Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore
Much of the literature on power transition focuses on leading states in relative rise and decline and is relatively silent on non-leading actors such as regional powers, middle powers, and smaller regional states. Yet, if being a leading state implies possessing a network of allies and friends to bolster institutions and norms that perpetuate preeminence, then non-leading states, their support, and actions may be consequential for major powers in relative rise and decline. Efforts by regional actors in East Asia to “hedge” and “not choose sides” between the United States and China, for example, seem to exacerbate U.S.-China competition and growing regional tensions. This despite the fact that the stated aim of such action was to moderate major power rivalry in the region and safeguard stability during apparent shifts in the distribution of power.
Disparate attempts by non-leading states to navigate power transition may collectively exacerbate friction among the leading states in relative rise and decline, heightening insecurity. Power transitions do not occur in a frictionless vacuum and imply more than changes in the distribution of material capabilities. They involve efforts by newly prominent actors to modify or even replace prevailing institutional and normative bargains to more accurately reflect their interests and growing strength. Established states concurrently seek to protect their preferences and privileged positions by trying to preserve institutional and informal arrangements they find helpful for maintaining dominance. Leading states in both relative rise and decline reach out to seek support from non-leading states to do so. Leading states need supporters, friends, and allies to realize and sustain the order they envision. Contestation among leading states in relative rise and decline over order means that non-leading states may collectively have a disproportionate effect on the conditions surrounding power transitions. Individual attempts by non-leading states to address the uncertainties of power transition can aggregate to heighten the strategic mistrust and sharpen security dilemmas between leading states. These effects result from the simultaneous collective action, coordination, and commitment problems that generally impede cooperation among states.
In looking at East Asia from the early 2000s, I submits that individual efforts by non-leading powers to secure their interests tend to collectively make the U.S.-China relationship more fraught with strategic mistrust and security dilemmas, even if inadvertently. Even seemingly innocuous efforts at hedging and neutrality by non-leading regional states, which appear individually rational and profitable, can be potentially destabilizing if simultaneously undertaken by enough actors. So long as strategic mistrust among leading states persist, actions by non-leading states can create conditions that intensify broader security concerns. Highlighting such perspectives enable me to extend and bring together existing scholarly and policy conversations about power transitions, order-building, security dilemmas, and the roles of non-leading states, while outlining the contours of contemporary politics in East Asia.
Ja Ian Chong is assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. He previously worked with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, and was a Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program fellow. Dr. Chong’s work crosses the fields of international relations, comparative politics, and political sociology, with a focus on security issues relating to China and East Asia. He follows the interplay of social movements, politics, and foreign policy in East Asia closely. His work appears in a number of journals, edited volumes, and newspapers, including the China Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, International Security, Security Studies, and Asian Security among others. Dr. Chong is author of External Intervention and the Politics of State Formation: China, Thailand, Indonesia – 1893-1952, Cambridge University Press, 2012, recipient of the 2013/4 Best Book Award from the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association.