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Putting Realist Theory to the Test

LBJ School - The University of Texas at Austin

Editor’s Word: That is the fifth installment in a particular collection revealed in collaboration with the Raisina Dialogue, which kicks off on Jan. eight in New Delhi. 

It’s tailored from the writer’s newest edited quantity, Asia’s Quest for Stability: China’s Rise and Balancing within the Indo-Pacific.

Nation-states are continuously partaking in balancing acts: striving to weigh between pursuits and values; weapons and butter; financial achieve and nationwide safety. Immediately, nevertheless, one balancing act supersedes all others: balancing in response to the rise of China.

Balancing is among the oldest and most intuitive ideas in worldwide relations concept. The influential realist faculty counsels that a nation’s speedy accumulation of energy has traditionally confirmed disruptive, confronting neighbors and friends with an unpalatable selection: bandwagon with the potential menace by aligning with it, or improve their defenses towards aggression or coercion by way of balancing.

A lot because the goal of schoolyard bullying may enroll in self-defense courses or forge a pact with different victimized classmates, threatened states typically search to reinforce their army capabilities — inner balancing — and/or improve safety cooperation with like-minded friends — exterior balancing. Bandwagoning, against this, is a riskier proposition. There’s no assure the benevolent disposition of a strong nation right now gained’t flip extra ominous tomorrow. And there’s no greater authority to ensure one’s safety if the rising energy turns aggressive.

Realists consider that, as inherently insecure, aggressive entities, states almost all the time want balancing. For main realist scholar John Mearsheimer, at this time is not any totally different. China’s neighbors “are sure to worry its rise” and “will do no matter they will to stop it from attaining regional hegemony,” together with becoming a member of “an American-led balancing coalition to verify China’s rise.”

Has China, with the extra assertive trajectory it has charted over the previous decade, prompted a wave of Asian balancing? Because it seems, the related query isn’t if China’s neighbors and friends are balancing — many have been for many years or centuries — however, quite, why they’re balancing, how they’re balancing, how a lot they’re balancing, and what they’re balancing towards. Briefly, there’s ample proof of uneven however elevated balancing exercise regionwide, but it additionally seems the Indo-Pacific is witnessing a robust present of “under-balancing.”

Most of China’s neighbors and friends are struggling to stay as diplomatically and economically engaged as potential with the rising Asian energy whereas taking the minimal steps essential to protect their safety and sovereignty. Many, together with the member states of the Affiliation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have confirmed averse to extra refined, potent balancing initiatives resembling treaty alliances, multilateral army workouts, and joint Freedom of Navigation Operations and naval patrols. None, together with the “Quad,” the grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the USA, has significantly entertained a Chilly Conflict-style containment technique.

On stability, Indo-Pacific balancing has been extra numerous and fewer pronounced than realist concept, previous precedent, or strategic logic may recommend. What explains this? Why do nations proceed partaking and empowering a rustic that would at some point pose a menace? Why haven’t China’s neighbors joined a U.S.-led balancing coalition, as Mearsheimer predicted? And why haven’t the Quad nations adopted extra overt containment methods?

A few of the contributing elements are structural and associated to the altering nature of worldwide governance and the worldwide financial system. Others are the product of China’s distinctive profile as a rising energy and the menace perceptions it has (and hasn’t) engendered. Nonetheless others mirror the prices, advantages, and incentives dealing with ASEAN nations and different smaller powers in China’s periphery.

The Balancing Panorama

In three essential methods, China’s neighbors are partaking in balancing according to what realist concept would predict. First, at a macro, regionwide degree, there’s substantial proof of accelerated inner and exterior balancing within the Indo-Pacific. Army spending has been rising quicker in Asia than almost some other area of the world, and the continent now hosts six of the world’s prime 10 protection importers, together with the worldwide chief: India. Between 2016 and 2020, the littoral states of the South China Sea are anticipated to extend protection spending by 50 %, reaching $250 billion, although China is just not the one issue driving these developments.

Second, what started a decade in the past as tentative steps towards higher protection collaboration amongst some Chinese language neighbors has damaged into an open dash in recent times. The depth of the exercise has differed extensively, accelerating extra shortly amongst Japan, Australia, India, and Vietnam than with Malaysia, Indonesia, or Myanmar. In some instances, considerations about China have been an overt or specific motivation; different occasions they’re certainly one of a number of elements motivating the “thickening” of Asian safety networks. Both means, there was materials progress within the high quality and amount of protection collaboration and joint army workouts; security-focused bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral dialogues; joint imaginative and prescient statements; and army inter-operability agreements.

