Assuming China continues to grow economically (which seems
like a fairly safe bet), how will this trend affect strategic alignments in
Asia? I've posted on this topic
before (see here), but I've been thinking about it again in light of some
recent developments and after reading some recent scholarship on the topic.
Structural realism gives a straightforward answer to the
question: As China becomes more powerful, other Asian states will move to
balance it by devoting more of their own wealth to national security and by
forging closer security ties with each other and with powerful external actors
like the United States.
This is essentially a pure "balance-of power" explanation,
but as some of you probably know, I think that is not the best way to explain
why alliances form. In the
near-to-medium term, the extent to which Asian states balance against China
will depend not just on Chinese power, but on the level of threat that these states perceive. The level of threat, in turn will be
affected not just by China's aggregate capabilities (i.e., its GDP, defense
spending, etc.) but also by 1) Geography, 2) Offensive military capabilities,
and 3) Its perceived intentions.
To be more specific, states that are closer to China are
likely to be more worried than states that lie some distance away. In particular, states that border
directly on China -- such as Vietnam -- have to fear China's rising power more than
states who are separated by water (such as Indonesia) because it is inherently
more difficult to project power over oceans. (Taiwan is something of a special case, given the tangled
history of cross-strait relations and its relative proximity).
Furthermore, the level of threat that China poses will
depend in part of how it chooses to mobilize its growing economic might. If it builds military capabilities that
are primarily designed to defend its own territory, China's neighbors will feel
less threatened and be less inclined to balance against it. By contrast, if China develops the power
projection capabilities that are typical of most great powers (i.e., large
naval and air forces, long-range missiles, amphibious capabilities, etc.), then
others in the region will worry about what those capabilities might be used for
and they will be more likely to join forces with each other (and the United
States) to protect their own interests and autonomy.
Of course, as China becomes more deeply enmeshed in the
world economy and more dependent on overseas resources and markets, its
interest in having military capabilities that can operate in far-flung areas is
likely to grow. If I had to bet,
therefore, I'd assume that China's power-projection forces will continue to expand and that this trend will reinforce balancing tendencies.
Finally, the level of threat will also be affected by
whether China is perceived as an ambitious, revisionist power, or whether it is
seen as a state that seeks to preserve the regional status quo. In this regard, China's shift to a more
assertive regional diplomacy -- such as its recent assertion that the South China Sea is a "core interest" and its obvious desire to reduce the U.S. role there -- stands in obvious contrast to its previous emphasis
on a "peaceful rise." One might
add the hard-nosed diplomacy China displayed in the recent dispute with Japan
over a captured Chinese trawler. The more sharp elbows that Beijing throws, the more that its neighbors will worry and the more they will look for mutual support.
In short, the intensity of balancing behavior by China's
neighbors will be affected by more than just China's material capabilities; how
it chooses to use its growing capabilities will have a significant impact as
Yet balancing behavior is not automatic, even when the level of threat is rising. Here are several other factors to keep in mind when trying to forecast future Asian
First, any balancing coalition in Asia is going to face
serious dilemmas of collective action. Although many Asian states may worry about a rising
threat from China, each will also be tempted to get others to bear most of the
burden and to free-ride on their efforts. This may also include trying to simultaneously balance (in part) while
still cultivating close economic relations with China. This problem may be compounded by
lingering historical divisions between potential alliance partners (e.g., Japan
and South Korea), and by adroit Chinese efforts to play "divide-and-rule."
Second, the role of the United States will be critical, but success will require careful judgment and skillful diplomatic management. On the one hand, Asian states are more
likely to balance China if they believe the United States will back
them up. But on the other hand, if
they are too sure of U.S. assistance, they will be tempted to free-ride on
Uncle Sam and thus contribute too little to collective defense. U.S. policymakers will have to walk a
fine line: providing enough reassurance to convince Asian partners that
balancing will work, but leaving enough doubts so that Washington doesn't have to do all the
heavy lifting ourselves.
In addition, because U.S. allies will try to get us to do more by constantly questioning the credibility of
U.S. commitments, managing these Asian alliances is
going to require a deft combination of hard bargaining and supportive
diplomacy. Washington does hold one obvious ace, however: In the end, China's rising power is more of a problem for its neighbors than it is for us, and we ought to be able to drive a good bargain when it is time to allocate costs and benefits of any balancing coalition.
Third, if one takes an even longer-term perspective, and one
assumes that China's rise is not interrupted, then regional balancing of the
sort depicted above may one day become impossible. Balancing the USSR was facilitated by the fact that its
economy was significantly smaller and less efficient than America's; which meant
that we were waging the Cold War against an adversary with significant smaller
latent capabilities. But if China
eventually emerges as the world's largest economy, and if rising per capita
income creates greater surpluses for its government to devote to foreign policy
purposes, then the advantages the United States enjoyed in World War I, World War II, and
the Cold War would be significantly reduced and might even disappear. Over time, some Asian states may choose to bandwagon
instead, leading to the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia akin to the U.S. sphere in the Western hemisphere.
This outcome is far from certain, however, and I frankly don't
expect it to occur before the end of my own career. (Side note: I plan on working for a long time). If the United States keeps
squandering its power in unnecessary wars and fails to keep its house in order
here at home, then that day might arrive more quickly. I don't think such self-inflicted wounds will keep happening, but I wish I could rule them out completely.
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