Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia and China: Balancing or Bandwagoning?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia and China: Balancing or Bandwagoning?

Article excerpt


There is little doubt that China is rising to a level of unmatched prominence in the Asia-Pacific region. How other states in the region are reacting to the growth of Chinese power, however, is a matter of some debate. (1) In theory, two of the common responses of smaller states in the shadow of a potentially dominant or threatening power are balancing and bandwagoning. Some observers see a pattern of bandwagoning with China (Kang 2003, p. 58). Others believe the stronger tendency is for Asian states to balance against China (Acharya 2003, pp. 150-52). For students of Southeast Asian politics, this is an important question with huge consequences for the future of international relations in the region. This article will explore this question, arguing that, while hedging and engagement are the principal Southeast Asian strategies toward China, the hedging involves a significant component of what may be termed "low-intensity balancing" with the United States against China along with efforts to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

Terms of Analysis

The range of policy choices for small and medium-sized states facing a potential regional hegemon is broader than balancing and bandwagoning (Schweller 1999, pp. 7-16). Southeast Asian states in fact employ a mix of elements from four strategies. One of these strategies, the most general, is hedging, which means keeping open more than one strategic option against the possibility of a future security threat. A second strategy is engagement, whereby a state uses inclusion and rewards to attempt to socialize a dissatisfied power into accepting the rules and institutions of the pre-existing international order.

Balancing and bandwagoning are the remaining two strategies. A state balances against a perceived potential adversary either internally, by shifting resource allocations to strengthen its defensive capability, or externally, by cooperating with another state that fears the same potential adversary. (This article will focus on external balancing.) Balancing may involve different levels of intensity. In the case of low-intensity balancing, the balancing state attempts to maintain a constructive relationship with the targeted state, in the case of high-intensity balancing, the relationship between the balancing state and the targeted state is more openly adverserial, and many forms of cooperation between them are precluded by political tensions.

It is important to clarify the relationship between hedging and balancing. This writer has classed both hedging and balancing as strategies against hegemonic domination, but hedging is a general strategy that may or may not include balancing. Balancing is one but not the only strategy a government may employ to keep open a future strategic option. Similarly, some balancing, but not all, is motivated by a desire to keep open a future option in case it is needed. Hedging implies a present condition of strategic uncertainty. Balancing is sometimes the response, for example, to a certain and compelling threat, in which case hedging is not involved.

"Bandwagoning" has at least two distinct definitions in the international relations literature. The first is aligning with a threatening country to avoid being attacked by it (Walt 1987, p. 17). The second understanding of bandwagoning is "being on the winning side" in the hope of realizing economic gains (Schweller 1994, pp. 72-107).

An assessment of whether or not Southeast Asian states are bandwagoning with China essentially hangs on which of these two definitions is employed. Under the first definition of aligning with a threatening state to avoid being attacked, no states in Southeast Asia are bandwagoning with China. The conditions implied by this interpretation of bandwagoning are simply not present. China is not behaving aggressively toward any states in Southeast Asia; quite the contrary, Beijing's recent diplomacy aims to reduce tensions with China's neighbours, inspire confidence that China upholds the values of peaceful negotiation, multilateralism, and respect for sovereignty that ASEAN extols, and convince Asia that "China will never seek hegemony", as Chinese leaders have proclaimed on countless occasions (Medeiros and Fravel 2003; Shambaugh 20(/4/05). …

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