step, we will return briefly on the design of the realism regarding the role of the economy in the strategy of power. This being done, it will be important to analyze the strategy of economic reforms pursued by China currently in the light of the provisions of realism. This will also lead to review the current state of China’s economic power.

The fourth chapter will complement the analysis of the first pillar of the strategy of China. It will help to elucidate the weight of the military variable in the equation of Chinese power. Then, we will try to explain the doctrine that guides China’s military actions by analyzing major policy documents available. The last two sections are devoted respectively to the study of China’s military budget and its actual military capabilities.

The fifth chapter will be dedicated to the study of the external dimension of the balancing strategy, i.e., China's political influence in the world. We recall, in general, great powers’ expansionary trend, before dealing with two of the main mechanisms of China’s foreign policy: multilateralism and bilateralism. Finally, we will seek to analyze the move toward the third-world as of China’s grand strategy.

Chapter 1


“International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power”.

Hans J. Morgenthau

1.1 Power: A Multifaceted Concept

The notion of power traditionally drives reflection and discourse in International Relations. Considered almost like the “currency” of this discipline, it is generally used to attempt an assessment of capabilities of states to take action, and even to draw some form of hierarchy of those capabilities. But power can be first understood as a concept of psychological, physical (or other) coercion. Exercising power has to do with one’s certain level of control over others. By power, Hans J. Morgenthau “means man’s control over minds and actions of other men (…) a psychological relation between those who exercise and those over who it is exercised”[25]. The German sociologist, philosopher and political economist Max Weber defines power as the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realizing them. In international relations, the French political scientist Raymond Aron considers power as the capacity of a political unit to impose its will on other units. This capacity is the result of a combination of objective and subjective factors that crystallize into a collective will under the effect of some historical configuration. Moreover, the power of a political unit does not lie in the absolute, but rather within the framework of interaction with one or several other political units.

Absolute Power and Relative Power

But power is a very complex and controversial notion in the study of international relations. Several factors can enter into consideration when it comes to providing a definition of the concept and despite the abundance of theories elaborated around it, the defining task remains daunting and there is still no final consensus over which factors best clarifies what we observe and want to know about the concept. Nevertheless, one way is to consider power either in absolute terms or relative terms. In the former sense comes under the notion of power the idea of the physical assets possessed by a nation such as the military arsenal and technology, the economy, the natural resources, the alliances or political relations with other states, etc. In a later sense, power can be understood in relation with other states in the system. This is called relative power. Indeed, a state’s capabilities insufficiently defined its power. What makes a state powerful is also its ability to affect other states and how effectively it translates its assets to achieve its national objectives. It is relative because it involves a relationship between a state and other players in the international system and not just a quantity of assets. Indeed, one can observe that a player in the international system may be relatively less endowed with military and economic capabilities but, at the same time, have an outstanding impact on the global agenda and even receive a greater response when it comes to changing the behavior of other players. But there are other dimensions to the concept of power.

Other Dimensions of Power

It is important to differentiate between a state’s ‘ internal power ’ and ‘ external power ’. Power on the international stage differs from power on the internal level in scope, in means and in application, although to a certain degree one could be an extension of the other.

Soft power ’ also needs to be distinguished from ‘ hard power ’. The former, coined by Joseph Nye, refers to a state’s ability to win the hearts and minds of others; to set the political agenda in a way that helps shapes the preferences of others. It is the ability of a nation to structure a situation in a way that makes others align their choices and define their interests in accordance with that nation’s own interests. Soft power rests on intangible resources such as culture, ideology, institutions, etc. ‘Hard power’, on the contrary, is the command power. It involves the use of payment, force or coercion rather than attraction. This form of power is less subtle than the former and rests on tangible elements such as military might or economy weight.

A line also needs to be drawn between ‘ actual power ’ and ‘ potential or latent power ’. Potential power includes human, moral and material resources virtually possessed by each political unit. Actual power corresponds to the leverage actually mobilized to conduct foreign policy in times of peace or war. When latent power is substantial, it can have deterring effect and reduce the need and urge for actual power.

Power can also be decomposed into offensive power and defensive power. The former can be defined as the capacity of a political unit to impose its will on others. Defensive power can designate the capacity of a political unit not to be imposed others’ will.

That said, a state becomes powerful on the international stage from the moment it can present a greater number of factors (or criteria) than those of other states. In fact, national power is the result of a combination of material and intangible factors. Without claiming an exhaustive analysis of these factors, we list here, however, some of the principal power criteria.

1.2 Power Criteria

In this point, it is suitable to recall different criteria of power as traditionally considered, and analyze to what extent they are likely to undergo significant changes in the future, either by being called into question or, on the contrary, by being more important. So we consider in the following lines traditional criteria of power such as population, ‘hard power’ criteria, ‘soft power’ criteria and emerging criteria.


It has always been one of the main determinants of power. And it will, at least, remain an essential criterion in the future. The world has recently witnessed that besides states, multinational companies (for which nationality can sometimes be difficult to tell) play a significant role whether in power projection or the ability to spread values. States need therefore to take into consideration those actors in order to assert their power. Moreover, it is necessary to take into consideration as a power criterion the capacity of integration in the global economy, given the fact that economic isolation is not a viable option.

Military force

Military power remains one of the main criteria of power. If defense budgets and magnitude of forces are important, what seems to matter most is their distribution, the effectiveness and interoperability of military assets in the framework of international interventions. Thus, a power that cannot intervene in partnership with other powers loses its effectiveness, and can hardly impose itself without clearly outstanding the others.

Projection capacity

More than military force, projection capacity has become an essential criterion of power in the military domain. A state capable of effectively and rapidly projecting its forces in different places stands higher in power compared to a more traditional army with little flexibility. This also means that a powerful state must be able to coordinate its actions, and to master the entire chain of decision-action. So, this strategic autonomy implies, on matters of defense, the mastering of technology.

