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Why Chinas Rise Will be Peaceful:

Hierarchy and stability in the East Asian region

David Kang
Government Department
Dartmouth College
May 24, 2005

Forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics

Will Chinas expected emergence as the predominant state in East Asia result in

hierarchy or balancing? 1 There are at least three major bodies of literature that would

predict that a rising China is destabilizing. Realpolitik pessimists see Chinas rise as

inherently destabilizing. For example, John Mearsheimer writes that if China threatened

to dominate the entire region, It would be a far more dangerous place than it is

nowengagement policies and the like would not dull Chinas appetite for power.2

Power transition theorists also see rapidly rising power as a likely cause of conflict.

Robert Powell writes that, A rapidly shifting distribution of power combined with the

states inability to commit to an agreement can lead to war.3 Finally, those who focus on

This paper is a shortened version of David C. Kang, China Reassures East Asia: Hierarchy and Stability
in International Relations, (m.s., Dartmouth College, 2005).
John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, p. 400. For similar arguments, Richard K. Betts,
Wealth, Power, and Instability: East Asia and the United States after the Cold War, International
Security 18, no. 3 (Winter 1993), p. 55; Aaron Friedberg, Ripe for Rivalry, International Security 18
Issue 3 (Winter 1993/94), pp. 5-33; and Christopher Layne, The unipolar illusion: why new great powers
will rise, International Security 17 (Spring 1993) p. 5-51.
Robert Powell, The Inefficient Use of Power: Costly Conflict with Complete Information, American
Political Science Review 98, no. 2 (May 2004), p. 231. See also Douglas Lemke, Regions of War and
Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

signaling emphasize that an authoritarian state has more difficulty in making credible

statements about its intentions than a democratic state.4

However, China has already been growing rapidly for almost three decades, and

there is little evidence that the region is devolving into balancing, nor that Chinas rise is

causing undue alarm in the region.5 Surely, given the anticipatory nature of the

pessimistic arguments -- that states prepare for future contingencies today Chinas

growth should already have prompted a reaction from East Asian states. Stability is also

not the result of the United States as an offshore balancer that attenuates regional

conflicts and balances Chinese power, and which East Asian states welcome. 6 Only

Taiwan and perhaps Japan clearly rely on a U.S. security umbrella to balance Chinese

power. There is a spectrum of relations between the U.S. and China, and while no state is

completely allied with China, many states are at least accommodating its rise (Figure 1).

States such as Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and even South Korea could be much

more focused on aligning with the U.S., but they have chosen not to do so. Indeed, the

case of East Asia belies the notion that some states are too small to balance. With a

potential offshore balancer in the U.S., even small states have a choice about whether or

not to balance rising power. If Taiwan, with only 22 million people and close geographic

proximity to China, can balance because of a U.S. umbrella, then all the other states in

James D. Fearon, Domestic Political Audiences and The Escalation of International Disputes, American
Political Science Review 88, No. 3 (September 1994), pp. 577-93; and Christopher F. Gelpi and Michael
Griesdorf, Winners or Losers? Democracies in International Crisis, 1918-94, American Political Science
Review 95, No. 3 (September 2001), pp. 633-48.
David C. Kang, Getting Asia Wrong: the need for new analytic frameworks, International Security 27,
no. 4 (Spring 2003): 57-85; Muthiah Alagappa, Managing Asian Security, in Alagappa, ed., Asian
Security Order (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
Michael Mastanduno, "Incomplete Hegemony: the United States and Security Order in Asia," in Asian
Security Order, Muthiah Alagappa, ed., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003); Thomas Christensen,
China, the U.S.-Japan Alliance, and the Security Dilemma in East Asia, International Security 23, No. 4
(Spring 1999), pp. 49-80; and G. John Ikenberry, American hegemony and East Asian Order, Australian
Journal of International Affairs 58, no. 3 (September 2004), pp. 353-367.

East Asia could, as well. If my argument is right, the direction of states alignments will

move towards China and away from the U.S., even though they may remain hesitant to

clearly choose one side or the other.

