In 1978, on a visit to Japan, Deng Xiaoping gave the first Western-style press conference of any Chinese communist leader. A reporter asked Deng about the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea simultaneously claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan. As Ezra Vogel reports in his groundbreaking new biography, the audience “became tense” before Deng breezily responded that China and Japan should put the issue aside and leave it for subsequent generations, who would be wiser than those present. Today, those new generations bestride a Chinese colossus and have swapped Deng’s stiletto for the bludgeon that comes with power. But as Beijing has come to realize, actions have reactions, and its increasingly bellicose foreign policy has set in motion a great South Asian rebalancing.
The concept of balancing is a bedrock of international-relations theory. A conceptually studied-to-death phenomenon, it predicts that states will band together with one another when possible to prevent any single state from becoming too dominant within the system or neighborhood of states. Since balancing deals only with power considerations, past examples have often produced strange bedfellows. The coalitions that came together to defeat Napoleon, the kaiser and Hitler were hardly made in heaven and often fell apart as soon as their common purpose was completed. Yet across the centuries, that common purpose has always been the same: maintain a relative balance of power and prevent any single state from dominating.
Today it’s not the Senkaku but the Spratly, Paracel and Macclesfield Bank islands in the South China Sea that make the Middle Kingdom look increasingly threatening to its Asian neighbors and beyond. Thus, it is hardly surprising to see the beginnings of an Asian coalition against China emerging.
The cobweb of islands, a minefield of disputed claims among no less than six actors, presents textbook balancing conditions. It should surprise no one that China seeks to negotiate the dispute bilaterally between the relevant actors, while the less powerful states—Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam—seek a more collective approach with the United States. These nations are by no means natural allies. In most cases, they have overlapping claims with one another. However, each one understands that its individual position is best served by working together to check Chinese ambition. It is the essence of balancing. The United States, lurking in the background, provides the ace in the hole.
Indeed, it may seem surprising to see such a prominent role for the United States in a nascent anti-Chinese balancing coalition. U.S. relationships in the region have not always been so harmonious. Now forgotten in the United States, the Philippine-American war left by some estimates over a million dead and the Filipino people subjugated for over forty years. Past U.S.-Vietnam relations need no reintroduction. Yet Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s June visit to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, a former U.S. naval base, was a milestone in our relationship with that nation. It was also an unmistakable shot across the bow to China. Ironic though it seems, a more activist role for the United States—and implicitly its military—is being clamored for in the very nations where in the past it has been so destructive.
The reason for a prominent U.S. role lies in geography. In the Asian neighborhood of states, China looms largest. Its land borders are contiguous or within a few hundred miles of the nations whose land rights it disputes. The overwhelming presence of the People’s Liberation Army, the largest standing army in the world, hangs over any Chinese negotiation as a grim bargaining chip. The United States is likely the only nation that can credibly neutralize this threat. This is why its assistance is not only sought after in the island disputes but also why most of these nations are already ensconced within the U.S. security umbrella (whether directly or indirectly). While the United States legacy is hardly innocent, it is courted—and will continue to be—because its geography, well on the other side of the Pacific, makes it a far less immediate threat to the neighborhood. Mao Zedong himself employed similar logic in his rapprochement with the United States as Soviet armies massed along the vulnerable Chinese border.
Another question to be considered is why the United States lends its weight to this rebalancing, which is going on on the other side of the world. The answer was best summed up by eminent realist John Mearsheimer in three words: “free to roam.” The United States today is the only nation that has a worldwide sphere of influence. It is totally secure in its own neighborhood and, by possessing the means to do so, is able to interfere and associate itself in other neighborhoods as well.
Washington’s “pivot to Asia” and U.S. participation in the Asian rebalancing are indicative of a desire to prevent China from developing this freedom to roam. After all, if China achieved this capability, there would be no stopping it from engaging in similar behavior off our shores. The only other nation in recent times that was free to roam was the Soviet Union. The consequences of our mutual roaming more than once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Today, increasing Chinese cooperation with Cuba—both economic and military—must be at least somewhat discomforting in Washington.
Or of course, things could go another way. As Minxin Pei has pointed out, all our current models and predictions about China are based on the assumption of its continued growth. Yet it is possible that China’s economy will stagnate and the current “threat” may recede. Such a scenario would eliminate the need for the Asian rebalancing. But don’t call in your bets just yet.
Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group. You can follow him on Twitter at @LevineJonathan.