Amitai Etzioni: The India/China Balancing Nonsense

Those who want to stay the course in Afghanistan, and oppose a settlement that is being negotiated by President Karzai and the Taliban, have come up with a new rationale: the U.S. must stay in Afghanistan so it will not fall under the influence of Pakistan because such a development would upset India. And the U.S. must please India because it will “balance” China.

How can I count the ways this piece of current conventional wisdom in Washington is wrongheaded? The very notion that nations balance each other is at best an obsolete piece of history. Once upon a time, during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in Europe, strategists believed that the best way to avoid war was the aligning of nations so that those on each side of the line were more or less equal in power. And some nations, Britain for instance, volunteered themselves to serve as the balancers. That is, if one group of nations was growing in power more than the other, Britain shifted to the other side. However balancing sure did not stop the world from plunging into World War I in 1914. Moreover, the theory was completely overtaken by events once nations developed ideological commitments. Thus one cannot imagine Britain (or any other nation) joining the Soviet bloc during the Cold War if the American-led camp grew too strong, or a member of the communist Warsaw Pact joining NATO during the Cold War to keep things in balance. (Indeed when they did make this move, it was when one side, the Soviet one, lost most of its power, and the American side became by far the stronger of the two).

The very concept of balancing does not stand close scrutiny. What does it mean for India to balance China? China is developing a major navy and a string of ports of call in the Indian Ocean. India is doing the same. Most likely both are wasting precious resources because in the age of missiles and drones, ships are sitting ducks for low-cost smart bombing. Moreover, why would these two navies wish to fight each other? Both nations are committed—not just in word but in deed—to develop their economies and enrich their people. Both nations are beset by domestic tensions and rising demands of the hundreds of millions of people who are still poor, and who adhere to different religions and have different ethnic loyalties. Neither has a reason in the world to take on the United States in military terms, although China is likely to give us a run for our money economically.

About the only reason I can see that some are demonizing China is that some of our agencies need an enemy to justify their forces and budgets, which are still focused on conventional warfare rather than on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and asymmetric warfare, and to stay the misbegotten course in Afghanistan.

As long as the Taliban are willing to commit not to serve as hosts for terrorists that may attack us and our allies, a commitment they are reportedly ready to make, the United States should not seek to undermine the peace talks in order to balance anybody. The sooner our troops are withdrawn, the sooner we can figure out where our real challenges lie, and have the forces to confront them.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).

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