The school of thought known as “moral realism” deals with the question of how a rising power can engage in effective competition with the dominate state in an international system. It also focuses on how this rising power may one day overtake the dominant state. Those who ascribe to this school of thought will argue that any great rising power will be faced with both internal and external challenges at any given time. This is precisely the situation that China is currently facing. While it is difficult to say whether any of these individual challenges are either strictly of a domestic or international nature, it is true that these two sets of challenges hold varying levels of significance for China’s rise, depending on what the situation may be at any given time.

External threats are currently unable to undermine China’s rise

There are a great number of external factors that pose a potential threat to China’s rise. However, none of these individual factors present a challenge that would be able to hinder the continued growth of China’s national strength.

With Donald Trump winning the presidential election in the United States, his slogan “Make America Great Again” will likely become a guiding ideology for his foreign policies. It is unlikely that President Trump will abandon this orientation anytime soon, even though a majority of observers do not believe that he has what it takes to achieve his goals. During his first month in office, President Trump found himself facing political challenges coming from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, and his policies were met with strong domestic resistance. These policies have been highly ambitious, but they will most likely only have limited success. Donald Trump will come to understand that even though the United States was able to grow at a much faster rate than all other nations in the world after the end of the Cold War, China is the only nation that has been able to grow faster than the United States in recent decades. To put things into perspective, when the Cold War came to an end, Japan’s GDP was two-thirds that of the United States, and Germany’s was one-third of the United States. As things currently stand, Japan’s GDP has dropped to one-third the size of the United States, while Germany is unable to meet even a quarter of that size. As a result, Trump believes China has caused the United States to lose the stature it has enjoyed in the early years after the end of the Cold War. It is very possible that he will focus his strategy on impeding China’s rise.

Trump’s strategy of competition with China will be quite different from Obama’s rebalancing strategy toward the Asia-Pacific. On the one hand, this is because the pivot to Asia strategy was conceptualized by the former president. However, the driving factor behind this change in strategy is the fact that the relative strength of the United States has seen a significant drop since Obama’s first term in office. The new president will narrow his strategy toward East Asia, instead of the entirety of the Asia-Pacific region. This will allow the United States to concentrate its energy and resources. It will place a greater emphasis on military deployments in the East Asia region instead of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. Trump will adopt an approach similar to that of Obama when it comes to strengthening the strategic cooperation with U.S. allies in East Asia. However, the Trump administration will focus more on northeast Asia than it will on Southeast Asia. This is because the United States is losing its strong strategic foothold in that area, as the Philippines continues to adjust its policies toward the United States.

On the international stage, the United States is the greatest obstacle that will inhibit China’s rise. However, while the United States will be able make China’s rise more challenging, it will be unable to prevent China from rising successfully in the end. Most scholars in the United States have come to the conclusion that the momentum behind China’s growth originates domestically, and the United States will not be able to prevent China from continuing to grow. At most, the United States will only be able to create certain challenges for China by adopting tactics in the security and political realm. The United States will continue to work toward its goal of maintaining its position of dominance in the Asia-Pacific, while isolating China in order to inhibit its rise as an integral part of this strategy.

As the Asia-Pacific region becomes more polarized, the United States will work to encourage the majority of countries to join its own side as opposed to China’s. It will continue to form alliances in the region with this goal in mind. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton clearly stated that part of the “Rebalance to the Asia Pacific” strategy was to reinvigorate the United States’ cooperation with its traditional allies, to form alliances with new countries, and to strengthen its dialogue with competitors.

However, it is important to remember that the United States is not the sole challenger to China’s rise. The Shinzo Abe administration in Japan has also adopted policies toward China that are intended to impede its ascension. However, Japan’s efforts will yield limited results. As the disparity between China’s and Japan’s national strength continues to widen, Japan’s ability to impede China’s rise will be further reduced. Over the long term, it is possible that administrations following Abe could adjust their policies toward China, and there could be a substantial improvement in the Sino-Japanese relationship.

“Taiwanese Independence” will pose a significant challenge for China’s rise

While China is facing separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, it is the Taiwanese and Hong Kong independence movements that are continuing to gain momentum. It is clear that separatism will continue to threaten China’s rise. In the short turn, this threat will only worsen. After Tsai Ing-wen came to power, the United States began to increase its tacit support for the Taiwan independence movement. The U.S. Congress has adopted the “Six Assurances to Taiwan,” and has enhanced the level of military exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. The growing momentum of the Taiwan independence movement only serves to reinforce the alliance structure that connects the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Strait of Taiwan. Authorities in Taiwan could enhance their cooperation with Japan and the United States in these three strategically valuable bodies of water, which is a situation that we’ve referred to as “Three Sea Linkage” (Sanhai Liandong). One possible manifestation of this linkage would be if Taiwanese authorities, the United States and Japan held joint humanitarian search and rescue operations within 12 nautical miles of Itu Aba Island, also known as Taiping Island. Such actions would require advanced preparation and be interpreted by Chinese authorities as a serious issue.

