How Insecure is Pacific Asia

Gerald Segal
(International Affairs, Spring 1997)

part two of two

Building a Balance of Power

For realists, one of the most disturbing aspects of Pacific Asian security has been the relative absence of attention given to maintaining a balance of power. One important reason for the relative unconcern with the balance of power in Asia was the fact that by and large the balance has been essentially determined by power external to the region. Ever since European powers displaced China as the dominant power in Pacific Asia, the only major indigenous power was Japan, and then only briefly. For much of the Cold War the dominant powers were non-Asian, at least until the Sino-Soviet split led to China's tentative re-emergence as a local power. Pacific Asians had grown used to thinking about balance of power strategies as something that others managed.

When the Cold War ended, and Russian power faded, there were few tears shed for the decline of a once-great empire, but there was a concern about the supposed risks from a consequent vacuum of power. These risks were said to have derived from the twin concerns about whether the United States would remain as a regional power, and whether a local power would emerge. The talk of "peace dividends" in the United States and the ejection of American forces from the Philippines, seemed to confirm the notion that the United States might become less committed to "holding the ring" of regional power. In the initial post-Cold War period the worry was that Japan might emerge as a major local power. In the event, the twin concerns have so far proven groundless. There are signs of a developing post-Cold War balance of power in Asia, and in many respects realists may have reason to relax.

The reasons for new confidence in the balance of power stem from the ways in which local states and the United States have reacted to the rise of the most obvious local power-China. This is not the place to rehearse the arguments about the rise of Chinese power, but a brief sketch is necessary. Chinese defence spending, after a decade of reductions in the 1980s, climbed steadily in the 1990s-the only great power in the world with a real increase in defence spending. In the first major post-Cold War military crisis in Pacific Asia-the North Korean nuclear issue-China was far from helpful in ensuring compliance with the IAEA. In the next major flashpoint-the South China Sea-China seized new territory claimed by the Philippines and rebuffed any effort to discuss disputes over sovereignty. In the most recent military crisis in Pacific Asia-the Taiwan Straits-China closed international air and sea lanes and demonstrated a capability to blockade Taiwan and perhaps seize offshore islands. In these last two cases, China demonstrated that economic interdependence with either the states of ASEAN or Taiwan would not stop China from using military force or creating a crisis. Neither were regional institutions robust enough to restrain Chinese behaviour except in the most cosmetic fashion (as in the ARF meeting in 1995). China had certainly not been restrained by the forces of "enlitenment", for in fact it seemed caught in a web of nasty nationalism and weak leadership. In short, in the immediate crisis, the primary constraint on the rising power would have to come from the balance of power. Was there one to be found?

It may be too early to be categorical about the emergence of a balance of power in Pacific Asia, but the signs are cheery. First there was the evident disgust in ASEAN about Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea in 1995. ASEAN states felt that while they could do little to constrain China, they did find a more amenable China at the ARF in 1995 because China was anxious not to lose all friends in the region while Beijing and Washington were having such trouble over Taiwan. Chinese officials now privately admit that they see a virtue in regional multilateralism as a way to exert counter-pressure against a United States that now seems more prepared to threaten the use of force in order to balance China.

There have been clear signs that at least some middle powers and the larger ones such as Japan and the United States, are more willing to stress the need to maintain a balance of power, even if they are coy about identifying the power against whom the balance is required (China). In December 1995, that once paragon of non-alignment, Indonesia, signed a defence accord with Australia. The spin doctors in Canberra and Jakarta made it plain that an important part of the message to China was that local powers were worried and had other options. At the same time, Japan revised its defence doctrine and its spin doctors also spoke about the Chinese challenge. The outline of a tacit "alliance of concern" was emerging.

But by far the most important evidence about an emerging balance of power, and an indication of just how effective these old-style methods could be, came in the Taiwan Straits in the first quarter of 1996. When China ignored private American warnings to China after the first set of exercises in 1995, and after some Chinese military sources had hinted about a possible "nuclear threat" to Los Angeles if the United States tried to defend Taibei, the United States clearly felt the time had come to revive a more overt balance of power. In response to Chinese action in the Taiwan Straits that, had it been carried out by any other state against a sovereign state would have warranted Security Council action, the United States moved two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan region. This was the largest American military deployment in Asia since the end of the Vietnam war, and it made it clear to Beijing that the United States was prepared to use its superior force to keep the balance. As a result, China backed down. In the ensuing months, Japan and the United States formally agreed to the modernisation of their security relationship.

