Theory is important for a multitude of reasons, not least because it allows us to discern and anticipate state behaviour in the international system. Engaging theory allows us to understand why a state will act a particular way in the international realm. Theory also allows us to predict and shape the behaviour of other states, allowing us to understand what will drive a rising state toward conflict and what will encourage it to rise peaceful. Finally, an examination of China and its rise shows that while the future relations of the United States and China aren’t knowable today, there are factors that will influence whether that rise is cooperative, or competitive.

Theory is an important aspect to consider when evaluating how to act or react as a state on the international stage. When faced with a rising state, it’s important to understand how that advancing state threatens you and your security. Theories regarding the structure of the international system and the numerous international relations lens’ available for us to study have the explanatory power to explain how states should act. From a neorealist, you’d expect to have policy makers eager to engage and balance a rising adversary in the international system to maintain the balance of power. A neoliberal institutionalist however, would look to incorporate the rising state into various international organisations to ensure they continued to prosper and as a result, view themselves as a status quo state, harbouring no rationale for a desire to alter the existing international structure. An observation of the polarity of the system will also give a strong indication as to whether war is less or more likely given the rise of a particular state (Mearsheimer 2001). We can judge the effectiveness of each international relations theory by looking at history and assessing the success and failure of the theories and their tenants. Without theory, we would be unable to formulate any standing with which to evaluate how a state might act in the international system.

Theory gives us a means with which to predict and shape the behaviour of other states. International Relations theory was born out of the conclusion of the First World War in 1919 as it became apparent that improving technology was increasingly making war between states more costly and, something that had to be avoided. International Relations looked to provide a framework that states could utilise in understanding how they interacted with each other and essentially how to make war as scarce as possible. Understanding how the occurrence of war could be reduced was seen as a most important task and theory allows us to do that. The establishment of the League of Nations, leading to the eventual creation of the United Nations, is one institution that has had an impact on states and their behaviour. It was the development of international relations theory that allowed world leaders to formulate an international society that would reduce the incidents’ of war. The creation of international institutions in which we can engage rising states allows us to ensure they benefit from the current system and consider themselves a status quo state, not revisionist. If a rising state believes that the international system is not designed to facilitate the rise of their state, they will take action to alter that system to ensure that they can benefit from it, just as existing status quo states have in the past.

International relations theory can help us now in evaluating the rise of China and its prospects for cooperation or competition. Looking at theoretical concepts such as economic interdependence and the democratic peace theory, we can identify issues that will influence the course China takes as its economic and military power continue to grow. Aaron Friedberg (2011) contends that the future relationship between the United States and China is unknowable; he identifies factors that will either propel the two states toward a more intensified competition or promote peace and cooperation. Friedberg (2011) states that a narrowing of the gap between the United States and China with respect to national power has the ability to alter the balance of power, an adjustment that has the potential for the United States to act militarily in an attempt to restore the existing order or, prompting China to act in accordance with power transition theory, making an endeavor replace the US as the dominate power in the Asia Pacific. Friedberg (2011) also identifies the perpetuation of differences in domestic political ideology as something that could lead to conflict. This aligns with the democratic peace theory, stating that: democratic states essentially do not go to war with each other. Friedberg (2011) however, also identifies other factors promoting cooperation and peace between the two states including: China’s continued assimilation into international institutions, China’s growing economic interdependence, the existence of common threats and nuclear weapons. By evaluating this theory we are able to understand how we can shape China so that it’s both peaceful and cooperative with the rest of the world.

Theory allows us to operate in the international system with knowledge and a level of predictability. Understanding theory enables us to assess how a state may act or react in the international system, particularly if they are a rising power. Theory also allows us to predict and shape the behaviour of states whether through a neorealist lens, a neoliberal institutionalist framework or another international relations theory. By taking account of China’s rise in the International system we can use theory to understand how future relations with the United States will be shaped.


Friedberg, A. 2011 A Contest for Supremacy, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, USA

Mearsheimer, J. J. 2001 The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, USA