Stephen M. Walt

Bad news for balancing in Asia

Nine months ago I visited South Korea for a conference on security issues, and I posted a summary of my conference paper here on this site. Among the main points I made (and not for the first time) was that creating and managing balancing coalitions in Asia was going to be tricky, and require some ...

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/GettyImages
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/GettyImages

Nine months ago I visited South Korea for a conference on security issues, and I posted a summary of my conference paper here on this site. Among the main points I made (and not for the first time) was that creating and managing balancing coalitions in Asia was going to be tricky, and require some adroit diplomacy and skillful U.S. leadership. As I said back then:

"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."

The past several weeks provide some instructive support for this view. First, a May 2012 agreement to increase security cooperation and intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan (a move that the United States clearly supported) has foundered in recent weeks, in good part due to domestic opposition in South Korea. Some of the opposition was merely opportunistic (the agreement provided President Lee’s opponents with an issue to exploit), but the controversy also stemmed from Korea’s bitter experience as a Japanese colony during the first half of the 20th century. Second, the recent ASEAN summit failed to issue a closing communiqué fo the first time in the organization’s forty-five year history, largely because there was no consensus on how to respond to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Both events highlight some of the key obstacles to effective balancing behavior in Asia: 1) the temptation to free-ride, 2) lingering historical tensions between key members, and 3) China’s ability to cultivate certain regional states (in this case, Cambodia) and block a coordinated regional response.

States do tend to balance against threats, and it is no surprise that the United States has begun to focus more attention on Asia and that many Asian states welcome the enhanced attention. But creating effective balancing coalitions is neither easy nor automatic, and it’s going to require more time and skill to pull it off, especially if the United States wants to make sure that other states pull their weight and don’t leave Uncle Sucker doing all of the heavy lifting. And my guess is that managing intra-alliance diplomacy in Asia is going to make the history of NATO look like child’s play.

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

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