What Will the Neighbors Do?
Regarding China’s neighbors, the key question is whether they will join forces with the United States and balance against China, or bandwagon with a rising China. Some observers might argue that there is a third option, which is to sit on the sidelines and remain neutral. It will not be possible, however, for countries in Asia to sit this one out. Almost every state will have to choose sides, not just because Beijing and Washington will put enormous pressure on them to choose their side, but also because most of those states—which are much weaker than either China or the United States—will reasonably want to have a powerful protector in the event their security is threatened.
Given the survival imperative, most of China’s neighbors will opt to balance against it, much the way most of the countries in Northeast Asia and Europe that were free to choose in the Cold War opted to join with the United States against the Soviet Union. The reason is simple: China poses a more serious threat to most countries in Asia than the United States does, and states invariably balance against their most dangerous foe, not bandwagon with it. China is more threatening for largely geographical reasons. Specifically, China is a local power in Asia; it sits either right next door or within easy striking distance of the countries in its neighborhood. The same was true of the Soviet Union during the Cold War; it was a direct threat to conquer West Germany and Japan, among other countries in Europe and Northeast Asia.
The United States, on the other hand, is much less threatening to China’s neighbors. Although America is obviously the most powerful player in the Asia-Pacific region and will remain so for some time, it is a distant great power that has never had substantial territorial designs in either Asia or Europe. The main reason is that it is too far away to engage in conquest in those regions. The United States has to project its power over huge distances as well as two massive bodies of water—the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans—just to reach those strategically important regions. Thus, there is little danger of being swallowed up or dominated by the United States, as there was with the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1990, and will be with China as it grows more powerful.
None of this is to deny that the United States has used military force against various countries in Asia and Europe. After all, it fought two major wars in Asia (Korea and Vietnam) during the Cold War. The key point, however, is that the American military did not threaten to conquer and subjugate those countries, as a potent China might do.
Another dimension of America’s position in Asia highlights why it is less threatening than China’s. As a distant great power, the United States has the option of greatly reducing its military presence in that region, and it could conceivably bring all of its troops home. China obviously does not have that option. In fact, the greatest fear China’s neighbors have regarding the United States is that it will not be there for them in a crisis, not that the American military might attack and vanquish them. This is the main reason why the Obama administration announced in the fall of 2011 that the United States would “pivot to Asia,” which is a pithy way of saying it would actually increase its presence in the region. Washington was trying to reassure its Asian allies that, despite its focus on the greater Middle East and the closely related war on terror in the decade after September 11, they could still depend on the United States to guard their backs.
One might argue that China has an ace in the hole that will allow it to force at least some of its neighbors not to balance with the United States and instead bandwagon with Beijing. A number of Asian countries, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, trade extensively with China and heavily invest there as well. Thus, their prosperity is dependent on their maintaining good relations with China. This situation, so the argument goes, gives China significant economic leverage over those trading partners, which means that if they join an American-led balancing coalition, Beijing can threaten to cut economic ties and undermine their prosperity. Indeed, it should be able to use that economic leverage to coerce those countries into joining forces with China.
It is important to emphasize that in this story the Chinese economy is not seriously hurt if economic intercourse with one or more of these neighbors is curtailed or even halted. In other words, this is not a case of mutual vulnerability, which is what underpins the theory of economic interdependence, a subject I deal with below. Here there is one-way vulnerability, which is what gives Beijing the capability to blackmail its neighbors and thus undermine or at least seriously weaken any anti-China balancing coalition the United States might try to organize.
In essence, this is a situation in which economic and political-military considerations are in conflict; that raises an important question: which factor will ultimately prevail? My argument is that security considerations almost always trump economic considerations and that states opt for balancing over bandwagoning whenever they must choose between those strategies. The underlying logic of my position should be clear by now. Countries balance against powerful rivals because it is the best way to maximize their prospects of survival, which must be their highest goal. Bandwagoning with a more powerful state, in contrast, lessens the bandwagoner’s prospects for survival, because the more formidable state is free to become even more powerful and thus more dangerous.
The economic-coercion argument, however, has a different logic; it stresses prosperity over survival. The core claim is that a state with significant market power can seriously hurt the economy of the target state, and that the threat of economic punishment will be enough to coerce the vulnerable country into bandwagoning with the more powerful state. There is no question that severe economic pain is a scary prospect, but not surviving looms as an even greater peril. Survival, in other words, is a more powerful imperative than prosperity, which is why realist logic usually trumps arguments based on economic coercion, and why China’s neighbors will balance against it.
Indeed, there is already considerable evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, along with smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are beginning to look for ways to contain it. India and Japan, for example, signed a “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation” in October 2008, mainly because they are worried about China’s growing power. India and the United States, which had testy relations throughout the Cold War, have become good friends over the past decade, in large part because both fear China. In July 2010, the Obama administration, which is populated with individuals who preach to the world about the importance of human rights, announced that it was resuming relations with Indonesia’s elite special forces, despite their rich history of human rights abuses. The reason for this shift is that Washington wants Indonesia on its side as China grows more powerful, and, as the New York Times reported, Indonesian officials “dropped hints that the group might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban remained.”
Singapore, which sits astride the critically important Strait of Malacca and worries about China’s growing power, badly wants to improve its already close ties with the United States. Toward that end, it built a deepwater pier at its Changi Naval Base so that the U.S. Navy could operate an aircraft carrier out of Singapore if the need arose. And the decision by Japan in mid-2010 to allow the U.S. Marines to remain on Okinawa was driven in part by Tokyo’s concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the region and the related need to keep the American security umbrella firmly in place over Japan. As China becomes more powerful, relations among China’s neighbors will grow even closer, as will their relations with the United States.
Finally, a word about Taiwan’s future is in order. Given Taiwan’s importance for controlling the sea-lanes in East Asia, the United States has a powerful incentive to prevent China from seizing it. Moreover, American policymakers care greatly about credibility and reputation, which makes it even less likely that the United States would abandon Taiwan. This is not to deny that China might eventually become so powerful that the U.S. military cannot defend that island. In the meantime, however, Taiwan is likely to be part of an American-led balancing coalition aimed at China, which will surely infuriate Chinese of all persuasions and intensify the security competition between Beijing and Washington.
In sum, my theory says if China continues its striking economic growth over the next few decades, it is likely to end up in an intense security competition with the United States and its neighbors. I have said much about the specific policies we would expect the relevant actors to pursue. For example, we should expect to see China articulate its own version of the Monroe Doctrine and seek to push the U.S. military out of the Asia-Pacific region. And we should expect most of China’s neighbors to join an American-led balancing coalition aimed at checking Beijing.