Stephen M. Walt

What I’m telling the South Koreans

I’ve just arrived in Seoul, after a long but uneventful flight from New York. Korean Airlines did a nice job getting me here, but why do all airlines (not just KA) feel compelled to feed you a meal right after takeoff? In this case, we took off from JFK at 1:15 AM, and were immediately ...

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

I’ve just arrived in Seoul, after a long but uneventful flight from New York. Korean Airlines did a nice job getting me here, but why do all airlines (not just KA) feel compelled to feed you a meal right after takeoff? In this case, we took off from JFK at 1:15 AM, and were immediately served a nice but wholly superfluous dinner. Even if you skip the dinner they don’t dim the cabin lights for an hour or so, when you’d really rather be sleeping.

But I digress….

As I mentioned last time, I’m here for a conference on Asian security issues. I’ll be talking a bit about issues on the Korean peninsula, and the fine line that South Korea has been walking in recent years as its economic ties with China have grown. But my main contribution — such as it is — will be talk a bit about the balance-of-power dynamics that I anticipate in East Asia in the years ahead. Here’s an edited version of the key portion of my paper (disclaimer: the following reflects just my views, and not those of the conference sponsors or any of the other participants).

In general, states seek allies to balance against external threats. The level of threat, in turn, is a function of the power of potential rivals, their geographic proximity, their specific offensive capabilities, and their perceived intentions. As states grow stronger and amass greater power projection capabilities, nearby countries worry about how these capabilities will be used and to look for external support.

Ideally, states facing a rising threat would like to "pass the buck" to some other country, so that they don’t have to bear the burdens of balancing against the threat. If "buck-passing" is not feasible — usually because there is no other country to pass the buck to — then states have little choice but to increase their own defense capabilities and form external alliances in order to preserve their autonomy and security.

In rare cases, weak or isolated states may be forced to "bandwagon" with a powerful state. Weak states can do little to affect the outcome of a great power contest and may suffer grievously in the process, so they must choose the side they believe is most likely to win. 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 alliance patterns 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 a rapidly aging population, it would be hard to intimidate unless it were completely isolated. Vietnam has never been a pushover, India has a billion people, a rapidly growing economy, and is nuclear-capable, and states like Indonesia and Singapore possess valuable strategic real estate and (in Singapore’s case) military strength disproportionate to their size. Last but not least, the Republic of Korea is now an impressive industrial power with advanced military capabilities and a number of strong alliance partners.

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.

It should not surprise us, therefore, to observe that China’s rise is already encouraging balancing behavior by many Asian countries. Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea have all begun significant defense modernization programs, and each of these states has taken steps to strengthen its ties with the United States. These responses, it is worth noting, are both a response to China’s growing power and a reaction to its increasingly assertive regional behavior. Their desire to improve ties with the United States has found a welcome audience in Washington, which is also concerned about China’s rising power and regional ambitions.

This is good news for realists who think that great power competition in Asia is very likely. But balancing behavior is not automatic, even when the level of threat is rising, and efforts to coordinate balancing responses in Asia are likely to face several obstacles.

For starters, a balancing coalition in Asia will 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. These incentives may lead some states to simultaneously balance against China (at least somewhat) while at the same time trying cultivating close economic relations with China. Indeed, one could argue that this is precisely what South Korea has tried to do over the past decade or more. 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, a balancing alliance in Asia will require coordinating interests and policies across a vast geographic area. It is nearly 3000 miles (by air) from New Delhi to Taiwan, and some 5000 miles from Sydney to Seoul. Distances in NATO Europe were quite small by comparison (i.e., the distance from Paris to Bonn was a mere 250 miles), which meant that European leaders understood that they faced a common threat from Soviet power and Moscow found it impossible to split NATO apart. (It helped that Moscow tended to rely more on bluster than on blandishments, but that’s another story). The more challenging situation in Asia will place an additional premium on adroit alliance leadership, especially given the shadow cast by China’s growing economy.

As I’ve noted before, a third challenge is the question of how much support the United States has to provide its Asian partners in order to keep them on board. If Washington does too little, some of them might be tempted to cut a deal with Beijing. If Washington does too much, however, its Asian allies will free-ride and Americans will soon grow tired of carrying most of the burden. U.S. leaders may be tempted to threaten disengagement to get allies to do more, while states like South Korea may threaten to accommodate Beijing as a way to get Washington to invest more on their behalf. If either tendency is taken too far, it will be a potent source of misunderstanding and resentment. U.S. policymakers will have to walk a fine line, therefore: providing enough reassurance to convince Asian partners that balancing will work, but leaving enough doubts so that Washington doesn’t end up doing all the heavy lifting itself.

This analysis implies that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to take more diplomatic skill than it took to manage relations in Europe during the Cold War. The United States is probably the only state that can play a leadership role in this evolving alliance, but it will have to devote more time and attention to the task and it will have to shed a tendency to view its Asian partners as subordinates or junior partners. To note an obvious example, treating South Korea as if it were a greater proliferation risk than India-which is not even an NPT signatory-and trying to impose onerous conditions on a new nuclear cooperation agreement will do little to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons but would almost certainly add an unnecessary irritant to the U.S.-South Korean relationship.

Finally, America’s Asian partners-and especially South Korea-are likely to face serious choices in the years ahead. If Sino-American rivalry remains muted, either because China’s rise slows or because Washington and Beijing are able to manage their bilateral relationship successfully, then the ROK may be able to maintain its alliance with Washington and pursue tighter relations with Beijing simultaneously. But if Sino-American rivalry heats up–as I believe it will–then Beijing and Washington will press Seoul to choose sides. Of course, competition between the United States and China might allow South Korea to extract valuable concessions from both, but it also increases the risk of abandonment by Washington, which would leave South Korea at the mercy of its large near-neighbor.

The bottom line is clear: security relations in Northeast Asia are in flux. There is ample room for continued cooperation, but managing alliance relations there will not be easy and there will be abundant opportunities for miscalculation and misunderstandings in the years ahead. This is not a forecast of impending doom, but it is a wake-up call to Americans and Asians who will be responsible for managing these relations in the years ahead.


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

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