Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Underbalancing in Asia

International relations scholars have coined the term “underbalacing” to refer to situations in which countries either fail to balance (or align against and confront) against threats or do so in a slow, untimely fashion.

The classic case is World War II. There, the Western powers, exhausted and weary from World War I, were reluctant to balance against the gathering storm of Nazism and rapidly expanding German power. An anti-Hitler coalition was finally cobbled together, but only after Hitler began his march through Europe. The absence of a formal, tight military coalition directed at Germany created a power vacuum in the heart of Europe and resulted in a massive opportunity for Hitler to satisfy his world ambitions.

This logic of underbalancing isn’t just relevant to the history books, however. We can see traces of it in Asia today, and it’s something that bears watching.

There’s much talk nowadays about China shooting itself in the foot with its aggression in the South and East China Seas. The implication is that China’s moves are alienating its friends and driving its rivals together. Sure, this risk is real. And then the real danger comes in the interplay between a cornered and insecure China and an angry anti-China coalition. In this scenario, we could observe a protracted cycle of intra-Asia hostilities, arms racing, and increasingly provocative foreign policies—all of which make conflict and violence within Asia more likely.

Even so, we shouldn’t get too carried away just yet with that possibility. In fact, it’s possible that such a scenario might never occur; instead, we might see underbalancing at work in Asia. In short, there are factors that could easily prevent or delay the formation of an anti-China coalition.

For example, a number of Asian countries are weak and looking to grow, which gives them incentives to avoid challenging China. Such weakness—measured in economic and military capabilities—means they can’t balance against China individually, and there is the chance that external balancing makes more theoretically than in practice—particularly if the capabilities of Asian countries remain weak and underdeveloped and the requisite political will to collectively confront China just isn’t there. Meantime, choosing a non-aligned position within the region, or even siding with China, can give Asian nations an opportunity to maintain strong economic ties to Beijing, allowing them to piggyback off China’s economic ascent.

The one wrinkle here, though, is that the prospect of bandwagoning or sitting on the sidelines, whether because of coercive or profit seeking pressures, aren’t unique to Asia. In fact, as scholars such as Randall Schweller have pointed out, they’re more prominent than scholars have typically recognized. As an example, we’ve seen them for centuries in the Western Hemisphere, where North and South American countries have decided to either friend or remain neutral in the face of American dominance.

That said, there are two factors unique and specific to Asia that could foster underbalancing behavior. Let’s take a quick look at them.

First, East Asia has been unable to move past effectively Japan’s militaristic past. This is often called “Asia’s history problem.” To this day, Japan’s conquest of parts of China and the Korean peninsula, its use of comfort women, the role of the Yasukuni Shrine in Japanese politics, and the perception that Tokyo hasn’t been particularly contrite for these misdeeds has kept Japan’s relations with China and, more importantly, South Korea rather frosty. It probably doesn’t help that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on effort to relax the pacifist restrictions of Japan’s constitution, which could allow Japan to participate in collective defense operations with allies and friends. It has given some credence to the Chinese-led narrative that Japan is rearming, bringing back regional fears of the past.

The punchline of this is that, if South Korea can’t get past the struggles and horrors of World War II, then Japan could be in trouble. Should Japan find itself in a conflict with China, Tokyo might find it difficult to form a coalition with South Korea. Seoul might balk at such an agreement or form one only after it’s too late. Perhaps this isn’t such a big deal today, given Japan’s current defensive military advantages, but it will be in the future, when Chinese military capabilities (in quantity and quality) do exceed those of Japan. At that point, Japan will need all the help it can get.

But let’s take a less severe example. If Tokyo-Seoul differences go unresolved, then better and more substantial cooperation won’t happen. In that case, China scores a big win. Absent an anti-China coalition in East Asia, one that aims to hem in Beijing, then China has an easier path to spread its wings throughout all of Asia. The presence of such a coalition keeps China preoccupied with its position in its backyard, forestalling any grander ambitions that China might have. But if this Seoul-Tokyo coalition doesn’t exist, China can move beyond its neighborhood and cast its gaze on Southeast Asia and South Asia. This is exactly why the U.S. is concerned about Japan-South Korea relations and has subtly tried to get both sides to overcome their differences.

To a certain extent, one can argue this is already happening. China is facing little resistance in East Asia nowadays. South Korea and Japan are barely on speaking terms. And in the midst of the South Korea-Japan split, Beijing has cleverly cozied up to Seoul, pulling it into China's orbit. At the same time, Japan still hasn't resolved its fight to relax the restrictions on its pacifist constitutions, which means that Tokyo's military power is still effectively neutered. And Taiwan is afraid to make any move that could be seen as provocative by Beijing. As a result, China is able look beyond its locality and cause mischief in the South and East China Seas.

Second, Asia is home to two major non-aligned nations: Indonesia and India. Will they maintain their non-aligned status even if China emerges as a threat to the region? Let’s take a quick look at these two countries.

On the one hand, India had has a rocky relationship with China. India, clearly, sees China as a rival for regional status and prestige. Both countries fought a border war in 1962 and still have disagreements over the India-China border. In fact, PLA forces crossed into India twice in 2013, much to the dismay of Indian civilian and military leaders. In fact, this and other aggressive moves by China has been noticed by new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, on the campaign trail, issued critical remarks about Chinese behavior in Asia. Furthermore, keep in mind that India’s so-called Look East policy, which includes bolstering ties to Japan, is a hedge against Chinese encroachment on Indian interests.

At the same time, though, India under Modi is highly motivated to burnish its economy, and China plays a part of these economic plans. Undoubtedly, Modi would prefer not to pick a fight with China.

Meantime, Indonesia takes pride in its “thousand friends, no enemies” foreign policy, one that’s entirely consistent with its longstanding non-aligned position in the world. Unlike India, Indonesia has very good relations with both China and the U.S., and would like to keep it that way. Its foreign policy has strove to keep the country out of disputes and conflicts. Yet the tandem of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa have been able to keep Indonesia active in the region and the world at large by positioning the country as a trusted mediator and troubleshooter, particularly within the ASEAN community.

My guess is that India and Indonesia would have to be directly provoked to get both off the sidelines. In the case of India, cross border raids and confiscation of Indian territory is something to watch. Of course, though, things could change if India gets its economic act together to the point that it’s a direct competitor to China throughout Asia. Such competition could easily spill into political and security affairs, thereby relaxing India’s propensity to remain non-aligned. But given India’s modest growth rates over the past decade, in combination with China’s continued blistering economic pace and its rapid military modernization program, we’re probably quite some time away from any kind of tense, multifaceted competition between New Delhi and Beijing.

As for Indonesia, a potential tussle over the Natuna islands is possible as China may well expand its claims in the area over time. But even in this case, Indonesia, in my view, would likely try to resolve its differences with Beijing bilaterally and in line with international law. Indonesia would do what it could to minimize the dispute, not escalate it, which is what playing balance of power politics could do. Sure, eschewing alliances would ensure that Jakarta can’t improve its bargaining leverage vis-a-via Beijing; but at the same time, tightly tying itself to other nations would reduce its strategic flexibility and independence—something Indonesia, as a former colony of great powers of the past, deeply values.

NOTE: A version of this post has been published by Strategic Review. You can find it here.

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