Finding Allies for China
Image Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Finding Allies for China

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China’s rapid industrialization as an emerging power has prompted much discussion of a power transition, in which a rising China displaces a declining America with potentially dire consequences in the process. Internal capabilities, particularly domestic industrialization, are an essential ingredient in national power. China has been industrializing rapidly, and could within the foreseeable future reach a rough parity in national power with the U.S., signaling the start of a power transition.

However, Woosang Kim goes beyond this internal capability argument to include external factors. He argues that alliance formation is also important in strengthening national power. In this argument, rising powers like China that seek to achieve power parity with the U.S. need to bolster their national power by pursuing both domestic industrialization and external alignment relationships. China has already made impressive strides in expanding its share of global GDP and trade. To further augment its national power, it should focus on aligning with other countries, especially with neighbors that are inside its targeted sphere of influence.

However, China’s recent behavior toward its neighbors has moved it in the opposite direction. Rather than aligning themselves with China, countries in the Asia-Pacific are turning to the U.S. How then, can China continue its pursuit of regional hegemony without inflaming regional fears? Instead of pursuing assertive actions against regional neighbors, China will need to consider an alternative approach, one that attracts potential allies, instead of repelling them. And in fact this would be possible, if China observed the alignment preferences of weaker regional neighbors such as the Philippines.

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The Philippines: U.S. Over China 

China’s behavior toward the Philippines provides an opportunity to display the alignment preferences of China’s weaker neighbors. Lacking a credible defense capability, the Philippines cannot rely entirely on its own military strength for national security. Military spending accounts for just 1.3 percent of the country’s GDP, and most of its naval equipment is in dire need of modernization. As a result, in the face of a perceived threat, the Philippines finds itself resorting more to external balancing strategies by aligning more closely with the U.S.

This alignment behavior was demonstrated in two recent instances of Chinese assertiveness against the Philippines. The first was when China announced the Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone in 1992, which claims the disputed Spratly Islands as Chinese territory. The second was the 2011 Reed Bank Incident, in which a Chinese vessel allegedly harassed a Philippine vessel.

The Philippines’ alignment preferences in each of these instances reflect assessments of both relative power capabilities and threat perception. This echoes the alliance theories of Kenneth Waltz and Stephen Walt. Waltz’s balance of power theory is based on relative calculations of power, in which he argues that secondary states are more likely to balance against the more powerful state. This is based on the assumption that the country with the most national power is by definition the most threatening.

Meanwhile, Walt believes that alignment preferences are determined by factors beyond simple relative military capabilities. He shows that states generally balance against the country perceived as most threatening, which is determined by many factors such as relative power and geography.

Therefore, Waltz would expect the Philippines to balance against the more powerful state, which would be the U.S., by forming a coalition with other regional states. On the other hand, Walt would expect the Philippines as the weaker state to tighten its alignment with the U.S. as China is the greater threat to its territorial integrity.

The Philippines’ alignment preferences most closely reflect Walt’s predictions. In both of the cases of Chinese behavior cited above, the Philippines perceived a threat in China and responded by balancing against the source of this threat. In 1992, as chair of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the Philippines viewed China’s Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone as a threatening concern and pushed for an ASEAN Declaration to call for the peaceful resolution of sovereignty and jurisdictional issues in the South China Sea. President Benigno Aquino III echoed these concerns in 2011 when he described China’s actions in the Reed Bank as a “violation of our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Accordingly, the Philippines responded to the perceived threat from China by aligning more closely with the U.S. through external balancing strategies. China’s passing of the controversial law in 1992 spurred then-President Fidel Ramos to immediately secure a temporary U.S. military presence in the Philippines by granting the U.S. access to military installations. In 2011, Aquino took a different strategy: modernizing the Philippines’ military capabilities, but with American military assistance. Not long after the Reed Bank Incident, the Philippines purchased a second-hand Hamilton-class cutter from the U.S.. Interestingly enough, this same cutter, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, was deployed against China during a later incident at the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. It appears that the more threatening China’s posture to the Philippines, the tighter the Philippines’ alignment with the U.S.

Threat Perceptions as Important as Power Calculations 

Walt’s argument that weaker states will ally with a more powerful state if another state poses a greater threat is supported by the Philippines’ alignment behavior. As a weak state, the Philippines prioritizes its survival needs first and foremost, which are met under the security umbrella offered by the U.S.

Conversely, Kenneth Waltz’s argument that secondary states will form a coalition and balance against the more dominant power cannot explain the Philippines’ alignment behavior.

What explains this discrepancy? Waltz’s argument did not place sufficient emphasis on the role of perceived threats, which is critical in initiating alignment decisions in the first place. The threat perception emanating from China spurred the Philippines to make an alignment choice. Only after this was the Philippines’ alignment decision influenced by its assessment that the military capabilities of the U.S. were sufficient to provide protection to the Philippines in the face of a potential threat from China.

This behavior shows that power capabilities and threat perceptions do not necessarily have to accompany one another. Kenneth Waltz may have erred on two points. First, the stronger power does not always threaten secondary states. Second, weaker states do not always balance against the strongest power. When push comes to shove, threat perception (of which relative power is only one factor) is just as (if not more) important as raw power calculations in influencing alignment decisions.

Allies Needed for Regional Hegemony

Where does this leave China? As noted above,  it is already well on its way to meeting the industrial power to achieve regional hegemony, but it must also pursue closer alignments with its regional neighbors to acquire the allied support it needs to overtake the U.S. as the dominant power in Asia. To do this, China should avoid intimidating regional neighbors, which contributes to bilateral tension, and instead focus on attracting them as potential allies. As demonstrated by the Philippines’ alignment behavior, weaker regional countries are attracted to states that are both powerful and do not pose a perceived threat. China should thus consolidate its position as a regional power by attracting allies through a powerful and benign posture.

This posture, earlier adopted under China’s “peaceful development” maxim, requires jointly developing domestic and foreign policies to contribute to a strong domestic polity that cooperates with other countries in the international system. However, China is lumbered with factors such as nationalism, a factional army, and growing external pressure from the U.S., which hinder it from pursuing peaceful development. Chinese leaders should therefore try be more prudent in developing policies and avoid being swayed too strongly by the overwhelming nationalistic calls at home for a more assertive foreign policy. Appeasing influential domestic interest groups at the expense of foreign policy will not help Beijing achieve its goal of regional hegemony.

China could also broaden its avenues in reaching out to regional neighbors. Soft power, especially economic appeal, should play a larger role in securing a powerful and benign posture. As a major trading partner with many of its regional neighbors, China has already established a strong regional economic presence that could be further utilized to entrench the Asia Pacific’s economic dependency on China. This should be accompanied with diplomacy to cultivate trust towards a Chinese military, political and economic presence. On a broader international scale, China should demonstrate its ability to become a responsible and accountable rising power in its interaction within international institutions. By introducing a responsible, benign, and powerful posture in international diplomacy, China could assuage fears amongst regional neighbors and instead make them potential allies.

Asyura Salleh is a former government political analyst and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. She has a specialized research interest in military alliances and patron-client state relationships in Asia Pacific. 

*The title of this article has been edited.

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