Between Hegemony and Balance of Power – The US in Asia


Defining a contemporary grand strategy for the United States that is no longer hegemony but is not mere traditional balance of power, strategists have turned their attention to: “offshore balancing”.  Bizarrely this grand strategy has attracted a variety of strategists from across the ideological spectrum –  from neo-conservatives through offensive realists and realists all the way to liberals.  So what is this grand strategy that has become increasingly offered up for the United States – and why has it become attractive to such a variety of strategists?

One of the longtime proponents of  offshore balancing is Christopher Layne currently at Texas A&M.  Layne poses  this grand strategy (see: “Offshore Balancing RevisitedThe Washington Quarterly Vol.25, N0.2 (Spring, 2002) as an alternative to hegemony.  As he suggests:

Offshore balancing is predicated on the assumption that attempting to maintain US hegemony is self-defeating …  Offshore balancing is a grand strategy based on burden shifting, not burden sharing.  It would transfer to others the task of maintaining regional power balances; checking the rise of potential global regional hegemony; stabilizing Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf/Middle East.  In other words, other states would have to become responsible for providing their own security and for the security of the regions in which they live (and contiguous ones), rather than looking at the United States to do it for them.

Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast has proposed that offshore balancing emerges “when the money and bravado have run out.”  And realist Stephen Walt from Harvard makes the same point:

The bottom line is clear and unavoidable: the United States simply won’t have the resources to devote to international affairs that it had in the past.  … The era when the United States could create and lead a political, economic and security order in virtually every part of the world is coming to an end.

So if I can put it indelicately, what offshore balancing is really is, is “hegemony on the cheap”.  Thus Walt argues in “The End of the American Era” articles:

Instead of seeking to dominate these regions directly, however, our first recourse should be to have local allies uphold the balance of power, out of their own self-interest.  Rather than letting then free ride on us, we should free ride on them as much as we can, intervening with ground and air forces only when a single power threatens to dominate some critical region.  For an offshore balancer, the greatest success lies in getting somebody else to handle some pesky problem, not eagerly shouldering that burden oneself.

So whether it is from the right or the left the attraction is there – to maintaining stability but without the US shouldering the burden.  The strategy certainly has been advocated for the United States in the Middle East and in East Asia.

Walt has provided a short list of core principles (see “Rethinking US Grand Strategy: The Case for ‘Offshore Balancing'” PowerPoint Lecture August 2009):

  • US remains only great power in the Western Hemisphere (“regional hegemony) – more on that principle for another day;
  • US helps maintain balance of power in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf;
  • US relies as much as possible on regional allies and “passes the buck” to them whenever possible;
  • Key: US deploys significant air/ground forces only when balance of power is in jeopardy;
  • US does not pursue regime change, nation-building, or other forms of social engineering;
  • US does not disengage: Offshore is neither isolationism nor a strategy for radical disarmament.

So there we are.  Now historically we’ve seen offshore balancing employed particularly by the British in Europe – more on this in the near future.  But it is evident that strategists are contemplating employing this strategy vìs a vìs especially Rising China in East Asia.

But how realistic is the strategy?  On first review this does not seem an advantageous approach notwithstanding the promise of less cost – highly attractive in age of austerity.

First, while shifting the burden to allies may seem attractive, it creates for lack of a better term a principal-agent problem.  Simply, it is much more difficult to try and influence others to do the balancing that otherwise you’d be doing yourself.  Allies may not do it leading you to have act – possibly catch up.  Or allies may prove to be too aggressive raising prematurely the real possibility of conflict that might draw you in, notwithstanding your desire to lower the temperature in the region and avoid conflict.

Secondly, and this is evidently the case in East Asia, your allies may have frictions with each other rendering it extremely difficult to obtain the united push back against the rising power that you’d like.  In East Asia the United States has security relations with both Korea and Japan.  But we find that the two are at loggerheads over the Liancourt Rocks – the Dokdo’s in Korea and Takeshima in Japanese.  In the South China Sea the United States is relying largely on Vietnam and the Philippines.  Here there are significant questions around the military capabilities of these “allies” in the contest with China.

So what appears to be beneficial theoretically, may not prove to be in practical diplomacy/security terms.  More on this soon.

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‘Take A Deep Breath’ But ….

