Authors: David C. Kang
Publisher: Columbia University Press, New York
Reviewed by: David Hundt, Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University, Australia
This book questions the extant approaches to international relations in East Asia. David Kang argues that IR scholars have “gotten Asia wrong”, especially in their predictions that a balancing coalition would form, possibly around the US, against a rising China. For instance realists assume that the acquisition of power resources will be used to challenge other states, but the evidence marshaled here portrays China as a “status quo power”: one that is not attempting to displace the US as the leading state in the region. Likewise, Kang finds an absence of fear on the part of smaller states: they are not “balancing” against China. Instead, they are accommodating China’s rise. Kang points to interests and identities as being as important as power in determining state behaviour. For Kang, national identities decide how states see themselves, their place in a region, and their relations with other states. According to Kang, the Sino-centric regional order from 1300 to 1900 provides a longstanding precedent for non-adversarial relations and an absence of challenges to China. Within a system of formal hierarchy and informal equality, states such as Korea, Japan (until the late 16th century) and Vietnam benefited from close cultural, commercial and political ties with China, which ensured their security and allowed them to exercise substantial internal autonomy in return for deferring to China’s superiority via the “tribute system”. The author contrasts this largely stable system to the knife-edge world of European politics in the post-Westphalian period.
The author provides a schema of responses to the rise of China, and notes that responses generally avoid the extreme positions of balancing (“tightly defined” as preparations for the use of force) and bandwagoning (“currying favor” via alliances and close cooperation with the rising state, pp. 52–55). With the exception of “skeptical Japan”, the author argues that most states are reasonably comfortable with the rise of China: it suits their interests, and it does not cause serious identity conflicts. China treats Taiwan as an issue of “nation building, not territorial expansion” (p. 80), and the author argues that most states in the region generally agree that the status of Taiwan is for China to decide. Taiwan is an identity issue par excellence: China sees the island as part of its traditional territories; Taiwan is divided between those championing Chinese heritage and an indigenous and independent identity; and the US feels obliged to defend Taiwan not for strategic reasons but due to the island’s capitalist and democratic credentials. Kang argues that South Korea views China positively and as a crucial diplomatic and economic partner. At the same time, the author points to a gradual unraveling of the US–ROK alliance as proof of Korean comfort with the prospect of a more powerful China. For Southeast Asia, China’s integration is even more complete: China has been lauded for playing a positive role in the wake of the financial crisis, and for sharing the sub-region’s prioritization of sovereignty and non-interference by outside powers. The author argues that ASEAN has attempted to “socialize” China, to the extent that it is more integrated into regional affairs than the US; China’s economic integration has also been more complete, and more beneficial to other states, than Japan’s hierarchical regional production systems. Not even the US, the author claims, has tried to balance against China. In any case, the US is unlikely to succeed in organizing a balancing coalition against China: not only do other states in the region see no attraction in such a venture; they also seem to doubt the American commitment to the region.
This is a thought-provoking contribution to the seemingly never-ending debate about the rise of China. It succeeds in challenging conventional views about the issue, and neatly illustrates how the rise of China affects other states in a differentiated manner. However there are some doubts about the confidence with which the author’s claims can be accepted. First, the author notes that the other states in the region are content with the status quo, and with the prospect of a gradually declining role for the US as “offshore balancer”. The disregard for regional institutions displayed by the Bush administration is assumed to be indicative of broader American disengagement. However the Obama administration recently signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, perhaps signaling an intention to make the region a higher priority in overall US foreign policy.
Second, the book cites polling data to support its claims of widespread comfort with the prospect of a rising China, but some unease is discernible. For instance, the Lowy Institute poll in 2008 showed a cooling of sentiment toward China in Australia. A majority (60%) of respondents deemed it China’s intention to “dominate Asia”, and a smaller plurality (52%) said Australia should “join with other countries to limit China’s influence” (46% said it should not). The arrest and detention of Stern Hu, the lead iron ore negotiator for Rio Tinto, has also damaged China’s image in Australia. Further, an East Asia Institute/BBC poll in 2008 suggested that South Koreans have a less favorable view of China than earlier in the decade. China’s response to protests against human rights abuses in Tibet, timed to coincide with the Olympic torch relay, were cited as a factor. North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 have also underscored the limits of China’s capacity to influence inter-Korean affairs in a way which South Koreans would prefer. Other polls, by the Chicago Institute on Global Affairs and the RAND Corporation , echo the partial retreat from optimism about China of even a few years ago. A split may be appearing between America’s alliances partners and the other states in the region.
In his conclusions, the author notes that China’s intentions are still unclear: the “commitment problem” (p. 201) means that no one can be sure of what it will do in future. Kang cautions against predicting future behavior of any kind, but presents a compelling case for a follow-up volume in the years to come.