International Relations Theory and China’s Rise

Whether China’s rise as a great power will be peaceful or violent is a question that animates scholars and policymakers alike. Power transition theory and offensive realism reach pessimistic conclusions about China’s potential for armed conflict because of the benefits of aggression. Nevertheless, applications of these theories to China’s rise fail to examine the size and scope of these benefits and to compare them systematically to the costs of conflict that other scholars have identified. To fill this gap, this article applies different international relations theories to identify potential benefits in one defined issue area, territorial conflict, and then weighs these benefits against the likely costs. The potential benefits of territorial expansion are limited, a finding that weakens confidence in the predictions of power transition theory and offensive realism but increases confidence in more optimistic arguments about China’s rise based on economic interdependence.

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