Stephen M. Walt

Balancing act (Asian version)

Last week I suggested that if China’s power continues to rise, then Sino-American relations are bound to become significantly more competitive. China is likely to seek to become a regional hegemon, and the United States will probably try to prevent this. (For more on this broad theme, see Robert Kaplan’s essay on "The Geography of ...

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

Last week I suggested that if China’s power continues to rise, then Sino-American relations are bound to become significantly more competitive. China is likely to seek to become a regional hegemon, and the United States will probably try to prevent this. (For more on this broad theme, see Robert Kaplan’s essay on "The Geography of Chinese Power" in the latest Foreign Affairs, which arrived in my mailbox the day after I posted my original comment).   

I also noted that China’s path to regional hegemony would be more difficult than America’s path had been, because there were no other major powers in the Western hemisphere and no strong obstacles to U.S. expansion across North America. (Britain was a major power presence in Canada, of course, but was generally preoccupied by events elsewhere). By contrast, there are several significant medium powers in China’s neighborhood. A key question, therefore, is whether other Asian states are likely to balance against China’s rising power, or whether they will choose to "bandwagon" with it. If the former, containment will be relatively easy; if the latter, the gradual emergence of a Chinese "sphere of influence" may be difficult to prevent.

Well, lo and behold, over the weekend the Times published an interesting article about China’s rising influence in Indonesia. Lots of Javanese are apparently learning Mandarin, and in the process ignoring an aversion to things Chinese dating back to Beijing’s role in the abortive 1965 coup there. This trend reflects both China’s growing economic clout and an active Chinese effort to expand the teaching of Mandarin overseas.   

So will Asia balance or bandwagon? In my previous work on alliances, I argued that balancing behavior tends to predominate in international politics, but that especially weak and/or isolated states were somewhat more likely to bandwagon than strong states are. Because weak states can do little to affect the outcome of a contest and may suffer grievously in the process, they must choose the side that is likely to win. And where great powers tend to have global interests, weak states worry mostly about the balance of power in their immediate region. They may be willing to stand up to a stronger power if they are assured of ample allied support, but a weak state left to its own devices may have little choice but to kowtow to a larger and stronger neighbor. That is how "spheres of influence" are born.

What does this logic tell us about future events in East Asia? On the one hand, prospects for balancing ought to be fairly good. Although China has the greatest power potential in Asia, several of its neighbors are hardly "weak states." Japan has the world’s third largest economy (despite a lengthy period of stagnation), a latent nuclear capability, and significant military power of its own.  Despite an aging population, it would be hard to intimidate. Vietnam has never been a pushover, India has a billion people and is nuclear-capable, and states like Indonesia and Singapore possess valuable real estate and (in Singapore’s case) military strength disproportionate to size.   

Furthermore, even a far more powerful China would have some difficulty projecting power against its various neighbors, because it would have to do so via naval, air, and amphibious capabilities and not via land power alone. And given the U.S. interest in preventing China from exercising regional hegemony, the potential targets of a Chinese drive for regional dominance would have a great power ally ready to back them up.

But on the other hand, a U.S. effort to maintain a defensive alliance in East Asia would also face several obvious obstacles. First, defensive alliances invariably face collective action problems, as each member of the alliance tries to shift the main burden onto its partners. This is a tendency that an adroit rising power can exploit, in effect playing "divide-and-rule" while the putative partners quarrel over strategy and burden-sharing.

Second, and closely related, is the difficulty of figuring out just how much support the United States has to provide its Asian partners to keep them on board. Provide too little, and some of them might be tempted to cut a deal with Beijing. Provide too much, and Asian allies will free-ride on Uncle Sucker. Add to this the perennial U.S. obsession with credibility and the fact that these same allies have an incentive to exaggerate their own propensity to bandwagon (to convince a nervous Washington to do more on their behalf), and you have a recipe for American over commitment.  

Third, as the Times story suggests, China’s most promising strategy will be to speak softly and focus on building economic and cultural ties with its various neighbors. Heavy-handed Chinese diplomacy will make it easier for Washington to maintain strong Asian partnerships, while the persistent exercise of Chinese "soft power" could convince some Asian states that  Beijing was the wave of the future and  that Chinese hegemony wouldn’t be all that onerous.  At the very least, it would make the United States work harder to preserve its current position.

Taken together (and at the risk of beating a dead horse), this analysis implies that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to take a lot more attention and skill than it took to manage relations in Europe during the Cold War (and even that wasn’t always so simple — remember Suez?). That task will be even harder if the U.S. government is devoting a lot of time and attention to areas that are ultimately of marginal strategic importance, like … um … Afghanistan.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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