The Patient Hegemon

 

Since we’ve been talking about realism in class, I thought a blog on the “patient hegemon” was timely. India’s testing yesterday of a long-range missile capable of reaching deep into China made me think that a reality check was overdue…

Mearsheimer, the great defender of offensive realism, argues that China’s growing capabilities will mean that the Middle Kingdom will not be a status quo power, but “an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony” (from his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001)).  Mearsheimer, like other power theorists, assumes that rising states are revisionist and will attempt to change the rules of the system.

There are different strategies states can adopt in becoming a hegemonic power.  One option is the so-called “patient hegemon”, a state that patiently bides its time until it is strong enough to reconfigure what it sees as an oppressive international order.  After power is achieved the patient hegemon adopts quite different policies.  The classic example is Germany in the Weimar period.

Is China the “patient hegemon” of our era?  It sounds like it if we are to believe what Deng Xiaoping said in 1991 “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” This is often referred to as the “24-character” strategy for China’s foreign and security policy (from China, Japan and Regional Leadership in East Asia, edited by Christopher M. Dent).

Unsurprisingly, it is no easy feat to figure out Chinese defence spending due to shoddy Chinese stats.  Estimates by the West come in at around $100–150 billion, which is, admittedly, not even a quarter of the US budget.  However, should China’s economy continue to grow at its current breakneck speed, Chinese military spending will really start to cause angst.

China often gets stage fright, shying away from the international scene.  Chinese political masters are quick to point out the fact that per capita income and HDI are far below that of the West and Japan. They repeat at every possible turn the peaceful rise of China.  However, for select issues, such as the South China Sea or the disputed Senkaku Islands controlled by Japan, China is anything but shy. One gets the distinct impression that the “patient hegemon” is showing its true colours.  For instance, China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea which is rich in oil and natural gas and does not hesitate shooting at Japanese or Vietnamese fishing vessels entering what it considers to be its territory.

My bet is that as the rise of China continues we will see the patient hegemon coming out of its den more and more, until eventually the dragon will tire of its tight confines. Then it will really start flexing its muscles, giving a whole new meaning to India’s nuclear arsenal.

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2 comments on “The Patient Hegemon

  1. ryankf says:

    I’ve often wondered what it would take to bring out the dragon too. I feel like it will take a mistake on someones part. I don’t see China pressing any advantage to the point of conflict. I thought the Chinese embassy bombing in 1999 or the 2001 spy plane collision were pretty stressful moments, but that didn’t do it and those seem like pretty huge mistakes.
    Maybe China will never lash out, maybe they have too much riding on peace just like most of the rest of the developed world. Maybe India’s missile launch was just a show for strength like North Korea’s apparent failed attempt. It’s all a lot of posturing and no one, with the exception of North Korea who has the least to loose by acting out, is really going to actually start a fight. I’ve said it before and i’ll probably say it again, recognizing that i’m being naive to think it, that armed conflict among developed nations is a thing of the past.
    I can’t help but think in the back of my mind however, that mistake is lurking around the corner somewhere when someone pushes too hard and virtually forces the hand of the offended party.
    Is there an IR theory that would account for a pacifistic realism dynamic in global IR? Can realism stand up to the idea that all nation states are pressing for more power and advantage but are unwilling to risk their position through violence?

  2. clintonwatson says:

    I certainly buy into the democratic peace, but China is not yet part of the club, and it’s hard to see political movement toward a liberal democracy. True, the incidents you refer to didn’t incur much wrath, but the Japanese and Vietnamese fishing vessels certainly did. I wonder whether China’s extraordinary South China Sea claim is setting up SE Asia for a showdown (with the US in tow, perhaps using its new Darwin bases as springboards). One would hope that the countries in the region could resolve the divvy up of the oil and gas just as the countries of the North Sea were able to. However, the track record to date is not hopeful and the whole issue is, if I recall correctly, off the agenda in ASEAN since China considers it part of its territory. Why does China refuse to discuss the issue? Isn’t it just biding time for now? ASEAN countries’ recent warming toward the US reflect, in my view, a distinct fear of the rise of the China and its patient hegemon strategy. Hopefully the growing interdependence between China, ASEAN and beyond will prove Mearsheimer wrong.

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