Nuclear power

For political prestige as well as for dissuasion, nuclear technology seems deemed to remain an attribute of military power. The number of states seeking to acquire this type of weapon could increase, unless substantial progress is made in the fight against proliferation. In fact, the greater the number of nuclear power, the less this weapon will have its relevance on the list of criteria of power. As the number of nuclear actors increase, dissuasion will gradually be called into question.


Traditionally a criterion of states’ power, population seems to have lost its relevance. China and India are the most populated countries in the world. But their population sizes have no influence on their position on the power ranking. Moreover, countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Brazil appear among the most populated on the planet. Population can, however, play an important role to the notion of power if it would be considered from the standpoint of its dynamism. Western societies are aging: Japan started to shrink in 2007 and others such as Italy and Germany were then following the same trend. The median age of the population in China which was estimated at 23.7 in 1950, is expected to reach 46.3 in 2050[26] ; projections for the same horizon is 36.2 for average U.S. citizens and 52.7 for European citizens. The generational renewal is not quite guaranteed. Population aging, with demographic decline as its corollary, worries due to its connection with economic decline. If nowadays a state cannot mention its population to project its power, it remains true however that population is not completely neutral to other power factors and that the most populated regions will remain significantly strategic both for economic and security reasons.


In parallel to population, Diaspora is particularly important especially due to its role in maintaining close relations between a state and other states, and in exporting its products. Some powers have an important Diaspora whose economic influence is significant in other states (such as Chinese Diaspora in South East Asia), while others for historical and cultural reasons are not in the same situation.

Systems of alliances

The power of states also depends on their ability to be connected to others and to act in partnership with others. Recent events seem to confirm that no state is able to carry out by itself all the security, humanitarian or military tasks. States increasingly tend to assert themselves on the global stage by using cooperation and their ability to exert influence in inter-state platforms while accommodating rules. Strategies of unilateralism and isolation seem to fail in the long term and are used as short term solutions.

Strategic autonomy

Strategic autonomy is important in keeping from systematic dependence upon a system of alliances or upon the protection from partners. A powerful state should therefore be able to independently maintain and defend its vital interests.


To be considered powerful, states need to be able to provide protection to their citizens. This is particularly true given the existence of risk of terrorism that affects any society. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, protection has become a very important matter to power. In the future, protection could continue to gain even more attention, and by so highlighting the importance of states’ domestic issues to their external image. Since perception of risk and threat can differ from one state to another, approaches also vary when it comes to the way states assure protection domestically. And those differences have incidence on the definition of the notion of power.


As one of the pillar of soft power, culture is emerging as a tool of power and an issue as well. Vectors for the propagation of culture ensure the expansion of a nation’s influence and the promotion of values. It is highly likely that culture will increasingly assert itself as a power criterion and even become a high profile issue.


The education level of a society (especially the literacy) is a component of soft power criteria. The academic training also appears as an important power criterion. A good example of this is the leadership exerted by the USA in this area[27]. It could, therefore, be interesting to investigate to what extent the current balance is likely to remain.


The perception of power and the model of power can be determinant criteria. The phenomenon known by the concept “American dream” has served American influence probably better than arm acquisitions. A state’s capacity to win hearts and minds is an essential power factor, especially when it comes to exercising leadership among other states. In this context, great powers ought to propose a model that goes beyond their borders and that can meet favorable response from other states. In reverse, a great power that is no longer capable of imposing its model by other means but force finds itself in a very delicate situation (just as the Soviet Union in the 1980s).

Social cohesion

Domestic criteria of power are increasingly gaining consideration as an essential factor of power. A state that effectively manages a balance between the different components and groups within its society and demonstrates its capacity to successfully regulate and mitigate social and ethnic tensions is very likely to gain greater influence among other states and see its leadership welcomed abroad. Actually, the idea of democracy is often associated to this social cohesion and which greatly contributes to the image carried by power.

Domestic institutions

A powerful state also means a state with solid institutions that can effectively deliver and reliably support a political system without being often called into question. Instability is a weakening factor of power. Political models have the unique advantage of spreading both domestic and international values that can have stabilizing effects when respected by the citizens.

1.3 Power in the Emerging of International Relations as a Discipline

The notion of power and its evolutions have followed the evolutions undergone by international relations both as a political and an academic “object”. Authors from de realist school of international relations who have largely dominated the theoretical debates until recently have made power central to the understanding of the global agenda.

From the fifth century before our era, the Greek historian Thucydides, through his History of the Peloponnesian War, provided an analysis of the struggle for predominance between the cities of Athens and Sparta, along with the developments, the restructuring schemes and modes of action of the respective powers of the two cities. Moreover, he presents the will-to-power as one of the main driving force of the world. Beyond Thucydides’ contribution to the emergence of the science of history, his political thought and his reflections about power are still echoed in recent authors’ writings. One example of the later is Niccolo Machiavelli who made the preservation of the sovereign’s power one of the main driving force behind his action, which implies ability and capabilities to counter any external threat while maintaining superiority in some key areas such as armed forces and military talent, physical capabilities, financial resources, etc.

In the twentieth century A.D., the impulse of some historians and political scientists trying to investigate the causes and consequences of the two World Wars and the developments occurring in the international system led to the emergence of international relations as a discipline with a great deal of attention paid to the study of power relations. In his analysis on the inter-war period[28], Edouard H. Carr attempts an explanation of various states’ behaviors such as maximization of national interests, especially security and balance of power. We find this analysis of states’ behaviors furthered in post World War II analyses by authors like Hans J. Morgenthau in his Politics among Nations[29]. Thenceforward, international relations has been long perceived fundamentally – if not exclusively – as a study of fluctuations and interactions in power relations between sovereign states.

However from the 1950s, authors began to expand their analysis to include other factors in addition to power balance, thereby calling into question the assumptions of the realist school. Among those authors are Karl W. Deutsh (1957), who argues in his Political Community and North Atlantic Area[30] that states do not solely act based on power balance or power pursuit, but they can also interdependently form “security communities”. A point of view largely inspired by the construction of the Atlantic Alliance perceived by Deutsh as the construction of a particular transatlantic community connecting a certain number of states in western Europe and northern America.

The centrality of the notion of power in international relations is similarly called into question by S. Krasner who affirms in his International Regimes[31] that states’ behaviors are also influenced by international (legal, moral or political) norms either explicit or not, either institutionalized or not. Contributions by other authors have also buttressed the insufficiency of the notion of power in the study of international relations on the basis that international relations are not limited to relations between states but involve other actors. In other terms, the pursuit of power is no longer enough to explain the actions of states on the international stage. The increasing influence of transnational actors has somehow deterritorialized power.

Whether asserted or decried, the notion of power has indisputably followed the evolution of the analysis of international relations. It is certainly no longer the sole object but definitely remains one of the essential dimensions of international relations. Therefore, given the fact that the use of the concept of power by either an author or a political leader does not always refer to the same definition, it becomes crucial to explain it in order to understand policies made by international actors and the evolution of the global agenda.

1.4 Power as States’ Capacity

Definitions of power are numerous but generally converge toward a common understanding that can be summarized as “the capacity of international actors”. This definition suffers imprecision in the sense that it allows limited demonstration and interpretation. Indeed, capacity of states (or of other international actors) can reflect different behaviors (or modes of action) or various relations between actors. We briefly outline in three categories some of the main definitions of power as mode of relations between actors. It shall be noted that this proposed categorization is by no means exclusive. Alternative categorizations are always possible.

Power as the capacity to impose or destroy

The early definitions of the notion of power have been largely inspired by the historical contexts of their authors. That could justify the predominance of realist thoughts in the analyses. Thucydides, for example, speaks of power as the respective capacity of Greek cities (in particular Athens and Sparta) to dominate their rival to ensure predominance in the Aegean world. Later half way the 20th century, other authors such as E.H. Carr have used the notion to define states’ capacities and will to dominate others in order to ensure the optimization of their national interest.

And so, Raymond Aron defines power as “the capacity of a person (individual or collective) to impose his will upon others”[32], Robert Dahl[33] refers to power as one’s ability to get another to do something that the later would not otherwise do. This first definition of power describes patterns of dominance (between state or non-state actors) in which A is said to be powerful over B to the extent that A can get B to do something B would not otherwise do. But these patterns of dominance can be expressed by different operational modes. For instance, Arnold Wolfers defines power as a person’s capacity to impose losses upon others. This relatively classic definition makes a distinction between power politics – which consists in imposing one’s views through threat or force – and political influence which consists in getting others to adopt one’s views without necessarily using force. A distinction that prefigures the differentiation between hard and soft power drawn by Joseph S. Nye in early 1990.

This definition of power understood as a relation of domination has largely shaped and dominated theoretical debates until the 1960s. The World War II and the resulting bipolar system have undeniably constituted historical moments in favor of this predominance: on one side, the power of allies was enough to impose alteration of borders and regime change to Axis countries; and on the other side, the Soviet power was capable of imposing its will in Central and Eastern Europe, etc.

This definition of power, fundamentally bearing Hobbesian principles rather than idealist ones, has largely contributed to a negative connotation of the notion of power that transpires both in both public opinions and among scholars. Certainly power politics as relations of domination have largely led to major tragedies and conflicts in the twentieth century. But instead of a moral or a priori condemnation of the notion of power, some have suggested an adaptation of the concept and a refinement of its definition taking in consideration the evolutions that have occurred in the global agenda during the recent decades.

Power as capacity for action and leeway

A second definition of power consists therefore in considering as powerful an actor who possesses enough freedom of action and leeway to carry out his action to his satisfactory level. In this case, power is linked to the concepts of sovereignty and national independence and power becomes the factor for the achievement of those concepts. In this approach, an actor is powerful if it can freely make political choices and implement them without interference or external dependency. A political example of this approach can be found for instance in statements like the following which highlights the will and the capacity of a state to ensure the defense of its international interests:

“The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security. That duty falls to me as commander of chief by the oath I have sworn, by the oath I will keep.”[34]

This definition of power comes close to the first one in describing it as the capacity to have one’s choices not imposed by others. This corresponds to a more present-day analysis of international relations which does not considers war and balance of power unique vectors shaping international relations even though these vectors have not disappeared from current analyses. Power, therefore, could be defined as the capacity to do (what one intends), but also as the capacity to keep from doing (what others would want one to do).

Power as the capacity to structure one’s international environment

The progressive emergence of concepts like interdependence since the 1970s, coupled with the increasing multiplicity of national and transnational actors have led many to call into question the traditional meanings of power, focusing in particular on:

- The review of the role of states which are no longer the only international actors (pluralist approach). Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye[35] share this analysis when they highlight the emergence of transnational actors carrying out their own foreign policies (multinational companies, etc.) which can interfere with that of states;
- The emergence of international norms and regimes that shrink states’ room of manoeuvre by lessening the balance of power between states and its relevance in understanding international relations;
- The diminution of states’ leeway resulting from their increasing interdependence or the necessity to take into consideration the two previous phenomena.

However, these findings, largely made possible by the evolutions occurred in the global agenda during the 1970s and 1980s, have not led to any fundamental or conclusive rejection of the notion of power. Instead, they have led to rethink power in new terms.

Some have opposed this pluralist approach by asserting that the power of a state is not limited to its institutional or governmental capacities but can also lie in a government’s capacity to articulate and effectively adequate exogenous actors (companies, NGOs, networks, etc.) to its own interests. In other terms, the multiplicity of international actors does not necessarily call to deny the relevance of the notion of state power, but rather expands its scope and modes of possible actions to non-state actors and relations. In that line, the power of a state would be defined as its capacity to dispose, to master and to align to its own interests and priorities a maximum of international and transnational actors.

