China: America Hedges Its Bets

December 6, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity Region: ChinaAsia

China: America Hedges Its Bets

Understanding the nuances and challenges of Washington's approach.


Hedging, then, is a mixture of realism and hopeful constructivism. Furthermore, one can avoid the self-fulfilling drift towards conflict—known as the security dilemma—that occurs when states carry out harder forms of balancing behavior against each other.

Some—such as Aaron Friedberg—would argue that the United States is already caught in a security dilemma with China and that this can be seen in U.S. policy since the Bush presidency. After all, in the period following 2005, U.S. policy makers have undertaken serious efforts to enhance the scope and depth of the bilateral alliance partnerships. There are now trilateral relationships linking the U.S.-Japan alliance to Australia, South Korea, and India. Furthermore, the 2005 U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement is often couched in terms of
balancing strategy towards China. While the policy documents of these trilaterals do not specifically refer to China—indeed, they are often focused on non-traditional security—their existence is meant to have a restraining effect on Chinese action in the region. ="#p5">


Another form of balancing behavior carried out by the United States and China towards each other has been military signaling and doctrine. The decision in January 2007 by China to shoot down one of its own weather satellites constituted a warning to the United States that its systems were vulnerable in any future Taiwan contingency. The United States’ response the following year sought to equalize that vulnerability. The development of other such systems by China including a supposed anti-ship ballistic missile, super cruise missiles like the CJ-20, and other such systems are specifically targeted at U.S. naval platforms. Collectively, these developments have been dubbed anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and have led to the counter-development of the AirSea Battle operational concept. One result of this quiet signaling war has been for the U.S. military to undergo a serious rethinking of its military assets in-region, as shown by the basing of U.S. Marines in Australia, the basing of U.S. naval elements in Singapore, and the consideration of facilities in Vietnam and the Philippines. Despite all this, it would be wrong to say that the DOD only represents the balancing side of U.S. policy towards China. The Pentagon’s own efforts at engagement with China are less well-known, but are nonetheless remarkable for their depth and ongoing nature.

Such efforts, well documented in policy journals, include U.S. support for military-to-military engagement, clear and transparent communications, and efforts to develop trust-building mechanisms to deal with maritime disputes. One of these, the Maritime Military Consultation Agreement, was signed as early as 1998, though it has floundered in obscurity. On the other hand, the DoD has taken many steps to develop closer relations with the Chinese military, a consistent policy from the first term of the Obama presidency. This has included feting senior Chinese military delegations in Washington, such as the 2011 visit by General Chen Bingde, and the invitation to the PLA Navy to take part in RIMPAC 2014, the large U.S. naval exercises held in the Pacific. The DoD engagement strategy complements and coexists with a plethora of engagement policies carried out by the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury. These are generally well-known and include large-scale trading initiatives, the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and growing dialogue over North Korea and Iran.

So what are the disadvantages to Washington’s hedging strategy with China?

Well, the most obvious disadvantage is misperception. The strategy is so little understood in China itself that a great deal of U.S. diplomacy is spent reassuring China that it is not attempting to contain it. This is no idle misperception: should Chinese officials decide that U.S. policy is intended to keep them down, they may throw off restraint in future dealings. Another serious weakness is incoherence, an argument made by Edward Luttwak in a recent book on China. He argues that the United States seems to have three China policies: one of engagement by the Department of the Treasury, one of confrontation by the Department of State, and one of containment by the Department of Defense. To some extent, his argument does not take on board the nuances in policy that a single department may have, as evidenced above. The real question about hedging is, does it do what it is supposed to do? Does it seek to shape and restrain the behavior of a rising power and thereby prevent conflict? If one looks at the behavior of Great Britain before the Second World War, one could argue that it too was carrying out a hedging strategy towards the rise of Germany. It had, for example, signed alliances with Poland, the Low Countries, and France. It had also started on a route of cautious rearmament—developing weapons systems like radar, the Spitfire, and a capable bombing force. Despite this nuanced policy, history has judged the cautious policies of Neville Chamberlain by his greatest failure, at Munich.

Clearly Washington is in a difficult position of trying to welcoming a large peer competitor into the existing international order—a difficulty exacerbated by different different histories and political cultures. Those who argue for pure engagement are perhaps naïve to the opportunism prevalent in the foreign policies of rising powers. Those who argue for pure containment are perhaps unaware of the self-fulfilling nature of such policy bundles.

As Vice President Biden wraps up his visit to Northeast Asia this week, his struggle to keep a lid on growing tensions between China and Japan echoes the larger struggle facing U.S. policy in the region more generally: how to accommodate China without giving in to it. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this conundrum, and current tensions could potentially spill out into open conflict through misperception or miscommunication. The U.S. decision to fly bombers through the ADIZ just after it was announced shows Washington’s commitment to the regional status quo. On the other hand, Biden’s visit showed Beijing that the door was still open for business. It is this combination and the communication of this combination that is the real foreign policy tightrope. Communication must be equally effective to China as it is to U.S. allies in Tokyo and Seoul. The consequences of misjudgment are grave: the pre-war German attempt to incrementally reorder the European system after the First World War is testimony to the stakes involved. While China’s ambitions are comparatively modest relative to those of 1930s Germany, the stakes are high for those with Chinese-coveted territory. This is complicated and inflamed by deep historical fault lines and the growth of Chinese nationalism input into foreign policy decision-making. Some are now predicting a new Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea within the next six months. Should Beijing continue reaping sovereignty over the regional seas, the United States will have to react more forcefully. What could it do? Well, call a conference of course. Just don’t call it Munich.

John Hemmings is a non-resident SPF Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum.