'Underbalancing' in Asia
How likely is an Asian coalition to counter China's rise?
26 June 2014
By: Brad Nelson

International relations scholars use the term “underbalancing” to refer to situations in which countries either fail to balance (or confront) against threats or do so in a slow, untimely fashion.

The classic case is World War II. The Allied powers, exhausted and weary from World War I, were reluctant to balance against the gathering storm of Nazism and rapidly expanding German power. An anti-Hitler coalition was finally cobbled together, but only after Germany began its march through Europe. The absence of a formal, tight military coalition directed at Germany created a power vacuum in the heart of Europe and resulted in a massive opportunity for Hitler to satisfy his world-conquering ambitions.

This logic of underbalancing isn’t just relevant to history, however. We can see traces of it in Asia today, and it’s something that bears watching.

There’s much talk lately about China shooting itself in the foot with its aggression in the South and East China Seas. The implication is that China’s moves are alienating its friends and driving its rivals together. The risk is real. And the real danger comes in the interplay between a cornered and insecure China and an angry anti-China coalition. In this scenario, we might observe a protracted cycle of intra-Asia hostilities, an arms race and increasingly provocative foreign policies—all of which make conflict and violence more likely.

All of that said we shouldn’t get too carried away just yet. In fact, it’s possible that such a scenario might never occur; instead, we might see underbalancing at work in Asia. In short, there are two main factors that could easily prevent or delay the formation of an anti-China coalition.

Getting over Japan’s past

First, East Asia has been unable to put aside Japan’s militaristic past. To this day, Japan’s invasion of China, colonization of the Korean Peninsula, use of “comfort women,” the role of the Yasukuni Shrine in Japanese politics and the perception that Tokyo hasn’t been sufficiently contrite for these misdeeds has kept Japan’s relations with China and, more importantly, South Korea rather frosty. It doesn’t help that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on an effort to relax the pacifist restrictions in Japan’s Constitution, which could allow Japan to participate in collective defense operations with allies and friends: it has led to the Chinese narrative that Japan is rearming, bringing back past regional fears.

The punch line is that if South Korea can’t get past the struggles and horrors of World War II, then Japan could be in trouble. Should Japan find itself in a conflict with China, Tokyo might find it difficult to form a coalition with South Korea. Perhaps this isn’t such a big deal today, given Japan’s current defensive military advantages, but it will be in the future when Chinese military capabilities exceed those of Japan. At that point, Japan will need all the help it can get.

But take a less severe example. If Tokyo-Seoul differences go unresolved, then better and more substantial cooperation won’t happen. In that case, China scores a big win. Absent a coalition in East Asia that aims to hem in Beijing, then China has an easier path to spread its wings throughout all of Asia. The presence of such a coalition keeps China preoccupied with its own backyard, forestalling any grander ambitions that China might have. But if this Seoul-Tokyo coalition doesn’t exist, China can more easily cast its gaze on Southeast Asia and South Asia. 

To a certain extent, one can argue this is already happening. China faces little resistance in East Asia currently as South Korea and Japan are at odds. Japan’s internal balancing really hasn’t even begun yet. And Taiwan is afraid to make any move that could be seen as provocative by Beijing. As a result, China can cause mischief in the South and East China Seas.

Can non-alignment last?

Second, Asia is home to two major non-aligned nations: Indonesia and India. Will they maintain their non-aligned status even if China emerges as a threat to the region? Let’s take a quick look at these two countries.

India has long had a rocky relationship with China and it clearly sees China as a rival for regional status and prestige. The two countries fought a border war in 1962 and still have border disagreements. In fact, PLA forces crossed into India twice in 2013, much to the dismay of Indian civilian and military leaders. This and other aggressive moves by China have been noted by new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, on the campaign trail, was critical of Chinese behavior in Asia.

Furthermore, India’s so-called Look East policy, which includes bolstering ties to Japan, is a hedge against Chinese encroachment on Indian interests.

At the same time, though, India under Modi is highly motivated to burnish its economy, and China plays a key part in these economic plans. Undoubtedly, Modi would prefer not to pick a fight with China.

What of Indonesia?

Meantime, Indonesia takes pride in its “million friends, no enemies” foreign policy, which is entirely consistent with its longstanding non-aligned position in the world. Unlike India, Indonesia has very good relations with both China and the US and would like to keep it that way. Its foreign policy strives to avoid disputes and conflicts. Yet the tandem of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa have kept Indonesia active in the region and the world by positioning the country as a trusted mediator and troubleshooter, particularly within ASEAN.

My guess is that India and Indonesia would have to be directly provoked to get off the sidelines. In the case of India, cross border raids and confiscation of Indian territory could be decisive.

Of course, things could change if India gets its economic act together and becomes a direct competitor to China throughout Asia. Such competition could easily spill into political and security affairs, thereby relaxing India’s non-aligned stance. But given India’s modest growth rates in recent years, in combination with China’s continued blistering economic pace and its rapid military modernization, any kind of tense, multifaceted competition between New Delhi and Beijing is not likely any time soon.

As for Indonesia, a potential tussle over the Natuna Islands is possible given that China’s nine-dash line map outlining its claim to much of the South China Sea runs through this bit of Indonesian territory. But even in this case, Indonesia, in my view, would likely try to resolve its differences with Beijing bilaterally and in line with international law, trying to minimize the dispute, not escalate it, which is what playing balance of power politics could do.

By eschewing alliances, Jakarta can’t really improve its bargaining leverage vis-à-vis Beijing but tying itself to a treaty alliance with other nations would reduce its strategic flexibility and independence—something Indonesia deeply values.

Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois.

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