Say No to a Balance of Power in Asia

Alliances and counteralliances that might make war with China more likely.

Many analogies and parallels have been made between the current power interplay in the Indo-Pacific and the balance-of-power system of nineteenth century Europe. This narrative is easily accepted by conventional wisdom, but it is necessary to concentrate on the potential implications of a genuine balance of power system in the region. Despite the Nixon-Kissinger proposition that “the road to peace still depends on a balance of power”, equilibrium of power in the Indo-Pacific may increase tensions and have adverse effects than fostering a benign and peaceful regional environment.

The general problem of the balance of power was already formulated by Hans Morgenthau—states “actually aim not at a balance—that is, equality—of power but at superiority of power in their own behalf … all nations must ultimately seek the maximum of power obtainable under the [given] circumstances.” Simply put, no state will deliberately hinder its growth to stay on par with its counterparts. The concept of power equilibrium also bothered the Italian-born political scientist A.F.K. Organski, who claimed that balance of power is “neither a logical abstraction nor an accurate description of empirical fact” and instead envisaged the “power transition theory”, which turned balance of power on its head.

Organski opined that it is not equilibrium of power that ensures peace, but rather the preponderance of power between great powers that leads to a peaceful environment. His “power transition theory” asserts that during the period of power parity (or balance) between two states (i.e. the “challenger” and the “dominant power”) the prospect for war increases, because the challenger is “eager to redress its grievances and assume its ‘rightful’ role in the world” and the dominant power is unwilling to give up its preponderance. In this sense, the theory seems to be a good fit for the current relationship between the United States and China.

Organski’s theory applies essentially to the interplay of great powers, but a similar necessity for preponderance of power was acknowledged by Richard Nixon in reference to Israel. In a presidential campaign speech, Nixon argued that the United States should ensure that Israel had sufficient military power to deter an Arab attack, and insisted that “the balance must be tipped in Israel’s favor. An exact balance of power … would run the risk that potential aggressors might miscalculate and would offer them too much of a temptation.”

A similar position was taken by Walter Lippmann when discussing alliances. Lippmann believed that “when the alliance is inadequate because there is an opposing alliance of approximately equal strength, the stage is set for a world war. For then the balance of power is so nearly even that no state is secure.” Today, we would label such a situation as a security dilemma.

When a balance-of-power system is put into operation, the main goal of all actors involved is to avert the emergence of an imbalance or a tilt of the equilibrium in favor of one state or alliance. The means to maintain the state of power equilibrium are numerous and they include preventive war. As Geoffrey Blainey points out, the most adamant balance of power practitioners and theorists—“the Metternichs and the Castlereaghs—all thought of war as an instrument to preserve or restore a balance of power…It merely masqueraded as a formula for peace.” In a balance-of-power system, preemptive war thus becomes a legitimate means to preserve the desired equilibrium.

Another problem lies in the fact that the coveted “balance” is also a matter of perception—while one actor may be satisfied with the existing balance, another actor may not view the power relations as “balanced” and call for revisions. In this sense, a state’s emphasis on the preservation of the power equilibrium can serve to (1) ensure that it is not excessively stripped of territory to become too weak and (2) that no other state acquires such territory or capabilities as to tip the balance in its favor.

Following this logic, however, balance of power can become a “camouflage” or “justification” for expansionist policies and acquisitions of territory. With a number of unresolved border issues in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the maritime domain, balance of power could, in fact, foster further tensions.

Analyst Rajan Menon asserted that India, “despite huge strides in modernizing its armed forces, [cannot] balance China militarily without powerful coalition partners—a reality that will remain unchanged during the next few decades.” This implies that in its balancing strategy, India would not only practice “internal balancing” (increasing its economic and military strength), but also “external balancing” (establishing partnerships and reinforcing alliances).

India is already practicing its so-called “Look East” policy, which aims to set up and strengthen partnerships in Southeast Asia, but what raises most anxiety in Beijing is the perceived rapprochement between New Delhi and Tokyo. A formalized alliance between India and Japan would be viewed by the Chinese leadership as an overt balancing coalition aimed to limit its rise, thus putting in motion a series of Chinese countermeasures that would spiral into a tense balancing contest in the Indo-Pacific.