• Toby Irwin

Expansionism: So Last Century?

Power transition theory has dominated discourse on the rise of great powers. Largely it conforms to the tenets of 'offensive realism', and the scholarship of the likes of John Mearsheimer. Principally, it believes that as a rival state grows in power the incumbent hegemon will be inclined to pre-emptively attack to ensure its continued dominance. However, one need only to look at the likes of the US' rise under UK hegemony to note that a peaceful transition can occur. Looking to China, the very representation of the century's new rising power, one is inclined to wonder that if the US allows Chinese rise then will China turn to domination in Asia? Control of a region is a fundamental necessity for any would-be great power: think the USSR's sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and the United States' Monroe Doctrine to control the Americas. Is China likely to dominate its region if allowed to become a superpower?


Domination can certainly mean a few things, and expansionism is one of them. However, China has explicitly made a point to emphasise that its rise is peaceful and benevolent. Indeed, Beijing has done so so starkly it seems a direct slap-in-the-face to Washington and its unilateral policies since 2001. Belligerent expansionism would not serve Chinese interests in a number of ways. It would cast China in such a negative light that diplomatic and political penalties would be outstanding. This is all the more damning given China's obsession to unweave America's system of alliances in Asia. Feeling trapped by US realignment, offensive action by China would only serve to push regional neighbours closer to the only other security alternative: the United States. Current infrastructure projects, notably the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Roads (MSRs), depend heavily on the acceptance by foreign governments of China as a trustworthy and sound business partner. Would partner states be willing for China to build ports in their sovereign territory if Beijing also shows a tendency towards seizing what it believes is theirs? Suppose also the economic collapse that might follow expansionist behaviour. Not only is the Chinese economy heavily reliant on exports, but any actual military campaign and subsequent occupation efforts hardly seem feasible given current domestic problems such as corruption, inter-provincial protectionism and growing social protest movements. While it is true that China is attempting to recalibrate its economy away from exports and the volatility of the international markets towards growing its domestic consumer base, global sensitivities to stock markets would inhibit offensive action. A collapse in foreign investment would also be significant, particularly from the United States and the European Union.


It almost seems fair to say that while expansionism is unlikely due to the economic and diplomatic penalties, domination might come about through these very other means. Economic control is already a key concern for Washington. Suppose the vast influence the AIIB has in Asia, rivalling the World Bank and IMF. Further consider the BRI and MSRs that would bind Eurasia, Africa and Oceania to China. Diplomatically, the export of China's liberal economy and political authoritarianism abroad undercuts the appeal of Western development models. Why ask Washington for help if the conditions are politically suffocating and seemingly unfair internationally (see structural readjustment programs necessitated for World Bank/IMF loans), would one not much rather get a loan from Beijing, 'no-strings-attached'? China might very well find itself discarding the need for military action thanks to its growing economy and diplomatic appeal, and in doing so frame itself as a benevolent, rising power. Offsetting the United States would tilt Asia towards Beijing, but without any offensive, expansionist behaviour Washington will find no excuses for intervening to check China's rise: which might very well be Beijing's plan.




Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.

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