An international consensus is forming about Chinese assertiveness in its relations with Asian neighbors. Whether the frequency of its gray zone coercion or the intensity of the land reclamation activities that the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative documents so well, China is making it increasingly difficult to deny a revisionist thread in its foreign policy. Despite a growing acknowledgement around the region and in Washington that China is engaging in a clear pattern of creeping aggression, there are many barriers to states effectively balancing against China. This is a potential danger in its own right.
At the recent Asan Plenum held in Seoul—the “Davos of Korea”—Chinese friends put on display a diplomatic assertiveness commensurate with their assertiveness in disputed territories in the East and South China Seas. The Chinese reiterated the hollow claim that a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery in South Korea would pose a threat to China, cautioning the South Koreans against allowing its deployment. They repeated Xi Jinping’s call to end “Cold War era alliances,” and advocated the return to a multipolar Asia. And in one of my panels, they suggested that the U.S.-South Korea alliance should effectively be null and void except for the narrow purpose of defending against North Korea. That’s right, one state telling other states the type and nature of relationships that others should be allowed to have—if that’s not a sign of revisionism then I’m not sure what is, short of a Hitler-esque invasion of another country. Unfortunately, as many China watchers are all too aware, none of the rhetoric on display at the Asan Plenum was particularly new.
Balancing involves the accretion of power, whether through alliance formation or internal military capacity building, for the sake of forming a counterweight that enables defense against (and ideally induces restraint in) another power. It isn’t necessarily dangerous or risky. On the contrary, under conditions of strategic competition or when facing states with revisionist intentions, balancing is justice; it is how the system maintains equilibrium. The belief that balancing is risky or aggressive in its own right is based on an assumption that the states you’re balancing against are defensively oriented, security seeking states that more or less support the geopolitical status quo. This potentially describes many states—Australia, Singapore, and South Korea, for example; arguably others as well. This does not describe China, at least not on its current path.
In the face of growing Chinese assertiveness and growing military power, there is a growing balancing imperative, yet there are at least four major barriers to balancing.
First, collective action is a classical problem in international relations that results from a dearth of trust, conflicts of interest among states, and preferences for free-riding when circumstances allow (as well as the more academic explanations of transaction costs and resolving multiple equilibrium). Because of a lack of trust among Asian states, a topic I’ve written about elsewhere, there is no appetite among Asian governments to form new alliances, nor is there any desire to endow Asia’s institutions with rule setting or rule enforcement legitimacy. And in the absence of trust among nations, many types of military cooperation are implausible.
Second, there is a well-documented trend of Asian states pursuing hedging strategies in their geopolitical alignments, as opposed to either clear balancing or bandwagoning. The hedging trend has several causes, but one of them is a bifurcation of the regional order into de facto spheres of influence split along functional lines: China at the center of economic issues and the United States still at the center of security issues. For Asian states that see China as their foremost economic relationship, the idea of balancing may seem like a logical tension.
Third, not all states agree that Chinese assertiveness is the problem. Despite the fact that Asian opinion polls suggest states are overwhelmingly concerned about Chinese intentions, it is not completely isolated. Cambodia and Laos, both dependent on Chinese economic beneficence beyond just trade relations, have complicated ASEAN consensus-building in the past by siding with Chinese preferences against other ASEAN states. And in the wake of Thailand’s recent coup, it has enjoyed warmer relations with China as it distanced itself somewhat from the United States.
Finally, even if collective political will in Asia mobilizes to counter-balance a more assertive China, there are military, operational and fiscal realities that impede balancing coalitions: military capacity and interoperability. Even though the entire Indo-Pacific region is undergoing processes of military modernization and pivoting defense establishments to focus more on external threats, the gap between Chinese defense spending and military capacity compared to its neighbors is not easy to fill. Moreover, it’s difficult for even the United States to field weapons systems and organizational protocols that work in harmony with those of other militaries. This is one of the valuable functions that multilateral military exercises serve, even when China takes part.
China’s behavior makes balancing a reasonable way—possibly the only way—of keeping the peace in Asia in the near- and mid-term. This doesn’t preclude cooperation with China, or even inclusive order-building and confidence-building measures if China’s willing to take part in such arrangements. In principle, balancing isn’t necessarily a return to the Cold War, and even if it were, a great deal of U.S.-Soviet cooperation took place over the life of that rivalry.
But the failure to balance China as its power grows and becomes more assertive creates a systemic risk to regional stability because of what China’s words and deeds suggest about its regional ambitions.