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Middle powers in Asia: The limits of realism

Middle powers in Asia: The limits of realism

In the world of international relations theory, the realist paradigm reigns supreme. In large part, this is because it has core features that exert strong appeal beyond the academy: explanatory parsimony and the use of historical analogy. Realists place great emphasis on Europe's experience of great power politics, and for those like the late Ken Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Australia's own Hugh White, 'secondary' powers have little agency in an anarchic international system. Great powers call the shots and other states have few options but to fall into line.

Yet Asia's geopolitical order, mid-way through the second decade of the 21st century, is not mirroring the realist script. The region is characterised by great-power rivalry between the US and China, to be sure, but there is little evidence non-great-powers feel under pressure to 'choose sides'. And there are few indications this will change in the future. Indeed, small and middle powers are demonstrating a degree of agency in shaping geopolitics that undermines the validity of the realist model for predicting how states in Asia will behave.

Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia have resisted bandwagoning with the new rising power in Asia, but nor have they joined the US, Japan, and Australia to balance against China. Far from being pressured into choosing camps, all three have been highly adept at exploiting benefits from close relations with Beijing and Washington. [fold]

The two Koreas are showing signs of serious hedging strategies. Seoul's intimate economic relationship with Beijing has led to closer politico-strategic ties, but there are few indications that South Korea is weakening its alliance ties with Washington. For its part, Pyongyang has reasserted foreign policy autonomy in relation to Beijing by engaging in direct talks with Tokyo and effectively ignoring China's warnings about the need to exercise restraint.

The recent decision by Japan to reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution was driven more by unilateral goals than by any pressure from Washington. Tokyo's strategic repositioning has little to do with ensconcing itself further in the US camp in Asia, and everything to do with promoting greater autonomy for Japan to act independently in future. There are many Japanese nationalists who remain distrustful of the US and harbour doubts that Washington would intervene decisively if Tokyo found itself locked in armed conflict with China. Anxiety that the US and China may cut a deal that leaves Japan stranded should not be underestimated as a factor in Japanese thinking.

More generally, what evidence do we have that US-China rivalry (as distinct from China's rise per se) is actually reshaping Asia's geopolitical order? This is a question that merits more rigorous research than a single blog post can justify, but a couple of points might be worth pondering.

First, no state (apart from arguably Cambodia) has made the choice to bandwagon with China, and there is scant evidence that the overwhelming majority of Asian states are open to anything other than a US-led regional order. While Beijing has probably realised that the modern great power game is tougher than previously anticipated, many Western analysts seem to be clinging to the assumption that China's rise will be linear. One only has to look at the degree of loyalty displayed by China's 'ally' North Korea to appreciate how bumpy things will remain for Beijing.

Second, we have limited evidence of determined balancing (as distinct from hedging, which states do all the time) against China. While Australia has embraced what could be characterised as balancing measures against China (marines in Darwin, F-35 purchases), these have been pretty half-hearted. To the extent that Australia has balanced against China, it has been almost exclusively at the rhetorical level. Dressing down ambassadors over outrageous territorial claims and expressions of moral support for Tokyo in its stoushes with Beijing do not hide the fact that Australia's defence spending is essentially static. This may increase in future, but there is little appetite for real change, and Canberra will continue to free ride as much as it can on the US alliance while doing everything it can to deepen the intimacy of economic relations with China.

Photo by Flickr user


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