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NOV 11, 2011

Achieving the Right Balance in Asia

By Steve McClure
Panel Session - Changing Balance of Power in Asia (Photos: Photocreate)

The U.S. and Japan may benefit from China’s rise, but how can they integrate China into the global system?

You can call it a power game – but ideally it will be one that ensures cooperation, and not confrontation.

The concept of the “balance of power” has gained renewed currency with the recent increase in China’s economic, political, and military strength. What does China’s rise mean in terms of the balance of power in Asia and the world at large?

Before trying to answer that question, what exactly do we mean by “the balance of power”?

One definition is “a relatively equal distribution of economic and military strength among rival countries or groups of countries.” A state of equilibrium between nations prevents any one state from becoming strong enough to enforce its will upon the rest. The classic example is the system of treaties and alliances in pre-WWI Europe.

Is there in fact an ideal state of equilibrium between sovereign states? And does a balance of power ensure peace and stability?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the European balance of power had become so delicate that it only took a relatively minor incident – the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand – to set off the horrific conflagration of war.

A balance of power is thus by no means an ironclad guarantee against conflict between states. And in a world that business, modern communications and travel have made increasingly borderless, how valid is the balance-of-power model’s underlying assumption that nation states are autonomous, independent actors on the world stage, and that states gain and exert power at the expense of other states?

It could be argued that the balance-of-power concept is not the best lens through which to view China’s rise and the relative position of other Asian nations.

As US Vice President Joseph Biden wrote in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Sept. 7, “China’s rise is not our demise.”

Robert Luke, Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, quoted Biden’s statement during the “Changing Balance of Power in Asia” panel discussion at the 2011 G1 Global Conference.

Implicitly disagreeing with the balance-of-power model, Luke said it’s not correct to look at China’s rise as a zero-sum proposition. “The U.S. and Japan benefit from China’s rise,” he said. “We’re asking China to help strengthen the rules-based system from which it has benefited.”

The need for a sense of engagement and pursuit of common interests came through strongly in the panel discussion. As Hitoshi Tanaka, Chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, pointed out, “We are no longer in a unilateral world.” Instead, Tanaka said what’s needed in Asia is a trilateral China-U.S.-Japan relationship based on confidence and expanded economic opportunities in the region.

The key question, as observers such as Luke see it, is how to integrate China into the global system.

In contrast to conventional notions of the exercise of power, one way of doing that is through “soft power” – the influence of a nation’s values, culture, policies and institutions. The incredibly successful export of American culture throughout the world is perhaps the best example of that, but the influence of “cool Japan” is now also being felt internationally, especially in Asia.

“Japan has big power, not in terms of size, but in terms of quality,” Tanaka noted.

That brings to mind the pledge made in 1991 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa to make Japan a “lifestyle superpower.” Echoes of that aim could be heard throughout the conference, as speakers agreed on the need to use the March 11 disaster as the springboard for a rethink and rebirth of Japanese society. The concept of a “lifestyle superpower” remains rather amorphous, however — presumably the aim is to lead by example.

Wall Street Journal international affairs columnist Philip Bowring, meanwhile, said that to focus exclusively on China’s rise is to lose sight of the bigger picture in Asia. “There’s an increasingly complex situation in the region as a whole,” he noted, citing as an example the often-ignored sense of Malay ethno-cultural identity among the peoples of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As for China, Bowring said its biggest problem is a political system that does not support an advanced economy.

That may come as something of a surprise, given that the Chinese Communist Party has presided over one of the biggest economic booms in history. But is it sustainable?

Bowring says it isn’t, drawing parallels with the experience of the former Soviet Union. “Most Chinese investment is going into the inefficient public sector. There’s a high rate of investment, but not a high rate of return.”

Whether that will eventually lead to a Soviet-type implosion remains to be seen; Bowring admitted that the parallels between China and the USSR are not exact. In the meantime, he noted, “China has a more hegemonistic view of its immediate neighbors, in contrast with Japan.”

The possibility of China throwing its weight around, as well as the many other challenges facing the region, means that Asian nations have to play a delicate balancing act in the years to come.

You can call it a power game – but ideally it will be one that ensures cooperation, and not confrontation.