Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Between Balancing and Bandwagoning: South Korea's Response to China

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Between Balancing and Bandwagoning: South Korea's Response to China

Article excerpt

Why has South Korea accommodated China, instead of fearing its growth and balancing against it? This article makes two central arguments. First, concepts of balancing and bandwagoning are fundamentally difficult to test, and to the extent that the theory can be tested, it appears to be wrong in the case of South Korea. In fact, we observe many cases in which rising powers are neither balanced nor "bandwagoned" but are simply accommodated with no fundamental change either way in military stance or alignment posture. Second, the factors that explain South Korean foreign policy orientation toward China are as much about interests as they are about material power. South Korea sees substantially more economic opportunity than military threat associated with China's rise; but even more importantly, South Korea evaluates China's goals as not directly threatening.

KEYWORDS: balance of power, accommodation, China, Korea, US alliance


A central debate in the field of international relations concerns the extent of balancing behavior. Kenneth Waltz's (1993, 17) confident assertion that "hegemony leads to balance" and that it has done so "through all of the centuries we can contemplate" is perhaps the default proposition in international relations. Yet in recent years, the balancing proposition has come under increasing empirical and theoretical scrutiny. Empirically, the absence of obvious balancing against the United States in the post-Cold War era led to a scholarly debate about why that might be the case (Paul 2005; Pape 2005; Schweller 2004; Brooks and Wohlforth 2005; Wohlforth 1999; Ikenberry 2002; Lieber and Alexander 2005). Theoretically, advances by scholars working in both the rationalist and constructivist traditions have pointed out the myriad ways in which state strategies depend on more than just the distribution of power (Powell 1999; Fearon and Wendt 2002; Kaufman, Little, and Wohlforth 2007).

Scholars are also beginning to focus on another case that has the potential to yield significant insights into this debate: China. In the past three decades, China has rapidly emerged as a major regional and global power. Since the introduction of its market reforms in 1978, China has averaged over 9 percent economic growth. Foreign businesses have flocked to invest in the country, and Chinese exports have begun to flood world markets. China is modernizing its military, has joined numerous regional and international institutions, and is increasingly visible in international politics. However, although it would appear that these conditions are ripe for balancing behavior, China has managed to emerge without provoking a regional backlash (Goh 2007/08; Kang 2007; Womack 2003/04).

South Korea--the Republic of Korea (ROK)--presents perhaps the clearest example of this trend. A balance-of-power perspective would expect South Korea to fear a rapidly growing, geographically and demographically massive authoritarian and Communist China that sits on its border. Not only does China already have the military capability to threaten the peninsula, but the power disparity is widening. China also maintains close relations with North Korea--South Korea's main external threat since 1945. Furthermore, the United States and South Korea have enjoyed a close alliance for over a half century, and it was only US military action that prevented the North (in concert with the Chinese) from conquering the South in 1950. Since that time, the United States has stationed military forces in South Korea to prevent a second North Korean invasion. For all these reasons, the conventional perspectives would expect that South Korea fears a rapidly rising China and clings to its alliance with the United States.

Yet South Korea has drawn closer to China over the past two decades, not farther away. Furthermore, South Korea has had increasing friction with Japan, a capitalist democracy that shares an alliance with the United States. …

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