Which structural realist theory offers the best guide for US policymakers as China continues to rise – Waltz’s defensive realism or Mearsheimer’s offensive realism?

1 Mar

One of the major surprises of the twenty-first century is the compelling rise of China, and as a result, particularly in the past two decades, one of the major questions in International Relations is how US policy-makers should deal with its rise. In the following essay I will argue that Waltz offers the best guide to US policy-makers out of the two.  I will do this by outlining two aspects of structural realism, from both Mearsheimer and Waltz’s perspective; intentions and power, and then analyse them from each standpoint, enabling me in each case to draw a conclusion. However, I will also note that by removing the limitations of the question, Social Constructivist Alexander Wendt, provides an underlying thought which should be taken into consideration when choosing between the two, so lastly I will note this. Initially however, it is important to define structural realism as a theory that “argues that the anarchic system and the distribution of capabilities are powerful constraints and inducements which produce ‘sameness’ in the behaviour of state” (Lobell, 2010, p. 6651).

An initial entity to point out before pursuing this argument is that in general Waltz does not attempt to offer an argument of how foreign policy should be geared in response to a particular issue. Waltz stated that theory “rather than being a mirror in which reality is reflected, is an instrument to be used in attempting to explain a circumscribed part of reality whose true dimensions we can never be sure.” (Waltz, 1997, pp. 913-914) in other words theories explain what influence the system but do not tell us how states will or should act. Therefore based on this analysis my argument with regard to Waltz will be based on his assumptions about the international political system and its effect. With Mearsheimer, I will be able to use his assumptions about structural realism, as well as his opinion on how foreign policy should be conducted.

One of the key differences between Waltz and Mearsheimer is the inclusion of intentions in their theories. “Waltz maintains that his theory is built around two underlying assumptions: the system is anarchic and states seek to survive. In other words, he is saying that you only need those two assumptions to generate security completion among states” (Mearsheimer, 2006, p. 231). As a result Waltz does not believe that you can be certain of states intentions given the environment, as not all moves are aggressive, and as a result “Waltz’s states are less fearful, more accepting of risks, more orientated toward particular nonsecurity interests” (Snyder, 2002, p.153). Therefore on application to China, Waltz maintains that if we cannot be sure of their intentions we should be less fearful about the survival of the US. As a result US foreign policy makers should be take a more defensive stance towards China, and should not consider taking a pro-active approach when China’s intentions could have been misinterpreted.

However, Mearsheimers view completely contrasts with this. Since “in an anarchic world where states have offensive military capabilities and might have offensive intentions, states have no choice but to fear each other” (Mearsheimer, 2006, p. 231). In other words you cannot be certain about states intentions but you can assume that if they have military capabilities then “potential hegemons always aspire to be hegemons, and they will not stop increasing their power until they succeed” (Snyder, 2002, p.153) and thus as a result will cause fear amongst the current hegemon causing a security dilemma. This can be applied to the theory of the rise of China. Since China possesses enormous, and growing, military capability, they may have offensive intentions, since they are considered to be a potential hegemon. In China “annual defence spending rose from over $30 billion in 2000 to almost $120 billion in 2010… America still spends four-and-a-half times as much on defence, but on present trends China’s defence spending could overtake America’s after 2035” (The Economist, 2012). Accordingly the US should be sceptical of China’s rise and intentions based on Mearsheimers assumptions and thus should act in a more aggressive way to prevent China becoming threatening their position as a hegemon.

Clearly both arguments are based on the fundamental question as to whether the rise of China is threatening to the US. Essentially in realism this comes down to the idea of whether you perceive China to be a revisionist state or a status quo state. Chan summarises Yuan-Kang Wang’s argument by saying that “China’s conduct and experience do not quite qualify it for revisionism” (Chan, 2004, p. 154) as a result of its “adherence to international rules and norms” (Wang, 2004, p. 182). Therefore this would imply that China is contented with its current position within the international system and it has no intention to act aggressively to become a hegemon, thus it displays minimal threat to the US. However in response Chan argues that “Wang sees intentions to be invariant; that is, all states are supposed to harbor revisionist ambitions except in the case of a regional hegemon which is by definition interested only in defending the status quo. Thus, even when Ming’s China engaged in successive military campaigns of expansion, he does not see this behaviour as evidence of any intention to change the balance of power” (Chan, 2004, p. 162). I would argue that China is clearly changing the balance of power, but that this is on a regional level and not on a global one.  Thus I would maintain, in accordance with Waltz, that we cannot be sure whether China’s regional rise means that they are looking to threaten the survival of the US, and as a result Waltz offers the best guide to US policy-makers.

