The empirical limitations of classical realism’s focus on balances of power are well understood. The theory goes that states balance against other threats simply based on the arithmetic of military hardware, which leads to all sorts of nasty arms races and security dilemmas. Of course, empirically we see examples of states – particularly smaller states – not balancing against states with massive military power. The United States’ situation following the second World War, during the Cold War, and during its famous “unipolar moment” in the 1990s demonstrates as much. NATO and major non-NATO allies of the US could have easily perceived the American war machine coming out of World War II as a threat worth balancing against but instead they chose to side with the United States.
The explanation for this is simple and has been known since the late 1980s. States tend to balance against threats, not mere power. Stephen M. Walt first explained the phenomenon in an International Security article in 1985 and since then threat-based analysis has become somewhat of a mainstay among contemporary realists and Western foreign policy elites. Understanding how perceived threats shape foreign policy is invaluable for foreign policy makers. The entirety of Cold War strategic missile defense and proxy-state acquisition was based around the notion of maintaining a favorable game-state on the global chessboard based on the mutual threat perceptions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ideology mattered to an extent in framing the distrust, but what really mattered in the creation of foreign policy was the notion of a monolithic external threat.
In the Asia-Pacific today, viewing international affairs and emerging alliances through this lens is particularly useful. The rise of China has prompted a scramble along the Asian rimland to balance against what is perceived to be a threat to the established territorial status quo and national interests. China maxes out almost all of the criteria that states generally use to evaluate an external threat: geographical proximity, overall strength, offensive capabilities, and offensive intentions. China’s sheer size and position at the heart of the Asian landmass make its affairs and intentions the interest of all those who surround it. Its population, economy, and growth render it demographically and economically significant – its neighbors trade with it extensively. Offensive capabilities and intentions, while a little more blurred in the past, as recently as the Hu-Wen era, are now clearer. The PLA’s bid to modernize its navy and air force, invest in anti-access/area denial technologies, and build aircraft carriers coupled with declarations such as the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone send a troubling message across the region.
It appears that the latest generation of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership is content to continue with a sort of Chinese foreign policy that will inexorably lead to distrust and external balancing among China’s neighbors. Chinese diplomats will give lip service to signing “treaties of good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation” between China and ASEAN but diplomacy can’t be decoupled from the broader threat environment.
So what can Chinese leaders do to fix China’s image in the region? Ultimately, it is detrimental for China to be surrounded by neighbors who are are deeply skeptical of its intentions. Until now, the Chinese strategy has been to use its massive economic heft to underscore why conflict would be a mutually undesirable proposition. While this has somewhat worked, it won’t be tenable in the long-term given that external partners will begin to substitute their economic reliance on China to allow for greater maneuverability in their foreign policy with Beijing. That Japan concluded a deal with India on rare-earth metals in 2012 after China halted rare-earth exports to Japan a few years earlier is no coincidence.
China could have followed the United States’ example. While the United States had the power to unilaterally revise the world order any way it wanted following the second World War, it did so in a way that was perceived as fair and reasonable, at least by the economically dominant powers at the time. The analog for China today would be to better incorporate international law and norms into its relations with its neighbors. Unfortunately, phenomena like the East China Sea ADIZ, Hainan province’s fishing rules, and a preference for bilateralism over multilateralism in resolving disputes indicate a move in the opposite direction.
It is likely that China will continue to be perceived as a threat by most of its neighbors, at least for the duration of the current generation of the CCP’s leadership. Realist explanations of world politics often read states as black boxes, taking inputs and producing outputs, but ignoring the CCP’s interest in maintaining domestic legitimacy while discussing Chinese foreign policy would be a major oversight. The CCP’s domestic considerations partly help explain why historical pain, nationalist motivations, and the abrasive pursuit of territorial claims persist even though they continue to render China’s neighbors ever-more hostile.