Will Balancing Against China Provoke or Deter It?

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Will Balancing Against China Provoke or Deter It?

Asian states vehemently deny they are balancing against China. They better hope Beijing doesn’t believe them.

Earlier this week, China criticized Australia, Japan and the U.S. and warned the three powers not to get involved in its disputes in the South and East China Seas.

In response to a trilateral statement issued by Australia, Japan and the U.S., a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reportedly stated, “The United States, Japan and Australia are allies but this should not become an excuse to interfere in territorial disputes, otherwise it will only make the problems more complicated and harm the interests of all parties.”

The spokesperson added: “We urge the relevant countries to respect facts, distinguish right from wrong, be cautious, and stop all words and deeds that are not beneficial to the proper handling of the issue and undermine regional stability.”

A different spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry was separately quoted as saying, “Playing up so-called maritime security issue goes against real efforts for the freedom and security of navigation.”

These statements were undoubtedly aimed at playing to the sentiment in the region—which is particularly strong in many Southeast Asian nations—that balancing against China’s potential misuse of power will unnecessarily escalate tensions and provoke Beijing into taking assertive or aggressive actions. Indeed, statesmen and diplomats from all nations go to extraordinary lengths to disavow the notion that any of their actions, including those taken with allies or strategic partners, are aimed at any particular country. In the context of the Asia-Pacific, when a nation(s) says that their actions are not directed at any particular country, this more often than not means that they are not directed at China. These assurances often strain credulity, however, which is why China has such a hard time accepting them.

Even so, the notion that balancing or hedging against China will provoke it is not entirely without merit. As Larry Wortzel and Henry Kissinger have pointed out, Beijing has a history of pursuing what might be called “preemptive self-defense” or “offensive deterrence,” and its current “active defense” policy seems to capture the essence of this doctrine.

Further, so far as the balancing or hedging against China consists of forming or strengthening alliances or strategic partnerships, the issues of chain gangs and entrapment must be considered. Under this scenario, a weaker ally might become emboldened by its alliances and therefore take greater risks in confronting or challenging China. This could then drag the larger allies into conflict with China.

That being said, the argument that forming alliances or internally balancing against China is likely to provoke it is contrary to international relations theory 101. As any introductory IR class teaches, the more efficient neighbors are in balancing against a powerful regional state, the more likely they are to deter it from challenging the status quo or, should that fail, defeat its attempts to alter the status quo.

There are plenty of cases demonstrating that a lack of balancing or the perception of it has encouraged military adventurism in the past. For example, in establishing the modern German state, Bismarck took great pains to keep his potential enemies divided, thereby preventing an efficient balancing coalition from forming against him. On the other hand, the “cult of the offensive” prior to WWI tempted Germany into believing that it could quickly eliminate France from the war before turning its sights on Russia. This failed, of course, and Berlin took note. The next time it sought hegemony over Europe, Hitler made sure to secure a separate peace with Stalin (despite clashing ideologies) before taking actions that ran a high risk of leading France and the U.K. to declare war against Germany.  

Nor is this only true in Europe. The U.S. shrewdly exploited divisions among contemporary great powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, first to win its freedom from Britain, and then to establish hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) started in part because Paraguay wrongly believed Argentina would step aside while it fought Brazil, and in part because Paraguay wrong believed that Argentina and Brazil’s own domestic woes would prevent them from mobilizing their own resources efficiently (i.e. internal balancing). Thus, the lack of balancing or at least perception of it was what encouraged the aggression.

China itself has not been impervious to this logic. Most notably, after Chinese leaders concluded that Vietnam was likely to invade Cambodia in late 1978 or early 1979, and that Beijing would have to respond militarily to this action, Deng Xiaoping began actively working to repair China’s relations with other Southeast Asian nations to ensure that they wouldn’t side with Vietnam in the subsequent war. This included delaying the groundbreaking Third Plenary Session by a month so that Deng could personally visit Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore in November of 1978 (he had visited Burma earlier in the year).

Thus, while alliances can cause their own problems, a lack of balancing is much more likely to provoke a powerful state than the presence of balancing. The goals of the U.S. and regional states should therefore be to balance against China’s potential misuses of power, while minimizing the potential dangers alliances can pose.

Paradoxically, some of the most potent alliance dangers can best be minimized by forging closer alliances and partnerships. For example, the dangers of chain gangs and entrapment can be minimized through regular interaction. Here, the larger allies can restrain smaller allies from provoking China by clearly and repeatedly communicating which scenarios they will back them up on and which they will not.

Additionally, alliances can best avoid unnecessarily provoking China by clearly stating the principles they aim to protect. In the context of the Asia-Pacific, the most sensible principles would be upholding freedom of navigation and preventing states from using force or other forms of coercion to solve sovereignty disputes. The alliances would therefore be aimed at certain disruptive actions rather than specific nations. If China believes these principles are aimed at it then that just underscores the need for an efficient balancing in the first place.