Third, conventional army balancing has been accelerating among the many Quad. China’s deteriorating bilateral relationships with every member of the group and rising considerations about its challenges to the rules-based order helped spur the revival of the quadrilateral dialogue, which has convened thrice since November 2017 after mendacity dormant for a decade.

However as notable because the balancing we’re seeing is the balancing we aren’t seeing. For many Indo-Pacific capitals, commerce and funding ties with China have grown exponentially in recent times, regardless of aggravated menace perceptions and security-related considerations. Even among the many Quad, diplomatic and financial cooperation with China stays remarkably strong; Beijing is the most important buying and selling associate of all 4 members.

A few of China’s instant neighbors, like Cambodia, Laos, and Pakistan, have foregone balancing altogether. Slightly than shoring up defenses towards Chinese language aggression, they’re embracing a bigger Chinese language financial and, at the least in Pakistan’s case, army footprint. ASEAN states, in the meantime, have steered away from onerous balancing measures towards extra impartial, non-provocative endeavors. They’re in search of to defend their sovereignty and autonomy by strengthening worldwide legal guidelines, norms, and establishments, which realists have historically dismissed as inconsequential to restraining state conduct and impacting selections about struggle and peace.

Underneath-Balancing in a New World Order

Globalization and the unfold of financial interdependence have sure nations of all stripes in an in depth, typically uncomfortably tight financial embrace. This has created a paradox for China’s neighbors and friends. With their financial fortunes so instantly tied to wholesome relations with Beijing, more durable types of balancing danger invoking China’s ire and threatening their financial prospects. Thus, containment and extra excessive types of balancing that restrict engagement have develop into much less palatable and extra pricey.

In the course of the Chilly Warfare, the containment technique America and its companions employed towards the Soviet Union succeeded largely as a result of there was no significant financial relationship between the superpowers. Ashley Tellis persuasively argues the identical technique employed towards China would “discover little traction with key Asian states” and be “doomed to failure — no less than for now.” He means that severing ties with China is “politically, economically, and virtually unthinkable” in a globalized world, leaving China free to “exploit interdependence to extend [its] energy and autonomy.”

Whereas globalization has certainly disincentivized balancing and restricted the effectiveness and attractiveness of containment, the emergence of a world order within the latter half of the 20th century created new avenues for balancing. Alongside extra conventional army balancing methods, Indo-Pacific nations are more and more channeling their power towards what some students have dubbed “institutional balancing.”

Kai He defines institutional balancing as a technique through which states “follow norm/rule-building to constrain different states’ conduct or management and manipulate agendas to deal with points associated to their pursuits in multilateral establishments” and “consolidate their political and financial unity to withstand pressures from outsiders.” He identifies a direct and constructive correlation between the unfold of financial interdependence and the attractiveness of institutional balancing vis-à-vis extra conventional types of army balancing.

The phenomenon has manifested most instantly within the rising consideration being accorded to selling the rules-based order and, extra lately, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Leaders from the Quad, ASEAN, and past have been extra vocal in supporting the underlying tenets of the regional order, together with freedom of navigation, peaceable dispute settlement, help for worldwide regulation and the UN Conference on the Regulation of the Sea, and, extra just lately, infrastructure that’s clear, high-quality, and financially sustainable.

This shift represents an effort to adapt balancing to a altering world and to a brand new breed of rising energy. Up to now, the Indo-Pacific rivalries of the 21st century have unfolded not by way of broadsides from battleships however within the coercive “gray zones” and the courtroom of public opinion. Right now, securing votes at worldwide tribunals or pledges of help for freedom of navigation could also be equally as necessary to smaller Asian states as buying new submarines or cruise missiles.

In consequence, many Indo-Pacific capitals are more and more devoting their power not towards “containing” China however towards constraining its capability to infringe on their pursuits and undermine the rules-based order. They’re in search of to craft, improve, and defend norms, legal guidelines, establishments, and rules that constrain China’s most aggressive impulses and its capability for misbehavior.

