Asian Rivalries: Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-level Games

Asian Rivalries: Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-level Games

by Sumit Ganguly

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The most typical treatment of international relations is to conceive it as a battle between two antagonistic states volleying back and forth. In reality, interstate relations are often at least two-level games in which decision-makers operate not only in an international environment but also in a competitive domestic context.

Given that interstate


The most typical treatment of international relations is to conceive it as a battle between two antagonistic states volleying back and forth. In reality, interstate relations are often at least two-level games in which decision-makers operate not only in an international environment but also in a competitive domestic context.

Given that interstate rivalries are responsible for a disproportionate share of discord in world politics, this book sets out to explain just how these two-level rivalries really work.

By reference to specific cases, specialists on Asian rivalries examine three related questions: what is the mix of internal (domestic politics) and external (interstate politics) stimuli in the dynamics of their rivalries; in what types of circumstances do domestic politics become the predominant influence on rivalry dynamics; when domestic politics become predominant, is their effect more likely to lead to the escalation or de-escalation of rivalry hostility? By pulling together the threads laid out by each contributor, the editors create a 'grounded theory' for interstate rivalries that breaks new ground in international relations theory.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A valuable comparative perspective is provided through the common themes pursued in the main chapters . . . The book is a significant contribution to understanding and debate on international relations not only in South and East Asia, but more widely elsewhere."—David Scott, Pacific Affairs

"This theoretically sophisticated, nuanced volume focuses on "interstate rivalries" – or the relationships between two states in which the antagonistic decision-makers perceive each other as competitors and see their adversaries as threatening enemies. The rich insights illuminate new and creative ways to look at interstate rivalries. This excellent volume is most timely and should be required reading for policy makers, diplomats, and scholars of international relations theory. . . Highly recommended."—S. D. Sharma, Choice

"By focusing on enduring rivalries and two-level games, Asian Rivalries provides a much needed theoretical impetus to the study of contentious dyads."—Steve Chan, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Colorado

"This book provides many important details, and therefore a number of good insights, about key rivalries in the Asian region. Beyond quantitative scholars of rivalry and conflict, the book should also appeal to more traditional security studies scholars, especially those with a focus on the Asian region. There are a number of books and articles written on single rivalries in Asia (indeed, several by the authors in this collection). Yet there are new insights gained here from looking at domestic politics, and the other contribution is the comparative perspective provided by integrating the different chapters."—Paul F. Diehl, Henning Larsen Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois and Director, Correlates of War Project

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Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-level Games

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7596-0

Chapter One

Conflict Propensities in Asian Rivalries Sumit Ganguly and William R. Thompson

It is possible to argue that the past decade has focused attention disproportionately on Middle Eastern international relations. This observation is not meant to slight the significance of Middle Eastern politics but only to note that we tend to focus mightily on the regions in which the most lethal activity is prominent. Middle Eastern international relations, without doubt, have been active and prominent. Other regions, therefore, have tended to receive less attention even though, ultimately, they may prove to be more significant to the fate of the twenty-first century. For instance, an easy case can be made that Asia will prove to be relatively more important than most other regions in this century. Compared to other regions, Asia contains more population and is becoming increasingly more central to the world economy. It also possesses the highest potential for conflict over regional hegemony and global leadership of any region. Wars between major powers may well be a thing of the past, but if they have any potential to take place at all, Asia is a most likely venue. Hence, if for no other reason, Asian international relations should have a strong claim on our attention.

But Asian international relations represent a rather broad set of phenomena—too broad to provide a good focus. We concentrate in this book on interstate rivalries—relationships between two states in which the antagonistic decision-makers perceive each other as competitors who see their adversaries as threatening enemies. Rivalries provide a good focus because they are one of the main vehicles for interstate conflict. That is, most states do not conflict with one another; rivals do and do so repeatedly as serial disputants. They certainly are responsible for much more than their proportional share of discord in world politics. If we are interested in the interstate conflict potential of Asia, then rivalries are the processes to watch. They are not exactly the canaries in the mineshaft; rather, they are the mineshaft.

This book brings together seven treatments of rivalry in Asia. We are certainly not the first to write about Asian rivalries, but we may be among the first to write about Asian rivalry processes in general—as opposed to the many studies of various aspects of specific, individual rivalries. One of our main goals in bringing together these essays is to make a pitch for more explicit study of Asian rivalries as rivalries—and not as simply long-term conflicts or disputes, each of which is entirely different. We do not argue that all Asian conflict is precisely the same. Far from it. But many Asian conflicts are framed by interstate rivalries, and it is the rivalry relationship per se that carries some potential for generalization. Yet that type of generalization can only come about if we recognize that some types of disputes are rivalries and treat them as representatives of a more general category. Greater sensitivity to the utility of explicit rivalry analysis should serve us well in deciphering the nature and implications of Asian conflict.

Analysts of Asian international politics engage in implicit rivalry analysis all the time. Making such analysis more explicit involves recognizing that some (but not all) interstate relationships qualify as rivalries and that rivalries are characterized by processes that bear some potential for generalization, as opposed to dealing with each pair of antagonists as a unique set of adversaries. In other words, the premise is that we should not be dependent solely on area expertise in decoding what hostile states are up to. If we improve our understanding of how rivalries work in general, then the possibility of marrying area expertise with rivalry theory should enhance our ability to understand and cope with dangerous situations.