On another note, even assuming that international relations trends evolves toward a more normative order regulated by regimes as Krasner would say, it would be hard to deny that states have a greater capacity – compared to other actors – to impulse or impose normative changes. A good example of this is the instauration of the Bretton Woods system after 1945 in which the USA had new international norms of finance aligned to theirs.

This type of analysis leads to wonder, beyond the “capacity to impose” or “leeway”, if power in international relations is not also “the capacity to shape international environment to one’s own advantage” – which could imply imposing one’s will on others. This definition brings a two-pronged analysis of the use of power: firstly, immediate action and management in addressing the world as it is in the short term; secondly, the transformation of the international system by building in the long run a world as one would want it to be. This definition of power as “the capacity to shape one’s international environment” carries interesting and relevant political and academic perspectives. With this understanding, is the most powerful international actor the one capable or who has the ambition to respond to the upheavals of the global strategic environment, or the one who would be capable of attempting a revolution or significant restructuring that would be in line with its interests, principles and values?

1.5 Power and its Modes of Action

Power has traditionally been perceived as essentially connected with conflict, and structurally determinant in international relations. The aforementioned definitions of power and the perception of the role played by power relations in the international system have both been object of constant redefinitions in response to historical events as well as to the progress of theoretical debates.

The predominance of realist analyses, which insist on the anarchic characteristic of international relations, has unfortunately somehow contributed to a negative image of power in the analysis and understanding of international relations. However, some have underscored that power issues and power rivalries could have stabilizing effects, depending on the modes of action of power and on the relations established by states to optimize their power or to balance other states’ power. Thus, many consequences of power relations can have stabilizing effects and serve for a prospective exercise:

- The search for balance of power is the first case that comes to mind. If the perspective of power rivalry appears to bear potentially more risks than benefits, then the search for balance of power can have a stabilizing effect. This balance can either be consented by states (i.e. the case of the Concert of Europe), or occur as a de facto development (i.e. the case of opposing blocs during the Cold War), or even imposed. This corresponds to a moderately ‘controlled’ mode of action of power based on the will to preserve national interests at stake without necessarily attempting to dominate at all cost. Such a balance can, however, be fragile. And it loses its relevance once one among those states seeks to break it. In that case balance of power, as a state’s mode of action or prospective power strategy, appears to bear uncertainty and important fragility.
- Alliances constitute another way that power relations and their modes of action shape international relations. Also to be understood as power ‘by association’ or ‘by accumulation’, alliances have played a determinant role in recent history: fluctuations of alliances between European states have largely characterized the first world conflict, as well as alliances during the Cold War and in particular the constitution of the two blocs neutralizing each other and thus probably helped avoid a new open conflict. Alliances can be formed to compensate for an erosion of power (i.e. the case of states of Western Europe in NATO from the 1950s), or to optimize an existing power (i.e. the case of USA in the same period), or to achieve a balance of power which is in favor or another state or group of states. As a mode of action or power strategy of a state, alliances make it possible the attainment of a balance or a disproportionate defense capacity as compared to the (human, material, military, political) resources available on a national level. However, a strategy based on alliances presents the disadvantage of resting part of a state’s interests upon the capacities and will of other states. Beside the uncertainty resulting from the amount of trust involved, there is also the risk that alliances could lead to relations of submission within allied states whose capacities are uneven. Therefore, alliances raise questions of profitability, efficiency, sustainability that are taken into consideration and assessed by (political, diplomatic or military) decision makers.
- Delegation is another mode of action under which a weak state or a declining power seeks to satisfy its interests and to exercise influence through an actor that is perceived more powerful or more effective. The case of UK with the U.S. from the 1950s is an example of such a delegation. It can be done from state to state, but also through ‘integration’ or ‘delegation to a supra-state authority’. This mode of action also raises uncertainty from a prospective standpoint. First, delegation is in itself a form of renunciation of power as a “leeway”. But also, it lies on a community of interests and views whose sustainability cannot be guaranteed in the long run. As a result, the search of power through delegation or integration calls for a systematic (re)evaluation of the state’s interest in a taking that option, by assessing comparative advantages entailed by both delegation and solitary action. Moreover, delegation raises the same concerns about trust among states as posed by alliances.

The notion of power holds a central place in the analysis of international relations both theoretically and politically. Whether more or less considered determinant to the structuring and the understanding of international actors’ agenda and behavior, power remains one of the keys notions around which developments occurring in the international system are politically or theoretically interpreted.

Nevertheless, definitions of power are diverse and variable depending on time and viewpoints. Criteria to define the notion of power are subject to permanent evolutions depending on international events, the balance of power and the states’ will-to-power as history teaches. And one can find a discrepancy between the way power is theorized on one hand, and the conditions in which its exercise takes place on the other hand. Beside the variety of schools of thought and their respective influence in the conceptualization of power, there are in addition, the multiple constraints which affect orientations taken in the political realm. In fact, schools of thought are often the result of elements or events which they reflect with a more or less clear hindsight.

Likewise, the conditions of definition of power in the future will result from a process of (re)defining and readjustment of criteria of power, but also various constraints which are susceptible to modify its nature.

Chapter 2


“In anarchy, security is the highest end. Only if survival is assured

can states safely seek other goals”

Kenneth N. Waltz

The twentieth century has witnessed a passionate debate between great theories of International Relations. Among these theories are realism, neo-liberalism and constructivism which have all shaped the development of International Relations as a discipline. The realist school seems to have been the dominant analytical framework of international relations in the western world in the twentieth century and even since the beginning as would support Benjamin Frankel[36]. He explains this primacy of the realist approach by the fact that it has always shed a better light on conflicts between states and still gives valuable explanations on states behaviors. For this reason, the present study argues that, from a theoretical standpoint, China’s strategy to assert its power can be analyzed through the lens of realism.

