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Putting Realist Theory to the Test

LBJ School - The University of Texas at Austin

Editor’s Observe: That is the fifth installment in a particular collection revealed in collaboration with the Raisina Dialogue, which kicks off on Jan. eight in New Delhi. 

It’s tailored from the writer’s newest edited quantity, Asia’s Quest for Stability: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific.

Nation-states are continually partaking in balancing acts: striving to weigh between pursuits and values; weapons and butter; financial achieve and nationwide safety. At this time, nevertheless, one balancing act supersedes all others: balancing in response to the rise of China.

Balancing is considered one of the oldest and most intuitive ideas in worldwide relations concept. The influential realist faculty counsels that a nation’s speedy accumulation of energy has traditionally confirmed disruptive, confronting neighbors and friends with an unpalatable selection: bandwagon with the potential menace by aligning with it, or improve their defenses towards aggression or coercion by way of balancing.

A lot as the goal of schoolyard bullying may enroll in self-defense courses or forge a pact with different victimized classmates, threatened states typically search to improve their army capabilities — inner balancing — and/or improve safety cooperation with like-minded friends — exterior balancing. Bandwagoning, against this, is a riskier proposition. There’s no assure the benevolent disposition of a strong nation in the present day gained’t flip extra ominous tomorrow. And there’s no larger authority to assure one’s safety if the rising energy turns aggressive.

Realists consider that, as inherently insecure, aggressive entities, states almost all the time favor balancing. For main realist scholar John Mearsheimer, as we speak is not any totally different. China’s neighbors “are certain to fear its rise” and “will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony,” together with becoming a member of “an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise.”

Has China, with the extra assertive trajectory it has charted over the previous decade, prompted a wave of Asian balancing? Because it seems, the related query isn’t if China’s neighbors and friends are balancing — many have been for many years or centuries — however, moderately, why they’re balancing, how they’re balancing, how a lot they’re balancing, and what they’re balancing towards. Briefly, there’s ample proof of uneven however elevated balancing exercise regionwide, but it additionally seems the Indo-Pacific is witnessing a robust present of “under-balancing.”

Most of China’s neighbors and friends are struggling to stay as diplomatically and economically engaged as potential with the rising Asian energy whereas taking the minimal steps essential to protect their safety and sovereignty. Many, together with the member states of the Affiliation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have confirmed averse to extra refined, potent balancing initiatives similar to treaty alliances, multilateral army workouts, and joint Freedom of Navigation Operations and naval patrols. None, together with the “Quad,” the grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, has critically entertained a Chilly Warfare-style containment technique.

On stability, Indo-Pacific balancing has been extra numerous and fewer pronounced than realist concept, previous precedent, or strategic logic may recommend. What explains this? Why do nations proceed partaking and empowering a rustic that would at some point pose a menace? Why haven’t China’s neighbors joined a U.S.-led balancing coalition, as Mearsheimer predicted? And why haven’t the Quad nations adopted extra overt containment methods?

A few of the contributing elements are structural and associated to the altering nature of worldwide governance and the international financial system. Others are the product of China’s distinctive profile as a rising energy and the menace perceptions it has (and hasn’t) engendered. Nonetheless others mirror the prices, advantages, and incentives dealing with ASEAN nations and different smaller powers in China’s periphery.

The Balancing Panorama

In three necessary methods, China’s neighbors are partaking in balancing consistent with what realist concept would predict. First, at a macro, regionwide degree, there’s substantial proof of accelerated inner and exterior balancing in the Indo-Pacific. Army spending has been rising quicker in Asia than almost some other area of the world, and the continent now hosts six of the world’s prime 10 protection importers, together with the international chief: India. Between 2016 and 2020, the littoral states of the South China Sea are anticipated to improve protection spending by 50 %, reaching $250 billion, although China just isn’t the solely issue driving these developments.

Second, what started a decade in the past as tentative steps towards larger protection collaboration amongst some Chinese language neighbors has damaged into an open dash in recent times. The depth of the exercise has differed extensively, accelerating extra shortly amongst Japan, Australia, India, and Vietnam than with Malaysia, Indonesia, or Myanmar. In some instances, considerations about China have been an overt or specific motivation; different occasions they’re certainly one of a number of elements motivating the “thickening” of Asian safety networks. Both approach, there was materials progress in the high quality and amount of protection collaboration and joint army workouts; security-focused bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral dialogues; joint imaginative and prescient statements; and army inter-operability agreements.

