Lost in transition, or why non-leading powers should concern Beijing and Washington

Author: Ja Ian Chong, HKUST

Power transitions in international relations—real or perceived—are unsettling. This is especially so for non-leading states. Their interests depend on shifts in the international system that they cannot shape. Leading powers should, however, pay attention to how non-leading states react to expectations of change in the global political environment. Their reactions, especially when considered together, can exacerbate or moderate security dilemmas among the leading powers and has the potential to affect regional and even systemic stability.

Beijing and Washington should be particularly concerned that non-leading powers in the Asia-Pacific find much uncertainty in China’s rise as well as America’s future regional role.

Recent writing on US-China relations reveals that much thinking about power transitions understandably concentrates on conditions surrounding the relative rise and decline of major states.

The international system is fundamentally affected by transition among these powers. But this focus only provides a partial picture and under-emphasises the broader consequences of non-leading powers’ behaviour, especially when considered as a whole.

Transition Politics

Transitions heighten anxieties about abandonment and entrapment for non-leading powers. Non-leading states fear that major powers in relative decline will be unable to honour the institutional and security arrangements they used to underwrite. This implies that weaker states may have to rely less on existing bargains to secure their interests and turn more to fending for themselves. On the other hand, non-leading powers also worry that prior commitments to declining, but still important, partners will hinder their ability to strike new understandings with ascendant powers.

Attempts by non-leading states to address these concerns can have wider security implications. On a sufficient scale, the premature departure of non-leading powers from existing institutional arrangements before new ones are ready to replace them can undermine existing international cooperation. This may weaken the position of powers in both relative decline and ascent. If enough non-leading states show weak or delayed support for organisations sponsored by emergent powers, this could frustrate those on the rise and jeopardise collaboration in areas of common concern. Such dynamics can aggravate security dilemmas between rising and declining actors by amplifying perceptions of uncertainty and threat.

Rise, Decline, and the Asia-Pacific

Current disarray over multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific underscores the unease non-leading powers have over entrapment and abandonment. Debates about the East Asian Summit, particularly over participation and the grouping’s relationship with the United States, suggest that many non-leading regional actors are not ready for China’s direction of Asia-Pacific affairs. This is the case even though they seek extensive cooperation with Beijing. Doubts about APEC’s future, especially among its smaller members, reveal anxieties about Washington’s regional role. Most non-leading states are comfortable with an active American presence for now, but are unsure about how to face potentially reduced US engagement.

Left alone, the anxieties of non-leading states in the Asia-Pacific could intensify security dilemmas between Washington and Beijing. China’s efforts to consolidate a leadership position could expand perceptions that Beijing is trying to reduce American influence. American attempts to reinvigorate engagement may feed beliefs that Washington is actively countering China. Wariness toward heightened American activity may easily arise since US-backed arrangements seem to be in flux, and America’s longstanding partners appear increasingly reliant on China economically. Such conditions fuel mutual suspicions in Washington and Beijing.

Commonly discussed approaches for non-leading powers to safeguard their interests can complicate matters too. Relative weakness and collective action problems make balancing unrealistic for non-leading states. Hedging—seen in ASEAN, Australian, and Taiwanese engagement of both leading states, as well as recent Japanese defence posture reviews—could leave Beijing feeling insufficiently accommodated and make Washington more concerned about exclusion. Bandwagoning on a ‘Chinese world order’ may alienate Washington before Beijing is ready to lead. Keeping America normatively ‘enmeshed’ can prove tricky given questions over the United States’ long-term capacity to commit and China’s doubts about American intentions.

Circumstances in the Asia-Pacific should behove Washington and Beijing to cooperate in keeping their differences in check and reassure other regional actors. This could prevent non-leading states from individually behaving in ways that can collectively undercut stability during an uncertain time. Responsibility for avoiding this instability clearly rests with today’s two leading powers. They alone can affect the entire region through overt policy measures. However, both China and the United States have to deal with nationalist passions, protectionist impulses, and divergent domestic demands. These realities may impede effective Sino-American management of regional affairs even if they both have a common desire for stability.

Ja Ian Chong is Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

This article is a finalist in the recent EAF Emerging Scholars competition