Unlike liberalism which places emphasis on the potential for peace and cooperation between states, realists in general tend to be less optimistic when it comes to international politics. Even while acknowledging that the invention of a pacific world would an ideal to attain, they fail to find out means and ways likely to eradicate competition and war. “Creating a peaceful world is surely an attractive idea, but it is not a practical one”[37]. Carr might have one of the best ways of characterizing the realist conception of international relations. He says “Realism tends to emphasize the irresistible strength of existing forces and the inevitable character of existing tendencies, and to insist that highest wisdom lies in accepting, and adapting oneself to these forces and these tendencies”[38]

2.1 Realism as a Paradigm

Over sixty years ago, Hans Morgenthau introduced realism as an approach to international politics[39]. Since then, there have been several developments to this approach. Nowadays realism is no longer seen a single theory but a paradigm or, in other terms, “a general approach to international politics”[40], “a philosophical position [and] not a scientific theory that is subject to the test of falsifiability and, therefore, cannot be proved or disproved”[41]. Realism is made of a body of competing theories that share common assumptions which are more or less emphasized depending on each theory. Morgenthau’s classic realism, for example, has the nature of humans to lust for power as the explanation of power-seeking behavior. And this is precisely where Waltz’s neo-realism differs from classic realism. For Waltz, states survival in an anarchic international system is the explanation for states’ power-seeking behavior[42].

More recently, the debate within the paradigm concerning the political and security implications of the rise of great powers has been crystallized by the contradictory approaches of Waltz’s defensive realism and of Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Both Waltz and Mearsheimer converge over this essential point: that since the structure of the international system is an anarchic one, this leads to a permanent sense of insecurity among states. Therefore, the need for security explains why states get involved in an endless pursuit for power in order to ensure their own survival. However, the two authors radically differ when it comes to determining the amount of power a state would want to acquire. While Waltz speaks of status quo powers to indicate the behavior of states or the tendency of the international system to be geared towards equilibrium, Mearsheimer rather argues that states tend to be revisionist. It is clear that the two authors do not agree on the amount of power necessary for state survival. As Peter Gowan states, “[Mearsheimer] rejects the notion, developed by Waltz, that the logic of the international system tends towards an equilibrium, since all states must pursue the same aim of security, and any state that exceeds this goal, driving towards paramount over others, is bound to generate a coalition of its rivals against it.”[43] For Mearsheimer, “there are no status quo powers in the international system […]. Great powers are rarely content with the current distribution of power; on the contrary, they face a constant incentive to change it in their favor. They almost always have revisionist intentions, and they will use force to alter the balance of power if they think it can be done at a reasonable price.”[44]

2.2 Offensive Realism as a Theory of International Politics

Offensive realism is a theory of International Politics that explains states’ main behavior by the maximization of their relative power given the anarchy that characterizes the international system. With this theory, Mearsheimer’s ambition is to explain why relations between great powers are marked by conflicts. In his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer poses a series of questions that drive his reflection on international politics. Among those are “why do great powers want power?” and “how much power do states want?” To answer those questions, he goes on articulating his theory around five main arguments which summarize the realist assumptions. First, he lays the fundamental postulate realism that the international is anarchic, meaning there is not any supranational government capable of preventing the use of force in the international system. Thus states are soles artisans of their own destiny and responsible for their own survival. Secondly, by their very nature, great powers have a certain military offensive capability and therefore can be dangerous to each others. The third assumption stresses that no state can be sure neither can it predict another state’s future behavior on the international stage. According to the fourth assumption, the survival instinct is every state’s first reflex. The fifth premise describes great powers as rational actors on the international chessboard. That is to say states strategically seek, by their actions, to achieve their objectives of security and of survival.

From these assumptions, Mearsheimer infers that great powers are suspicious to each others; they can only rely on themselves for their security and the best strategy for states’ survival is the maximization of their relative power. Mearsheimer breaks away from defensive realists who contend that states only seek to maintain the existing balance of power (status quo powers). Such is especially the case of Jack Snyder, a neo-realism theorist who wrote “the international system provides only incentives for moderate behavior. Immoderate, unreasonable contradicts ‘true’ systemic incentives and must be caused at some other level of analysis”[45].

On the contrary, Mearsheimer believes that the security of a state requires that it acquires as much power as possible, or even that states’ ambition is to become the hegemon in the system. “They pursue expansionist policies when and where the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. States under anarchy face the ever-present threat that other states will use to force to harm or conquer them”[46]. Such a statement is a rejection of Waltz’s defensive realism. For Mearsheimer, the survival imperative incompatible with any idea of status quo, and the only guarantee of survival in an anarchic international system is primacy, which is not the equilibrium between states but rather the predominance over them. He spares no argument in his effort to underline his point:

“Given the difficulties of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great power recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive”.[47]

In the same line, Fareed Zakaria underlines one of the most severe critiques of Waltz’s defensive realism: “The urge to constantly seek survival will produce the same behavior as influence-maximizing, because anarchy and differential growth-rates ensure that survival is never achieved and the state is never allowed to relax its efforts”. In an article published in Foreign Policy in 2005, Mearsheimer elaborates on the states’ motivations:

“The international system has several defining characteristics. The main actors are states that operate in anarchy—which simply means that there is no higher authority above them. All great powers have some offensive military capability, which means that they can hurt each other. Finally, no state can know the future intentions of other states with certainty. The best way to survive in such a system is to be as powerful as possible, relative to potential rivals. The mightier a state is, the less likely it is that another state will attack it”.[48]

