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LOOKING FOR BALANCE

CHINA, THE UNITED STATES, AND POWER BALANCING IN EAST ASIA

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By Steve Chan

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The Montréal Review, February 2012

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"Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia" by Steve Chan (Stanford University Press, 2012)

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Available at Amazon US and Amazon Canada

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"Looking for Balance compellingly argues for serious change in prevalent American foreign policy thinking about power dynamics in world affairs, and thus for how to deal with China and East Asia. It should cool the zealots for additional U.S. pursuit of military dominance in distant regions."

-Davis B. Bobrow, Emeritus Professor of Public and International Affairs and Political Science, University of Pittsburgh

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Momentous events invite critical introspection and can sometimes produce paradigmatic shifts. The re-unification of Germany and the end of the Cold War are arguably among such transformative developments since World War II. My book focuses on a third candidate, namely the recent sharp rise of China, auguring another systemic change in international relations. This event offers an approximate equivalent of an experimental shock in the natural sciences, and should enable researchers to discern with greater clarity and conviction whether their theories' predictions have turned out to be accurate. If these predictions fail the tests presented by system-transforming events such as those just mentioned, the theories' credibility would be severely strained.

A long-standing and indeed, central tenet of international relations theorizing is realism. This school argues that states attend to power shifts as reflected in their relative material capabilities, and that they adjust their policies according to these power shifts for the sake of their security and survival. An especially well-known formulation of this realist perspective is balance-of-power theory in its different variants. Simply put, this theory claims that states will work to stop any one of them from gaining too much power. They do so by resort to either armament or alliance.

If balance-of-power theory is correct, one should see China's neighbors and other major powers reacting to its rise in the manner predicted. They have not so far, thus presenting an enigma to realism. Major and minor states have also not sought to balance the U.S., after it gained unprecedented supremacy in world politics in the wake of international communism's collapse. My book addresses the seeming puzzle presented by the non-occurrence of what is expected by balance-of-power theory. It pursues an interdisciplinary approach from political science, history, and economics. Briefly, it advances the following arguments.

If balance-of-power theory is correct, one should see China's neighbors and other major powers reacting to its rise in the manner predicted. They have not so far, thus presenting an enigma to realism.

•  Hegemonic rule has actually been a pervasive phenomenon historically, therefore challenging balance-of-power predictions. In ancient Assyria, Mediterranean (Greece and Rome), Meso and South America, and East Asia, the dynamics of dominance has often trumped that of balancing.

•  The possession of enormous power by an aspiring or extant hegemon is less important for inducing balancing behavior than what this state does with its power. It can alleviate its neighbors' anxieties (e.g., Bismark's Germany, U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere ) or exacerbate their anxieties (e.g., Napoleonic France, Wilhemine Germany).

The possession of enormous power by an aspiring or extant hegemon is less important for inducing balancing behavior than what this state does with its power.

•  International power shifts can be accelerated by the self-strengthening policies that states undertake to improve their domestic capacity - or by self-defeating policies such as imperial overstretch (e.g., the Spanish, Ottoman, British and most recently, Russian empires). Balancing, in other words, does not in the end bend power trends which are more due to conditions of domestic political economy. These conditions are determined more by states' own policies and efforts than external circumstances.

•  Contrary to balance-of-power predictions, states often eschew armament and alliance as means to contain a would-be hegemon because they understand that these policies entail opportunity costs. The literature on defense economics points to the foregone welfare benefits and productivity losses when states make excessive allocation to the military - or favor current consumption (both public and private) at the expense of future consumption.

•  States are often strategic, realizing that their own hostile actions can cause unwanted reactions from others. They therefore often refrain from ramping up their armament or joining alliances because they anticipate that their actions can produce an "echo chamber." Retaliation by others can make realism, or balance of power, a self-fulfilling prophesy without improving one's security prospects.

States are often strategic, realizing that their own hostile actions can cause unwanted reactions from others. They therefore often refrain from ramping up their armament or joining alliances because they anticipate that their actions can produce an "echo chamber."

These arguments challenge the traditional balance-of-power perspective but they seek to do more than that. They have obvious policy relevance for the United States. How should this country address the appearance of a possible international competitor? What can be learned from history - perhaps most graphically from the USSR's recent demise (it was bankrupted by its heavy military and alliance burden in trying to compete with the U.S.), as well as the peaceful transition of power when the U.S. overtook Britain as the leading global power - about balancing policies and self-strengthening policies? Although national security has been traditionally defined as safety from military assault, a country's eroding economic competitiveness, deteriorating physical infrastructure and human resources, and fiscal and monetary challenges can also undermine its security - thereby making the so-called guns-versus-butter tradeoff a compelling reality for officials and citizens. After all, the USSR failed because of its economic weakness and its loss of popular legitimacy (rather than being the victim of a foreign invasion), and the rise of China has its primary source in its economic performance rather than military challenge (the U.S. continues to spend more on the military than the next ten countries combined).

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Steve Chan is College Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of China, the U.S., and the Power-Transition Theory: A Critique.

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