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September 2011

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Alliance Politics in Asia
Reviewed by James W. White

Thomas J. Christensen, Worse Than A Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-14260-9, hard cover, (ISBN 978-0-691-14261-6 paperback), 2011, 306 pp., $70.00, ($24.95). [Also available on Kindle for $9.95-ed.]

In this study of security and diplomacy in Asia since 1949, Thomas Christensen argues that, geopolitics, realpolitik, and domestic politics notwithstanding, it is alliance politics that best explains the success or failure of coercive diplomacy, and the consequent extent of stability in the region. By “coercive diplomacy” he means the use of threats and assurances to influence the behavior of one’s enemies short of war. Once the shooting starts, he argues, the more disunified one’s enemies the better; short of war, on the other hand, he asserts—with exhaustive documentation and persuasive analysis—a monolithic alliance is both the best to be, and the best to deal with. This is because threats and assurances, to be effective, must be clear and credible. When an alliance is uncoordinated, divided, and undisciplined, it is unable to speak with one voice or either to act or react coherently, with dangerous implications for all.

The author focuses on two types of disunity: general inability to agree and act in concert, which renders an alliance opaque, uncoordinated, and low in credibility, and enhances misperceptions and often overconfidence by the other side; and specific: when there is rivalry within an alliance for leadership—especially ideological leadership—then there is often an escalation of belligerence by the rivals, and simultaneously an opportunity for lesser members of the alliance to manipulate the putative leading actors. Monolithic, hierarchical alliances, even if mutually hostile, maximize the possibility peaceful resolution of conflict. Dividing the postwar history of Asia into six approximate periods, he makes a solid—though no doubt debatable—case for his model.

In the late 1940s both the Sino-Soviet communist and US-led anti-communist alliances in Asia were taking shape in fits and starts, and not all actors were, or could be forced to be, on the same page. The communists—reasonably—feared attack by both the Republic of (South) Korea and the Republic of China on Taiwan and—less reasonably—a resurgence of Japanese militarism. In the face of this, the U.S. feared entrapment by the bellicose ROK and ROC, and sent messages about its defense intentions of sufficient ambiguity as to enable Kim Il-sung to win Soviet and Chinese approval for an attack on the South.

This disunity continued into the second period, 1950-51. Distrust and disorganization rendered the communists unable to make threats and assurances sufficient to deter the U.S. from crossing the 38th parallel. This time it was the U.S. that underestimated its enemies’ commitment, based again on fears of the ROC and Japan, and overestimated the credibility of its own assurances to China that we did not threaten them. The USSR, for its part, wanted to avoid World War III but was happy to see the U.S. drained by Asian entanglements; neither Indochina nor Korea was a top priority for it, and its differences with China gave the belligerents in both considerable freedom of action.

After 1951, and continuing into the mid-1950s, both alliances solidified. Sino-soviet cooperation peaked, and both Kim Il-sung and Ho Chi-minh were forced into line, resulting in peace agreements at both Panmunjom and Geneva. The U.S. also finally took a coherent line in Korea, although continuing fears of entrapment by the ROC again gave the PRC what looked like a green light to go after it, with attacks in the Taiwan Straits in both 1954 and 1958. During the next several years, however (roughly 1956-64), friction between the USSR and China increased in rivalry for leadership of the worldwide communist movement. China was out to prove its ideological bona fides both at home (with the Great Leap Forward) and abroad (with aid to North Vietnam); the USSR, which had been pursuing a course of peaceful coexistence, was forced into a more aggressive stance, which the author argues not only led to more aid to (and less restraint on) Vietnam, but also contributed to its decisions to send missiles to Cuba and allow East Germany to close its border with the West.

The fifth period, 1964-72, was one of dramatic reversal. Early on, escalating Sino-Soviet rivalry benefited North Vietnam enormously; the Vietnamese tail vigorously wagging its canine patrons. But in 1968 this situation came to a screeching halt, as the Sino-Soviet alliance substantively came to an end and each became the other’s number one enemy. Christensen takes no theoretical responsibility for the years between 1968 and 1989, when the two communist powers seriously considered war between them and the U.S. had no hostile alliance to deal with. China withdrew its troops from Vietnam, cut its aid, and pushed the North (which by now was essentially running the war) toward a less aggressive posture. China also moved into, if not an anti-Soviet alliance with the U.S., a definite alignment with us and against them. There were incidents of friction between the U.S. and China, usually over Taiwan, but little coercive diplomacy.

The Sino-U.S. honeymoon ended in 1988-89 with the dissolution of the USSR, the brutality of Tiananmen, and the democratization of Taiwan under the secessionist president Lee Teng-hui. But the secessionist phase passed, and—whether or not because they had learned from experience—both China and the U.S. have managed their relationship relatively smoothly for the last decade and a half. There have been many incidents and irritants but they have all been resolved, if not always smoothly. The U.S. seems to have sent both clear and credible threats and assurances: We will arm Taiwan and back them up, but in exchange we will also oppose ROC independence and not try to “contain” China. Moreover, the U.S. and Japan are on the same page in this regard, and China has transparently recognized this, accepting the U.S.-Japan alliance as a non-threatening restraint on potential Japanese militarism.

I am sure that there will be many who will dispute Christensen’s emphasis on alliance politics as the major factor in recent U.S.-Asian diplomatic history. Personally, I find his evidentiary base persuasive and his analysis attractively parsimonious. It gains traction also from China’s apparent adherence to the model: until 1989 it preferred a monolithic U.S.-Japan alliance—even though hostile—which would deflect Soviet overtures to Japan; since then it has also seen the alliance as a “cork in the bottle” of Japanese militarism. That this is due, in my opinion, to serious overestimation by both the Soviets/Russians and the Chinese of Japanese militarist tendencies. But this is immaterial—if it leads to Chinese acceptance of the US military presence in Asia it can’t be all bad. Whether or not the model is as universally valid as he implies, never explicitly recognizing temporal or spatial restrictions on its applicability, I do not know. The author does apply it to recent interactions between the U.S., Georgia, and Russia; between the Arabs and Israel in the run up to the 1967 war; and between Hamas, Fatah, and Israel. It seems to hold up, with U.S.-Georgian disunity contributing to war there; inter-Arab leadership competition contributing to the 1967 war; and Hamas-Fatah conflict making it difficult for Israel to relate to the Palestinians. It would also be nice to see how this model works regarding the run up to World War I or the current situation on the Korean peninsula, but those must await other books, I suspect. The model might also have even broader applicability than Christensen argues, that is, it might hold at the sub-national level: the Chinese, for example, have on occasion found it hard to deal with the U.S. because the American governmental “alliance”—Congress, the White House, Pentagon, and State—is frequently disunified, uncoordinated, and incapable of speaking with one voice. A more monolithic American face might have much less difficulty threatening and assuring our enemies.


AuthorJames W. White is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in the politics of East Asia. He is the author, translator, or editor of ten books, primarily on Japan, and has published essays in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, Comparative Politics, the Journal of Asian Studies, and the Journal of Japanese Studies, inter al.

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