Friday, April 30, 2010

PLA Modernization ≠ US-China War

If you’re familiar with international relations theory, then you know the school of thought called “realism”. As it pertains to China, in a nutshell, realists say that China and the US are headed for great conflict because history and the dynamics of international power say so.

Case in point is Stephen Walt, one of the most well-known modern realist scholars, who recently wrote on the inevitability of Sino-American rivalry on his blog at Foreign Policy. His brief argument comes down to two particular sentences:
On Saturday, the New York Times published an important story supporting the realist view. It described the rapid expansion of China’s naval capabilities (a classic manifestation of great power status), as well as the more ambitious new strategy that this growing capacity is designed to serve.
Conveniently, this bit pretty much sums up the realist argument for Sino-US conflict: capabilities.

Yet Walt and others often sidestep altogether the most prominent counter-arguments, like intentions or conflicts of interest (when it comes to war). Rather, Walt only points to evidence that may support his realist view. It’s a decidedly illogical way to argue: shout your side of the argument and ignore the larger picture.

For example, a constructivist could easily take Walt’s argument — which is that growing military capabilities equals conflict — and turn it on its head. India is also rapidly building military capabilities. Indeed, the US is selling them many of these arms. So, why aren’t the Chinese and Indians on a crash course? Similarly, the EU, collectively, has considerable military power (though they currently lack some coordination); why aren’t they a threat to the US?

The rather obvious answer is that capabilities are only half of the story. Intentions and limitations matter. Walt ignores this.

Feel free to argue this hefty issue in the comments below. But try not to be a Walt. That is, remember that this is a multi-variable issue. And if you argue that having a big military alone means an intention to use it in a great war, then you might want to reconsider hitting “reply”.

This was originally published on china/divide.

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