Friday, January 10, 1997

A Balance of Power for East Asia


By Gerald Segal in the International Herald Tribune

TOKYO - In Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries, a futile search has begun for a foreign policy strategy to replace the supposedly outmoded concept of balance of power. Senior Australian officials formulating a foreign policy white paper are heard to talk of something as unreal as a ''balance of interests.''
It is true that states today are less sovereign and more interdependent than before, but it is as essential as ever to sustain a balance of power. The key is to understand that power is becoming ever more multifaceted, and that the means of balancing it need to be equally complex.
A modern strategic equilibrium in East Asia requires the use of countervailing power of all kinds to prevent changes to the status quo by use of force.
Critics of balance of power often argue that such thinking tries to freeze the situation at a time of dynamic change in an economically booming region. But a balance of power has in-built rules for change. For an open, rules-based international economy, such a balance is an essential mechanism of managed, multilateral change. East Asia, like the wider world, has a major stake in a multilateral trading system that has produced so much prosperity.
The challenges to the system, and thus the components of a balance of power, come from three sources.
First is the traditional use of military force to change the status quo. When China threatens to attack Taiwan, the threat must be met by effective deterrence. The deployment of two American aircraft carrier battle groups in March was a clear demonstration of such traditional balancing power.
Hence the concern in 1995 in Southeast Asia when China seized new territory in the South China Sea, undeterred by any countervailing power.
More positively, when China and Japan refrained from using force to settle their dispute over the Senkaku Islands in 1996, good sense and a robust balance of power prevailed in keeping the peace.
Second, a balance of power is needed to rebuff those who would use economic might, in violation of the rules of the international trading system, to force submission to their will.
When China tells its trade partners that their access to Chinese markets will be denied if the Dalai Lama is greeted by senior leaders of their governments, or if complaints are made publicly about China's abuse of human rights, there is clearly a need for a balance of economic power to force Beijing to desist.
Of course, a United States that applies the Helms-Burton act against states that trade with Cuba is in a poor moral position to criticize a China that breaks the rules of the liberal trade order. A United States that tries to browbeat Japan and other countries into bilateral trade deals shows worrying tendencies of behaving like a bullying China.
A third use of power, in the political realm, is the attempt to stifle the freedoms of others. When China tries to tell the Disney corporation which films it can distribute in Kansas or Copenhagen, it is an implied threat of commercial retribution that needs to be rebuffed. China may not like foreign films about Tibet, just as Britain dislikes hagiographic movies about IRA terrorists, but Britain knows that it must not threaten American media companies with a denial of access to the British market.
In the contemporary world, these latter two types of threats to the balance of power loom larger because economic interests have become increasingly important since the end of the Cold War. But the ability to sustain a well-rounded strategic balance requires efforts in all three dimensions.
Precisely because China and the United States sometimes seek to use their power in unhelpful ways, Japan and the larger European states must help to keep them committed to defending a modern balance. The Clinton administration risks undermining efforts in East Asia to cope with China's military challenge if Washington persists with unilateral economic policies.

The writer, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, is director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.