The Balance of Power, Globalization, and Democracy: International Relations Theory in Northeast Asia

Article excerpt

The end of the Cold War has given rise to a wide-ranging debate about the future of international relations in the Asia-Pacific. This debate has been difficult to assess in part because of the elusive quality of the outcomes being explored, such as whether the region is characterized by "stability" or "rivalry." What exactly do we want to explain?

In Northeast Asia we must be concerned in the first instance with the prospects for militarized crises and war. (1) These risks are most likely to arise around two enduring conflicts: across the Taiwan Strait, and on the Korean Peninsula. Yet we clearly think of "stability" and "security" as encompassing something more than the mere absence of crises or war. A stable environment also implies shared beliefs and expectations. To what extent are parties fundamentally divided over the legitimacy of the political and economic status quo? What is the subjective probability that conflicts might be resolved by resort to force rather than through cooperative means?

A third, more demanding indicator is the construction of regional institutions that facilitate cooperation in an ongoing way. The presence of institutions does not preclude conflict, even armed conflict. But in a region such as Northeast Asia that has historically enjoyed only a thin veneer of multilateral institutions, joint efforts to build them might signal convergence in interests and expectations. Such institutions are costly to build and once developed have at least some restraining influence on their creators. I will touch on all three of these outcomes: the probability of crisis and war; the prospects for cooperation; and the prospects for institutionalized cooperation and community-building.

If those are the outcomes of interest, what causal factors might be germane? I focus here on three: the balance of power, and changes in it; the political effects of economic integration; and the consequences of regime type. These variables have been at the core of contending theoretical approaches to international politics but also have strong resonance in the policy world; in this case, at least, theoretical models are not without consequence.

The new debate on Asian security was initially framed by realists schooled in European history and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Their central preoccupation is how the distribution of capabilities and changes in it affect the propensity for Conflict. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, realists have focused on the adverse consequences of the rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the emergence of a multipolar power structure in the region.

Wars and militarized crises are relatively rare events, and power-structural models cannot be expected to make point predictions about international conflict. Nonetheless, pessimistic expectations about the risk of great power rivalry in post-Cold War Asia have largely failed to materialize. One problem with polarity and power transition approaches is a lack of clarity about the distribution of power in the region. Realists display a peculiar tendency to underestimate U.S. capabilities and as a result have overestimated the propensity of "revisionist" states such as China to challenge the status quo. Yet American preponderance has given rise to its own distinct set of problems that have received inadequate attention, including the difficulty the United States faces in committing to its own restraint.

But the preoccupation with great power rivalries also proves a misleading lens through which to consider the Northeast Asian security environment. The status quo has been most forcefully and dangerously challenged not by a rising or established power, but by a second-tier country that has seen a marked decline in capabilities (North Korea) and a new democracy toying with independence (Taiwan). In sum, the variables emphasized by realists operate in a more benign way than their models suggest, and the sources of risk in the region lie largely outside their purview. …