American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the Twenty-First Century.
How safe is East Asia? What does East Asian security imply about America's grand strategy in the region? In the early 1990s, many international relations scholars asserted that Asia was becoming ripe for rivalry. Most notably, Aaron Friedberg anticipated that East Asian countries would engage in an arms race, and that "Asia will not lack for crises" ("Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia," International Security, 18 (3), 1993,31). This pessimistic view has recently been contested, and in this book David Kang argues that most of East Asia is safer than previously predicted. By extension, Kang stresses that with East Asia's increasing prosperity and peace, the American grand strategy of building on diplomacy, economics, and regional integration, will provide a more effective solution to the region's problems than a military one.
Kang uses bargaining theory and the distinction between cheap talk and costly signals to evaluate how East Asian countries are responding to one another and to the rise of China; the logic implied throughout the book is that a country communicates its strategic resolve--how much it cares about an issue--via costly signals. Focusing on military expenditure (measured by the ratio of defense expenditures to GDP) as the means of costly signaling, Kang argues that East Asia is safe because countries in the region are neither participating in the arms race nor turning to allies to counterbalance each other. Except for the Korean Peninsula, he claims that "none of the other East Asian countries are using costly signals or preparing for war in dealing with each other and China" (p. 11). This claim is based on his idea that "a nation's military expenditures would directly respond to its external security environment" (p. 21)--i.e., its threat perception.
The central virtue of this book is that it contributes to the current debate over East Asian security with strong empirical efforts to provide the missing piece in the explanatory jigsaw. Specifically, Kang presents ample evidence that East Asian countries are reluctant to risk war with China: no East Asian country is spending heavily on its military, despite increased Chinese power projection; all have close relations with China, and none are pursuing allies to counterbalance China; and they are disinclined to get involved in Chinese-US disputes. All this evidence is well-grounded in his case studies and descriptive statistics, providing a relevant context for understanding contemporary relations among East Asian countries.
Another notable aspect of this book is its position against several established theoretical frameworks associated with the rise of China and East Asian security. To demonstrate that East Asia is secure while its regional military spending has tapered despite China's rapid rise, Kang juxtaposes his argument against alternative explanations based on regional hegemonic power, spiral dynamics, and balance-of-power mechanisms: namely, that China's rise has escalated tensions in the regional and global order, provoking the security dilemma and counterbalancing behavior. Undoubtedly, this perspective based on costly signaling offers a new angle of analysis regarding the optimal American grand strategy in East Asia, one that is not yet fully embraced by scholars and practitioners.
Despite the book's strengths, however, some aspects require further discussion. First, just because East Asian countries do not spend more on defense does not negate the threat they perceive from China. Nor does it guarantee regional stability in East Asia. What seems to matter more to East Asian countries is balancing the cost of preparing for war with China against the value of the disputed issues. For example, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam all have territorial disputes, but China is their largest trading partner, and they know the US has other pressing issues--it cares more about its NATO allies, key countries in the Middle East, and the continuing threats from terrorism and Russian aggression. Thus, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam display no costly signals against China, for the cost of fighting is much greater than the value of the disputed issues.
Second, and relatedly, the book pays little attention to the concerns that China may leverage its capabilities to challenge stability in East Asia and beyond. China's recent artificial island-building and base-construction activities in the South China Sea have been aggravating security concerns in countries around the world. The absence of regional costly signals aimed against China appears to be a strategic calculation, as East Asian countries have more to lose when they escalate crises with China. Before long, however, they may encounter imminent threat from China that has to be defended in exchange for their economic gain. Recent military modernization and procurement plans in Southeast Asia against China serves as a portent.
Meanwhile, this book presents interesting results from a regression analysis, which lend credence to Kang's claims about East Asian countries' low perception of threat and declining military spending. However, the evidence would be stronger if its limitations were addressed: the results table (p. 58) indicates that neighboring states' increased military spending (as a proxy for threat) influences a country to follow suit; and being China's rivals--be they the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, or Vietnam in the analysis--connotes they perceive threats from China. These interpretations necessitate a revisitation of central puzzles: Are East Asian countries afraid or not? How should we measure their threat perception? Is the low level of fear among East Asian countries driving their declining military expenditure?
Understanding East Asian countries' regional threat perceptions and behaviors is pivotal to American foreign policy in the region. American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the Twenty-First Century presents an optimistic case, showing that East Asia considers itself safe. The book provides useful evidence in support of Kang's claims, but its sole focus on military expenditure as a proxy for costly signaling may conceal East Asian countries' perceived threat from China. Ultimately, the value of this book lies in the fact that Kang associates his evidence with policy debates about US-East Asia relations and the proposed US grand strategy, and anyone interested in East Asian security will revel in reading this book.
REVIEWED BY CHANGWOOK JU, Department of Political Science, Yale University
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|Publication:||Journal of East Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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