In a world marked by competition, security lies on hard power (or military might), and it is always better to become a hegemon. Borrowing Bett’s arguments, Randall L. Schweller states: “[…] states seeking to survive and thrive in a competitive, self-help realm, pursue their short run interest: that is, states seek power and security as they must in an anarchic order”.[49] From there we understand Mearsheimer’s explanation on why states would seek the hegemon status in the international system. But, while affirming that a great power’s ultimate objective is to become the most powerful in the system, Mearsheimer admits, at the same time, certain constraints such as the ‘stopping power of water’ which prevents from achieving that dream. This means that when large oceans are between great powers, the later are incapable of using them against each other despite the offensive capabilities at their disposal.[50] That is why, according to Mearsheimer, it is more realistic and likely for a state to acquire the status of a regional hegemon, meaning predominance in the region it is located in, then ensure to prevent the rise of rival powers in other regions.[51] Concerning China, Mearsheimer warns: “A Powerful China is likely to try to push the United States out of Asia, much the way the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere. Specifically, China will strive to maximize the power gap between itself and its neighbors, especially Japan and Russia, and to ensure that no state in Asia can threaten it.”[52]

The argument here is that China’s strategy is very close to the prescriptions of offensive realism theory. China’s behavior at the turn of the last century leads many to think that it could be seeking to experiment a Chinese version of the Monroe doctrine in South-East Asia[53], to expand its influence in the world proportionally to its new power status. Mearsheimer even predicts that by 2025-2030, China will have enough economic and military foundations to show to the United States in Asia the exit door. China would also seek to increase its share of the world through its policy which is gaining in influence. For, continues Mearsheimer,

“Great powers try to prevent rival great powers from dominating the wealth-generating areas of the world. In the modern era, those areas are usually populated by the leading industrial states, although they might be occupied by less-developed states that possess critically important raw materials. Great powers try to dominate those regions themselves, but at the very least, they try to ensure that none falls under the control of a rival great power”.[54]

He therefore underlines that, beyond the economic objectives of China’s emergence all over the world, there is also to this rise a component of a political and security nature which is related to its power politics conducted in the post Cold War era. More concretely, the increasing influence of China in the world is serving its strategy to balance the American superpower.

Buck-passing vs Balancing

Realists have developed a number of concepts referring to different types of strategy that states are likely to adopt in their quest for survival and for security in the international system. To analyze strategies adopted by states to shift the balance of power in their favor or to prevent other states from shifting it against them, Waltz’s defensive realism promotes the concepts of ‘bandwagoning’ and that of ‘balancing’ as alternative strategies used by states to respond to an upsetting of the balance of power by a powerful state. Bandwagoning consists in preserving basic security concerns by alignment with a more powerful state. Balancing, however, refers to a strategy of actively deterring, or fighting if need be, the threatening state. Mearsheimer departs from Waltz’s point of view by indicating that threatened states would rather respond by either ‘balancing’ or ‘buck-passing’. According to him, this later strategy is less costly – therefore preferable – because it means for a state to get another state to balance the rival power. Despite being an attractive strategy for offensive realists, Mearsheimer acknowledges that the ideal context for its application is a multipolar system whereby the buck-passer (the threatened state) is more likely to find a buck-catcher (a third party state). But in a context of a bipolar system, states tend to restore the balance of power by balancing. The later does not mean, in Mearsheimer’s opinion, for a great power to seek to maintain a status quo but rather to shoulder the responsibility to prevent aggressors from upsetting the balance of power.[55]

The Balancing Strategy

One of the most frequently used terms in International Relations is the term ‘balancing’. Its meaning can, however, remain difficult to fully grasp. Randall L. Schweller recalls its traditional meaning as “the creation or aggregation of military power through internal mobilization or the forging of alliances to prevent or deter the territorial occupation or the political and military domination of the state by a foreign power or coalition.”[56] That being said, the question from a theoretical standpoint is: what are the justifying arguments for a state to prefer this strategy over another, for instance buck-passing or bandwagoning? According to Mearsheimer, states’ choice for a strategy to gain power lies on two variables: the world distribution of power (the structure of the system) and geography. He argues that power is generally distributed in three ways in the international system: (1) bipolar systems dominated by two great powers having relatively equal military capabilities; (2) unbalanced multipolar systems comprising three (or more) great powers, one of which is a potential hegemon; and (3) balanced multipolar systems which have not any aspiring hegemon but in which power is distributed among the greatest in the system. It is worth mentioning the widespread description of the post Cold War era as unipolar system, which is to say since the end of the Cold War there is only one superpower without any serious rival. Samuel Huntington, however, tones down this idea by stating:

“There is now only one superpower. But that does not mean that the world is unipolar. A unipolar system would have one superpower, no significant major powers, and many minor powers. As a result, the superpower could effectively resolve important international issues alone, and no combination of other states would have the power to prevent it from doing so… Contemporary international politics […] is instead a strange hybrid, a uni-multipolar system with one superpower and several major powers.”[57]

It would be, indeed, too soon to argue that, in terms of power, China has already roughly equal assets with the United States as did the Soviet Union in the bipolar system triggered by the end of the World War II. Nevertheless, it is possible that China’s [re]-emergence bring, in several respects, ambitions including calling in to question United States’ preeminence over the international stage as the only hegemonic power. In other words, China’s emergence tends to lead to a de facto rebalancing in the world distribution of power. That is what we will exactly call a progressive shift towards a balanced multipolar system with possibly, the United States on one side, and China on the other side, both as dominant poles among other potential or emerging powers in the world system.

