- Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia by Steve Chan
Steve Chan argues in this book that balance of power theory does not apply well to East Asian international relations. Noticing also that countries have not really been balanced against the United States since the end of the Cold War, he observes that China’s neighbors have not been increasing their defense spending or forming coalitions against Beijing. The reason is that the East Asian governments have recognized the limitation of military balancing, which is a short-term solution and entails opportunity costs. And China itself is acting in such a way as to reassure its neighbors. Chan posits that East Asians essentially adopt a broader definition of security that incorporates economic growth as the basis of political legitimacy.
Judging by the very first sentence of Chapter 1, Chan’s manuscript was completed before 2010. Some observers of East Asia may immediately point out that recent developments seem to contradict Chan’s core arguments. Some East Asian nations are balancing against China and inviting the United States in. That is in no small part due to China’s greater assertiveness recently.
However, those who are interested in East Asian international relations should read this important book for at least three reasons. First, Chan offers one of the best available international relations analyses of the China rise phenomenon, drawing from virtually all relevant theoretical literature and engaging in a nuanced, sophisticated discussion. In particular, for those who are less familiar with East Asia, this book is a shortcut to the state of the art in studies of China’s rise.
Second, we do not yet know who will have the last laugh among different schools of thought. The fact that a few countries are now behaving more as balance of power theorists would predict does not mean that the other dynamics so ably explored by Chan are no longer relevant. Engagement, enmeshment, and entanglement, which Chan has identified as opposite to balancing, continue in East Asia, although East Asia-only regional cooperation appears harder to achieve. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that the United States champions has a clear strategic intention of keeping the United States in Asia while keeping China down or including it later in a rule structure designed by the United States and its close friends. But the United States continues [End Page 157] to engage China bilaterally and in other multilateral forums. And the various ASEAN Plus free trade agreements are still moving forward.
In fact, even for those who are balancing against China now, namely Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, one may still argue that the situation would have been worse but for economic interdependence. Moreover, while nationalism is rising, performance-based political legitimacy remains important for the East Asian governments.
Recent territorial tensions arising in East Asia do not provide conclusive evidence for balance of power theory either. One may suggest that Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines are balancing against a rising China. But why does Japan also experience territorial disputes with South Korea, Russia, and Taiwan? In particular, balance of power theorists should expect Japan and South Korea to form a countervailing coalition against China and North Korea. One important reason for South Korea’s hesitation is the fact that China is South Korea’s number one trading partner and the importance of the China market has only grown since the global recession has hurt developed countries more than China. More important, one has to go beyond structural international relations theories to understand the unique nature of each territorial dispute, which has its own historical origin, logic, and dynamic. Although this book focuses on structural theory, he has done research on a wide range of topics related to Asia and beyond and knows the peculiarities of East Asian politics as well as any.
Third, Chan’s book examines China’s rise from a historical perspective, looking for clues in the past and paying particular...