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BOOK REVIEW: Aiming without arming: explaining free riding among East Asian allies

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David Kang’s American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security is centered around a confounding puzzle: Why aren’t East Asian states spending more on their militaries? Kang’s explanation, in short, is that “few countries fear for their survival”. This argument is original and counter-intuitive. If correct, it would overturn the conventional wisdom that the security situation in East Asia is deteriorating.

American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security will be required reading for many students of contemporary politics in Asia, but in this reviewer’s opinion, Kang’s main argument is unpersuasive. Kang makes a convincing case that few East Asian states are building up their militaries, but this does not imply that regional states are comfortable with the emerging security situation. Instead, East Asian states are aiming without arming (to paraphrase Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta). In other words, most East Asian leaders are worried about China’s rise, but avoiding substantial increases in military spending.

Why might states aim without arming? One reason is that arming will not change the fundamental balance of power. Indeed, none of China’s neighbors can hope to match its military modernization. Given China’s massive military edge, additional defense spending by regional states has limited value. Instead, these states’ best hope is that the United States will intervene if a crisis or conflict occurs. This explains why Kang finds “no evidence that a balancing coalition is forming to counter China’s rise”.

Indeed, most regional states will maintain political relations with China as a hedge, in case the United States forgoes its traditional role as security provider. Kang himself notes, “The greatest risk for East Asian countries would be that they embrace a new Trump doctrine only to see Trump change his mind”. Thus, as Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi says, “We will wait until President Trump releases his real policies… We will determine our stance once he’s made up his mind”. Until then, East Asian states will rely on U.S. security guarantees and avoid military spending that could draw the ire of leaders in Beijing.

Freeriding Flourishing

Kang sets out to explain why states in East Asia spend so little on their militaries. Given the familiar refrain about China’s rapid rise, military modernization, and increasing assertiveness, one might expect high levels of defense spending. After all, Kang argues, if regional states are severely threatened by China, they should send costly signals of their intention to defend themselves. Instead, he finds that “almost all countries in the region see their security environment as relatively benign”.

The argument that regional states see their security situation as benign will surprise many regional experts. That his book goes against the conventional wisdom is to Kang’s credit, but it raises the evidentiary requirement to prove his hypothesis. In this reviewer’s opinion, American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security provides a convincing argument that regional military spending is surprisingly low, but is unconvincing about the cause.

As noted above, Kang’s explanation for low military spending in the region is straightforward: most East Asian states are not particularly worried about China. Yet, this argument conflates low military spending with an absence of concern. An alternative explanation is that spending by regional militaries would be unlikely to change the outcome of a conflict, which China would likely win unless the United States intervenes. Kang explicitly acknowledges this possibility when he writes that “while some countries may be modernizing and expanding their navies, the rate and scale at which this occurring is so small as to make no realistic difference in a maritime dispute with China”.

If more military spending by China’s smaller neighbors would not change the military balance, why should they bother? Kang argues that weaker powers can win asymmetric conflicts, so military spending should still have value. But the literature on asymmetric conflicts seldom assesses situations in which a state can buckpass by relying on a larger ally like the United States. Would it not be smarter for regional states to attempt to convince the United States to intervene, or to bandwagon with Beijing if Washington forgoes intervention? This is classic buck passing behavior, often practiced by smaller states in bipolar systems.

In short, facing China’s growing might, East Asian states have an incentive to free ride on the United States. Kang acknowledges low levels of military spending by U.S. allies and partners, but he finds “little evidence of free-riding by American allies in the region”. This is a surprising verdict. After all, what would constitute evidence of free riding other than low defense spending by U.S. allies?

Kang’s answer is that regional states do not want more U.S. commitment. He argues, “the hypothesis that East Asian states are mainly or solely relying on external balancing relies heavily on a counterfactual: if the United States weren’t forward deployed in East Asia, then East Asian states would feel more insecure and thus would spend more on their militaries”. However, this need not be the case. Regional states might simply bandwagon with China if the United States were not present. After all, most regional states are so weak compared to China that their only realistic hope for military success is U.S. military involvement.

Kang himself acknowledges this possibility when he notes, “If a smaller power fears abandonment, it may be very cautious about making any firm ex ante commitment to a larger power. If the larger power can abrogate its responsibilities at any time, the smaller power can very likely be left ex post having annoyed a third party, but with no alliance support from its larger ally… As a result, Asian countries are likely to be highly cautious about joining an American-led coalition”. The implication of this statement is that free riding is logical for East Asian states. Kang notes that, “If East Asian states were going to compete with China and attempt to keep up, they would have started long ago”. East Asian states are so far behind now that there is little incentive to try to catch up. But that does not mean that they are comfortable with China’s rise.