Skeptics have rightly questioned the diploma to which such means can form China’s conduct. Thus far, the proof is combined. On one hand, China’s management has confirmed delicate to reputational prices and devoted power and capital towards cultivating a picture of a peaceable, accountable, benevolent energy. President Xi Jinping has more and more sought to painting China as a pacesetter and guardian of the worldwide financial and political order. In his Jan. 1, 2018, New Yr’s handle, he pledged that Beijing would “all the time be a builder of world peace, contributor of worldwide improvement and keeper of worldwide order.” In 2016 China’s leaders dismissed a Philippines-initiated Arbitral Tribunal as illegitimate and unworthy of their participation, but waged a concerted marketing campaign to rally worldwide help when it dominated decisively towards them. Lastly, Beijing has spared no effort making an attempt to stop ASEAN from forming a consensus in opposition to its South China Sea actions — not as a result of it fears the group’s mixed army may, however as a result of it hopes to keep away from being portrayed as a pariah appearing towards the regional consensus.

However, Beijing freely disregards legal guidelines, norms, and worldwide opinion when it fits the Communist Celebration’s pursuits. And it’s solely rising extra brazen in doing so. This means institutional balancing will function neither an efficient deterrent nor an entire substitute for typical protection spending and coalition-building, which is why the Quad and others proceed to advance extra conventional types of army balancing alongside this new concentrate on the rules-based order.

Nature of the Beast

Whereas Beijing has grown objectively extra assertive throughout a variety of overseas coverage fault strains, the geographic scope of its territorial claims stays restricted and comparatively well-defined, even when the claims themselves are deliberately ambiguous and in flagrant violation of worldwide regulation.

For now, China’s neighbors are alarmed by its designs on contested territory excessive within the Himalayas and deep within the sea. However, with the potential exception of Taiwan, these neighbors don’t worry the prospect of armored Chinese language columns threatening their capitals or Chinese language-funded insurgencies launching a guerilla conflict. They consider China poses a menace to their pursuits, autonomy, and the rules-based order, however to not their existence. Certainly, the historical past of up to date Chinese language warfare is essentially characterised by restricted, short-term conflicts and stealthy “grey-zone” coercion designed to both induce submission or “reclaim” misplaced territory.

The place the Soviet Union traded in radical revolutionaries, puppet regimes, and brute army drive, China is wielding subtler parts of energy and affect in pursuit of loyalty, submission, and arrearage. For China, “strategic predominance means a return to the Center Kingdom the place regional states paid due respect to China’s pursuits and have been cautious to not act in any method that displeased China,” argues Peter Varghese, former secretary of Australia’s Division of Overseas Affairs and Commerce.

In fact, even in pursuit of those extra restricted ambitions, China has repeatedly and overtly infringed on the pursuits of its neighbors. But, there’s a extensively held perception, amongst ASEAN capitals at the least, that China’s management stays cautious, risk-averse, and deliberative in its decision-making. In the intervening time, these nations say, China is disinclined towards any large-scale kinetic battle, notably one involving america.

For this reason, regardless of the very fact most regional safety analysts would determine China as their nation’s principal typical safety problem, the depth of regionwide menace perceptions doesn’t essentially match their breadth. China’s neighbors are balancing much less to make sure their survival than to protect their autonomy and a rules-based order, which is leading to much less decided types of balancing.

ASEAN’s Hedging

A number of contributing authors to my new edited quantity Asia’s Quest for Stability argue that ASEAN states like Indonesia, Malaysia, and others usually tend to understand Chinese language assertiveness as a “problem” than as a “menace,” and to put larger religion within the energy of diplomacy or multilateral norms and establishments to dissuade Chinese language adventurism. These nations are additionally extra more likely to understand onerous balancing methods as counterproductive, pushing Beijing towards much more unfavorable or aggressive responses.

Many contributors famous the position of ASEAN nations’ strategic and diplomatic tradition of their strategy to balancing, particularly, an ingrained aversion to geopolitical alignment and army alliances, in addition to nervousness about turning into embroiled in great-power rivalry. For a lot of ASEAN capitals, encouraging the Quad to imagine extra lively and constant roles in regional

safety and financial affairs is a much less provocative solution to obtain a relative stability of energy than proactively making an attempt to restrict or diminish China’s energy and affect.

Within the years forward, Southeast Asian nations will proceed taking modest steps to strengthen their army capabilities and forge new exterior safety partnerships however will really feel constrained by geographic realities and financial imperatives. Some, like Vietnam, might pursue extra unbiased overseas insurance policies and extra vigorous balancing initiatives, drawing nearer to the Quad. However absent a serious provocation from China that basically alters regionwide menace perceptions, these nations are more likely to stay comparatively aloof, reflecting the disposition of their broader publics: surprisingly unaware of or disinterested within the geopolitical “Nice Recreation” underway.


