Bad news for balancing in East Asia

The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works. Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you’d ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works.

Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you'd be at least somewhat worried about the rise of China. You do have good relations with the United States, which is in the process of "pivoting" to Asia (whatever that means). But will that be enough? Is there anything else you could do to maintain a favorable balance of power and avoid having to show excessive deference to Beijing in the decades ahead?

Here's the rub: Although Japan's capita income is nearly four times greater than China's, its population is less than 10 percent that of China's and its demographic structure is even less favorable. South Korea's economy and population are even smaller, and it also faces an unpredictable neighbor across the DMZ. Most important of all, China's economy is still growing more rapidly than either of these two Asian powers. Unless the Chinese bubble bursts, its advantage in overall power potential is likely to grow over time. 

The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works.

Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you’d be at least somewhat worried about the rise of China. You do have good relations with the United States, which is in the process of "pivoting" to Asia (whatever that means). But will that be enough? Is there anything else you could do to maintain a favorable balance of power and avoid having to show excessive deference to Beijing in the decades ahead?

Here’s the rub: Although Japan’s capita income is nearly four times greater than China’s, its population is less than 10 percent that of China’s and its demographic structure is even less favorable. South Korea’s economy and population are even smaller, and it also faces an unpredictable neighbor across the DMZ. Most important of all, China’s economy is still growing more rapidly than either of these two Asian powers. Unless the Chinese bubble bursts, its advantage in overall power potential is likely to grow over time. 

Well, if that was a major long-term concern, what could you do? You might start by asking yourself what other countries did when they faced similar circumstances. For example, you might look at Britain’s response to Germany’s rise at the beginning of the 20th century.  German unification and its rapid industrial development created a powerhouse in continental Europe, and by 1900, Britain could not keep pace through internal effort alone.  

How did Britain respond? By mending fences with other major powers. It settled a dispute with the United States over the Venezuelan border, supported the United States during the Spanish-American War, and settled another boundary dispute over Alaska in 1903. It muted its colonial rivalry with France through the Entente Cordiale in 1904, and concluded another entente with Russia by settling border disputes in Persia, Tibet, and Afghanistan in 1907. These were mostly acts of appeasement, by the way, but undertaken with a larger strategic purpose in mind.

In short, the obvious and growing threat from Germany led Britain to resolve various disputes and form stronger ties with other major powers, reducing the number of conflicts it had to worry about and laying the foundation for the alliance that ultimately defeated Germany’s attempt to establish hegemony in Europe in World War I.

So if you were a smart Japanese or South Korean strategist and you believed that China was probably your most serious long-term security challenge, you’d be looking to mend fences with other countries and especially with each other. Not only would this allow you to concentrate more attention on China, it would increase the odds that China would face cohesive opposition if it tried to throw its weight around in the future. If done adroitly, that possibility might have a sobering effect on Chinese calculations, thereby stabilizing East Asia for everyone.

Yet this is precisely what Japan and South Korea are NOT doing. To the contrary: at the same time that Japan is having an increasingly ugly spat with China over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan and South Korea are also engaged in an intermittently heated quarrel over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, a different and equally insignificant pile of rocks.

I don’t know whose claim to these little chunks of land is more deserving and I certainly wouldn’t try to arbitrate it here. But it is hard to read about these disputes — and especially the flap between South Korea and Japan — without concluding that these two states are letting national pride cloud their thinking in a most unproductive way. And one big reason might be the long habit of expecting Uncle Sam to take care of their security for them.  

I’ve made this point before: managing alliance relations in Asia is not going to be easy. But instead of focusing primarily on military deployments and doctrinal innovations like "Air-Sea Battle," the United States needs to devote at least as much attention to East Asian diplomacy, to include helping its friends settle differences among themselves. In the end, helping our friends work together (and for that matter, helping them resolve differences with China in a fair-minded way) could do more to stabilize relations in the region than shifting another carrier battle group there or doing a lot of saber-rattling.  

Balancing against threats is a powerful tendency in international affairs, but it is not always done efficiently and the uncertainties that this creates can tempt others to take advantage. Helping lubricate the balancing process is an ideal role for the United States. It is also the best way to ensure that Uncle Sam doesn’t get stuck carrying most of the burden itself.

Update: For a broadly similar view from my colleague Joseph Nye, go here.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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