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China’s Military Modernisation

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This is an excerpt from Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. An E-IR Edited Collection.
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By balance of power, scholars frequently mean the systemic situation or condition in which an objective equilibrium of power is observed among the major units of a given international system, power being understood in terms of material resources (especially military capabilities).[1] The term can also refer to a policy or a principle that guides policy formulation. Balancing policies and behaviours are related to the expectation that systems’ units will act to prevent the formation of concentrations of power and that states will counteract concentrations already formed.

Accordingly, balancing can take two main forms: internal balancing and external balancing. The employment of the first concept often implies economic, technological and especially military efforts taken by a state using its own means to counter the accumulation of military capabilities by a possible opponent; the second refers to the creation of military alliances to deal with the possibility of war (Waltz 1979). Nonetheless, scholars diverge when empirically identifying balancing behaviours (Martin 1999, 2003; Nexon 2009).

As a systemic theory, Waltz’s balance of power theory (1979) focused on explaining the tendency of international systems to bipolar and multipolar equilibriums, but did not produce a thorough characterisation of balancing behaviours. In turn, theories of balancing have sought to explain the conditions under which states will engage in balancing policies, trying to establish which states are most likely to balance (Nexon, 2009).[2]

Nevertheless, balance of power theories fail to clearly specify how balancing can be empirically identified, and when they attempt to do so, they focus on external balancing (i.e. the formation of alliances) to the detriment of internal balancing. Exemplifying the focus on external balancing, Kaufman and Wohlforth (2007) and Wohlforth et al. (2007) undertook a series of tests to verify the capacity of balance of power theories to explain systemic change. The scholars analysed the rise and fall of previous unipolar systems to verify the concrete operation of the balance of power theory’s expectations. In short, in opposition to balancing predicted by the balance of power theory as the cause of transformation of unipolar systems, Kaufman and Wohlforth (2007) maintain that the final collapse of past unipolarities is more properly understood as resulting from the classical effects of imperial overstretch[3]. In addition, Wohlforth et al. (2007) affirm that balancing occurs, and that it can be an important phenomenon, but its effects are minimised by collective action problems in the formation of alliances and by domestic obstacles to emulating the pole´s advances (thus hampering internal balancing).

At first glance, these works suggest that unipolar systems cannot be transformed by means of balancing and that imperial overstretch is a better way of explaining hegemons’ decline. In contrast, this chapter argues that these scholars have primarily signalised that alliances (external balancing) were historically ineffective in producing systemic balance in unipolar systems. Nevertheless, the process of internal balancing should not be discarded by the specialised literature as a source of international systemic change.

In sum, this chapter intends to contribute to the debate concerning the current state of Realism by exploring an underdeveloped realist concept: internal balancing. Subsequently, China’s rise, more specifically the recent naval modernisation efforts, will be analysed as a possible illustrative case of internal balancing. The chapter tests the hypothesis that China is changing the current unipolar systems by means of internally balancing the US.

Towards a Theoretical Model of Internal Balancing

The primary aim here is to develop criteria to identify global internal balancing, that is, balancing pursued against the United States, the sole pole of the international system inaugurated with the fall of the USSR. Balancing can also happen at a regional level, but since the purpose of this chapter is to verify if the whole system is changing by means of internal balancing, it is important to design ways to differentiate among efforts forged to counter regional enemies and efforts that deal with the unipole. Accordingly, internal balancing is here considered as a process comprising a group of behaviours that do not need to be consciously directed to forge equilibrium but that must have the potential to do so. Moreover, the effective accomplishment of global systemic balance cannot be used as a criterion to identify global balancing practices. This would neglect the possibility that both effective and ineffective balancing behaviours could take place.

With that in mind, this chapter argues that global internal balancing (that is, balancing directed towards the poles of a system) refers to a process comprising a group of actions which, over the years, have the potential to reduce the capabilities gap between the balancer and existing opponent poles. In the current unipolar system, to qualify as global internal balancing, a group of behaviours must increase the balancer’s capabilities to deal with the US in case of a major war. Obviously, the same efforts and capabilities used to balance the US could also help the balancer deal with other possible regional adversaries. By major war, this chapter means a war involving vital interests of all sides, that is: a war of life and death to all parties.

Therefore, internal balancing has an essential military component, which increases the balancer’s capabilities to either attack an existing pole or to defend itself against it. However, there is another important component of this process, which helps to differentiate balancing behaviours from ordinary defence improvements: the concomitant rise of economic and political capabilities (e.g. the economic growth of a country and the improvement of central government ability to impose internal taxes and transform private gains in public goods). Economic and political capabilities do not, by themselves, immediately increase a balancer’s capabilities to win a war, but they make victory possible by generating resources needed to invest in military capabilities.

When carried out by states that qualify as poles in multipolar and bipolar systems, internal balancing can lead to various results. When it is unsuccessfully performed, it might transform bipolar systems into unipolarities and multipolar systems into bipolarities due to the decline of the state which failed to balance. In contrast, when successful, it can guarantee the maintenance of the systemic balance, in which case no systemic change is observed since equilibrium is preserved. It can also lead to the disproportional rise of the balancing pole contributing to the decay of its opponent, either because the latter cannot keep up with the pace of investments in defence or because it eventually loses a war for lack of military capabilities.

In turn, in unipolar systems, when successfully carried out by a pole candidate, internal balancing can change the system when it equalises a balancer’s capabilities with the current pole(s), consequently changing the system’s polarity (from unipolar to bipolar, or from bipolar to multipolar). When internal balancing is successful, a pole candidate not only becomes better at defending itself against an enemy, but becomes able to potentially win a major armed conflict against current global powers. And, to win a major conflict, weapons are of course needed, but........

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