4.1  Asian Countries' Strategies against the Rise of Hegemonic China

1 March 2017

Despite repeated proclamation by Chinese leaders of the country’s rise as a peaceful benevolent regional power, China’s history, culture, traditions, size, economic dynamism, and self-image all impel it to assume a hegemonic position in East Asia. Inevitably, there is a rising concern over China’s growing economic power and military strength. Countries within the region accept that China is going to take on a greater leadership role but worry at the same time about the prospect of having to submit to the Chinese hegemony. Hence, all look towards US staying engaged in Asia to restrain China’s actions as it evolves to become the regional leader.


The problem as pointed out by Hans Binnendijk in his 2016 publication “Friends Foes and Future Directions: US Partnerships in a Turbulent World” is that the Asian economy is integrating at a fast pace but its security architecture is underdeveloped to help resolve any major conflicts. The most important regional international institution, for example, is ASEAN established in 1967. Its principal aims today include accelerating economic growth, social progress, and sociocultural evolution among its members. Even though it also seeks to maintain regional stability, its approach is more to provide a neutral forum for its member states and dialogue partners to manage tensions and resolve differences peacefully. With an annual budget of about $16 million, ASEAN is thus a modest organization that hardly provides any hard security for its member states. As a result, Southeast Asian countries seek ways to bolster their national security amid rising Chinese assertiveness.

Balancing and Bandwagoning 


Traditionally, there are two ways weaker states can react to a rising new power as it begins to challenge the status quo. Firstly, they can choose to insure their security by aligning with an existing power to balance against the emerging power. Take Vietnam for example. Since the early 1990s, its military capabilities have declined relatively to those of China. Given its past history of conflict with China, therefore, Vietnam has the strong motive to seek partners to counterbalance China. Hence, in addition to joining ASEAN, it also began normalizing its relations with the US in 1995. Within Asia, other than Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan are also inclined toward balancing and containing China because of their unresolved legacy issues with China.


Alternatively, weaker states can try bandwagoning with the emerging power, allowing it to take the lead by assuming a subordinate position or even accommodating to its demands at times in return for its protection of their core interests.[1] Laos and Myanmar, which share its border with China, are examples of ASEAN states that bandwagon with China.


Notably, in both balancing and bandwagoning, the subordinating state loses autonomy to varying degree. There is generally a trade-off between the strength of the alignment and the autonomy of the weaker states. The stronger the alignment with the existing power, the lower is the autonomy a subordinating state has in deciding its own actions.[2]


Comparatively, though, balancing is perceived to be a safer and hence a more desirable and frequently adopted option. This is because the loss of autonomy is to an existing power in which the weaker state already possesses a certain level of trust either based on past dealings or on understanding of past behaviours of the existing power. Bandwagoning, in contrast, is considered more risky because of the uncertainty associated with working with an emerging power whose behaviours are fraught with unknowns.[3]

Hedging by Combining Balancing with Bandwagoning

Of course, weaker states can also choose a third option of hedging which involves adopting some combination of balancing with an existing power and bandwagoning with the emerging power to enjoy the benefits of both. ASEAN states, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore for example, adopts a hedging strategy by seeking to continue expanding trade and investment ties to China on one hand while maintaining robust military cooperation with the US to counterbalance China. The strength of alignment with the US varies from public statements in support of US positions, to arms sales and joint exercises, to supporting permanent military bases and mutual defence treaties. Among the ASEAN countries, only Thailand and Philippines are treaty allies of the US while Singapore has an agreement with the US to rotationally host the American littoral combat ships (LCS) and P8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft. Singapore also serves as the headquarter of 7th Fleet's Task Force 73 which is the Logistics Force composed of supply ships and other fleet support vessels.


The advantage of hedging is that the weaker states, depending on the strength of the alignment with the US, preserves a varying degree of autonomy in its actions. The risk, however, is that their alignment with the US ends up antagonizing China causing it to not only withhold the benefits of economic co-operations but also assume a more aggressive political posture against the weaker states. Singapore, in particular, has had to bear the brunt of China’s fury for exhibiting the strongest support, among the ASEAN states, toward the US’ efforts to contain the rise of China.

Weakening US' Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Influences

The state of geopolitical alignment vis-à-vis China is hardly static though. In recent years, Southeast Asian states have become increasingly ambivalent in their attitudes towards the US not only because the high growth Chinese economy has become the engine that drives the growth of Asian economies but also because of the progressive delegitimation of US status as the world leader as a result of Bush Junior’s unilateral and illegal invasion of Iraq and the Global Financial Crisis triggered by unregulated subprime mortgage loans. The shift has become even more pronounced when Trump, whose presidential campaign message was “America First”, responded to domestic pressures at the expense of US long-term international interests by withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic pillar to the US’ Pivot to Asia initiative. Called the equivalent of a ‘second aircraft carrier’ by the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, the TPP is the American response to the Chinese efforts to construct an economic architecture that, in trade, includes the pan-Eurasian “One-Belt One-Road” (OBOR) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiatives and, in investment and development, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Without TPP, the US’ pivot is thus empty talk with no economic initiative to rival China’s OBOR and the ‘American leadership in the Asia Pacific may very well fail with it’. The withdrawal and his increasingly protectionist trade stance left US’ key Asia-Pacific allies such as Japan, Australia and Singapore, which have pretty much stuck their neck out in strong support of US’ Pivot to Asia, high and dry.