Given that the US should now see the intentions of China as attempting to gain regional hegemony in Asia, the question arises as to whether this is threatening to the US. This opens up one of the major differences between Waltz and Mearsheimer in international politics; the idea of how to survive with regards to power seeking, in the anarchical international system; that is that there is no overarching authority.

Waltz and Mearsheimer both agree that the security of a state is of the greatest importance. However the key difference is how to achieve this security. For Waltz “The first concern of states is not to maximize power but to maintain their positions in the system” (Waltz, 1979, p. 126) therefore states will not seek to increase their power as it could be detrimental to their own survival. In his book, Theory of International Politics [1979], Waltz maintains that in order to ensure security states will attempt to balance, either internally or externally, against each other to safeguard the preservation of the international system as it is best for survival. Internal balancing involves the building up of a states military to counter an opposing state. External balancing involves a state building and creating alliances with other states to counter-balance the threat of a stronger state. Applying this to China, it seems that based on Waltz’s theory, If the US attempts to increase its power by dominating China, in an attempt to null its ‘rise’, other states will begin a process of balancing in order to counter-balance the increase in power. Thus, “for defensive realists, the international structure provides states with little incentive to seek additional increments of power; instead it pushes them to maintain the existing balance of power. Preserving power, rather than increasing it, is the main goal of states” (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 21). Instead the US should not attempt to increase its power and this may be unfavourable to their own survival. The US could build up its internal capabilities or externally balance in the region; creating greater alliances with Japan and Taiwan, for example, to ensure that China cannot increase its power beyond being a regional hegemon, thus it cannot have a detrimental effect on the survival of the US. This relies on the assumption however, that regional hegemony is not detrimental to the survival of another regional hegemon.

 There does seem to be, as international relations theorist Randall Schweller (1996, pp. 90–121) notes, “a status quo bias” in Waltz’s theory. This is that the US are contented with being the regional hegemon of the west and that revisionist actions by China to increase their power in Asia, is not detrimental to their current power or survival. In essence it relies on the assumption that a peer competitor is not threatening to the United States and that perhaps a bipolar world in which the US is the regional hegemon of the west and China is the Asian regional hegemon is actually a more stable global order offering better long-term survival strategy for the US.

Mearsheimer contrasts with Waltz’s perspective on power-seeking. He believes that:

The overriding goal of each state is to maximize its share of world power, which means gaining power at the expense of other states. But great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest of all the great powers, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon—that is, the only great power in the system” (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 2).

The key difference here is the idea of ‘preservation’ for Waltz, and maximization for Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer believes that the rising power of China will cause a complex security dilemma to occur in which there is substantial latent for war. The reason for this is based on the last part of his quote to do with being a hegemon. The USA is a regional hegemon but according to Mearsheimer “States that gain regional hegemony have a further aim: to prevent other geographical areas from being dominated by other great powers. Regional hegemons, in other words, do not want peer competitors. Instead, they want to keep other regions divided among several great powers so that these states will compete with each other” (Mearshiemer, 2005). The rise of China poses a problem since economically and militarily they are growing to be Asia’s regional hegemon, accordingly becoming a peer competitor to the US, causing a security complex. Based on this Mearsheimer suggests a containment policy, “just as it did in the Cold War against the Soviet Union” (Schildt, 2006, p. 240), in which they create alliances with Russia, Japan and Taiwan, amongst others, increasing their influence in the region, gaining increasing amounts of power and reducing China’s ability to become a peer competitor.