//Figure 1 here//

Chinas expected emergence as the most powerful state in East Asia has been

accompanied with more stability than pessimists believed because China is increasingly

becoming the regional hierarch. 7 On the one hand, China has provided credible

information about its capabilities and intentions to its neighbors. On the other hand, East

Asian states actually believe Chinas claims, and hence do not fear -- and instead seek to

benefit from Chinas rise. This shared understanding about Chinas preferences and

limited aims short-circuits the security dilemma.8 One need only to imagine the

consequences of Japan attempting to undertake such a role to realize how important is

this social understanding about Chinas position in East Asia. Furthermore, the U.S. may

not be the key to stability in East Asia. If the U.S. withdraws significantly from the

region, East Asia will not become as dangerous or unstable as the balance of power

perspective expects, because other nations will accommodate China's central position in

East Asia, rather than balance against it.9

The Microfoundations of Hierarchy

I use the term hierarchy instead of hegemony, because hegemony implies a comprehensive system-
level dominance. My argument is focused on a region, and none of the East Asian states are challenging the
U.S. for global leadership, nor do any states including China want to drive the U.S. out of the region.
On different types of rising powers, see Charles Glaser, Political Consequences of Military Strategy:
Expanding and Refining the Spiral and Deterrence Models, World Politics 44 (July 1992).
I define East Asia as comprising the states roughly from Japan through ASEAN.

A hierarchic system is one that involves a dominant power that does not fold

secondary states under its wing in empire, and yet also does not cause other states to

balance against it. Although much of the literature emphasizes that a rising power poses

potential costs, just as importantly a rising power also offers potential benefits to

secondary states. While a rising power may demand concessions or territory from the

secondary state, it may also offer benefits from a growing economy and lower defense

spending if relations between the two are warm. 10 Balancing a rising power puts the

balancer in a better position to avoid potential costs, if there is conflict. However,

balancing will also be more likely to limit the benefits of cooperation with the rising

power, and potentially raise costs through added defense expenditures and creating

conflict where there may be none to begin with. By contrast, aligning with the rising

power puts the smaller state in a more vulnerable position relative to the rising power, but

also increases the probability of its enjoying the benefits the rising power can provide.11

Thus, a secondary states decision will depend in part on the tradeoff between the costs

and benefits the rising power potentially provides. Most Asian states see Chinas threat as

relatively low, but also see the benefits of having warm relations with it as relatively


However, while material factors are important elements of hierarchy, shared

expectations about state preferences are just as important a factor. 12 In a system of

unequal (or unbalanced) power, it is not just security and economic relations, but also
Randall Schweller, Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In, International
Security 19, no. 1 (Summer 1994), pp. 72-108.
Robert Powell, Bargaining Theory and International Conflict, American Review of Political Science 5
(2002), p. 1-30, quote on page 16.
Robert Powell writes that Although some structural theories seem to suggest that one can explain at
least the outline of state behavior without reference to states goals or preferencesin order to specify a
game theoretic model, the actors preferences and benefits must be defined. Powell, Bargaining Theory
and International Conflict, p. 17.

the intentions and preferences of both dominant and secondary states that make Chinas

emergence as the largest regional state stable and not threatening. This coincides with

recent formal work on international conflict that has identified asymmetric information as

one of the main causal mechanisms that can lead to conflict.13 Information is asymmetric

or incomplete when different actors know or believe more about their own preferences

and vital interests than do other states. This can lead to conflict if two sides have different

assessments of the others willingness to fight over an issue. In the reassurance context,

signals must show that the state is moderate and willing to reciprocate cooperation.14 To

the extent that China communicates restraint to its neighbors, and its neighbors believe

China, then the system will be stable even in the context of rising power.

Signaling Chinas Intentions

Viewed in material terms, Chinas rise poses both potential costs and potential

benefits. The potential costs of Chinas rise are fairly obvious. The richer and more

powerful that China becomes, the more likely it can bully other states. Furthermore, were

China to provoke a war somewhere in East Asia, it would effect the entire region and

quite possibly the United States. However, the potential benefits from Chinas rise are

just as obvious. As both a consumer and a producer, the Chinese market is increasingly

seen to hold the future for many companies worldwide, and many countries including

Andrew Kydd, Trust and Mistrust in International Relations (Princeton: 2005); James Fearon,
Rationalist Explanations for War, p. 381; Lisa Martin, Credibility, Costs, and Institutions: Cooperation
on Economic Sanctions, World Politics 45, no. 3 (1993), pp. 406-32; James D. Fearon, Signaling Foreign
Policy Interests: Tying Hands Versus Sinking Costs, Journal of Conflict Resolution 41, no. 1 (February
1997), pp. 68-90; and Anne E. Sartori, The Might of the Pen: A Reputational Theory of Communication in
International Disputes, International Organization 56, no. 1 (Winter 2002), pp. 121-149The other main
mechanism is the commitment problem, which arises when two states cannot trust each other to uphold
their side of a bargain. See Robert Powell, The Inefficient Use of Power: Costly Conflict with Complete
Information, American Political Science Review 98, no. 2 (May 2004), pp. 231-241.
Andrew Kydd, Game Theory and the Spiral Model, World Politics 49 (April 1997), pp. 371-400.

the U.S. are attempting to gain access to the Chinese market.15 In addition, good

relations with China also hold the possibility for regional stability and a spillover of

increased economic and diplomatic cooperation.