The result is that ASEAN states are increasingly forced to gravitate from hedging towards the direction of bandwagoning with China, even as their concerns mount with the continuation of Chinese militarization of the South China Sea. Even Japan, the traditional and staunchest of US’ allies, has stepped up their efforts in economic integration particularly with Europe in the aftermath of US’ withdrawal from TPP by Trump. In December 2017, the European Union and Japan concluded negotiations on a free trade deal to create the world’s largest open economic area, signaling their rejection of the more protectionist stance of US President Donald Trump. This is closely followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to six eastern European countries — Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and the three Baltic states in January 2018 to explore and expand trade links.[4] Meanwhile, the remaining eleven TPP signatories have also pledged to go ahead with the trade agreement without the US.[5]


The push factor is not just economics. Over time, it has become increasingly clear that militarily, the US’ ability and will to intervene, in the South China Sea may not be as clear cut as it was compared to barely just a decade ago. In response to China’s militarization of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, the strongest reaction from the US thus far is the occasional show of force through free-of-navigation operations (FONOP) of its warships. Obama, for example, chose inaction to avoid unnecessary friction with China when the latter began constructing man-made island in the disputed waters, prompting Duterte to later tick off the US for not deploying an armada of its 7th Fleet based in Japan to stop China in the track right from the start. In the end, US inaction emboldened the Chinese to step up on the reclamation and militarization of islands in the South China Sea which is still ongoing despite US Navy’s FONOP.


Moreover, unlike the Asian countries whose objective is to hedge against China’s growing military might but to ride along with the Chinese burgeoning economic might, the primary motivation of the US is to maintain its geopolitical supremacy by containing the rise of China and preventing from China from having even its own sphere of influence within the region using force if necessary. No ASEAN state, including even Vietnam which has a history of land-based and maritime conflicts with China, wants to be the proxy of the financially, economically and militarily weakened US in a conflict with China.

Differences between Western and Chinese Approaches to World Order


Finally, history and culture also have an indelible influence on how the Asian states see their relationships with the dominant power China.


Historically, the modern Western conception of sovereignty and the legal equality of states emerged after the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the incessant wars caused the medieval structure of Europe dissolved into a group of states. As no state was strong enough to impose its will, international relation between the states became an exercise of balance-of-power. The basic tenet of that European balance of power system is that no single European power should be allowed to achieve hegemony over a substantial part of the continent and that hegemonic ambition is best curtailed by having a small number of ever-changing alliances contend for power.


In contrast, the Chinese approach to world order was thus vastly different from the system that took hold in the West.[6] Balancing of power through alliance building worked in Europe because the power gaps between countries were relatively small. In the case of East Asia, China was too big to be balanced against. China never had to engage with another country on the basis of equality simply because it had never encountered societies of comparable culture or magnitude.[7] For the Chinese emperor, that the Chinese Empire should tower over its geographical sphere was an expression of the Mandate of Heaven, much like the concept of divinely ordained Manifest Destiny of the US. Even though China thought of itself as playing a special role though, it never espoused the American notion of universalism to spread its values of democracy and human rights around the world. Instead, it strove for a tributary system within which foreign states recognized and were subordinated to the Middle Kingdom as tributaries. In return for accepting China’s special status, it conferred benefits such as trading rights. Over centuries, what emerged in Asia was a regional hierarchical power model similar to the Confucian vision of a carefully articulated hierarchical society that existed within China. Hence, until the arrival of the European colonists, East Asian international relations were predominantly Sinocentric.


Culturally, Asians thus evolved to become more willing to accept hierarchy in international relations. Such a hierarchical system, though, is inherently more stable than the European balance of power system, which is conflict-prone due to “Thucydides Trap”. While medieval Europe was engulfed in incessant warring for centuries due to attempts by ambitious states to reshape the map of continental Europe, amidst shifting alliances, Asia was spared the European-type hegemonic wars, until the 19th century with the rise of a militarized Japan whose success in acquisition of western technology and system of governance emboldened its regional hegemonic ambitions.[8]

First 10 December 2017. Updated 25 March 2018.

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[1] See Huntington Pg 216

[2] Darren Lim & Zack Cooper. (2016). “Are East Asian states really hedging between the US and China?” East Asia Forum. January 30, 2016.

[3] Stephen P. Walt, “Alliance Formation in Southwest Asia: Balancing and Band-wagoning in Cold War Competition,” in Robert Jervis and Jack Snyder, eds., Dominoes and Bandwagons: Strategic Beliefs and Great Power Competition in the Eurasian Rimland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 53, 69.

[4] See Philip Blenkinsop. (2017). “EU, Japan conclude world's largest free trade agreement.” Reuters. December 8, 2017.

[5] See Anders Fogh Rasmussen. (2018). “Japan-EU trade agreement is about freedom.” Japan Times. January 17, 2018.

[6] See Huntington

[7] See Kissinger. (2011). “On China”. Pg. 42.

[8] See Huntington Pg. 235.