Our second motivation for bringing together these essays is to address a particular question about international politics in general and Asian rivalries in particular. The most typical treatment of international relations is to conceive it as a tennis match between two states. Beijing did X to Washington and Washington responded with Y. This imagery reflects a conceptualization involving two mythical, unitary decision-makers volleying back and forth. Sometimes, the conceptualization reflects a shorthand way of focusing on who is doing what to whom, but all too often people (journalists, analysts, decision-makers, and the proverbial man/woman-in-the-street) actually perceive international relations between two states operating along these lines. We know better. We know that interstate relations are often at least two-level games in which decision-makers operate in competitive domestic and international environments. Action X by a state may represent a signal to another state, it may be oriented toward domestic political consumption, or both at the same time. The problem is that elites compete for control of governments and governmental policies while at the same time they devise strategies for competing with other states.

Which type of competition is more important in understanding interstate actions? Do we need to integrate both levels to make sense of international relations? Or, does this "need" vary by place, time, or issue area? Are some regions less susceptible to two-level games than others? Have two-level games become more likely than they were in the past due to democratization or the increased availability of information? Are all types of international politics equally susceptible to two-level gaming? For example, it may be one thing to threaten trade protectionism with a domestic audience uppermost in the threatener's mind. It may be entirely a different matter to engage in a nuclear crisis in which salient domestic group preferences may or may not fade into the background because of the seriousness of the situation. Moreover, is it possible or desirable to integrate both levels?

The main foci of rivalry analyses can be divided into four categories. One, how and why do rivalries begin? Two, what maintains them at various levels—or, alternatively, what causes them to escalate and de-escalate in hostility? Three, how and why do they end? Fourth, what are the implications and effects of engaging in rivalry? Origins, maintenance, termination, and consequences span the rivalry topical spectrum. This book focuses primarily on the second category. What causes rivalries to fluctuate in their perceived levels of threat and conflict? Our interest in two-level games is one place to start. Do two-level games in Asia contribute to rivalry fluctuations in intensity and hostility? Or, are there other factors that seem more important to rivalry escalation and de-escalation?

Why Asia?

Not quite two decades ago, Aaron Friedberg published an essay asking whether a new, enlarged Asian regional subsystem was ripe for rivalry. He concluded that it was. Europe's half millennium run as the primary generator of war was closing, but Europe's past could well be Asia's future. Why? To explain and elaborate his conclusion, Freidberg advances a theory of war and peace that revolves around whether factors that promote war (peace) are stronger than factors that mitigate against war (peace). Table 1.1 provides a summary of these factors and contrasts Europe with Asia.

Both Europe and Asia have been and continue to be multipolar. Historically, multipolarity in Europe increased the chances for miscalculation, misperception, and failures to balance quickly enough. After 1945, European multipolarity was subordinated to the cold war's bipolarity, and only with the demise of the cold war has multipolarity returned. Asia has been multipolar for centuries, and the new Asian subsystem will be decidedly multipolar in structure with the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and India as the leading states.

If multipolarity is inherently dangerous or unstable, what factors work against systemic structure to dampen the probability of war? Freidberg isolates three main categories of factors operating at different levels of analysis. State/national attributes include regime type, economic inequality and prosperity, nationalism, and attachment to territory. Europe is highly democratic, inequality is relatively low and prosperity is relatively high, nationalism seems to be declining in most parts of the region, and territorial disputes are few. In contrast, Asia has a strong mix of democracies and authoritarian political systems that operate at different levels of intensity. That is, some political systems are more democratic than others while the degree of authoritarianism also varies. A number of Asian economies are experiencing rapid economic growth, but only a few can be described as affluent, and inequality remains especially problematic in those economies expanding most quickly. There is no evidence of declining nationalism in Asia. On the contrary, the opposite appears to be the case. There are also a large number of outstanding territorial disputes with which to be reckoned.

The state/nation attributes that work against conflict in Europe are largely missing in Asia or, worse, are apt to be facilitators of war in Asia. Something similar applies to the nature of interstate linkages in the two regions. Europe is relatively homogenous in culture, thickly embedded in a large number of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, and characterized by a remarkable flow of people and goods. More heterogeneous Asia may be moving very slowly toward increased economic interdependence, but it has a very long way to go. Compared to Europe, the region is under-institutionalized at the transnational level. If economic interdependence, international organizations, and cultural homogeneity work as reducers of conflict propensities, Europe is in good shape and Asia is not.

Finally, European warfare became increasingly lethal during the past five hundred years. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the costs of warfare have become exceedingly high. The perceived benefits of territorial conquest, by contrast, seem to have declined for states that are no longer agrarian. Nuclear weapons can certainly be found in Asia as well, but they are both unevenly distributed and proliferating. In a transition period toward increasingly high costs of warfare, there are a number of dangers ranging from the temptations of preemptive strikes against small nuclear capabilities to daisy chains of arms races as rivals attempt to get ahead or stay even with their adversaries. Asian states are also becoming less agrarian, but territorial conquest is only one of several motivations for war. Unification desires (think Korea or Taiwan), punishment for perceived transgressions (China versus India and Vietnam), and classic boundary disputes still persist.

