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Ukraine Crisis and its Implications for China – A Realist Approach


Dimitri Saramonow – University of Erfurt

Does Realism still matter?

A question that is not easily answered, and definitely not answered here and now, but worth exploring taking ‘real’ events into account. The Ukraine crisis serves as a vessel for an analysis and its implications for China as a foresight, since the next impactful crises will comprise territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea. I will use John Mearsheimer’s rhetoric and arguments on this topic and conclude at the end.

John Joseph Mearsheimer, born in December 14th 1947, is a political scientist that is a supporter of structural realism. He was opposed to Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994 and in 1993 in favor of Germany to develop their own nuclear arsenal in order to deter potential Russian aggression. He was also opposed to the Iraq War in 2003.

Mearsheimer on Ukraine:

The Ukrainian crisis has its roots in NATO, as well as EU expansion. The West (U.S.) is promoting democracy as a means to topple governments that are not friendly to the USA, even if they are democratic and putting in place governments that are friendly towards the West.

    • “No great power, not the USA, Russia, or China in the future, is going to allow another great power to march its military alliance to its borders.” (Monroe Doctrine)

    • “What drives this crisis is the west’s effort to peel Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit.”

    • “The West is not going to fight in Ukraine, because it is not a vital strategic interest for the U.S. and the West in general.”

    • “Putin is a realist par excellence – The West was not thinking in geopolitical terms.”

    • “Before the coup on February 22nd 2014 nobody in the West was saying that Putin was aggressive, and that we need NATO expansion to prevent Putin from going on a offensive and conquering territory.”

Mearsheimer on China:

Mearsheimer implies that we (the U.S.) cannot prevent a war, but strangle Chinas economic growth in order to delay Chinas rise to a potential hegemon, so it cannot transition its wealth into military might. It’s in USA’s and China’s neighbors’ interest that the Chinese economy slows down.

    • “If China continues to grow economically over the next 30 years like it has over the past 30 years, it will translate that wealth into military might and it will try to dominate Asia like the USA dominates the western hemisphere. This makes good strategic sense for China. The USA will not allow that to happen if it can, and will therefore form a balancing coalition in Asia, which will include most of Chinas neighbors and try to contain China. […] There will be an ever present danger of war!”

    • “The Chinese have made it clear, that they believe that Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands should become a part of China. In order to do that they need to push the Americans out of the island chains, so they can control the waters of their coastline and most of the western pacific.”

Ukraine Crisis Implications for China:

    • “Russia is a declining power and China a rising one. We should try to contain China, not Russia.“ […]

    • “Japan and China might go to war over rocks (Islands) – But this is nationalism at play! (A matter of prestige)[…]”

    • “It is China that we really worry about!”

    • “The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China. Current U.S. policy however is only driving Moscow and Beijing closer together.”

    • “Russia and China are no natural allies, but we (the U.S.) have driven them together. Russia is selling military equipment to China helping them in their rise.”


Mearsheimer’s structural realist view on international relations and geostrategic assessments focuses on balance of power and therefore containment as a tool to achieve this balance. His considerations about the Ukrainian crisis and Russia may become vital assessments for a future Asian crisis. Just like Russia is being encircled by a military alliance, so is China. The U.S. is currently part of military alliances and defense treaties with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. Those states happen to have serious disputes with the Peoples Democratic Republic of China over islands in the South China Sea and with Japan in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

As NATO is intensifying relations with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the implications of a future Asian NATO are not too far off and probably inevitable with the USA’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific. A trade agreement (Trans-Pacific Partnership) between states of the Asia-Pacific (including the U.S. but excluding China and Russia) was already signed on February 4th 2016 and is currently awaiting ratification.

The potential of an anti Chinese alliance in the Pacific, would contain a rising China to a certain degree, a containment Mearsheimer is pleading for. If the West eventually decides to pivot to the Asia-Pacific, Mearsheimer’s structural realist approach to the Ukrainian crisis will be as relevant as ever. Everything Russia experienced so far during the conflict can become a subject matter for China as well. (Including media/information warfare, proxy wars and sanctions alike.)

Following Mearsheimer’s logic, the West sooner or later has to decide, when the containment of a rising China has to be considered as a core strategic interest. Poisoning ties with the Russians will only foster their cooperation with China. This has already manifested itself in form of long-term gas deals and the sale of highly advanced Russian weaponry. In 2015 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets were sold to China. Sanctions have forced Russia to close the deal despite great concerns on the Russian side on behalf of potential infringement of intellectual property, because China allegedly copied the Su-27 before. The S-400 air-defense missile system could follow next.

While being further isolated, Russia has little choice but to turn to China. Not only is China looking for reliable energy supplies and advanced weaponry, Russia is also more desperate to sell and therefore literally fuels Chinas transition from wealth to military capacities, giving China enhanced capabilities to project their military might into the South China Sea, which Mearsheimer is so eager to contain.

So far the Ukrainian crisis has managed to force the declining power, Russia, to further support the ascending power, China, in its rise from a geostrategic perspective.

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