China: Peace and Power in East Asian International relations

Published on 22 August 2020 at 18:04

David Kang Professor in International relations at the University of Southern California observes that, “Asian international relations has historically been hierarchic, more peaceful and more stable than that of the west”. Today in the 21st century the international system is witnessing the resurgence of a prolific and active China. This has sparked a debate in the international relations and security community over the future of the international and regional system as China continues in its economic and military ascendance.


In his theory of international politics, renowned IR theorist Kenneth Waltz argues that in a world of anarchy and hegemony a system of hierarchy inevitably leads to conflict and balancing. Moreover, Stephen Walt of Harvard argues that balancing prevails over bandwagoning in power alignment due to the imbalance of the international system. In his paper ‘Ripe for Rivalry’ Aaron Friedberg argues that the centuries old European history of contestation, violence, and conflict among competing states, will become the future in an increasingly multi-polar East Asian region, with “Intense security competition” between the US and China. Scholars have drawn analogies between the US/China case to that of Great Britain and Germany in 1914.  Friedberg observes the growing military and economic power of states, who have varying political systems and historical animosities will thus be conditioned for inevitable conflict. In particular, as China ascends there are fears that such an autocratic government will become more assertive beyond its borders as it seeks hegemony with increased military expenditure and nuclear capabilities. Thus creating renewed concerns of a remilitarised Japan and an emerging arms race amongst both regional powers, as well as the incessant military threat that China poses to the de facto independence of Taiwan and the territorial integrity of the South China Sea.


The realist arguments ground their knowledge of Asia’s security environment based on western IR theory and European history, thus biasing their expectations of Asia’s future, whilst deliberately ignoring the long and peaceful history of Asia’s tributary state system. This was a system of hierarchy that was matched with informal equality and a mutual recognition of each state's sovereignty. So long as this was recognised, peace was solidified and interstate conflict was unnecessary.  In contrast to the western state system with formal equality and informal hierarchy, where states were consistently involved in territorial expansion and conflict. A central feature of hierarchy is for states to bandwagon and acquiescence to the dominant power. Existing states surrounding China such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam among others would kowtow to China and pay tribute to each new emperor. This system was grounded in material exchanges in trade, reinforced through anti-war norms of Confucian practices. This lasted roughly six centuries from 1300 to 1900 throughout the Chinese dynasties up until the western invasions of the 19th century, which subsequently suffered two world wars and a cold war. The recent history one could argue has skewed our knowledge of East Asia and the peacefulness of hierarchy over the mechanical formulations of International Relations theory, and thus ignoring the nature of the strategic interactions and preferences of state behaviour in regional systems.


Scholars have argued that much of Kang’s argument is built on Asian exceptionalism and orientalism. However, such claims fail to recognize the theories developed by scholars observing hierarchy and bandwagoning by Randall Schweller and Robert Powell as well as the hegemonic stability theories developed by William Wohlforth, Douglas Lemke and SuzanneWerner. They argue that within the international system exists regional systems where a dominant hierarchic power reigns over subordinate secondary states. They argue that the relative parity that exists between each member state makes the system more susceptible to conflict. The unequal distribution of power as argued by Wohlforth is relatively more peaceful, as it minimizes security risks. Notwithstanding the complications that exist in international relations and international security, when it comes to decision making on whether to balance or bandwagoning, according to Powell states usually bandwagon and unlike bandwagoning, balancing is typically more violent.


Contrary to realist opinion it has been well-established that states in the region do not want to balance and contain China. This is evident across the eleven major East Asian countries in how much they have spent on their defence as a percentage of GDP. In 1990 these countries including China committed on average 3.35% on military expenditure, while in 2015 it was 1.84%. Perhaps the most striking example of a lack of balancing acts in the East Asian region is from Japan. In the time of China’s ascendance, it was the second largest economy in the world, with significant technological capabilities, but yet has not developed any nuclear weapons or built an aircraft carrier and has committed to maintain military spending of just 1% of its GDP, despite the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wishing to increase it. Notwithstanding the prolific role the US continues to play in the region as a security guarantor, it does not suggest balancing acts are occurring and could rather be seen as a plan to try integrate China into the international system. Moreover, claims of a newly assertive China as argued by Alastair Iain Johnston creates a narrative among states that containment of China is a necessity. When the reality is that “rather than engaging in military competition, East Asian countries are pursuing comprehensive security: a wide range of diplomatic, institutional, and economic strategies – as well as military strategies – in their dealings with each other”.


Regional states want good relations with both the United States and China. If countries around China feared for their survival and felt threatened by China, they would have reacted accordingly to how the pessimists predicted they would. Thus, bandwagoning and maintaining the vibrant trading links between China and East Asian states will likely become the norm into the future. Meanwhile, the US has maintained its military presence in the region and likely to remain for the foreseeable future since Obama initiated ‘the Asia pivot’ by reinforcing security links with allies in the region. The debate over the future of the East Asian will continue, however, what is crucial is to recognise the distinctiveness of the East Asian regional system. Which has a unique history and process of state development, along with distinct cultural traditions, that has impacted on its political and geopolitical environment. This means avoiding western centric theory and paying more attention to and embracing regional studies for further development and better ways of understanding the international environment we inhabit.

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