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.