Realism vs Liberalism vs Constructivism and Chinese Nuclear Weapons

The economic boom and rise of Chinese military might has justifiably concerned realist students of international relations. Realist students of international relations theory hold power as a keystone factor in the understanding of how states interact on the systemic level.  While a myriad of factors contribute to the concern of realists, one area in particular gives great concern: nuclear weapons. The Chinese military has developed one of the most sophisticated, rapidly deployable, and survivable nuclear arsenals in the world.  In the region, there exists no military force that can truly hope to compete with the Chinese military backed by its military arsenal leading to an imbalance of power on the systemic level. Furthermore, the primary stabilizing factor of the Pacific sea lanes is the United States Navy. The control the US Navy exerts on the Pacific region has a myriad of systemic implications that are too extensive for an investigation here. However, it is noteworthy due to the fact that the Chinese nuclear arsenal not only gives the Chinese total domination of power in the immediate region but also places it as a direct threat to the power of the US Navy in the Pacific. Creatively, the Chinese nuclear strategy is not designed to retaliate against the continental United States, rather to neutralize the power of the US Navy over the region.  From a realist perspective, this seems to constitute a direct threat to the United States and therefore carry concerning implications on the systemic level for all international relations.

However, due to the particular characteristics of the Chinese nuclear arsenal a different realist theory can be formulated that does not bear the same alarmist characteristics. Considering how the Chinese nuclear arsenal is designed to neutralize local threats from its immediate neighbors and to counter the might of the US Navy, it could easily be concluded that the Chinese military has no nefarious intentions towards any actors but simply seeks to protect its ever expanding economic interests including the vastly important shipping lanes of the Pacific and Indian oceans upon which it relies completely for economic success. Consider as well a more liberal interpretation of the nuclear arsenal, namely that were the US Navy to become unable to provide safe passage for merchant shipping the Chinese would then be equipped to take up the mantle ensuring continued trade. Therefore, both a realist and liberal interpretation of the Chinese nuclear arsenal can be seen as a truly practical effort to ensure its domestic and economic interests perhaps even in augmentation to United States military power.

In addition, a constructivist analysis of United States and Chinese relations would demonstrate that for the most part, United States and Chinese relations have maintained an overall amicable quality. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, it is difficult to point to one large scale conflict that would indicate that either nation would be willing to engage in the apocalyptic scale of military conflict that would ensue from aggressive action toward either nation. Therefore, while the realist perspective from the limitations of its own views remains entirely justified, a differing analysis both in the realist, liberal, and constructivist school yields a much less alarmist viewpoint.



Bracken, Paul The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics, 201-203.


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