war on the rocks

Why America’s Democratic Allies are the Best Bet against a Rising China

June 18, 2015

The perennial debate over how to deal with a rising China was recently sparked again following revelations that China is nearing completion of an airstrip in the disputed Spratly Islands. The construction of the airstrip, along with wider dredging operations in the Spratlys, is just one part of China’s attempt to assert its dominance over the South China Sea. American concerns regarding an increasingly powerful and ambitious China are certainly nothing new. Yet, developments like those in the Spratlys seem to have recently taken on an increased significance, as China continues to close the power gap with the United States. America’s democratic allies in the region, however, may hold the key to deterring future conflict with China.

While Chinese military parity with the United States remains an issue of long-term concern, some have argued that China may be approaching parity with the United States in other ways. Why is the power distribution between these two countries important to understand? It is important because an underlying assumption of this debate is that conflict between states is more likely when they are comparable in power. In a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Political Science, I further explore the argument that parity between states raises the likelihood of armed conflict. Heavily debated by international relations scholars for decades, some have argued that equal power between states is a deterrent that minimizes the risk of conflict, while others claim that such parity raises the risk of conflict because it generates greater uncertainty and miscalculations. In the study, I analyze the conflict behavior of all states from 1816 to 2000, focusing on the relative power between military alliances. I find evidence that conflict is indeed more likely when the power gap is smaller. When states are similar to each other in their capabilities, all else being equal, they are more likely to miscalculate their relative advantage over their opponent. According to some analysts, this situation currently characterizes the relationship between the United States and China, particularly in the maritime domain — the United States has allegedly overestimated its military advantage in the Pacific, while significantly underestimating China’s relative capabilities.

But this is only part of the story. Even though power parity has enhanced the likelihood of conflict over the last two centuries, I also find that military alliances among democracies have served as an effective deterrent. In fact, alliances among highly democratic states have almost completely mitigated the risk of conflict generated by power parity. The figure below demonstrates this effect. The solid line illustrates the difference in probability that two states and their allies will engage in armed conflict in two scenarios: 1) when the alliances are equal in power, and 2) when one alliance is dramatically more powerful than the other. The difference in these two scenarios changes as the target state’s allies become more democratic. When the target state’s allies are strongly autocratic (the far left hand side of the graph), for instance, two equally powerful coalitions are nearly 600% more likely to experience conflict than in the situation where one side is significantly more powerful. But as the level of democracy within the target state’s allies increases, that difference is consistently reduced, until the power distribution has virtually no effect (at the far right hand side).

ConradChartMilitary alliances, therefore, are not effective deterrents through power alone. They are most effective when the alliance partners can efficiently coordinate and communicate their power to external observers. Democratic governments are far better at coordinating and communicating their strength to potential adversaries because they are perceived as more reliable alliance partners. Evidence suggests that democracies are indeed more likely to honor their commitments to each other. Higher levels of accountability in democracies provide incentives for leaders to pursue good policy choices, including upholding international military commitments. Additionally, even if a state wishes to misrepresent its intentions or “bluff,” democratic institutions constrain its ability to do so. And despite the fickleness of public opinion, “the cumbersome machinery of democratic foreign policymaking” makes major policy shifts untenable, even when a state’s interests have changed. As a result, democracies make credible commitments and credible threats, helping to shore up allies and deter potential adversaries.

While we must be cautious about extrapolating a single relationship from these results, the evidence has important implications for dealing with China. Even if China and the United States are relatively equal in power, conflict is not inevitable, regardless of China’s intentions. The key to maintaining a peaceful balance of power in Asia involves two steps. First, both China and the United States must acknowledge that a balance of power is simply a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Second, the United States must continue, and even enhance, its cooperation with democratic allies in the region. Joint exercises, such as the recent Balikatan war games, between the United States and the Philippines are key to coordinating and demonstrating an effective long-term deterrent. Such strengthened cooperation may ultimately be the best way to reduce the risk of conflict as China approaches genuine parity with the United States. A united front may be the only way to convince China that its “salami slicing” approach in the South China Sea is unsustainable. Shoring up relationships with Asian democracies — especially South Korea, Japan and Taiwan — have been crucial to U.S. strategy in the region for some time, but the stakes may now be higher than ever.


Dr. Justin Conrad is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He is also a reserve officer in the United States Navy.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery