Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia

Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia

Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia

Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia


Debate surrounding "China's rise," and the prospects of its possible challenge to America's preeminence in international relations in East Asia, has focused on two questions, rooted in power-balancing theory: whether the United States should "contain" or "engage" China; and whether the rise of Chinese power has inclined other East Asian states to "balance" against Beijing by alignment with the United States.

By drawing on alternative theoretic approaches- most especially "balance-of-threat" theory, political economic theory, and theories surrounding regime survival in multilateral rather than bilateral contexts, Steve Chan is able to create an explanation of what is in motion in the region that differs widely from the traditional "strategic vision" of national interest.

He concludes that China's primary IR aim is not to match U. S. military might or the foreign policy influence that flows from that power, and that its neighbors are not balancing against its rising power. This is because, in today's guns-versus-butter fiscal reality, balancing policies would entail forfeiting possible gains that can accrue from cooperation, economic growth, and the application of GDP to nonmilitary ends. Instead, most East Asian countries have collectively pivoted to a strategy of elite legitimacy and regime survival based on economic performance.


As I write these words, the People’s Republic of China is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. Since 1949, the government in Beijing has undoubtedly made huge progress in improving the living conditions of the Chinese people; over one-fifth of humanity is no longer facing the constant danger of hunger and starvation. Life in China has changed enormously for the better. There have of course also been trying times, especially during the “lost decade” of the Cultural Revolution, when the country faced the abyss of political and economic breakdown. Since its economic reforms launched in 1978, however, China has sustained the most rapid and protracted economic growth in modern history. Its economy has grown at about 10% annually in real terms in the years that followed—meaning that it has increased more than thirteen times in just over three decades (Bergsten et al. 2008, 106).

This economic expansion has increased China’s technological and military capabilities. China’s comparatively high growth rates, combined with its large size, have caused concerns abroad about a power shift in regional and even global political economy. There has been a surge in scholarship discussing China’s rise and the concomitant prospects of power transition presaging its possible challenge to America’s preeminence (e.g., Brown et al. 2000; Goldstein 2005; Ross and Zhu 2008; Shambaugh 2005). One salient theme of this debate among Americans has been whether to contain or engage China. Another strand of this discourse has been whether China’s rise has inclined its neighbors to balance against it.

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