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January 19, 2012


As Others Generate Concern

by Mike M

One major strategic challenge for the United States in coming years is likely to become, and remain, dealing with the reactions provoked by aggressive rising powers in several key regions.  Call it the “Principle of the Halfhearted Regional Counterbalancer.”

As states like China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, etc., gain relative power or continue to assert it in their various “near abroads,” they will provoke varying degrees of regional unease, concern, and fear.  Many of the same dynamics that attached to U.S. power over the last decades, in fact, but sometimes in even more distilled form, because they’ll lack the split-personality reaction that often greets U.S. power.  (Love the Big Macs and jazz, hate the support for dictators.)

As with many trends, China again stands here at the leading edge.  Its rise was already causing alarm, and then its aggressive stance for a good portion of the last year or two—over South China Sea territorial matters, or punishing Japan for a land dispute with a ban on rare earth minerals—have created even more urgent concerns throughout the region.  And so countries have responded:  Japan took major public and private initiatives to reduce its dependence on Chinese minerals; Vietnam has developed a careful triangulation diplomacy involving the United States, India and others.

And everyone in the region is looking over their shoulder, to their old friend, acquaintance, or enemy—America.  In many ways we are the ideal balancer:  Far away, nonaggressive, militarily stacked.  So the basic concept:  As a rising power gets more powerful and rougher, it generates a complex, nuanced, but nonetheless powerful appreciation for the counterbalancing role of American power.

One could also argue that we’ll gradually see the same dynamic in evidence around all the emerging powers:  India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia.  They’ll want to become the acknowledged sheriffs of their own neighborhoods.  They will generate some degree of resentment—already are doing so—in the process.  And some of their neighbors will look outside their regions for balancing power.  Placing these countries on a list with China (and Russia—not an “emerging power” but certainly a near-abroad-coercer) doesn’t reflect a normative judgment, only an empirical one:  the likely effects of their growing power on their regions, and possible calls from surrounding countries for help in dealing with that power.

If the basic trend seems valid, what strategic principles ought to govern the U.S. reaction to it?  There are opportunities here, but also grave risks.  And let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that our public and politicians will be inching the setting on our World Meddling Meter generally downward, meaning that our ability and/or desire to stick our noses into regional beehives will not be large.  What principles might we then derive?  A few very rough initial proposals:

  • As a rule, remain aloof from formal commitments.  This emerging dynamic has the potential to generate a half-dozen commitment whirlpools that drag the United States into deterrent promises but also endless middleman roles and negotiation processes.
  • Safeguarding norms remains a worthwhile goal.  As multipolarity produces a more chaotic geopolitics, keeping in place key “cognitive brakes” on national security choices—norms that remind leaders some things are just not done (“Mr. Prime Minister, a well-placed artillery barrage just might convince them that the trade pact is in their interests after all”)—is an important shared objective.  Quiet diplomacy around the edges of increasingly assertive rising powers can help do this.
  • Use the process to generate leadership from others.  “Lead from behind” is an infelicitous phrase, but its heart is in the right place.  When a handful of states become concerned about Nation X’s burgeoning influence and overweening diplomacy, the answer isn’t for the United States to allow itself to be plugged in as the balancer of choice—but instead to catalyze others to lead.
  • Be selective.  In an era of newfound limits, U.S. officials will have to display restraint in both the character of U.S. involvement in such processes and the number of active diplomatic initiatives.
  • Don’t come on too strong.  Nuanced, mild, carefully-designed support for regional responses to assertive rising powers can promote U.S. interests.  Heavy-handed U.S. barging in on what will increasingly be intra-regional dialogues risks creating highly antagonistic dynamics, fomenting nationalistic popular reactions and boxing in the leaders of these countries in political terms.
  • Remember:  None of these countries is an enemy; some are good friends, a few even treaty allies.  The rising powers we’ll be invited to “balance against” are also countries with which we will want very close relations (Brazil, Turkey, India) or at a minimum desire to preserve peace and keep alive the potential for improving relations.  In all cases, we need cooperation from them on key issues—counterterrorism, environment, finance, piracy, cyber; the list goes on.  This is just one example of the paradoxical ties we’ll have to maintain with many countries in this new era.

In fact Vietnam’s emerging approach may provide a model for how the United States will want to engage with states bumping up against rising powers.  Vietnam guards its independence jealously and has no interest in American troops, alliance pledges, or anything that blunt, obvious, and classically … American.  Hanoi seems aware that such literalism would be counterproductive, and is happy to keep Washington at relative arm’s length—but has also begun to bend the elbow just a bit, engaging in more military-to-military talks, hosting political-military talks, inviting U.S. ships to join their exercises.  Meantime Hanoi courts others, to include India and Asian partners, and keeps its options well open.  The U.S. role, meanwhile, avoids formal commitments, is relatively inexpensive, makes no threats toward China, but still manages to convey the simple message that Vietnam has friends.

Some variant of this model—we’re here, quietly, over the horizon; we want good relations with everyone, and won’t be bullied out of befriending anyone—might be a good general guidepost for a U.S. approach to the messy regional dynamics of rising powers and those in the way of their burgeoning influence.  The risk, of course, is that “visits” could snowball into “statements,” and from there into “implied commitments”—and we’re right back into the same habitual cage again.  But note that this role can be played by many more actors than just the United States.  And if it can be managed and restrained from mission creep, such an approach might come close to hitting that elusive mark of achieving U.S. interests at a lower level of resources and commitment.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 25 2012

    As the blog, among other things, talks about concerns generated by rising powers more importantly China, I wonder how the blogger perceives elaboration of Trans-Pacific Partnership by the Obama administration, which is also touted as a counterbalancing act targeted against China because TPP involves major Asia-Pacific economies save China.

  2. Jan 26 2012

    Good question. Some of the more recent posts get to this, but I think in general a rebalancing away from the war on terror made sense. And in general the reaction in Asia has been somewhat positive, insofar as the “shift” is seen as a sign of America’s continuing commitment. Some Chinese commentaries of course see it as continuing evidence of the US intent to contain China or identify it as an adversary. My basic notion is that we shouldn’t target a single region: Why do so–our interests are global, and in doing it we do appear to target one country.


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