Review of the Realist Paradigm

Myths of the American Return to East Asia

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Myths of the American Return to East Asia

Myth 1: The Struggle for Hegemony in East Asia?

The rise of China and the American strategy toward China have often been explained in the framework of hegemonic competition. While both superpowers hold enough power to compete for hegemonic struggle, I would like to tell that both of rising China and declining America may not fit into the notion of conventional hegemony. Charles Kindleberger, the father of the Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST), has distinguished “leadership” and “dominance” as the latter meaning a country dominating another when the latter has to take account of what the former does while the former ignores the latter. On the other hand, the leadership implies a country that persuades others to follow a given course of rules and institutions which would be beneficial to their interests if followed. This is the way many organizations and communities provide public goods for collective action. The world economy needs the leadership for its stability who provides an open market for trade, a steady flow of capital, and a mechanism for international liquidity. In this way, the world leadership, the so-called hegemony, maintains the structure of economic systems and coordinates economic interactions (Kindleberger 1981, 243-247).

This framework of the realist approach has been frequently applied to East Asia. The most famous analysis was the offensive realist theory by John Mearsheimer. His theory explains that the strongest power aims to become a hegemon and maximizes its relative power to rule over the whole system. In his analysis, the behavior of Japan in the 1930s and that of the United States in the 1940s are to be understood as the same in their properties. Those would tell the same story for rising China even in the 1990s as China is likely to dominate East Asia and challenge American hegemony in the region. Mearsheimer’s realist prediction that China would claim an Asian-type “Monroe Doctrine” was hailed by many scholars as well as political decision-makers (Mearsheimer 2001, 401). Therefore, according to him, the best strategy against China should be containment or active engagement. Mearsheimer’s discussion of offensive nature of great powers have resounded among many scholars, but the real world situations have not been so simple as China has never been more challenging to America like that of Japan or Germany in the 1940s. China seems not have intended to establish any hegemonic structure in the region, let alone at the global level. Then, what is wrong in the theory of HST? Haven’t China and America competed for hegemony in East Asia?

When we discuss hegemonic competitions, we have to consider the disproportionality in the contributions among individual states. In any collective action such as alliances, small or weak partners tend to ride free on the system. This means that small countries do not contribute proportional to their capabilities and larger partners have to spend more resources relative to their powers. In any collective system composed of states with different power rations, no individual states has an incentive voluntarily to contribute enough goods for maintaining the system. This free-riding tendency is particularly severe in case of smaller states as their contribution may not have any impact on the system. So there will be a consequent tendency for stronger powers to bear a disproportionate share of the costs for system maintenance. In many cases of international collaborations and security alliances, small partners would be attracted to “neutral” or “passive” foreign policies (Olson and Zeckhauser 1966, 271-272). Thus the problems of suboptimality and disproportionality in collective action have become perennial issues for security alliances.

According to the theory of collective action, therefore, bigger countries tend to bear more burdens and responsibilities for the system. In East Asia, we may expect neither rising China nor declining America willing to take these obligations. So the term “hegemonic” competition may not be applied to the Sino-American relations in the region. If we consider the trend of globalization and its impacts on domestic society, then the problem of non-hegemonic struggle between these superpowers is more unequivocal. As the process of globalization has accelerated, the scale of goods and assets have also expanded, which made differentiated public and private goods from each other. Large countries tend to be more influenced by the trend, which will lead to the emergence of the “residual state” that cannot work like the centralized nation-state anymore. The costs of large countries with more open, more globalized, more democratic procedures cannot be motivated to work like small states in responding to outside pressures (Cerny 1995, 618-619). Considering this point, China and the United States cannot be regarded as “residual states” but as still centralized “strong powers” without hegemonic motivations in East Asia.

In a sense, the competition between China and America in East Asia may be understood in a less strict form of hegemony. This tells a more persuasive story over the behavioral patterns of both countries in the region as they have advanced their interests through non-coercive means under the strategy of “cooperative hegemony” which implies an active role in institutionalization at the regional level with many types of incentives. Many regions in the world have achieved through the active initiative of great powers which have asymmetric level of resources but more willingness to keep regional peace and stability. This is different from the conventional notion of hegemony which was applied to the leadership at the global level.13 In this way, a cooperative hegemon seeks advantages from the strategy of institutionalization at the regional level such as the scale through power aggregation, economic and security stability, inclusion and access to resources, and diffusion of ideas (Pedersen 2002, 684-685). This is a probable alternative explanatory framework for the Sino-American confrontation in East Asia beyond the conventional theory of hegemonic stability.

Another revision of the conventional HST is to be done by considering the role of non-great-powers in collective actions. Whereas the conventional HST has not put so much emphasis on the status of middle-to-small powers, scholars have added more on its theoretical applicability. These middle and small powers have taken more part in supporting the declining hegemony by sharing burdens and cooperating to keep systemic stability. The world after the American hegemony in the 1970s was a compelling case for this frame. In the original version of the HST, based upon Mancur Olson’s public goods theory, takes for granted the role of providing public goods assigned only to one leader. That is, the number of states (k) which takes responsibility was just one (Snidal 1985, 588-589). However, the emergence of cooperation through institutions “after hegemony” has pushed the number k to increase beyond one. The case of G7 and OECD may be good examples of successful cases of cooperation when k > 1 (Keohane 1984, 46).

This point is important as Japan and South Korea, as taking part in sharing burdens for alliances, have contributed to the maintenance of American cooperative hegemony in East Asia. A hegemon needs more partners for any sustainable systemic order either at the global or at the regional level. As such, the existence of middle and small states may have impacts on the power configuration of a region with the role of “swing states.” Countries which share not only a common commitment of global values such as democracy and human rights but also maintain large size of emerging economies while taking geo-strategic positions are called the “swing state.” Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey are classified as “global swing states” (Fontaine and Kliman 2013, 93). In the same context, South Korea and Japan can take similar roles in their impacts on great power politics in East Asia, while it is still disputable whether we can call these countries “swing states.”14 Rising China and declining America cannot go solely without considering the weights of these “k-group” or “swing states” in their ambitions over the supremacy of East Asia.

The pattern of “buck-passing” has been well known in studying foreign policy as the structure of world system becomes multipolar in the post-Cold War era. In the multipolar system, the number of membership is important in achieving cooperation worldwide. Great powers are also trying to maximize their own interests, they had better pass the buck to allies as well as adversaries. This is a way of free-riding by great powers in collective action. More countries tend to pass the bucks in the complex system, unlike in the bipolar system when power asymmetry did not allow superpowers to evade their responsibilities (Posen1984, 63-64). As such, the trend of buck-passing by the United States in East Asia implies the paradigm change of the traditional hegemonic role in transforming the region or alliance from the “privileged group” in which only one member takes the responsibility in providing collective goods, to the “intermediate group” which allows more than one members to have incentives to share the burden (Olson 1965, 50). Thus we may loosen the strict conditions of the HST in explicating the East Asian power politics by considering ideas of cooperative hegemony, k-group, swing states, and buck-passing behavior by great powers and by revising the HST for a wider situations.

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