Third, conventional army balancing has been accelerating amongst the Quad. China’s deteriorating bilateral relationships with every member of the group and rising considerations about its challenges to the rules-based order helped spur the revival of the quadrilateral dialogue, which has convened thrice since November 2017 after mendacity dormant for a decade.

However as notable as the balancing we’re seeing is the balancing we aren’t seeing. For many Indo-Pacific capitals, commerce and funding ties with China have grown exponentially in recent times, regardless of aggravated menace perceptions and security-related considerations. Even amongst the Quad, diplomatic and financial cooperation with China stays remarkably strong; Beijing is the largest buying and selling associate of all 4 members.

A few of China’s instant neighbors, like Cambodia, Laos, and Pakistan, have foregone balancing altogether. Quite than shoring up defenses towards Chinese language aggression, they’re embracing a bigger Chinese language financial and, at the very least in Pakistan’s case, army footprint. ASEAN states, in the meantime, have steered away from exhausting balancing measures towards extra impartial, non-provocative endeavors. They’re in search of to defend their sovereignty and autonomy by strengthening worldwide legal guidelines, norms, and establishments, which realists have historically dismissed as inconsequential to restraining state conduct and impacting selections about conflict and peace.

Beneath-Balancing in a New World Order

Globalization and the unfold of financial interdependence have sure nations of all stripes in an in depth, typically uncomfortably tight financial embrace. This has created a paradox for China’s neighbors and friends. With their financial fortunes so immediately tied to wholesome relations with Beijing, more durable types of balancing danger invoking China’s ire and threatening their financial prospects. Thus, containment and extra excessive types of balancing that restrict engagement have turn into much less palatable and extra pricey.

Throughout the Chilly Conflict, the containment technique America and its companions employed towards the Soviet Union succeeded largely as a result of there was no significant financial relationship between the superpowers. Ashley Tellis persuasively argues the similar technique employed towards China would “find little traction with key Asian states” and be “doomed to failure — at least for now.” He means that severing ties with China is “politically, economically, and practically unthinkable” in a globalized world, leaving China free to “exploit interdependence to increase [its] power and autonomy.”

Whereas globalization has certainly disincentivized balancing and restricted the effectiveness and attractiveness of containment, the emergence of a world order in the latter half of the 20th century created new avenues for balancing. Alongside extra conventional army balancing methods, Indo-Pacific nations are more and more channeling their power towards what some students have dubbed “institutional balancing.”

Kai He defines institutional balancing as a technique by which states “practice norm/rule-building to constrain other states’ behavior or control and manipulate agendas to address issues related to their interests in multilateral institutions” and “consolidate their political and economic unity to resist pressures from outsiders.” He identifies a direct and constructive correlation between the unfold of financial interdependence and the attractiveness of institutional balancing vis-à-vis extra conventional types of army balancing.

The phenomenon has manifested most instantly in the rising consideration being accorded to selling the rules-based order and, extra just lately, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Leaders from the Quad, ASEAN, and past have been extra vocal in supporting the underlying tenets of the regional order, together with freedom of navigation, peaceable dispute settlement, help for worldwide regulation and the UN Conference on the Regulation of the Sea, and, extra lately, infrastructure that’s clear, high-quality, and financially sustainable.

This shift represents an effort to adapt balancing to a altering world and to a brand new breed of rising energy. Up to now, the Indo-Pacific rivalries of the 21st century have unfolded not by way of broadsides from battleships however in the coercive “grey zones” and the courtroom of public opinion. At the moment, securing votes at worldwide tribunals or pledges of help for freedom of navigation could also be equally as essential to smaller Asian states as buying new submarines or cruise missiles.

Consequently, many Indo-Pacific capitals are more and more devoting their power not towards “containing” China however towards constraining its capability to infringe on their pursuits and undermine the rules-based order. They’re looking for to craft, improve, and defend norms, legal guidelines, establishments, and rules that constrain China’s most aggressive impulses and its capability for misbehavior.