The Indo-Pacific balancing panorama is coloured by a altering, extra economically interdependent world, the lure of worthwhile engagement with Beijing, and the subdued menace perceptions of lots of China’s neighbors. Together with China’s efficient deployment of carrots and sticks, these elements have created disincentives to extra conventional army coalition-building and to containment methods of eras previous, changed by “softer” types of balancing and institution-building. Briefly, China has defied realist concept’s expectations about balancing — up to now.

Beijing might need to mood its enthusiasm, although. Its extra assertive disposition has already set one consequential wave of army balancing into movement among the many Quad, whose cumulative energy and geopolitical heft far outstrip China’s smaller, extra quiescent neighbors. Even when, as its critics recommend, the Quad is shifting at an excessively deliberative tempo, the institutional framework for quadrilateral cooperation has been established and could be scaled up shortly in response to future threats. Critically, all 4 nations have been advancing protection collaboration on the bilateral and trilateral ranges in a lot faster however quieter strides.

There’s extra dangerous information for China. A second backlash wave has begun forming in response to longstanding however hardening considerations over all kinds of Chinese language financial and overseas coverage practices. Notably, it extends past the Quad to the European Union, Southeast Asia, and elements of the creating world.

This wave is partly propelled by rising considerations about China’s expansive Belt and Street Initiative. Over the previous yr, the worldwide narrative surrounding the undertaking has turn out to be far more suspicious and hostile. Final month, the European Union, India, and the USA labored to wash any reward of the Belt and Street from a United Nations decision on Afghanistan.

Throughout the globe, there’s been higher scrutiny utilized to Chinese language investments in delicate infrastructure, the nexus between economics and geopolitics in Chinese language grand technique, and the secretive nature of the offers China is signing, which at occasions are later discovered to have contained objectionable or sovereignty-violating provisions. These considerations predate the Belt and Street, however because the initiative has amplified China’s footprint overseas, the backlash has sharpened.

In parallel, there’s rising alarm over China’s more and more brazen use of “sharp energy,” its interference within the home politics of its neighbors, its crackdown on educational freedom, its more and more repressive strategy to freedom of faith and human rights at residence, and its punitive bullying techniques overseas. Tendencies in every area have deteriorated because the 2008 international monetary disaster and much more so since Xi Jinping’s rise to energy in 2012. Over the previous two years, nevertheless, the extent of worldwide consciousness and alarm has risen because the tolerance for these practices has diminished.

Maybe nowhere has the middle of gravity shifted extra decisively than in america. Supported by a crystalizing bipartisan consensus, the Trump administration has opened a number of new fronts towards China on financial protectionism, cyber safety, and human rights violations. It has issued indictments for Chinese language hackers, given the Pentagon extra flexibility to conduct freedom of navigation patrols within the South China Sea, unveiled new restrictions on overseas investments, and ordered the detention of the top of a serious Chinese language telecom agency. The European Union, Australia, and others have begun following go well with, unveiling new screening measures on overseas investments and outlawing overseas political donations whereas extra vocally denouncing China’s predatory buying and selling practices and unlawful detention of overseas residents. Neither is this a western phenomenon. From Sri Lanka to Malaysia, and from the Maldives to Kenya, China’s model, and that of the Belt and Street, are beneath duress.

Up to now, this backlash has translated right into a extra concerted effort to restrict or scrutinize engagement with Beijing, versus producing the extra cohesive and widespread army balancing that realist principle may predict. Whether or not the latter ultimately occurs will rely very a lot on China’s actions and the way Beijing responds not solely to mounting worldwide criticism, but in addition to tougher home financial circumstances. If Beijing doubles down on the extra assertive and repressive trajectory it has charted since 2008, it might find yourself fulfilling the realists’ prophecy and triggering a brand new tide of balancing in any case.


Jeff M. Smith is a Analysis Fellow within the Heritage Basis’s Asian Research Middle. He’s the writer/editor of “Asia’s Quest for Stability: China’s Rise and Balancing within the Indo-Pacific” (2018), and writer of “Chilly Peace: China-India Rivalry within the 21st Century” (2014).  His skilled commentary has appeared in Overseas Affairs, the Wall Road Journal, the New York Occasions, and The Economist, amongst others.

Picture: U.S. State Division

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