Thus, both Europe and Asia are multipolar in the twenty-first century, but a host of mitigating factors work in the European region against conflict escalation. In Asia, the same factors appear to be more conflict facilitators than suppressants. It may be that the processes highlighted by Friedberg will eventually work toward reducing conflict propensities in Asia, but all of the factors evolve rather slowly. For the immediate future, there is at least no reason to anticipate Asian international relations functioning as European international relations currently do. Curiously, Freidberg never evokes the term rivalry beyond the title of his article, but his conclusion, in answer to his own question, that Asia is ripe for rivalry is quite clear.

We find his argument and interregional comparison quite appealing in some respects. Despite its age, it is still highly pertinent. But it does have two flaws. One is that there is an assumption that, given the same mix of variables, regions will work the same way. Yet the historical geopolitics of Asia have been much different than those of Europe. In Europe of the last five hundred years, states were highly competitive and frequently at war. A Dehioan mixture of sea powers allied with more distant land powers managed to keep the region from becoming unipolar when Spain, France, or Germany made hegemonic bids. In contrast, highly competitive states frequently at war have not been the norm in Asia. A respectable portion of Asia, on the contrary, has been accustomed to Chinese hegemony for long stretches of time. If history matters, the very different histories of Europe and Asia might lead us to be cautious in assuming that peace and conflict processes in Asia are likely to replicate closely those of Europe.

The second problem is that the conclusion that Asia was ripe for rivalry seems to imply that with the demise of the cold war, Asian rivalries were likely to emerge in the multipolar future. The problem, though, is that Asia has long experienced rivalries. It may be ripe for new and renewed rivalries. It cannot be ripe for types of interstate relationships that are already there and have been there for some time.

Thompson and Dreyer list thirty-two Asian rivalries in their inventory of rivalries mainly since 1815. Thirteen ended before 1950. These older ones are of two types if we put the Japan-U.S. rivalry aside for a moment. One type involves resistance to European penetration of various regional systems. The history of this type, of course, could easily be pushed back before 1816. But this type of rivalry has become obsolete as European imperialism has run its course. The other type involves contention among various Asian states for preeminence within their region. Neither category fits the Japan-U.S. rivalry all that well because their rivalry is better described as one of mutual imperialism and contention in the Pacific and various parts of Asia. As a categorical type, it shares some similarity with two rivalries not shown in Table 1.2, the Anglo-Russian and U.S.-Soviet rivalries, both of which had strong Asian linkages. Yet none of the three was exclusively Asian in terms of their scope.

The nineteen rivalries in the right hand side of Table 1.2, of which nine are ongoing, can be differentiated as well. Most can be categorized as either reflecting contention over regional preeminence or the more common rivalry of two adjacent states over some local desiderata. China-Japan, China-USSR, China-U.S., China-Vietnam, Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan, and China-India reflect the former type. Most of the rest reflect the adjacent states quarreling usually over territory that is contiguous to both. The three divided states (the two Koreas, the two Vietnams, and the two Chinas) are better viewed as a separate category. In this type, there is a fundamental disagreement about which state deserves to represent or rule the two states that were once one state and might be one state again.

Do Rivalries Really Matter in Asia?

Have rivalries mattered in Asia? One index is to take a look at the wars fought in Asia in the past two centuries. The Asian wars found on the Correlates of War list, arrayed in Table 1.3, number twenty-eight. The list could be longer, but Correlates of War procedures discriminate against including most Asian states as full members of a Eurocentric international system prior to the twentieth century. Still, twenty-eight wars in the past century and a quarter is an impressive figure. Equally impressive is that twenty-five of the twenty-eight wars (89 percent) involved confrontations between rivals. Rivalry does not tell us everything we might want to know about these conflicts, but this one factor at least provides an important clue as to what was at stake in most of the disputes. Rivals tend to fight over status (position) and territory (space), among other things including ideological differences. That still does not tell us exactly why the wars were fought, but emphasizing rivalry does tell us that these states are "recidivists" in international politics. They have a history of competing intensely and presumably keep at it because they are unable to resolve definitively their outstanding issues. Once they do resolve them, they tend to cease being rivals-unless they invent some new issues to quarrel over. Yet the development of new issues to dispute are not as unusual as one might think because another hallmark of rivalries is that the antagonists develop intense feelings of suspicion and distrust about their adversaries. Rivalries are embedded in psychological baggage, warranted or otherwise, that is often extremely difficult to shed. The longer they are rivals, presumably, the greater is the buildup of the psychological baggage, not unlike scar tissue. As in the case of scar tissue, the adversaries become increasingly inflexible in dealing with their opponents. Distrust of any conciliatory move or signal becomes reflexive.


Excerpted from ASIAN RIVALRIES Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sumit Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana/Bloomington. William R. Thompson is Distinguished Professor & Donald A. Rogers Professor of Political Science at Indiana/Bloomington.

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