Skeptics have rightly questioned the diploma to which such means can form China’s conduct. Thus far, the proof is combined. On one hand, China’s management has confirmed delicate to reputational prices and devoted power and capital towards cultivating a picture of a peaceable, accountable, benevolent energy. President Xi Jinping has more and more sought to painting China as a pacesetter and guardian of the international financial and political order. In his Jan. 1, 2018, New Yr’s handle, he pledged that Beijing would “always be a builder of world peace, contributor of global development and keeper of international order.” In 2016 China’s leaders dismissed a Philippines-initiated Arbitral Tribunal as illegitimate and unworthy of their participation, but waged a concerted marketing campaign to rally worldwide help when it dominated decisively towards them. Lastly, Beijing has spared no effort making an attempt to forestall ASEAN from forming a consensus in opposition to its South China Sea actions — not as a result of it fears the group’s mixed army may, however as a result of it hopes to keep away from being portrayed as a pariah appearing towards the regional consensus.

On the different hand, Beijing freely disregards legal guidelines, norms, and worldwide opinion when it fits the Communist Social gathering’s pursuits. And it’s solely rising extra brazen in doing so. This means institutional balancing will function neither an efficient deterrent nor an entire substitute for typical protection spending and coalition-building, which is why the Quad and others proceed to advance extra conventional types of army balancing alongside this new give attention to the rules-based order.

Nature of the Beast

Whereas Beijing has grown objectively extra assertive throughout a variety of overseas coverage fault strains, the geographic scope of its territorial claims stays restricted and comparatively well-defined, even when the claims themselves are deliberately ambiguous and in flagrant violation of worldwide regulation.

For now, China’s neighbors are alarmed by its designs on contested territory excessive in the Himalayas and deep in the sea. However, with the potential exception of Taiwan, these neighbors don’t worry the prospect of armored Chinese language columns threatening their capitals or Chinese language-funded insurgencies launching a guerilla struggle. They consider China poses a menace to their pursuits, autonomy, and the rules-based order, however not to their existence. Certainly, the historical past of up to date Chinese language warfare is essentially characterised by restricted, short-term conflicts and stealthy “grey-zone” coercion designed to both induce submission or “reclaim” misplaced territory.

The place the Soviet Union traded in radical revolutionaries, puppet regimes, and brute army pressure, China is wielding subtler parts of energy and affect in pursuit of loyalty, submission, and arrearage. For China, “strategic predominance means a return to the Middle Kingdom where regional states paid due respect to China’s interests and were careful not to act in any way that displeased China,” argues Peter Varghese, former secretary of Australia’s Division of Overseas Affairs and Commerce.

In fact, even in pursuit of those extra restricted ambitions, China has repeatedly and overtly infringed on the pursuits of its neighbors. But, there’s a extensively held perception, amongst ASEAN capitals at the least, that China’s management stays cautious, risk-averse, and deliberative in its decision-making. For the time being, these nations say, China is disinclined towards any large-scale kinetic battle, notably one involving the United States.

That is why, regardless of the reality most regional safety analysts would determine China as their nation’s principal typical safety problem, the depth of regionwide menace perceptions doesn’t essentially match their breadth. China’s neighbors are balancing much less to guarantee their survival than to protect their autonomy and a rules-based order, which is leading to much less decided types of balancing.

ASEAN’s Hedging

A number of contributing authors to my new edited quantity Asia’s Quest for Stability argue that ASEAN states like Indonesia, Malaysia, and others are extra probably to understand Chinese language assertiveness as a “challenge” than as a “threat,” and to place larger religion in the energy of diplomacy or multilateral norms and establishments to dissuade Chinese language adventurism. These nations are additionally extra doubtless to understand arduous balancing methods as counterproductive, pushing Beijing towards much more unfavorable or aggressive responses.

Many contributors famous the position of ASEAN nations’ strategic and diplomatic tradition of their strategy to balancing, particularly, an ingrained aversion to geopolitical alignment and army alliances, in addition to nervousness about turning into embroiled in great-power rivalry. For a lot of ASEAN capitals, encouraging the Quad to assume extra lively and constant roles in regional

safety and financial affairs is a much less provocative means to obtain a relative stability of energy than proactively making an attempt to restrict or diminish China’s energy and affect.

In the years forward, Southeast Asian nations will proceed taking modest steps to strengthen their army capabilities and forge new exterior safety partnerships however will really feel constrained by geographic realities and financial imperatives. Some, like Vietnam, might pursue extra unbiased overseas insurance policies and extra vigorous balancing initiatives, drawing nearer to the Quad. However absent a serious provocation from China that basically alters regionwide menace perceptions, these nations are doubtless to stay comparatively aloof, reflecting the disposition of their broader publics: surprisingly unaware of or disinterested in the geopolitical “Great Game” underway.


