Stephen M. Walt

Will Asia balance? (revisited)

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 ...


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 well.

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 alignments.

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. 

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

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