China: America Hedges Its Bets

Understanding the nuances and challenges of Washington's approach.

China’s sudden declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea is yet another vindication of U.S. policy in the region. While there have been a number of criticisms of President Obama’s pivot to Asia, the policy was and remains prudent. The decision to re-orient itself back to the Pacific was largely in reaction to a perception that a lack of diplomatic focus had not been good for the region. U.S. regional allies, such as Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines, argued that a continued absence of focus by the United States in the region had become increasingly dangerous as China began to inexpertly exert its power, particularly over maritime-domain disputes. It has done this through a long-term incremental approach to de facto sovereignty over the East and South China Seas. In many ways, these claims have resurrected the logic of balance-of-power politics, and while Southeast Asian states have striven to avoid choosing between Washington and Beijing, the feeling was that China was taking advantage of the vacuum to assert a power-based hierarchical order. While Washington has also tried to avoid a zero-sum competition with China, the Bush administration and Obama administration began to carefully shift their view of China as it behaved with increased hubris in the region.

In the year following the announcement of the pivot policy, Chinese pundits accused the United States of containment, decrying a purported U.S. plan to stem China’s rise as a great power. This accusation is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, it ignores America’s prominent role in developing China’s economy. Throughout the 1990s, the United States granted China most favored nation trading status, making this permanent in 2001. In addition, the United States sponsored China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. While there are no statistics on this topic, U.S. investments into China since the 1970s could be over the trillion dollar mark.

Robert Manning from the Atlantic Council has argued if the United States wanted to enact a policy of containment of China, it would look quite different from the complex policy package that we see today. It would, for example, involve far more balancing behaviors, including the attempted the diplomatic sidelining of China, a military build-up aimed specifically at Chinese platforms, and the creation of further alliances in and around China’s periphery. The United States is not attempting such policies, nor does it think such policies are possible. Instead, as Evan Medeiros has argued convincingly, Washington is carrying out a policy of strategic hedging, a dual-track policy in which it pursues two broad policy objectives: one of engagement, and one of simultaneous balancing. This article seeks to show how the United States came to follow such a complex policy, while also examining the strengths and weaknesses inherent in such a policy.

The rise of China and its increasing willingness to exert diplomatic and even military power—albeit restrained—over other regional states, especially regarding the South and East China Seas from 2008 on, is a characterization shared by policymakers in the United States, East Asia and Southeast Asia. While the United States did not and does not take a stance in these disputes, it has deep strategic interests in the region, and has undertaken great efforts to reassure allies and constrain Chinese adventurism. U.S. interests are vitally affected: not only do these conflicts have the possibility to affect U.S. trade; they can also affect the energy and trade routes of its primary alliance partners, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. Furthermore, if U.S. commitments to its allies are to remain credible, it must protect the maritime trading order built over the post-War period.

The Pivot in Context

So how did the United States come to enact a policy of hedging towards China?