Over the past two years, the United States has deepened its strategic engagement in Asia to balance China’s more assertive foreign policy and its military modernization, both of which have rattled the region. This balancing has included developing new strategic partnerships with Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, deepening existing alliances with South Korea, Australia, and Japan, pressuring China in multilateral forums, and taking steps to maintain US force projection capabilities.
As a strategy, balancing reassures US allies and partners in Asia, but it also runs a risk –executed poorly, it could make rivalry with China a self-fulfilling prophecy. Balancing against China could empower hardliners in Beijing who argue that they can’t trust the West and discredit those who favour a prudent and cautious foreign policy. Yet failure to balance would tell the hardliners that they can pursue a revisionist foreign policy without resistance from the United States – hardly a recipe for stability. This is the balancing dilemma – how to deter a competitor from a revisionist foreign policy without discrediting those individuals who seek partnership with the West.
Take the growing tensions and competition in the South China Sea as an example. In China, it’s widely believed that Vietnam, the Philippines and others are stoking rivalry around disputed territories to get the United States to balance China now before Beijing is strong and confident enough to resist. As the US responds, China worries about encirclement and containment. This perception provides hardliners with a powerful argument – only a tougher, anti-western line can stop a strategy of encirclement before it’s too late. On a recent trip to China, I heard some foreign policy analysts express considerable concern that this argument could resonate with an increasingly nationalistic population, particularly in a crisis, and lead to a shift toward the hardliners.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
However, the United States can’t just maintain the military status quo. US balancing is in response to a noticeable shift in Chinese defence and foreign policy. Chinese military modernization, such as the development of its ballistic missiles, puts major US bases at risk. Reform of the US force posture, including the dispersal of US forces throughout the region, is necessary simply to maintain the credibility of US commitments in Asia. Avoiding such reform might appear to be the status quo, but in reality it would severely undermine it.
However, even if the current strategy is defensible, the dilemma remains. To understand how the United States can balance China while avoiding unintended consequences, it’s necessary to draw a distinction between two types of balancing strategies.
The type of balancing, known as containment, that the United States engaged in during the Cold War was aimed at weakening its adversary. Containment’s key political objective was to sow the seeds of discord within the Soviet Union so it would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The United States sought to delegitimize the Soviet Union, isolate it, weaken it economically, and undermine it from within. Only Nixon demurred, accepting the right of the Soviet Union to exist as an empire. Containment was a form of cold warfare. The ultimate goal was victory and transformation of the international order.
The second type of balancing is to preserve the equilibrium. This strategy accepts the right of a rival to exist and even prosper, as long as it does so in a manner consistent with the status quo. This type of balancing characterized most of 19th century European statecraft. States competed with each other, often sought an upper hand and strategic advantage, and occasionally fought. But they always seek to preserve the basic shape of the state system and ensure that its member states enjoy stability, peace, and the recognition of their legitimate interests. This type of balancing was almost entirely absent during the Cold War, save for a brief period of détente during the Nixon administration and at the end of the Reagan administration.