The Indo-Pacific balancing panorama is coloured by a altering, extra economically interdependent world, the lure of worthwhile engagement with Beijing, and the subdued menace perceptions of lots of China’s neighbors. Together with China’s efficient deployment of carrots and sticks, these elements have created disincentives to extra conventional army coalition-building and to containment methods of eras previous, changed by “softer” types of balancing and institution-building. Briefly, China has defied realist concept’s expectations about balancing — to date.

Beijing might want to mood its enthusiasm, although. Its extra assertive disposition has already set one consequential wave of army balancing into movement amongst the Quad, whose cumulative energy and geopolitical heft far outstrip China’s smaller, extra quiescent neighbors. Even when, as its critics recommend, the Quad is shifting at an excessively deliberative tempo, the institutional framework for quadrilateral cooperation has been established and could be scaled up shortly in response to future threats. Critically, all 4 nations have been advancing protection collaboration at the bilateral and trilateral ranges in a lot faster however quieter strides.

There’s extra dangerous information for China. A second backlash wave has begun forming in response to longstanding however hardening considerations over all kinds of Chinese language financial and overseas coverage practices. Notably, it extends past the Quad to the European Union, Southeast Asia, and elements of the creating world.

This wave is partly propelled by rising considerations about China’s expansive Belt and Street Initiative. Over the previous yr, the worldwide narrative surrounding the venture has turn into far more suspicious and hostile. Final month, the European Union, India, and the United States labored to scrub any reward of the Belt and Street from a United Nations decision on Afghanistan.

Throughout the globe, there’s been higher scrutiny utilized to Chinese language investments in delicate infrastructure, the nexus between economics and geopolitics in Chinese language grand technique, and the secretive nature of the offers China is signing, which at occasions are later discovered to have contained objectionable or sovereignty-violating provisions. These considerations predate the Belt and Street, however as the initiative has amplified China’s footprint overseas, the backlash has sharpened.

In parallel, there’s rising alarm over China’s more and more brazen use of “sharp power,” its interference in the home politics of its neighbors, its crackdown on educational freedom, its more and more repressive strategy to freedom of faith and human rights at residence, and its punitive bullying techniques overseas. Developments in every area have deteriorated since the 2008 international monetary disaster and much more so since Xi Jinping’s rise to energy in 2012. Over the previous two years, nevertheless, the degree of worldwide consciousness and alarm has risen as the tolerance for these practices has diminished.

Maybe nowhere has the middle of gravity shifted extra decisively than in the United States. Supported by a crystalizing bipartisan consensus, the Trump administration has opened a number of new fronts towards China on financial protectionism, cyber safety, and human rights violations. It has issued indictments for Chinese language hackers, given the Pentagon extra flexibility to conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, unveiled new restrictions on overseas investments, and ordered the detention of the head of a serious Chinese language telecom agency. The European Union, Australia, and others have begun following go well with, unveiling new screening measures on overseas investments and outlawing overseas political donations whereas extra vocally denouncing China’s predatory buying and selling practices and unlawful detention of overseas residents. Neither is this a western phenomenon. From Sri Lanka to Malaysia, and from the Maldives to Kenya, China’s model, and that of the Belt and Street, are underneath duress.

Thus far, this backlash has translated right into a extra concerted effort to restrict or scrutinize engagement with Beijing, as opposed to producing the extra cohesive and widespread army balancing that realist principle may predict. Whether or not the latter ultimately occurs will rely very a lot on China’s actions and the way Beijing responds not solely to mounting worldwide criticism, but in addition to tougher home financial circumstances. If Beijing doubles down on the extra assertive and repressive trajectory it has charted since 2008, it might find yourself fulfilling the realists’ prophecy and triggering a brand new tide of balancing in any case.


Jeff M. Smith is a Analysis Fellow in the Heritage Basis’s Asian Research Middle. He’s the writer/editor of “Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific” (2018), and writer of “Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century” (2014).  His professional commentary has appeared in Overseas Affairs, the Wall Road Journal, the New York Occasions, and The Economist, amongst others.

Picture: U.S. State Division

LBJ School - The University of Texas at Austin

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