Say No to a Balance of Power in Asia

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.

China would perceive an Indo-Japanese partnership as an extension of the dreaded “first island chain”—an arc of U.S. partners that stretches from the Korean Peninsula, through Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines—which allegedly limits the Chinese Navy’s oceangoing freedom. Chinese strategists often refer to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands as an “iron chain” that New Delhi could employ to “squeeze” the Malacca Straits to damage the Chinese economy. The dependence of the Chinese economy and industry on vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean would prompt Beijing to increasingly deploy patrols in these waters to protect its maritime trade and energy imports. Furthermore, using economic leverage, China could start pushing countries, in which it financed the construction of port facilities (Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), for permission to deploy warships.

From the U.S. perspective, a balance of power system would problematize American relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan. China is a longtime ally of Pakistan and the relationship is often referred to as “the most stable and durable element of China’s foreign relations”. Beijing would arguably use its relationship with Pakistan more extensively to counterbalance the Indo-Japanese alliance. China’s engagement in Pakistan would also inevitably lead to greater Chinese influence on Afghan affairs. This would place the United States in a difficult position vis-à-vis Pakistan. On the one hand, maintaining good relations with India would mean opposing Pakistan’s alliance with China. On the other hand, Washington is likely to have stakes in Pakistan in the years to come—that is, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation etc.—therefore it would be imperative not to sever ties with Islamabad. In an Indo-Pacific balance of power system, Washington’s twin relationship with Pakistan and India would become unmanageable.

China and India have a significant number of common interests and shared perspectives. Both countries aim for a stable and secure regional environment in order to stay focused on domestic development. To soothe tensions in the disputed Himalayan border region, New Delhi and Beijing have signed an agreement in October 2013 that stresses the use of non-military means to settle border issues. Both states seem to have similar perspectives on the organization of the international community—they emphasize the concept of sovereignty, noninterventionism and multilateralism. Their economies are highly dependent on secure and open SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, yet they diverge on how security and openness should be assured. A balance of power system in the Indo-Pacific would lead to a suppression of the described common interests and accentuate the differences in Sino-Indian relations.

Power balancing also instigates jockeying for partnerships. Southeast Asian states would have to weight their dependence on either of the powers and choose to strengthen ties with one or the other (this process is basically already under way). Smaller states in the Indian Ocean, such as Mauritius or the Maldives, would bandwagon with an alliance that they would perceive to have the upper hand. Certain states of Central Asia could also play a role in an emerging balance of power system—while India maintains an air base in Tajikistan, China is engaged in constructing gas pipelines leading from Turkmenistan, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China’s Xinjiang province.

A contested question among scholars is whether the balance of power is a systemic phenomenon (that is, operating ‘naturally’ in a self-perpetuating manner) or whether it is the consequence of specific balancing policies adopted by individual actors within the international system. If the former applies, a balance-of-power system in the Indo-Pacific is essentially an inevitable prospect. If the latter is correct, a balance of power system will emerge only when actors in the system agree with its operation by pursuing balancing policies.

In any case, the geopolitical fabric is set for a genuine balance-of-power system to emerge in the wider Indo-Pacific region. The large number of regional actors encourages many possibilities and variations of alliance and bloc formations—a prerequisite for an effective balance-of-power system, according to some scholars—and regional powers are increasingly ambitious in their power aspirations. The interaction of these aspirations is likely to cause friction in the future and may lead to the adoption of overt balancing policies. Still, it is important to keep in mind that a balance of power system can accentuate mutual differences, intensify rivalries and legitimize expansionist policies and preemptive war in name of the equilibrium. Nonetheless, if India maintains its “strategic autonomy” and historical emphasis on “nonalignment” and China remains reluctant to build coalitions and continues to prefer to resolve issues on the bilateral level, a genuine balance of power in the Indo-Pacific will not emerge.