Say Yes to a Balance of Power in Asia

New alliances won't lead to another World War I.

In a March 31 article, “Say No to a Balance of Power in Asia,” Jan Hornát draws ominous parallels between the era preceding the First World War and the current security environment in Asia. He discusses a number of seemingly profound problems inhering in what he calls “a genuine balance of power system,” but holds out hope that “[i]f India maintains its ‘strategic autonomy’ and historical emphasis on ‘nonalignment’ and China remains reluctant to build coalitions…a genuine balance of power in the Indo-Pacific will not emerge.” While at first blush it seems Hornát is sounding a note of caution regarding alliance politics, his is a confused argument warning not so much against the perils of great-power alignments but against balancing activity itself. He betrays a misapprehension of the basic challenges embedded in the international system and an apparent allergy to the tools of statecraft used to manage them.

Among the problems he highlights with “a genuine balance of power system” is 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.” It is unclear, however, that the problems associated with perception and misperception are unique to the kind of system Hornát is cautioning against. That individual actors are left to perceive the distribution of power—whether balanced or not—and pursue their interests accordingly is a fact of international politics applicable irrespective of the distribution of power or the presence of alliances. Another problem Hornát notes, again purportedly unique to “a genuine balance of power system,” is that “a state’s emphasis on the preservation of the power equilibrium can serve to…ensure that it is not excessively stripped of territory to become too weak.” Is this to suggest that states are sensitive to considerations of power and seek to ensure their territorial integrity only under certain conditions?

Hornát further argues that, according to its “logic,” “balance of power can become a ‘camouflage’ or ‘justification’ for expansionist policies and acquisitions of territory.” While this is true enough, is he not just saying that the distribution of power, as it exists at any time, may not be palatable to certain states and that they may seek to remedy aspects of what is perceived to be an unfavorable, if not threatening, external environment? These are among the challenging and obviously unfortunate dynamics of international politics; they are not the unique characteristics of certain alliance configurations or distributions of power. That he repeatedly cites such challenges as representative of “a genuine balance of power system” makes it entirely unclear just what it is he is cautioning against. Regardless, it is untenable to suggest that depending on the alignment decisions of India and China, the perilous aspects of world politics he discusses will no longer constitute potential problems.

Perhaps what Hornát is warning against, however, is not so much the presence of opposing alliances but a relatively equal distribution of power among them. He cites Organski’s “power transition theory,” and notes that it “seems to be a good fit for the current relationship between the United States and China.” He also points to Lippmann’s assertion that “when the alliance is inadequate because there is an opposing alliance of approximately equal strength, the stage is set for a world war.”

While scholars debate what distributions of power are more or less conducive to stability, if Hornát is advocating for an unequal distribution in Asia why then does he caution against “a potential US-Japan-India alliance to balance China,” invoking the ominous parallel of the Triple Entente? If instead he is suggesting that China be allowed to rise unencumbered of a counterbalancing coalition, why does he approvingly cite Organski and Lippmann’s warnings about the destabilizing consequences of power parity? How do we reconcile these inconsistencies? It seems what Hornát is counseling against is not a unique and particularly combustible “genuine balance of power system,” but the practice of balancing in itself. For Hornát, then, either China should willingly submit to an essentially unipolar order or the other powers in the region should be unconcerned with the prospect of its rise. These are, of course, implausible possibilities and collectively constitute a baffling position, particularly from someone who makes reference to the “security dilemma.”

While “balance of power”—to its detriment—is a concept used in a variety of ways, at its most basic it tells us that states must be ever mindful of their security and help themselves. To this end, they tend to “balance” one another and they sometimes form alliances. These are among the fundamental elements of statecraft and advising that they be dispensed with is fanciful at best and self-destructive at worst. Although Hornát argues that the “logic” of balance of power can serve as a pretense for preventative and expansionary war, the presence of a robust and well-managed alliance can make preventive war unnecessary by reassuring allies and expansionary war improbable by deterring would-be aggressors. Moreover, just as historians ascribe some responsibility for the First World War to the European alliances, the absence of a credible deterrent of the kind an alliance can present is, of course, widely understood to have invited the aggression that triggered the Second World War. That today we live in a nuclear world should raise the premium we place on effective reassurance and deterrence.