Quibbling over Case Studies

In seeking to prove his argument, Kang reviews the behavior of North Korea, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore. These sections are good reads, particularly those that address the Korean Peninsula. Kang provides a convincing account of the increase in North Korean spending and the continuing focus of South Korea on North Korea, rather than China. The other cases, however, are open to nitpicking. In particular, Kang never establishes a specific set of observable implications that flow from his argument, choosing instead to search for different types of evidence in different cases. This opens the case studies to criticism of cherry picking.

Take, for example, the Philippines. Kang argues that “There is little evidence that [the Philippines] is free-riding on the U.S.-[Philippine] Mutual Defense Treaty”. In the next sentence, however, he notes that “The Philippines has no military to speak of, and has spent a generation reducing that funding further”. Kang attempts to square this circle by arguing that “the Philippines desires a reduced military relationship with the United States”. He therefore concludes that “the Philippines is not engaged in chain-ganging, free-riding, or external balancing”.

A simpler explanation exists, one which in this author’s view is more convincing: the Philippines desires a stronger U.S. commitment but does not believe it will get one. Under the Benigno Aquino administration, the Philippines tried repeatedly to clarify U.S. security guarantees, failing most dramatically in 2012 during the Scarborough Shoal standoff. This, in itself, is evidence that the Philippines was seriously worried about China. Yet, Kang does not address this incident in detail. Although he says “this chapter pays particular attention to the administration of Benigno Aquino”, most of his evidence comes from Rodrigo Duterte. By the time Duterte came to power, U.S. support appeared limited, so Philippine leaders felt they had to bandwagon.

Japan is another questionable case. Kang argues that Tokyo is not spending more on its military because it is not particularly worried about China. He insists that “there is little evidence, other than [Prime Minister Shinzō] Abe’s pronouncements, that Japan is in any position to return to a position of leadership in East Asia”. Yet discounting the statements of the Abe administration ignores the clearest signs of regional concern about Chinese behavior. There is in fact ample evidence of growing Japanese concern about China. It is not clear why one would pay such close attention to Rodrigo Duterte’s erratic statements but ignore the consistent messages voiced by Shinzo Abe and other Japanese leaders.

Vietnam is yet another surprising case. Kang uses the number of visits by senior American and Vietnamese leaders to the opposite capital as a proxy for concern about China. He notes that U.S. leaders visit Asia less frequently than Europe or the Middle East, suggesting “This demonstrates that despite the intensified speculation about the instability in the South China Sea, counterterrorism and coalition with NATO have continued to be the top priority of national and defense leaders of the United States”. Kang suggests that the imbalance in visit numbers is evidence that Vietnamese leaders are not worried about China. But are visits truly costly signals? Vietnam’s strategic documents and public statements expressing concern about Chinese activity in the South China Sea surely are better sources. Recent U.S. ship visits and arms sales to Vietnam do not receive the attention they deserve.

In short, Kang’s case studies are uneven. Decisively proving the thesis of the book would clearly identifying and consistently measuring observable implications. Instead, Kang presents different data from different cases, leaving unexamined much evidence that would counter his central argument.

Policy Implications: More Calls for Burdensharing?

Where does this leave U.S. policymakers? Many leading scholars on Asia have suggested that the United States should engage more deeply in Asia. Take, for example, recent books such as Kurt Campbell’s The Pivot, Victor Cha’s Powerplay, Michael Green’s By More than Providence, or Thomas Christensen’s The China Challenge, all of which advocate for a continued (and often increased) U.S. regional economic and security commitment to Asia. Each of these books argues that regional challenges are worsening, requiring more U.S. attention and resources.

Kang, on the other hand, suggests that Washington should be minimalist in its approach to Asia. He believes that a more hardline strategy of “containment and confrontation of Chi[n]a is unlikely to find many supporters in East Asia”. Instead, Kang suggests that the United States should essentially accept that a power transition is underway.  Advocacy for restraint is frequent in U.S. policy circles, but infrequent among U.S. experts on Asia, so Kang’s book will stand out from the crowd.

The 2017 National Security Strategy calls for allies and partners to “contribute the capabilities, and demonstrate the will, to confront shared threats.” Although Kang’s recommendations stand in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s recommitment to “great power competition,” this book’s longest lasting contribution may be to jumpstart academic debate about the limits of burdensharing by U.S. allies and partners.

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