Of all the Asian states, Japan is the most likely to have the capability to challenge

Chinas regional leadership, and the ultimate direction of Japan-China relations is still

evolving. However, it is significant that so far, Japan has not sought regional leadership

and appears unlikely to do so in the future.16 Although Japan and China still have

unsettled historical animosities and territorial disputes, Japan-China economic ties have

been rapidly increasing and the two countries cooperate on a range of issues.

East Asian states believe China because its signals to East Asia about its intentions

have become more moderate even as its power has increased. Chinas power has risen

over the past three decades, it yet over that time it has moderated its rhetoric, resolved a

number of territorial disputes with its neighbors, and joined (and proposed) a number of

international and regional institutions. Most significantly, China has been willing to put

in writing that is has no intention of using force in Southeast Asia.17 East Asian states

increasingly see their economic and diplomatic futures tied to China. Thus, states such as

Vietnam, the Philippines, and even South Korea are reorienting their foreign policies to

adjust to China.

James F. Hoge, Jr., A Global Power Shift in the Making: is the United States ready? Foreign Affairs
83, no. 4 (July/August 2004), pp. 2-7.
Eric Heginbotham and Richard J. Samuels, Japan, in Richard J. Ellings and Aaron L. Friedberg with
Michael Wills, eds., Strategic Asia 2002-03: Asian Aftershocks (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian
Research, 2003),
In November 2002, China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a
memorandum that prohibits the use of force to settle rival claims over the oil-rich Spratly Islands.
Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed at the Eighth ASEAN Summit in
Phnom Penh, November 2002 ( For an assessment of the details of the
agreement, see Ang Cheng Guan, The South China Sea Dispute Revisited, (ms., Nanyang Technological
University, 2004).

Why would China reassure other East Asian states? Most importantly, because

Chinas continued economic growth and domestic stability is predicated on its deep

integration with, and openness to, the regional and international economy. This grand

strategy is often called peaceful rise. 18 China recognizes that it needs continued

economic growth and is dependent on continued open international economic relations.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Partys main claim to legitimacy is its economic record.

Furthermore, China realizes explicitly that it would gain very little from starting conflicts

with its neighbors, but has much to gain from warmer ties.19 Even when China has

become the undisputed dominant Asian power, it is unlikely that China could gain

anything from provoking military conflicts with its neighbors. In this context, states in

East Asia tend to find credible Chinas reassurance signals that it intends to be a

responsible leader.20


Although material factors are an important aspect to predicting whether or not

Chinas rise will be destabilizing, I have focused on the often overlooked factor of

information and assessments about preferences. Focusing on how China signals its

intentions to its neighbors leads to the conclusion that East Asia will adjust to Chinas

rise, rather than balance against it.

Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: Chinas Grand Strategy and International Security
(forthcoming, Stanford University Press); and Robert Ross, Chinas Grand Strategy: A kinder, gentler
turn, Strategic Comments 10, no. 9 (November 2004).
Stephen Brooks, Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization, and the Changing
Calculus of Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
David Shambaugh, China Engages Asia: Reshaping the Regional Order, International Security 29, No.
3 (Winter 2004/05), pp. 64-99; Kang, Getting Asia Wrong,; Carl Thayer, Chinas New Security
Concept and Southeast Asia, in David Lovell, ed., Asia-Pacific Security: Policy Challenges (Singapore:
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003); and Brantley Womack, China and Southeast Asia:
Asymmetry, Leadership, and Normalcy, Pacific Affairs 76, no. 4 (Winter 2003-2004), p. 526.

In addition to the main prediction about East Asian stability, if China is ascending

the hierarchy in East Asia, then two corollary predictions follow about the future. First,

the U.S. may not be the key to stability in East Asia. If the U.S. withdraws significantly

from the region, East Asia will not become as dangerous or unstable as the balance of

power perspective expects, because other nations will accommodate China's central

position in East Asia, rather than balance against it. Second, if East Asian nations do not

balance China as realists expect, an American attempt to construct a balancing coalition

against China using East Asian states will be highly problematic. East Asian states will

be extremely reluctant to choose sides, and if forced to choose, many states may not

choose the United States.

Figure 1. Current and predicted alignment of between the US and China

(selected East Asian states)

North Korea Vietnam Malaysia Philippines South Korea Japan, Taiwan

Alignment with the

Alignment with China
United States

Predicted direction of alignment