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US and allies' 'foolish' engagement of China birthed colossal geopolitical threat: Mearsheimer

Academic thinks policy folly of US, Taiwan, and others gave rise to today’s China

Taiwan, China flags. (Getty Images)

Taiwan, China flags. (Getty Images)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The U.S. and its allies' earlier engagement of China in the post-Cold War period was “foolish” and has brought about a colossal threat as Asia’s economic juggernaut seeks regional hegemony, says academic John Mearsheimer.

In an in-depth interview with Nikkei Asia Review, Mearsheimer lays out why this policy was doomed from the beginning and points out this was not solely American policy folly, and that Taiwan and other East Asian nations also failed to see what the eventual outcome of engagement would be.

“Not only did the U.S. help China to grow economically, but Taiwan, of all countries, foolishly helped China to grow, as did Japan, as did South Korea, as did all the European countries. All of them were pursuing a remarkably foolish policy.”

Mearsheimer argues that it made perfect diplomatic sense during the 1970s and 80s for Washington to establish a “quasi-alliance” with China to counter the Soviet Union (what in Chinese is referred to as “lian chung chi su” – “聯中制蘇”). Yet, once the Cold War ended, the U.S. continued deepening economic engagement with China for almost another two decades under the false belief it would bring about political reform in the country.

Instead, he argues, China used this economic growth to bolster its military, which has led to the dangerous present situation. He describes the current situation as a new Cold War.

Mearsheimer says the U.S. and Japan are now set on “containing China,” both militarily and economically, and that containing China to some degree is possible if the right approach is taken. He says militarily, this involves stopping China’s irredentism in the South and East China Seas as well as preventing it from taking over Taiwan.

Economically, it is too late to contain China’s growth in a meaningful way, he says, yet gaining the upper hand through renewed economic vitality in the West could give the U.S. and its allies the upper hand. Mearsheimer says strategic technologies like AI, quantum computing, and 5G networks are going to be the main battlegrounds for dominance.

Mearsheimer says it makes strategic sense for the American or Japanese economies to enact countermeasures against the Chinese economy that could even hurt their own economies as long as they damage Beijing more.

“The question in these instances always becomes, "Who gets hurt more?" If you could do serious damage to the Chinese economy and only minimal damage to the American economy or the Japanese economy, you would pay that price,” he says.

The Chicago University professor is a leader in the realist school of international relations. His leading theory — “offensive realism” — posits that states are inherently aggressive power-maximizers which, owing to their need for security and survival, constantly seek to lessen their rivals’ power and to enhance their own.

Mearsheimer foresaw the failure of engaging China in his 2001 book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. His other best-seller on the topic includes The Great Delusion, which critiques liberalist thinking on international politics.