US-China policy reaches delicate phase, scholars say

As China and the United States engage in a dispute over China’s recent proclamation of a new “air defense identification zone,” University of Chicago scholars say the clash illustrates the increasingly complicated geopolitical pressures between these two major powers.

It’s still unclear what path such disputes will take. Political Science Prof. Robert Pape says the two nations have powerful incentives to resolve their differences peacefully, while Prof. John Mearsheimer believes the risk of military involvement will increase as both nations try to maximize their share of world power.

Both scholars explained their views during a recent conference, “Geopolitics and Beyond: New Ideas for U.S.–Chinese Strategic Cooperation.” The event, sponsored by the UChicago Center in Beijing, Fudan University and Tsinghua University, explored the rise of China’s power in the world and how academic scholars from both nations can work together to expand and strengthen the intellectual foundation for cooperation between China and the U.S.


Pape said he believes the current conflict must be resolved because “the fear and prospect of nuclear exchanges is unfathomable to all. Both sides want to avoid risks and dampen crises in very early stages so situations do not spin out of control.”

He says the current situation is a test of his view that nuclear weapons can act as a stabilizing influence among nations, helping to suppress crises in their early stages. If correct, his studies suggest a Cold War mentality between China and the U.S. is now implausible.

“The nuclear revolution is having a tremendous calming effect on local crises in Asia to maintain stability,” Pape said. “However, the main question now is whether China can rise peacefully as a world power.”

Mearsheimer holds a more pessimistic view and has written that preeminent global powers inevitably come into conflict. He recently rewrote the conclusion of his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, to address the question of whether China can rise peacefully. While in China for the conference, Mearsheimer spoke with the Global Times, a daily Chinese newspaper, and explained his view that “there is no win-win situation. International politics among great powers is basically a zero-sum game.” That will lead to “an intense security competition” between the U.S. and China, Mearsheimer believes.

“I always say let’s hope this is one of those cases where I am proved wrong, because I tell a depressing story,” Mearsheimer said.

The two-day conference in China included a lecture by Pape at the UChicago Center in Beijing and a debate at Tsinghua University in Beijing between Mearsheimer and Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua.

During the debate, which Pape moderated, Mearsheimer argued that as China becomes more powerful, it will try to push the Americans as far away from Asia as possible. As that happens, “more and more American forces will be shifted to Asia,” he predicted. “The United States is going to go to great lengths to make sure that China does not dominate Asia,” he said.

Presenters and those in attendance at the conference explored the geopolitical origins of war. “Scholars on both sides want to examine the causal pathways between conflict and cooperation as a new way to research and provide understanding of politics,” Pape noted. Some of the top Chinese scholars at the conference—including Shen Dingli, professor and associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai; Shi Yinhong, professor of International Relations at Renmin University of China; and Zhu Feng, professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University—are experts whom U.S. news media have quoted in stories about the current China-Japan dispute concerning the restricted airspace over a portion of the East China Sea.

For Prof. Dali Yang, faculty director of the UChicago Center in Beijing, these types of conferences “allow our scholars to engage intensively with Chinese scholars to provide deeper understanding of each other and to promote ideas. This helps us better understand the issues around these international security situations.”

One of the goals of the conference was to establish academic networks among scholars at several Chinese institutions with the University of Chicago. “We are interested in developing relationships with scholars who are at the midpoint in their careers,” Pape said. “We want to bring these groups together to establish collaborations that started at this conference. These are the mid-level scholars who will be rising within the universities and in politics in China.”

Yang agreed. “It’s remarkable how the conference engaged the up-and-coming scholars in China. We will continue to be engaged with them in future collaborations on papers and books,” he said.

A similar conference is being planned to bring the Chinese scholars to Washington, D.C., this spring. Pape would also like to see academic networks created that would bring Chinese scholars to UChicago to do academic work on campus and perhaps establish a summer conference to bring scholars and their PhD students to interact with their counterparts here.