Alliances and balancing during a structural power shift

I have recently been preoccupied with the Asia pivot, or more generally the structural shift towards Asia—not in the serious research way, but more like the European pondering in the park while smoking a pipe way (figuratively speaking—I usually don’t go outside; I sit inside tweeting). By sheer coincidence the other day I came across Stephen M. Walt’s 2009 article “Alliances in a Unipolar World,” which applies alliance theory and frameworks to the peculiar period of unipolarity we are in currently. Walt mentions the rising powers in Asia and the long list of countries allied or aligned with the United States, but in light of the past three years’ development the regional power balance and alliances in Asia should get a closer look through Walt’s lens. What alliances are we seeing now in Asia, what can we expect to see in the next few years, and what will the rise of China mean for the region? I probably just outlined three dissertations, but here are some brief thoughts on the subject.

By now it is well established that a motley crew of states in Asia have aligned themselves against a rising and increasingly assertive China. Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Vietnam, and even Myanmar to a certain extent have found themselves on the same side, against China, and thus with the United States. Granted, reality is a bit more complex—for instance, India maintains a strong trade relationship with China and thus does not seek to hard balance against China. Still, the point is China has few friends, and the United States has many (potential) friends.

There are two important points in regards to what we are seeing in Asia. First, it is not so much an alliance as an alignment, in a fairly loose sense. Most of these states have chosen to strengthen ties with the United States, but not all have formalized security agreements. Neither are they part of a multilateral organization like NATO. Instead, it is a set of bilateral ties of varying strength and character. This could perhaps change should China become more belligerent, but for now the stakes are much lower (more on this later).

Second, as Walt notes, alliances (or alignments) in a unipolar system are most likely to be for regional balancing. Bandwagoning is rare; few if any states in Asia Pacific worry about the United States invading. Instead, these states are aligning themselves with the United States because it is the unipole and the state most able to (soft or hard) balance against China, a regional threat.

Under unipolarity, an alternative motivation for close ties with the dominant power is the desire for protection, normally against some sort of regional threat. thus, what might at first glance appear to be bandwagoning (that is, more and more states aligning with the unipole) may actually be a specific form of balancing, where the threat to be countered is a neighboring power or some other local problem.

There is an interesting thought experiment available here:  Why does China not form an alliance with some of the other regional powers against the United States? Or alternatively, why do some of these Asian powers not ally themselves with China to balance against the United States and keep it out of Asia? A bipolar system does not have to mean two states; one state could compete against a coalition of less powerful states. Theoretically, this is possible. But as Walt writes, the character of the unipole state matters as to what alliances form. The United States as a unipole is both “powerful and far away.” That second point is important. As John Mearsheimer would point out, water is a significant hurdle to conquest. Liberals would also point out that the United States has no colonialist tendencies, it being a liberal democracy and all. But without getting into another paradigm debate the fact remains that the United States is not perceived to have expansionist ambitions in those countries (which is correct in a broader sense as well; Middle Eastern countries might fear interventionism, but that is distinctly different from conquest). Therefore it is more desirable for these states to align themselves with the relatively benign unipole than a potentially revisionist great power (the devil you know, etc.)

The dilemma for China now is that the stronger it gets, the greater incentives its neighbors have for aligning with the United States. This is an oft-repeated point, on the verge of becoming a truism. China flexes its muscles (e.g. territorial disputes), which in turn frightens other Asian powers and forces them into the warm embrace of the United States. Even excluding the presence of the United States, nationalism would preclude most states from simply surrendering to Chinese demands (for an interesting look at realism and nationalism, see this working paper from John Mearsheimer).

But to think this trend is on a fixed line is overly optimistic. The United States is currently favored because it is powerful and far away, but what happens if China, which is close, becomes powerful? At some point we reach an inflection point. If we assume China’s rise is inevitable, the power balance in the region will reach a tipping point where China becomes too powerful for soft balancing. Defection then becomes tempting (hedging might be a better word). (Granted, this analysis precludes the possibility of an actor such as India becoming a peer regional rival, and instead assumes that any balancing will be conducted by the United States and smaller regional actors. This can obviously change, but that is a different discussion for a later time)

The risk to the current alignment system in Asia is two-fold. As mentioned above, when we transition towards a bipolar system, defection becomes more likely. States close to and/or dependent on China can choose to hedge, become neutral or switch sides. The second risk is that the United States’ friends in Asia become increasingly powerful. According to alliance theory, alliances work best with one big actor and several smaller ones. The dominant actor maintains cohesion and minimizes disagreements. Even if the current alignment system is not an alliance, it is not difficult to see this logic translate into today’s situation. In fact, potential issues might worsen with a lack of institutions and norms to maintain relations. States such as India have a wide range of interests, many not necessarily aligned with US interests, so maintaining a united front balancing against China becomes hard. We have already seen this with Iran, a relatively minor issue, where India has fought hard to get exempt from oil sanctions.

All of this is not to say that the United States should not build a quasi-alliance system in Asia. In fact, given the general difficulty of controlling contested zones and the limits to U.S. military power, a strategy of offshore balancing is probably the best alternative going forward. The key point, though, is that the current situation is both fragile and tenuous. Right now many Asian states are aligning with the United States because it is the preferred hegemon, but that could change. This is not an issue of values, but security and sovereignty. Regional hegemons are perceived as more dangerous than offshore hegemons (looking at you, Germany), but that does not mean that Asian states will support the United States no matter what. Increased economic interdependence with China (the carrot) could alter the political calculation. So could an increasingly capable Chinese military (the stick).

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2 comments to Alliances and balancing during a structural power shift

  • Dennis Argall

    Yes, it is all pipe smoke, Atlantic pipe smoke too.

    I recall one small meeting with Henry Kissinger at which I was a minor note taker, in the 1970s, where he talked about the world in this strange proxy way. And listening in those days to Edward Luttwak at SAIS, who also seemed to think there was nothing out there in the world except alignable objects. This objective:
    “to challenge and test the assumption that every corner of the world is of vital U.S. national security interest and thus require an activist foreign policy.”
    is a nice beginning, but it does not step outside the mind trap of a United States surrounded by mirrors. While ever you begin with and do not depart from musings arising from Metternich or acolytes style carving up of an imagined culturally and politically homogeneous world you will find the outcomes fail you, as they seem to have been failing the United States since the 1970s. The success of the region is in its general dis-alliance. To ask yourself or your pipe why China does not enter into alliances is to suggest no inclination to study history and principles of Chinese foreign relations, or those of ASEAN, etc … which seems a pretty weak way to proceed in this century.

  • Deeanna Mchone

    I’ve been recently thinking the very same thing myself recently. Happy to see somebody on the same wavelength! Nice article.