It is hard to over-state the importance of this old-fashioned exercise of military power. At a stroke, the United States demonstrated that it would not only defend freedom of passage in Pacific Asia, but that it would defend the right to settle disputes, even one as complex as the Taiwan-China dispute, without resort to force. Few Asians openly applauded the American action, but the absence of criticism was, under the circumstances, a vote of confidence. To their credit, a few Pacific Asian states had the courage to openly applaud the American action. Japan had the toughest choice as American forces operated from their bases, but they gave support to this exercise of deterrence. Most importantly, Singaporean officials were notable for their welcome (albeit edgy) of a firm demonstration of the United States willingness to defend the balance of power. To the extent that Singapore is significant in setting the ASEAN agenda, this was a key part of the effort to build a coalition of concern about China.

Building a balance to deal with China is obviously a crucial challenge in Pacific Asia, but some of its building blocks look increasingly like the foundations for a more multi-purpose structure. Thus the Rimpac exercises that now include a number of Western and most northern Pacific states has a utility well beyond the China problem. The concern with North Korea is clearly a major worry for those in the North Pacific. Hence the important implications of the generally positive welcome in the region for the modernisation of United States-Japanese military relations in April 1996. The spring of 1996 had seen not only a crisis in the Taiwan Straits, but also the North Korean attempts to tear up the armistice agreement. In the Korean case, there was good evidence that even China and Russia were willing to join in various forms of pressure on North Korea not to upset the current balance of power. Although Japan was not a part of the American 2 plus 2 proposal for the Korean peninsula in April, it was clear that the United States-Japanese alliance was by far the most important component of a putative balance of power in Pacific Asia. Action to deter North Korea or China from unwanted action in Pacific Asia would be impossible in the long term without close United States-Japan relations.

Of course, this is far from an orthodox and open balance of power. The overwhelming weight of responsibility is still carried by the United States. But there are already strong signs that in the United States and in parts of Pacific Asia, it is no longer possible to merely trust in "constructive engagement" with China. "Constrainment" of China or "conditional engagement" now seem far more persuasive. As the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, we must "weave a net", not "trust in prayer" if we are to manage China.

The Basis of Security in Pacific Asia

It is fashionable to be extreme about security in Pacific Asia. We either hear blasé reassurances that economic interdependence will ensure security and peace, or we hear dire warnings of arms races and regional tensions. There is little dialogue between these supposedly uniform "idealist" and "realist" schools. But real realists and idealists would understand that enduring security in Pacific Asia requires changes in a broad range of factors. Building a balance of power, as necessary as it might be, is an insufficient force for security. Similarly, increased economic interdependence, as necessary or enriching as it undoubtedly is, will be insufficient to ensure regional security.

What is needed is a more holistic approach to security in Pacific Asia. It is crucial to understand that security in the region requires the creation of:

One may be useful, two would be better, three might just do it, but all four factors are essential for regional security.

In recent years there has been evidence that the people of Pacific Asia have begun to make important progress in creating political pluralism, interdependence, and a regional society. Now they are also beginning to build a balance of power. These four aspects of security sometimes suggest differing responses to new challenges, but it would be myopic for anyone to think that there can be enduring regional security without progress in all four dimensions. If the four aspects are taken together, there is reason to optimistic about regional security. But as much as the region is headed in the right direction, it should be acknowledged that there are important risks along the way. The early stages of creating pluralist politics is usually dangerous. Economic interdependence can, in the short term, be a cause of conflict. Regional society will be thin for some time. The balance of power is still very fragile. Thus the challenge for the people of Pacific Asia is to recognise that although they are travelling down the right road, they have problems ahead. The last thing they want to do is to believe that the road ahead is safe and smooth. Hubris can cause accidents.


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