Stephen M. Walt

Letter from Singapore: Why it pays to be nice

Letter from Singapore: Why it pays to be nice

I’m in Singapore today for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and I’m enjoying the chance to catch up with my colleagues there. I’ve been fortunate to be associated with this institution for over a decade, and my friends there have taught me a great deal about Asian politics in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is also interesting to see how other schools view the challenges of preparing students for careers in international affairs, and especially the need to adapt to a rapidly changing information environment. Jet lag aside, I’m having a fine time.

This trip is also an opportunity to gauge local reaction to the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. And by a fortuitous coincidence, today’s email contained an advance copy of a new roundtable in the journal Asia Policy, on "Regional Perspectives on U.S. Rebalancing." The roundtable features contributions from experts from several regional countries (including RSIS Dean Barry Desker), and it’s well worth reading.

Of course, I liked the symposium because there’s a lot of realist thought embedded within it, and because it reinforced my belief that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to be a real challenge for the United States. Although balance of threat theory suggests that China’s rise will encourage strong balancing impulses by most of its neighbors, that process will not necessarily be smooth or without significant bumps and disruptions. Most of the essays in this collection make it clear that local states welcome America’s increased attention to the region, but they are also worried that this trend could disrupt the strong economic ties that now exist between these states and the PRC and generally enflame regional rivalries.

Managing these relations will require U.S. strategists and diplomats to have a deep and nuanced understanding of local conditions and the ability to act with a certain degree of subtlety (which is not always America’s long suit). As Chaesung Chun of South Korea notes: 

"The most serious concern for South Korea regarding the United States’ rebalancing strategy is how deeply U.S. policymakers understand the fundamentals of East Asian international relations. Populations in this region are living in different periods in a contracted time span: traditional, modern transitional, modern, and postmodern transitional. The sources of conflict among East Asian countries come from the traditional strategic culture, the legacy of imperialism, the persistent logic of balance of power, and the so-called post-Westphalian order emerging from global governance."

Or as India’s C. Raja Mohan observes in his contribution to the roundtable: 

"Washington should attempt to bring a measure of sophistication to the articulation of the Asian pivot. Central to this is the proposition that the United States must not be seen as working "on" Asia, following a predetermined plan crafted in Washington, but rather as working "with" the Asian powers in devising a supple approach to balancing China’s power. By adopting this strategy, the United States could profitably encourage a number of security initiatives among Asian powers without having to put itself in the political lead on every single initiative in the region. This adjustment will not be easy, however, given the political style of the United States, where a noisy internal debate complicates the pursuit of a more nuanced approach to the articulation and execution of rebalancing."

My own view is that the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington will hinge in good part on which of the two major powers does a better job of convincing other Asian states that it is the more reasonable. If China is seen by its neighbors as constantly seeking to gain advantages for itself and willing to throw its increasing weight around, then its neighbors’ tendency to balance with the United States will only increase. By contrast, if it is the United States that is seen by the locals as excessively confrontational and insensitive to local concerns, then these states will be inclined to keep their distance and governments are likely to face popular opposition to any overt effort to "contain" China.  

The United States won the Cold War for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that our key allies in Europe and Asia thought we were less aggressive and more benevolent than the Soviet Union was. The USSR was much weaker, but it was close to many of these states, it had obviously revisionist intentions, and it seemed like a pretty nasty country by comparison. The United States and China are both going to be pretty powerful states in the decades ahead, and great power competition in Asia in the 21st century may be determined as much by perceptions of benevolence as by relative size of GDP or specific military balances (though those factors are not irrelevant).  

In short, Leo Durocher got it exactly wrong: in international politics, "nice guys (often) finish first."