This past week Asia-Pacific leaders gathered in Russia’s east – at Vladivostok in fact – for the annual meeting of APEC.  Though President Obama was absent – the demands of the election season upon him – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there representing the United States.  Hillary in fact had been doing the rounds prior to the meeting visiting several ASEAN countries before meeting the Chinese leadership in Beijing.  It is evident from those meetings and other conversations that the US and China reside in quite different places when it comes, for example, to resolving the island disputes in the South and East China Seas.  As noted by various media sources there seemed to be little compromise on the part of the two great powers concerning these disputes.  Indeed China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi asserted once again that there was “plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence” for China’s claims to sovereignty over much of the South China Seas.

In some respects the island disputes represent the leading edge of current tension between the two and indeed in the region.  So, let me go back to examining the grand strategies of the US-China.  In my previous post I looked at the article by Aaron Friedberg in “Bucking Beijing:  An Alternative US China Policy”.  If I can summarize his position it is:  significant hedging and a serious commitment to balancing.  The strategy entails “push back” relying on a balance against China by the US with key allies and a military buildup accompanied by a firm and continuing US commitment.

So there we are:  a traditional grand strategy of balance.  So let me turn to the other article in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.  This article “How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijing’s Fears” is by Andrew Nathan of Columbia and Andrew Scobell of Rand. On its face this article – and the grand strategy that accompanies it – appears to tone down US strategy and to rely more on diplomacy.  It recommends this on the basis that China is not a revisionist state.  Implicitly they seem to suggest neither is the United States.  As the authors argue:

But widespread perceptions of China as an aggressive, expansionist power are off base. Although China’s relative power has grown significantly in recent decades, the main tasks of with Chinese foreign policy are defensive and have not changed much since the Cold War era: to blunt destabilizing influences from abroad, to avoid territorial losses, to reduce its neighbors’ suspicions, and to sustain economic growth. What has changed in the past two decades is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers.

On the interdependence conflict continuum, China is much further along the interdependence/cooperation continuum.  As the authors suggest some international relations specialists in China see at least some compatibility of interests:

A small group of mostly younger Chinese who have closely studied the United States argues that Chinese and American interests are not totally at odds.  In their view, the two countries are sufficiently remote from each other that their core security interests need not clash.  They can gain mutual benefit from trade and other common interests.

But the authors also admit that these scholars are outnumbered by strategists – from the military, from the security services – and I suspect the Party who believe that the US remains committed to hegemony and containment of China and these folk “… believe that China must stand up to the United States militarily and that it can win a conflict, should one occur, buy outpacing US military technology and taking advantage of what they believe to be superior morale within China’s armed forces.”

Well if the view is dominant, then it would appear that rising confrontation is inevitable. Here however the authors return to interdependence and the belief that the mutual interdependence even vulnerability “carries the best medium-term hope for cooperation.  Fear of each other keeps alive the imperative to work together.  In the longer term the authors urge the two to create a new equilibrium of power that maintains stability but does so by admitting China to a larger role in the global system.

How can the United States do this – push and cajole China and the United States to this new place.  Well here are some of the elements:

  • The US has to draw clear policy lines without threatening China – pushing back where necessary to establish these lines of division.  This must be done with professionalism and not rhetorical belligerence;
  • The US should push for a Taiwan resolution that Taiwan’s citizens will accept;
  • The US must insist on freedom of navigation in the seas surrounding China;
  • The US must press for an open world economy and defend human rights;
  • The US must maintain its military predominance in the western Pacific, including the South and East China Seas;
  • The US must upgrade its military capabilities, maintain its regional defense alliances, and respond confidently to challenges; and
  • The US must seek a balance of common interests and avoid threatening China and do so by upgrading the mechanisms of collaborative management.

So sans possibly the rhetoric and the threatening behavior, this looks a lot like Aaron Friedberg’s US grand strategy.  In other words hedging and balance.  Well maybe there is no alternative.  But I think not.

Traditional grand strategy seems to suggest two poles – hegemony by the United States or balancing by the United States.  But there is another strategy – that interestingly enough – some realists and now some liberals and even some neoconservatives – suggest is the grand strategy in Asia – “offshore balancing”.  So let’s turn to that approach in the next post.

Image Credit: Official logo of ASEAN