Obama, Vietnam, China and the Theory of Balancing of Power and War
China warned Obama, on lifting his arms embargo of Vietnam, a historical move given the recent geopolitical situation in South China Sea. This came a day after the US lifted a decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam. Obama becomes the third American president to visit Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975 and his three-day trip is known as an attempt to prop up Vietnam as a balance against China. While he did not mention China by name, his speech was meaningful.
He said, “Big nations should not bully smaller ones” a hint, as thick as one can have in diplomacy. He also said, that even though US is not a claimant in current disputes, “we will stand with our partners in upholding key principles like freedom of navigation,” in a speech quoted, in Hanoi. “Vietnam will have greater access to the equipment you need to improve your security,” he was quoted, further adding that “Nations are sovereign and no matter how large or small a nation may be, its territory should be respected.”
It is an interesting situation, where the American administration continues to avoid directly challenging China, but is vocal about acknowledging Chinese dominance in Asia. Infact, that is the heart of the debate inside Washington foreign policy community, that whether China enjoys dominance in Asia, or whether it enjoys supremacy. Both are different and both will logically have different policy prescriptions. United States is wary of challenging China directly, as no great power wants to be locked with another great power in a downward spiral, for as long as they can avoid it. Unless there is a complete deterrence failure, which thankfully is not the case for either China or America, there are no chances of a clash or even a spiral. To add to that, trade between China and US is still robust, and if Hillary Clinton wins, it will continue to stay robust.
So, what’s behind this latest Vietnam embargo move? To understand that, we need to know a bit about Kenneth Waltz’s Balance of power theory. Balance of power, explains results and patterns, and predict that states will engage in balancing, and strong tendency towards balancing will be more than bandwagoning between states. Waltz maintains for example, that states shouldn’t try to pursue hegemony, because it goes against the logic of rational behaviour in a systemic theory, the logic being, the moment one state will seek hegemony, and the other states will be forced to choose to balance against the rising hegemon.
Waltz also argues, despite that, sometimes states do seek hegemony and end up being balanced by other states or being punished by the system, examples being Imperial Germany and Japan, as well as Nazi Germany. According to Waltz, smart states should realize the folly of ambition and will reign in seeing absolute hegemony and will seek to gain an ‘appropriate amount of power’. In the eventuality that states seek additional power, Waltz maintains that their more important goal remains to ensure that other states do not gain power at their expense. ‘The first concern of states’, he maintains, ‘is not to maximize power, but to maintain their positions in the system.
Balancing also happens between a traditionally strong state with a weak ally against another strong state. British Empire, the mightiest naval power of the time, balanced against Austria and Germany with France, for example.
That is exactly what is happening in the case of US and Vietnam. The factors affecting this balancing behaviour are aggregate power, proximity, offensive capability and percieved offensive intentions. America, rather than openly clashing with China, is intending to maintain is position of power in Asia, which is according to the theory of Waltz. It is not rational for China or US to be directly be antagonistic to each other, as it is not logical for two great powers to head for a conflict head on. However, the history of international relations guides us to understand, there will always be smaller and weaker states who will bandwagon with other bigger states to balance against a third big power. By that logic, US lifting of arms embargo in Vietnam can be explained.
Is there reason to fear? As mentioned previously, no. The US and China, despite much recent tensions, are both prudent powers who don’t want to head to a crisis, and there is enough evidence to that. There might be chances of smaller conflicts, however, and both sides need to keep the communication channels open to avoid any miscalculations. After all, balance of power fails, when communication breaks down.