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International Security 28.3 (2003/04) 149-164

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Will Asia's Past Be Its Future?

Amitav Acharya

Post-Cold War debates about Asian security have been dominated by Aaron Friedberg's influential image of a region seemingly "ripe for rivalry." 1 Friedberg stressed Asia's lack of stability-enhancing mechanisms of the kind that sustains peace in Europe, such as its high levels of regional economic integration and regional institutions to mitigate and manage conflict. Other pessimists foresaw regional disorder stemming from Asian states' attempts to balance a rising China. Taken together, such views have shaped a decade of thinking about Asian security in academic and policy circles.

Now, in a recent article in International Security entitled "Getting Asia Wrong: The Need for New Analytical Frameworks," David Kang offers an alternative view that is both timely and provocative. Kang finds that "Asian states do not appear to be balancing against... China. Rather they seem to be bandwagoning" (p.58). He then presents an indigenous Asian tradition that could sustain regional order: the region's historical acceptance of a "hierarchical" interstate order with China at its core. "Historically," Kang suggests, "it has been Chinese weakness that has led to chaos in Asia. When China has been strong and stable, order has been preserved. East Asian regional relations have historically been hierarchic, more peaceful, and more stable than those in the West" (p.66). After faulting Western scholarship for taking an essentially Eurocentric approach to Asian security, Kang calls for bringing international relations theory more in tune with Asian realities. He also asserts that scholars should strive for a better match between their theoretical tools and the evidence on the ground. Taking cognizance of Asia's different pathway to national sovereignty and regional order, Kang argues, would open the door to new and exciting advances [End Page 149] for the study of Asian security, which in turn would enrich the field of international relations more generally.

Kang's view that East Asia's past will guide and ensure its future stability boldly challenges Friedberg's thesis about "Europe's past" becoming "Asia's future." 2 While sharing Kang's dismissal of the pessimists' view, I have serious reservations about his evidence and argumentation about an alternative pathway to Asian security order. Kang is better at explaining where the pessimists have gone wrong than why they have gone wrong. And his idea of Asia's return to a hierarchical order is confusing and dangerous.

Contrary to Kang's argument, Asia's future will not resemble its past. Instead of sliding into anarchy or organizing itself into a pre-Westphalian hierarchy, Asia is increasingly able to manage its insecurity through shared regional norms, rising economic interdependence, and growing institutional linkages: precisely the kind of mechanisms that the "ripe for rivalry" thesis underestimates. In the following sections, I develop this argument as an alternative to the perspectives of both Friedberg and Kang.

Is the Evidence Compelling?

It is hard to refute the argument that Asians are not balancing China, but are bandwagoning, if it is not based on precise conceptions about what balancing and bandwagoning entail. Neorealist theory identifies two types of balancing behavior: internal balancing (national self-help), including military buildup directed against a rising power; and external balancing, which may involve either the strengthening of old alliances or the forging of new ones, directed against the rising power.

There is considerable evidence that one Asian state is balancing China: India. Kang conveniently excludes South Asia from his analysis. Presumably, South Asian security dynamics have no bearing on East Asian security. This is difficult to justify in view of India's rising power and role in Asian security. India is seeking closer ties with Burma to counter growing Chinese influence there. India and the United States have conducted naval patrols in the Strait of Malacca to counter piracy and terrorism. Both U.S. and Indian government officials see India's security role in Southeast Asia as a means for balancing China. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recognizes India's [End Page 150] role as a...


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