In the 1990s, Taiwan, the trade deficit, and Tibet were the biggest areas of contention between the United States and China. Among them, it was the Taiwan issue that caused the greatest amount of friction. In the early 2000s, Ma Ying-jeou worked to alleviate these tensions during his term in office. However, the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan (DPP) has adopted policies that could cause the Taiwan issue to once again become the primary source of tension between the United States and China. These tensions could become the greatest threat for China’s rise.

Competition in the South China Sea will remain intense for years to come

The pivot to Asia, to a large degree, is a strategy adopted by the United States to influence China’s strategic relationships with the nations of Southeast Asia. China and the United States are both working to bring the littoral nations in the South China Sea into their own spheres of influence. This is the underlying cause of frictions that have surfaced over the past few years.

Under the current circumstances, China’s strategic interests in the South China Sea can fall into three general categories. The first interest is economic and includes both fishing rights as well as the excavation of oil and gas resources. The second is the issue of sovereignty over the islands. The third is China’s strategic relationships with the surrounding nations. Chinese media focuses primarily on our economic interests and sovereignty issues. However, it is important to remember that even if the South China Sea did not have these fishing, oil, and gas resources, or even if these resources could not be utilized by China, these issues would still not play a decisive role in whether or not China is able to successfully rise on the international stage. Considering the fact that all the islands in the South China Sea are currently controlled by one of the claimant countries, it would be very difficult for any of these countries to take control of these islands away from any of the other countries without the use of military force. Since divided control over each of these islands has already become an established fact, the issue of which country has the power to control each island has also become an established fact. As such, divided control over each island is a constant, as opposed to being a variable. On the contrary, the direction that each of the ten ASEAN nations will take when it comes to allying with either the United States or China will present a major strategic variable. China would be wise to take strategic measures in working to pull these nations to its own side.

According to the school of moral realism, China will be able to improve its strategic relationships with the ASEAN nations if it makes certain strategic adjustments. If it is able to do so, China could change the political balance that currently defines the conflicts occurring in the South China Sea. An increasing number of ASEAN nations are beginning to support China on these issues. The strategic environment surrounding China’s rise would greatly improve if the number of countries that support China were to grow larger than the number of countries that support the United States. This sort of strategic support is much more important for China’s rise than the economic and island-control issues that have received the majority of media coverage.

The North Korean nuclear issue will not be resolved in the near term

China has two different goals when it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue. The first is to maintain peace and prevent war. The second one is to denuclearize the peninsula. When these two goals contradict one another, China will need to carefully prioritize its interests. In the current situation, in the short-term China is able to prevent war from breaking out in the peninsula. However, China is currently unable to remove North Korea’s nuclear capacity. Assuming that China doesn’t allow for military operations on the Korean peninsula, there are four different situations that could arise: 1) A nuclear armed North Korea that is friendly toward China; 2) A nuclear armed North Korea that is unfriendly toward China; 3) A non-nuclear North Korea that is friendly toward China; 4) A non-nuclear North Korea that is unfriendly toward China.

The North Korean government has adopted the strategy of developing its economy at the same pace as it develops its nuclear capabilities. In light of this, it is clear that the third and fourth situations detailed above will not come to be. Therefore, China will have to decide whether it has the capabilities to pursue either the first or the second option mentioned above. The nature of the relationship between China and North Korea is similar to most country-to-country relationships in that security is the most fundamental aspect. Purely economic considerations are unable to serve as the foundation of a bilateral strategic relationship. This is important to remember when prioritizing goals that pertain to national interests. 

China’s priority is to reduce international resistance

Moral realism states that working to gain international support is strategically important for China’s rise. It is very natural that a rising power will find itself facing opposition as it continues to grow. Therefore, the rising power will need to develop a strategy that puts primary emphasis on reducing the level of international resistance to its rise. Such a strategy will then allow China to work to gain as much support as possible on the international stage. In order to reduce the amount of friction caused by a nation’s rise, moral realism posits that the rising nation should adopt the strategy of expanding its interests in emerging areas. The rising nation should also make timely adjustments to its external strategy in accordance with its own capabilities in each area.   

Strategic credibility is important for a rising power as it continues to expand internationally. Moral realism believes that the rising power needs to avoid diplomatic policies that are “unrealistic, lofty, and empty.” Such policies would have the effect of weakening China’s strategic credibility internationally. It is crucial that the political leadership in the rising nation be able to adopt an external strategy that is conducive to its rise. Similarly, it is important that the national government is able to produce leaders that share a spirit of continuous reform and opening up. If it is able to do so, the rising nation will be able to bridge the gap with the dominant nation at a more rapid pace, securing its own rise in the process. If the dominant state is constantly making strategic mistakes, the effectiveness of the rising power’s reform and opening up strategy will become more visible. 

Moral realism focuses on the role that morality has played in the rise of nations throughout history. It seeks to determine which factors have contributed to the successes of these nations, and which have contributed to their failures. This school of thought posits that it is more important that China learn from the examples of failure, rather than focus on the examples of success. It is the examples of failure that can provide China with some of the most valuable warnings.

This article is an excerpt from the paper “Political Leadership and the Security of Rising Power” and originally appeared in International Security Research.