Why Western Experts Keep Wrongly Predicting China’s Intentions
John Mearsheimer, a world-renowned geopolitical analyst, stated in an article and speech in 2014, “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin”, that the blame for the Ukrainian crisis rests squarely at the feet of US and EU policy in the region. The article obviously wasn’t about the current invasion but did accurately predict Russian aggression. He posited how Putin would react after NATO giving commitments that it would not expand, they appeared to do so. It’s worth noting, at no time in this Administration has the US government or NATO publicly stated that Ukraine would NOT join NATO. At the same time, NATO countries’ weapons, equipment, training and military support have been given to Ukraine, a country that was crossed by both Napoleon and Hitler’s armies. Realist that he is, Mearsheimer (p11) suggested: “the US and its allies should abandon their plans to Westernize Ukraine and instead, aim to make it a neutral buffer”. Had they listened to him and done so back in 2014, there would be no war there now.
What Mearsheimer also predicted, in 2010, was chillingly unthinkable, a war with China, describing the rise of China as a “gathering storm” leading to an inevitable conflict.
Fortunately, and for a variety of reasons, he was incorrect. First and foremost because a war against China would lack the support of Asian countries, none of the most populated and powerful countries of the region. Neither India nor Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia will join, in the same way that they aren’t standing behind US and NATO in Ukraine
Many parts of Mearsheimer’s analysis however, are correct. For example, he accurately describes China’s military build-up and economic growth but then just as firmly suggests that China is not interested in exporting its ideological model to any other countries. He goes on to explain that China’s military growth is defensive not offensive and this is borne out by the fact that, in the intervening years, China has built more tonnage of ships than the USA and deployed more of these ships into Chinese waters. Experts point out that these ships are not “Blue Water” ships but Frigates and Corvettes for local waters. Furthermore, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, they aren’t building amphibious assault vessels either, which renders an “invasion of Taiwan” quite unlikely. Something so-called experts seem to think will be the catalyst for war.
So, if he’s usually correct in his assessments and predictions, what makes the brilliant Mearsheimer wrong this time? The answer is that he isn’t a psychologist and doesn’t understand Chinese National Identity or culture. Just like most other Western scholars and experts he views Asian policies through a Western lens. He suggested, more than 12 years ago that China might, if requested by Iran, post troops inside of their borders for regional security. This is something the US does, in many countries. China hasn’t, nor does it have any history of doing so without a mandate from the United Nations to operate as peacekeepers, where they make the world’s largest contribution in terms of personnel and financial support , or offer humanitarian support with hospital ships, of which there are 11 and have been widely deployed. Chinese military are not travelling to other countries as combatants and haven’t done so in a generation.
Mearsheimer also suggested that, although China didn’t have the capacity to invade Australia, this couldn’t be ruled out in future as China will need resources. This is again something the US has done and still does but there is no record, in the 70 years since the PRC formation, or even before that at any time in history, considering such an invasion. For the record, 12 years on and China still has not developed the capacity to invade Australia while trade between the two countries continues to grow peacefully to record levels, despite a minor 3% reduction due to Covid in 2020.
China is a manufacturing and trading nation; it imports resources, exports goods and sells domestically too. Wars don’t help imports and they certainly won’t help manufacturing or exports so it isn’t in the interests of any aspect of China’s development. Furthermore, China doesn’t have religion or God to fight for and justify wars, nor has China ever attempted impose its political ideology or system of governance on any other country.
Some countries want to export their democracy but not China. China and the Chinese people, like their system and will, no doubt, resist the imposition of another. Mearsheimer’s predictions are based on one erroneous fact: that China is just like the USA. Which is why, in his opinion: “China is likely to imitate the USA and attempt to become a regional hegemon (p390)”.
To answer Mearsheimer’s rhetoric questions: Yes, Chinese are more principled than Americans: this comes from a long history and traditional culture. No, they are no less nationalistic but the Chinese sense of national pride is of China’s modern achievements, wealth growth, poverty alleviation, infrastructural growth and improvements in health, safety and lifestyle and yes, they are very proud of the People’s Liberation Army, not for its military strength but because they are of the people, for the people and will fight to protect the people. Chinese are also no less concerned about their survival which is why massive infrastructure in health, education, communications and transport are built. It’s also why foreign investment is sought as well as why diversification and expansion of trade through the BRI are important, much more so than military intervention.
We westerners would do well to remember this: just because a course of action is what we would do, doesn’t mean that’s what will be done by China. We’re not the same.
 The Gathering Storm: China’s challenge to US power in Asia. The Chinese Journal of International Politics: Vol. 3, №4 (Winter 2010), pp 381–396 (16 pages)