For Mearsheimer, a threatened state would prefer the buck-passing strategy over balancing when possible, not only to avoid the cost of fighting the aggressor in the event of war, but also because coalitions are more difficult to form in a context of multipolarity.[58] On the contrary, in the case of bipolarity, since there is not any third party state to ‘catch the buck’, such a strategy is impossible. In light of these considerations, and from the observation of China’s behavior, we argue that its strategy consists of balancing the American superpower. In reference to Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, balancing is the most appropriate strategy when the system is unbalanced, as Snyder puts it, “when one state is markedly more powerful than its neighbors (a potential hegemon), those neighbors are too weak to accept the buck, so everyone will have a strong common interest in balancing against the powerful state.”[59] He further explains that “Mearsheimer's offensive realist states are not on the offensive all the time. Occasionally they are faced with having to deter and contain a rival that seeks to gain power at their expense.”[60] In fact, Mearsheimer contends that states begin with a defensive motive but they end up being forced to think and sometimes act aggressively because of the structure of the international system.[61] In other terms, given the importance of power imbalances, China’s strategy consists in making use of its soft power in order to strengthen its hard power. This seems to be consistent with its history which shows that China has always managed to adapt to circumstances by combining an offense-defense approach. Borrowing Mearsheimer’s terms, “Great powers try to expand only when opportunities arise. They will do so only when the benefits clearly exceed the risks and costs. They will desist from expansion when blocked and wait for a “more propitious moment””[62]

Soft Balancing vs Hard Balancing

In keeping with realist theories of International Relations, the ‘hard balancing’ strategy is when a state joins a coalition of weaker states in order to balance the influence or the power of a stronger coalition. The term ‘soft balancing’, however, is employed to describe the use of non-military means of balancing. It occurs when a weaker state deems unacceptable the influence or the dominance of a stronger state, but traditional balancing (hard balancing) is unaffordable due to the military advantage of the stronger state.

It is generally admitted in neo-realist theories the idea that potential actors (or major states) would not spare any effort to prevent a state from dominating the international system. In an article published in 2000, Kenneth Waltz who, at that time, had not anticipated such an attempt against the only superpower (i.e. the USA), announced that it was just a matter of time before powerful states begin to manifest, starting by China which he saw as a potential candidate.[63] Today the question seems no longer whether China is engaged in balancing process but rather how it is going about it. In this regard, Peter Toft flaunts the merits of the balancing strategy which he considers as an excellent strategy to contain an aggressor “through internal build-up and/or via alliance formation”.[64] T.V. Paul defines this concept as follows:

“Soft balancing involves tacit balancing short of formal alliances. It occurs when states generally develop ententes or limited security understandings with one another to balance a potentially threatening state or a rising power. Soft balancing is often based on a limited arms build-up, ad hoc cooperative exercises, or collaboration in regional or international institutions; these policies may be converted to open, hard-balancing strategies if and when security competition becomes intense and the powerful state becomes threatening”.[65]

For Walt, it is

“[the] conscious coordination of diplomatic action in order to obtain outcomes contrary to U.S. preferences, outcomes that could not be gained if the balancers did not give each other some degree of mutual support.”[66]

Tanguy Struye de Swielande adds that this soft balancing often involves the use diplomacy, international institutions, the international law, economic pressures. It does not allow to stop the superpower but does make the task more complex and politically more costly for the superpower.[67] In the same light, Chen Zhimin observes, concerning sino-American relations, that “balancing is already underway, though not in a way as people usually foresee. I would look at China’s balancing move in two ways: internal balancing, external balancing”[68]. This is also the argument developed by Robert Pape in an article published in 2005:

“Second major powers are already engaging in early stages of balancing behavior against the United States. In the near term, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, and other important regional states are unlikely to respond with traditional hard-balancing measures, such as military buildups, war-fighting alliances, and transfer of military technology to U.S. opponents. Directly confronting the U.S. preponderance is too costly for any individual state and too risky for multiple states operating together, at least until major powers become confident that members of the balancing coalition will act in unison. Instead, major powers are likely to adopt what I call ‘soft-balancing’ measures: that is, actions that do not directly challenge U.S military preponderance but that use nonmilitary tools to delay, frustrate, and undermine aggressive unilateral U.S. military policies. Soft-balancing using international institutions, economic statecraft, and diplomatic arrangements, has already been a prominent feature of the international opposition to the U.S. war against Irak.”[69]

Learning from the Cold War era and given the indisputable preponderance of the USA in the international system, China seems to have built its strategy taking in account the existing balance of power in order to promote its political, economic and security interests. Robert A. Pape speaks of a ‘soft balancing’[70] that Yuan Kan Wang rather describes as balancing “in a smart manner”[71]. In his analysis, Wang argues that in its strategy, China is combines elements of internal balancing and elements of external balancing:

“The strategy of internal balancing aims to increase China’s relative power through economic development and military modernization with an emphasis on asymmetric warfare, whereas the strategy of external soft balancing is designed to limit or frustrate U.S. policy initiatives deemed detrimental to Chinese interests through diplomatic efforts in multilateral institutions and bilateral partnerships. The logic of such a grand strategy is to maintain a stable external environment for China to concentrate on economic growth and accumulate relative power, without provoking a vigorous U.S. response.”[72]

Revealing indicators of China’s behavior are to do with what realists call ‘indirect balancing’ which comprises – but not limited to – the use of international institutions to delay or hinder hostile military actions and the strengthening of the its economic power as compared to its rival power, for example by creating or expanding trading blocs. Many observations plead in favor of such affirmations. Among these: (1) China’s accumulated wealth; (2) its geopolitical influence and; (3) its military capabilities. Such affirmations are also consistent with the premises of offensive realism. This theory suggests that to understand a state’s behavior, one can examine its relative capacities and its external environment because these factors these factors would be translated into foreign policy and would determine the manner in which that state will defend its interests.[73] Concerning China, Mearsheimer bets that it will endeavor to translate its economic power into military might, and that this will proportionally grow along with its pretension to dominate South-East Asia in the same way the USA dominates the Western hemisphere. Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein contend that it is undeniable that China seeks to increase its ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power in a way that is likely to pose a great challenge to U.S. hegemony lest this threatens its national interests.[74]


[1] Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2014 Yearbook and Worldmapper (

[2] Cited by Tanguy Struye De Swielande, “Les Etats-Unis et le nouvel ordre mondial émergent”, Les Cahiers du RMES, Vol. 5, No. 1, Eté 2008, p. 78

[3] Layne, C., “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing”, International Security, Vol. 22, n° 1, Summer 1997, p.88

[4] See Paul Kennedy (ed.), Grand Strategies in War and Peace, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars. Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 13.

