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«Review Essay International Area Studies Review 2015, Vol. 18(3) 297–311 Deterrence, interdependence © The Author(s) 2015 Reprints and permissions: ...»

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596660I AS0010.1177/2233865915596660International Area Studies ReviewTønnesson


Review Essay

International Area Studies Review

2015, Vol. 18(3) 297–311

Deterrence, interdependence © The Author(s) 2015

Reprints and permissions:

and Sino–US peace sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/2233865915596660 ias.sagepub.com Stein Tønnesson Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway Abstract Nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence are key factors in cost calculations underpinning decisions on war or peace between states. This paper combines deterrence and interdependence in a proposed theory of major power peace, with reference to a number of insightful works on the ongoing transition of power from the US to a rising China. The paper explores the hypothesis that as long as the US and China can deter each other with a combination of conventional and nuclear forces, and refrain from actions to drastically reduce their economic dependence on each other, there is little risk of war between them. Peace will be further secured if important third party countries, notably Japan, remain covered by US extended deterrence and inte

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countries like Japan. Mearsheimer (2001: 396–402) argues that China is bound to seek hegemony in Northeast Asia, regardless of its political system, since this will be the best way to enhance China’s national security. And the US will be obliged to prevent China’s further rise if it approaches power parity. Hence China’s continued relative rise will lead by necessity to a substantial risk of war. The only factor that can prevent it is a halt to China’s relative rise, either because of a US economic rebound or a Chinese slowdown. The latter might come about as a result of demographic aging, of a failure to overcome the ‘middle income trap’, or as an effect of Western containment.

Mearsheimer argues that the US will soon need to give up its engagement strategy and put the brakes on China’s economic rise. After his lecture at PRIO, he was asked what he thought would be the best rival theory to his own, one allowing China to continue its peaceful rise to a level of parity with the USA. He answered: a theory combining nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence. He did not of course believe that such a theory would be better than his own but saw it as a possible challenger.

The offensive realist Mearsheimer rejects the possibility of trust between two unequal giants such as the US and China. Hence in his view, Charles Kupchan’s argument in How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace (2010: 395) that mutual accommodation holds a promise of facilitating a peaceful transition of power from the US to China if norms and rules develop that ‘promote a nascent security community in Northeast Asia’ can be nothing but naïve.

The same goes for Henry Kissinger’s assumption in On China (2011: 523) that it may be possible to develop ‘strategic trust’ of the same kind that once evolved between the UK and the US. If Mearsheimer is right that there cannot be genuine trust, then it might be thought that institutions and international law could do the trick, with China and the US accepting a common set of global rules, and sharing power in international institutions. Yet this also seems uncertain. China wants to revise the global rules and institutions, gain a greater role for its currency, increase its influence in global financial institutions or set up its own, and gain respect for ‘historic rights’ at sea. The US resists such changes, wanting to keep the global order in its present form. Trust and/or shared norms and institutions could no doubt solidify the peace but it seems risky to count upon them.

Fortunately, however, they may not be necessary conditions for avoiding the risk of great power war. Mearsheimer could be right that the main factors likely to guard against an outbreak of war are deterrence and economic interdependence. While many scholars and writers have discussed each of them, few have tried to combine them in a single theory. This paper reflects on the interplay between deterrence and interdependence, with reference to some of the best recent works on the rise of China, in order to assess if they – when operating together – may ensure war avoidance.

The first consideration is whether nuclear deterrence is enough in itself to prevent war.

Nuclear deterrence Saadia M. Pekkanen et al’s The Oxford Handbook of the International Relations of Asia (2014) sums up much of the current thinking about international relations in Asia. Among its thirty-nine chapters is one on nuclear politics by Jingdong Yuan. It notes that the region has the highest concentration of nuclear weapons in the world with three recognized nuclear powers (USA, Russia and China), two declared nuclear weapons states (Pakistan and India), and one country (North Korea), which is believed by some to already have acquired a capability to attack South Korea, Japan or China with a nuclear device. In addition, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are considered to be ‘nuclear-capable’ (Yuan, 2014: 505). Yuan refers to Kenneth Waltz’ (1981) suggestion that nuclear weapons could have a stabilizing influence in international relations but adds that the risk of nuclear war includes not only an incentive to be cautious but also a contrary incentive to act Downloaded from ias.sagepub.com at PRIO on August 31, 2015 299 Tønnesson provocatively, with the expectation that the other side may fear nuclear war more. Yuan further notes that China, since it acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 has become a responsible nuclear power with export controls in line with its commitments, and has played a significant role in trying to dissuade North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. The main challenge to Sino–US mutual deterrence from the perspective of the US and its allies is China’s increasing capacity for access denial, which creates doubts about US power projection and ability to intervene in a crisis. Fear of deploying US aircraft carriers to areas within the fire-range of Chinese precision-guided land based missiles could undermine the credibility of US ‘extended deterrence’, i.e. preparedness to defend its allies. Much therefore depends on the US capacity to continue funding its military presence in Asia. If US extended nuclear deterrence is seriously doubted, then Japan, South Korea and Taiwan might all go nuclear. This would lead to strong Chinese reactions, and probably an arms race with multiple participants. On the other hand, there is also a risk that the ongoing deployment of land-based US missile defence systems in the region instils fear in China for its second strike capability, which could induce it to invest in strengthening its nuclear forces. This could have similarly destabilizing effects. Yuan’s discussion of nuclear politics does not provide good reason for trusting that nuclear deterrence in itself will ensure peace between the US and China.

