James Holmes

Mearsheimer Is Dangerously Optimistic

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James Holmes

Mearsheimer Is Dangerously Optimistic

Mearsheimer’s claim that China’s military power is significantly inferior to the U.S. misses the point.

Give John Mearsheimer credit. At his best he conveys wisdom in a few words. But — and you knew there was going to be a but — economy of words has its drawbacks. Mearsheimer also displays a penchant for packing lots of error into little space on the page. Exhibit A: this snippet from his latest missive over at The National Interest, wherein the University of Chicago political scientist pronounces the doom of free Taiwan:

Contemporary China does not possess significant military power; its military forces are inferior, and not by a small margin, to those of the United States.

Well. That’s a relief.

Except that you could say the same thing about any conflict in Chinese Communist Party history. Mao Zedong’s Red Army did not possess significant military power in the early phases of the Chinese Civil War; its military forces were inferior, and not by a small margin, to those of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Indeed, the KMT army hunted the Red Army to the brink of extinction in the 1930s — compelling Mao’s beleaguered communists to undertake their famous Long March, a 6,000-mile retreat into the hinterland.

But the Red Army made a comeback and won that one if memory serves. Inferior hardware isn’t everything. Not for nothing did Mao upbraid adherents to “the so-called theory that ‘weapons decide everything.'”

Nor did China possess significant military power in 1950, when communist forces were still mopping up hapless KMT forces. Armed mainly with Soviet, Japanese, and Western castoffs, its military forces were inferior, and not by a small margin, to those of the United States. Yet late that year China intervened on the Korean Peninsula in force. Its army of “Chinese People’s Volunteers” threw back General Douglas MacArthur’s combined UN force in disarray, defeating an American-led effort to reunify the peninsula under non-communist rule. Washington had to settle for the antebellum status quo, a divided Korea.

Beijing, then, could plausibly claim victory in the Korean War. No matter how you slice it, Communist China managed to recover from decades of civil war and foreign invasion — and to fight a superpower to a draw — within four years of its founding. Score another one for Mao & Co.

As past generalissimos will attest: China wins ugly, but it wins. And it does so despite military inferiority. This puts a new gloss on the word significant, Mearsheimer’s standard for Chinese military adequacy. If a nation’s armed forces are potent enough to achieve the goals assigned them by their political masters, they’re not just significant but sufficient. The People’s Liberation Army doesn’t need to overpower the U.S. military outright unless Washington concentrates its entire strength in the Western Pacific. That’s an absurd prospect. What the PLA must do is temporarily outmatch the strongest U.S. military contingent Washington is likely to station in the Western Pacific.

That’s far from absurd. China can fulfill its goals by pitting its entire military against a fraction of the U.S. military supplemented by America’s Asian allies. If it can make itself stronger at the decisive place on the map at the decisive time, it stands a good chance of winning, of disheartening the United States, or of imposing costs too heavy for a halfhearted United States to bear. Putatively weaker combatants can prevail. They often have across the sweep of history. That’s why Mearsheimer’s article prompted eye-rolling when I circulated the weblink among my Japanese hosts last week. Geography confronts them, and Taiwan, and Southeast Asian societies with the prospect of local Chinese supremacy every day.

Mearsheimer may be a fine international-relations theorist. But he holds forth on China’s military with a confidence no self-respecting practitioner of strategy, operations, or tactics would voice. To state that the PLA remains behind the U.S. armed forces from a technological standpoint is one thing. That probably remains true to one degree or another. But to leap blithely from that observation to the conclusion that Chinese martial strength is inadequate — even insignificant — is recklessly misguided. China commands certain niche advantages, particularly in anti-ship missile technology, for which American naval and air forces have no ready solution. That’s doubly true when the PLA fights close to home — that is, on any likely battleground.

If China gets in a tussle with America and its allies, then, it could harness such advantages to get its way against more formidable foes. Just ask the shades of Chiang and MacArthur.