[5] Ben D. Mor, “Public Diplomacy in Grand Strategy”, Foreign Policy Analysis (2006) 2, p. 158.

[6] Layne, C., op.cit., p.88.

[7] Michael D. Swaine, Ashley J. Tellis, “Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy”, p. 8.

[8] Avery Goldstein, “Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security”, p. 12.

[9] Idem.

[10] Wen Jiabao’s remarks at the press conference after the conclusion of the parliament session on March 14 March 14, 2004 (

[11] China’s White Papers of the Government (

[12] Yuan-Kang Wang, “China’s Grand Strategy and U.S. Primacy”; The Brookings Institution, July 2006, p.4

[13] Zakaria, Fareed, “Does the Future Belong to China”, Newsweek, U.S. Edition, May 9, 2005.


[15] Cf: Abanti Bhattacharya, “Revisiting China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Implications for India”, EASTASIA, Winter 2005, Vol. 22, No. 4, p. 63.

[16] Shambaugh, David, “The New Strategic Triangle: U.S. and European Reactions to China’s Rise”, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2005, p. 7.

[17] Idem.

[18] Joshua Kurlantick, “How China is Changing Global Diplomacy”, The New Republic, 27 June 2005.

[19] K. N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics,

[20] See Richard Rose, “Power and International Relations: The Rise of China and Its Effects”, International Studies

Perspectives (2006) 7, p. 31.

[21] Richard Rose, op. cit.

[22] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power, p. 36.

[23] John Mearsheimer, op. cit., p. 5.

[24] John Mearsheimer, op. cit., p. 29

[25] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 7th ed. (revised by K. W. Thompson and W. D. Clinton), p. 30.

[26] Projections by Statista 2015:

[27] American universities hold the lion share of Nobel Price holders in the scientific sector, which is an illustration of the American leadership in education.

[28] E.H. Carr, The Twenty Year’s Crisis, 1919-1929, London, MacMillan, 1939

[29] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, New-York, A. Knopf, 1950.

[30] Karl W. Deutsh, Political Community and the North Atlantic Area, Princeton University Press, 1957.

[31] S. Krasner, International Regimes, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1983.

[32] Raymond Aron, 1966, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, pp. 591-600.

[33] Robert Dahl, 1957, The Concept of Power, Behavioral Science, pp. 203-204.

[34] George W. Bush’s address on U.S. military intervention in Iraq on March 17, 2003

[35] Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Transnational Relations and World Politics, Cambridge (Mass.), Havard University Press, 1971.

[36] Frankel, Benjamin, 1996. Restating the Realist Case: An Introduction, Security Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring), p. xi.

[37] Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, p.17.

[38] Cf: Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, ibid.

[39] Morgenthau, Hans, 2006. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace

[40] Lynn-Jones, M., Sean. and Miller, E., Steven, 1995. “Preface,” in The Perils of Anarchy: Contemporary Realism and International Security, ed. Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[41] Gilpin, Robert, 1996. No One Loves a Political Realist, Security Studies 5, No. 3 (Spring): 6.

[42] Waltz, Kenneth, 1979. Theory of International Politics.

[43] Gowan, Peter, 2002. A Calculus of Power, New Left Review (July-Aug.), p.48.

[44] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 18

[45] Snyder, Jack, 1991. Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition. Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[46] Taliaferro, W. Jeffrey, 2000. Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited. International Security, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Winter), p. 128.

[47] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 35.

[48] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2005. “Better to Be Godzilla than Bambi”, Foreign Policy (January/February) p. 47.

[49] Schweller, L. Randall, 2001. "The Problem of International Order Revisited", International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Summer), pp. 171-173.

[50] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 45

[51] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 140.

[52] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2005, Op. cit., p. 47.

[53] Idem.

[54] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 144.

[55] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 156.

[56] Schweller, L. Randall, 2006. “Unanswered Threats”, p.9. (, accessed in December 2014).

[57] Huntington, P. Samuel, 1999. “The Lonely Superpower”, Foreign Affairs (March/April), Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 35-36.

[58] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 139-140.

[59] Snyder, H. Glenn, 2002. “Mearsheimer’s World-Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security: A Review Essay, International Security, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer), p. 161.

[60] Idem.

[61] Rose, Gideon, 1998. “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy, World Politics, Vol. 51, No. 1 (October), pp. 144-172.

[62] Mearsheimer, J. John, 2001, Op. cit., p. 37.

[63] Waltz, Kenneth, 2000. “Structural Realism after Cold War”, International Security (Summer).

[64] Peter Toft, John J. Mearsheimer: an offensive realist between geopolitics and power, Journal of International Relations and Development (2005) 8, p. 385.

[65] Paul, T.V., 2004. “The Enduring Axioms of Balance of Power Theory”, in Paul, T.V., Wirtz, J. and Fortmann, M., (ed.) Balance of Power. Theory and Practice in the 21st Century, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

[66] Walt, Stephen, 2004. “Can the United States Be Balanced? If So, How?” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, September 2–5, p.14.

[67] Swielande de, Tanguy Struye, 2008. “Les Etats-Unis et le nouvel ordre mondial émergent", Les Cahiers du RMES, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Summer), p. 19.

[68] Zweig, D. and Zhimin, Chen, 2005. China and Globalization: An IPE Approach (Routledge), p. 18.

[69] Pape, Robert A., 2005. “Soft Balancing against the United States”, International Security, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Summer), p. 9.

[70] Pape, Robert A., 2005, op. cit. pp. 7-45.

[71] Wang, Yuan-Kang, 2005-2006. “China’s Grand Strategy and U.S. Primacy: Is China Balancing American Power?”, CNAPS Taiwan Fellow, July.

[72] Idem, p. 1.

[73] Rose, Gideon, Op. cit.

[74] Erickson, A. and Goldstein, L., 2006. “Hoping for the Best, Preparing for the Worst: China’s Response to U.S. Hegemony”, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 29, No. 6 (December), pp. 955-86.

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