Chinese thinking about deterrence is not more reassuring. The most well-known Chinese realist thinker is Xuetong Yan of Tsinghua University in Beijing. In 2003 he tried to explain why there had not been any inter-state wars in East Asia since the end of the Cold War, although the Cold War power balance in the region had given way to a system of US dominance. China had no capacity to take over the counter-balancing role of the USSR; although as a nuclear weapons state it could deter an outright American attack. Hence a new system had emerged which Yan calls ‘deterrence in an unbalanced power structure’. There is no China–US power balance, he says, since China’s military capabilities remain inferior. Moreover, if there had been a balance, it could not explain regional peace since the Cold War Soviet–American power balance had not prevented wars in Asia. How can peace prevail in an unbalanced system? Yan rejects the proposition that it is due to partnerships among major powers, such as between China and Russia. Partnership agreements may have improved the relations between the signatories but they also made other powers anxious. Yan also dismisses the idea that great power relations have become so complex that no one country dares to threaten the peace. Similar complexities in earlier periods did not prevent war. Instead he suggests a combination of one fundamental and two dependent factors. The fundamental one is nuclear deterrence in an unbalanced power structure. Although China is the weaker party in an asymmetrical relationship it has sufficient nuclear capability to deter a direct US attack: ‘The configuration of power in East Asia changed from (Soviet–American) balance to asymmetry after the Cold War, but the nuclear deterrence in this region remained unchanged’ (Yan, 2003: 35). In such a system, nuclear deterrence prevents direct war between the stronger and the weaker party. At the same time, the lack of a power balance prevents the weaker party from engaging in war against smaller countries while this possibility remains open to the stronger party. Structural reasons linked to nuclear deterrence thus explain why there has not been any war between the US and China, or between China and its neighbours. What remains to be explained, he says, is that there has also been no war between secondary regional (middle or small) powers with conflicting security interests, or between them and the US. Neither Russia nor China would have intervened if the US had attacked North Korea, Myanmar or Malaysia, and no country would have done anything to prevent a local war between Singapore and Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, or Thailand and Cambodia. Two other factors

have prevented smaller wars from occurring, namely the two ‘dependent factors’ in Yan’s theory:

cooperation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and South Korea’s peaceful unification policy. While the combination of nuclear deterrence and asymmetrical power relations Downloaded from ias.sagepub.com at PRIO on August 31, 2015 300 International Area Studies Review 18(3) explains peace between China, Japan, Russia and the USA, and prevents Japan from going to war against North Korea, the existence of ASEAN explains peace among its member states and also that the US has not intervened militarily in Southeast Asia since its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.

Finally, South Korea’s policy of peaceful reunification explains peace between the two Koreas and between the US and North Korea. The US cannot attack North Korea without South Korea’s support. Since North Korea is too weak militarily to invade South Korea with any prospect of success, the peninsula is spared from war as long as South Korea does not want to unify the country by force.

Given the US military domination and its long record of warfare in East Asia until 1973, and in other regions up until this day, it can be no surprise that Yan’s main underlying concern is the US threat. He finds, however, that the US is unlikely to attack any country in the region as long as none of them are willing to let their territory be used for such a purpose. The US always uses nearby bases when it invades a country. This makes the non-interference policy of ASEAN and the peaceful unification policy of South Korea essential for regional peace. Thus Myanmar needed ASEAN membership in 1997 to protect itself against a possible intervention.

According to Yan, the main risk in the unbalanced regional system is China’s weakness.

Deployment of US missile defence systems could disrupt the regional peace by eliminating its main foundation: China’s capability for nuclear deterrence. It must follow from Yan’s reasoning, although he does not say so explicitly, that if China’s relative power grows sufficiently to generate a balanced regional system, then mutual deterrence will not just continue to secure the peace but also protect China’s partners, neighbours and friends against the US threat. What is left uncertain is what will happen if the balance tips to such an extent that the US allies feel insecure. This situation, which is exactly what power transition theory is about would transcend Yan’s logic and lead to greater risk of war.

The Australian analyst Hugh White’s The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (2012) is interesting because it looks ahead to a situation where China is likely to be more powerful than today. White recommends a drastic revision of the security system in East Asia, based on increasing doubts about the US capacity to maintain its strong military presence. China’s capacity for nuclear deterrence is growing, and what Yan sees as a boon is for White a worry. After China carried out its first nuclear test in 1964 it could no longer be subjected to ‘nuclear blackmail’, and the balance shifted determinedly in the 1970s when China developed strategic missiles that could not just target the USSR but also American cities. China’s strength increased further in the 1980s when the Soviet threat disappeared, so Chinese forces could be moved to the coast and resources set aside for building a modern navy. Today China has more than minimum deterrence. By targeting US bases in the region its nuclear forces can deter conventional strikes. Meanwhile, the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence has been reduced (White, 2012: 63–64, 85). White thus proposes that the US give up its dominant role and share power with China, Japan and India in a ‘concert’. If US primacy ends before a concert has been established, he warns, East Asia will be ‘divided into competing camps in a classic balance-of-power system, punctuated by serious wars’.

The US has allowed China to grow so vital to the world economy that there is no way to lock it out at any acceptable cost. Strategic containment would cause a huge economic backlash, and war between the US and China is already a ‘significant danger’. Washington has three options: resist;

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