The conclusion by both theorists is similar in that they both advise a policy of balancing. However they vary on a nuance point; Mearsheimers suggests the prevention by the US of China become a regional hegemon by increasing its power, whereas Waltz’s theory suggests that a regional hegemon would not threaten the US and the balancing within the region would merely prevent China attempting to become a global hegemon. Given that the intentions of China, as discussed earlier, look to be expansionary the question is whether having a peer competitor is threatening to the US. I would agree with Waltz on this point, the US have an appropriate amount of power to ensure their own survival in the international system. A rising China will lead to them becoming a regional hegemon but this is not detrimental to the US position as a regional hegemon, and they should consider China not as a peer competitor but rather as the regional hegemon in Asia which provides a more stable long term bipolar global structure.

Based on my arguments on power and intentions I would conclude that Waltz offers the best guide to US policy makers on the rise of China. Nonetheless if I remove the limitations of the question to include a social constructivist perception, I believe this offers an even better guide to US policy makers. Both theorists rely on the assumption that anarchy creates security dilemmas. However social constructivist Alexander Wendt (1992, p. 395) argues that “anarchy is what states make of it”, such that threats are social constructions. Both theorists believe that the intentions of China are dubious. Mearsheimer is more sceptical of China’s intentions and offers an offensive realist approach, whereas Waltz’s theory provides a less sceptical approach but still highlights the importance of defensive strategies, to prevent any threat to the survival of the US. Wendt (1992, p. 396-7) argues that states act towards each other, based on the meaning that state has to them not as a result of anarchy. As a result the US should understand the culture, norms and identity of China to be able understand how US policy-makers should act in response to China’s rise. Understanding this would provide a better guide to whether Mearsheimer or Waltz, assuming they are the only theoretical options, offers the best approach.


Throughout this essay I have discussed two prominent differences between Waltz’s offensive and Mearsheimers defensive structural realism; they were power and intentions. I was able to conclude that Waltz offered the best explanation as to how China’s intentions should be interpreted; they are aiming to gain regional power in a particularly hostile area, and that these intentions are not aimed to be detrimental to the survival of the US, as a result American policy-makers should aim to take a defensive stance externally balancing in the region to ensure that the power of China does not grow beyond regional hegemony. Secondly I argued that given the interpretation that China’s growth implies an ambition to become the regional hegemon and that this is not disadvantageous to the survival of the US, it would be unwise to attempt to control China or to null its rise. Instead I agreed with Waltz, that too much power will be detrimental to the survival to the US and thus American policy-makers should not seek more power but maintain their current level of power within the international system by limiting China’s rise to regional hegemony through external balancing within Asia. I was also able to draw a common link between Waltz and Mearsheimers two arguments; their suggestions are based on whether the rise of China is perceived to be a threat to the current global order. This tied together my two arguments together in the sense that I was able to conclude that China is attempting to change the regional order but not the global one and thus should not be perceived as a threat to the US. I also implied that by removing the limitations of the question and including reference to social constructivism, US policy-makers would develop a greater understanding of China’s rise and thus would be able to offer better guidance.
Pulling together the two analysis’ of power and intentions, combined with the understanding of China’s rise as aiming to gain regional hegemony, I was able to conclude that Waltz’s defensive realism offers the best guide to US policy-makers.




Chan, S. 2004. Realism, revisionism, and the great powers. ISSUES AND STUDIES-ENGLISH EDITION-, 40 p. 154.

Globetrotter.berkeley.edu. 2002. Conversation with John Mearsheimer, p. 6 of 7. [online] Available at: http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people2/Mearsheimer/mearsheimer-con6.html [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].

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Mearshiemer, J. 2005. The Rise of China Will Not Be Peaceful at All. [e-book] The Australian. Available through: mearsheimer.uchicago.edu http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/P0014.pdf [Accessed: 25 Nov 2013].

Schildt, C. 2006. MANAGING UNCERTAINTY: FORMULATING A US GRAND STRATEGY FOR CHINA. Journal of Public International Affairs, 17 (Spring), p. 240.

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Snyder, G. 2002. Mearsheimer’s World—Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security: A Review Essay. International Security, 27 (1), pp. 149–173.

The Economist. 2012. The dragon’s new teeth. [online] Available at: http://www.economist.com/node/21552193 [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].

Waltz, K. 1979. Theory of international politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co..

Wang, Y. 2004. Offensive realism and the rise of China. ISSUES AND STUDIES-ENGLISH EDITION-, 40 (1), p. 182.

Wendt, A. and Er. 1992. Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics. International organization, 46 (02), p. 395.


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