One of the features of the realist paradigm is its focus on great powers as the major actor in world politics. According to Kenneth Waltz, great powers “writes” the history of international politics. The “structure” of world system has been generated by those great powers, so the “theory” of international politics should also be concentrated on them (Waltz 1979, 72-73). The 1990s also have witnessed the relevance of great power politics as there have been no big changes in the behavior of great powers and the structural patterns of international anarchy still remains intact. However, the brief history of the post-Cold War seems not presenting itself as a sign for the future that holds for American involvement in East Asia. Many realists, in this context, have offered the existence of a “competitor” as a good indicator for the United States to engage abroad. Since the 1990s, when the United States became the only global superpower, the candidates for “great powers” have been China, Japan and Russia in East Asia. However, none of them has been regarded as a potential hegemon or a global challenger to America (Mearsheimer 2001, 396).
As such, the power configuration in East Asia since the 1990s has been composed by one offshore hegemony and a couple of great powers. The most important factor that change this structure has been the rise of China, in its economic and military capabilities relative to America as well as its neighbors. Two scenarios were suggested by realists: (1) If China’s economic growth is slowed down, then the United States would retreat from East Asia, (2) If China’s growth continues and it becomes a challenger to American hegemony, then the United States would balance or contain China in the region. This is because the relative rise of China will break the power constellation in the region (Mearsheimer 2001, 400). However, the history shows a rather crooked and mixed result: while America has taken the second path, it has been committed to engagement in rather than containment of China. The strategy was embedded in the neoliberal self-esteem over democracy and market economy: the primary goal of America over the rise of China was to change it into a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community (Etzioni 2011, 541).10
As such, the framework of great power in explaining power configurations seems quite relevant in East Asia, too. However, in many aspects, East Asia is quite peculiar in applying the power politics framework without any revision. First of all, we have to see the historical backgrounds of the great power bias of the realist paradigm. In its literal meaning, great power is a state with extraordinarily large capabilities in economy and military forces, with global interests projected and its will to protect and those interests (Neack 2008, 140). Thus, great powers are defined as the “organizations for power as the last resort for war” (Taylor 1954, xxiv). In Europe, a club of five to six great powers have been established since the Napoleonic War, which has been working as the moderator of European world politics. The great power club had worked not so much out of global motivations as out of their own self-interests. Britain, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Prussia, Russia and France were members of this great power club. They had sometimes used force to promote common goals beyond national defense, so that great powers were regarded as those strong enough to effectively wage war without calling on other countries or allies. In the 20th century, the notion of “great powers” has covered the type of states which are ready to use force whenever it wants and be ready to bear costs. Any country, beyond preconditions such as population and economic capability, is a great power if it would use force “undeterred” by the prospect of predictable casualties and material costs within limits (Luttwak 1994, 23).
Throughout the 19th century, great powers in Europe had claimed for themselves special privileges and responsibilities which they would not share with other countries. They assumed their role as the protectors of the Peace of Europe, and they were willing to take the responsibility for maintaining order in their neighbors Vienna. The history of this “exclusive club” of great powers in the 19th-century Europe urges us to rethink about the status and role of great powers in contemporary world politics. What I would like to emphasize in this re-telling of the great power history of Europe is that the relative size of population, economic and military capabilities is not the only indicator of great power. At that time, the notion of “great power” assumes an “exclusive” property of the club or a kind of common identity and role recognition for the system even though it was not something like hegemony. That’s why small states of Europe accepted the preeminence of those great powers and placed themselves under the patronage. As great powers had kept special responsibilities for small partners’ safety and well-being, the client states expected special commitments from those powers against external threats, domestic instability and financial troubles (Bridge and Bullen 2005, 2).
What about East Asia in our understanding of it with the notion of great powers? As many scholars have accustomed themselves to explaining the power dynamics of the region among the United States, China, Japan and Russia, the notion of “great powers” in the region seems to have also dominated any discourse about international politics of East Asia.11 At the least, East Asia is the place for these great powers have co-existed and competed among themselves for more than a century. The emergence of Japan and China in the 20th century increased the number of great powers in the region. However, the features of the 19th century Europe cannot be found in East Asia, which had made a kind of common identity in the club of great powers. For example, the United States vs. the Soviet Union and China had not been so compromising among themselves during the Cold War era like the case of Europe. What I would like to stress in this comparison is that the pure application of the “great power” framework in East Asia may not be a good strategy in explicating political changes in the region. Let’s come back to this point in the next section.
As I have urged to be more explicate in the definition of “great powers,” I would rethink whether it is relevant to understand the rise of China with that notion. By now, China has been described by the West as ambitious over disputed territories, claiming to reassert itself with glorious history, and determined not to be bothered by other countries in seeking its own interests (Economist, August 23, 2014). However, scholarly discourses and media coverage over China as well as politicians’ opinions have been dominated by the “great power bias” that I discussed. However, those discourses have never distinguished various notions of similar phenomena such as hegemony and great powers. For example, China has been described as a “challenger to hegemony” or a “great power” without clear definitions. Theoretically, hegemony should assume both capabilities and willingness to maintain the order of the whole system. It assumes a leadership role at the global level. Therefore, I would like to ask not to use the term “hegemony” to tell the threats and impacts of the rising China. China has never been solely provided global common goods. It has never been global in its ambition for a greater influence; it was only regional.
Right now, it is more appropriate to call China a “great power” only at a regional level. Even the term “great power” should not be used in its original meaning in the traditional European system. It should allow only the indicator of the size of tangible factors like populations, economy and military capabilities. Regional powers are unlikely to seek allies out of fear that any global hegemon poses threats. In this sense, politicians and scholars should not have confused between regional and global threats of China if they have read them in a right way. In a case when China may seek an alliance, it should be targeted to any regional, not global, threats from its neighbors or enemy alliances. Regional powers cannot affect global power dynamics so much that their interests are placed only at a regional level (Walt 1987, 163-164).12 As such, the existing discussions over the rise of China have been confused over the terms like great powers and indiscriminately applied it to East Asia. No historical underpinnings and characteristics of the notion were considered in applying the concept in the region. East Asia, in the framework of the realist paradigm, has been just one of many region like Europe which should be understood as unique in its experience of the 19th-century power politics. This is obviously the “great power bias” in which any concerns of common identity among great powers and the existence of small powers and their functions. Now, in the next section, let’s get deeper into the details of the great power bias by discussing the three “myths” of the realist paradigm in understanding the American return to East Asia.