The Essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore's Response to a Rising China

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What do states do when faced with an increasingly strong and/or potentially threatening Great Power? (1) For decades, mainstream International Relations (IR) theorists have offered two broad answers to this central question: states are likely to either balance against or bandwagon with that power. The "balancing" school argues that, driven to preserve their own security, states--especially the smaller ones--tend to perceive a rising power as a growing threat that must be counter-checked by alliance (external balancing) and armament (internal balancing). (2) This is particularly so if the rising power's aggregate capability is accompanied by geographical proximity, offensive capability and offensive intention. (3) The "bandwagoning" school, by contrast, opines that states may choose to crouch under -rather than contain against--a fast emerging power. That is, they may come to accept a subordinate role to the dominant power in exchange for profit. (4) This may happen if they view the power as a primary source of strength that can be exploited to promote their own interests.

Notwithstanding the enduring centrality of these schools of thought, recent scholarly debates, however, suggest that these propositions might not accurately describe the responses of East Asian states to a rising China. (5) Indeed, there is no evidence to indicate that the regional states are adopting pure forms of balancing or bandwagoning. While it is true that most states do maintain some form of military ties with Western powers (most notably the United States), these efforts do not necessarily constitute a balancing strategy in its strictest sense. This is because the existence of such cooperation actually predates the rise of China, (6) and there is no clear indication that the states' military modernization programmes have been primarily stimulated by, and accelerated in tandem with, the growth of China's relative power. (7)

In a similar vein, while East Asian states have all chosen to develop economic ties and to engage China diplomatically, this gesture should not be confused as bandwagoning. Economic cooperation and diplomatic engagement are chiefly motivated by a pragmatic incentive to gain economic and diplomatic profit; by themselves they do not constitute an act of power acceptance. (8) Bandwagoning, by contrast, reflects a readiness on the part of smaller states to accept--voluntarily or otherwise--the larger partner's power ascendancy; and such power acceptance often take the forms of political and military alignment. Empirically, however, none of the regional states have forged security alliances with China.

A range of factors explain why most regional states have rejected pure-balancing and pure-bandwagoning. Pure-balancing is considered strategically unnecessary, because the "China threat" remains largely potential rather than actual. It is also viewed as politically provocative and counter-productive, in that an anti-Beijing alliance will certainly push China in a hostile direction, turning a perceived threat into a real one. Further, it is regarded as economically unwise, as it is likely to result in the loss of trade opportunities that could be reaped from China's growing market. Pure-bandwagoning, on the other hand, albeit economically appealing, is deemed politically undesirable and strategically risky since it is likely to limit the smaller states' freedom of action.

For these reasons, most of the East Asian states do not regard pure-balancing and pure-bandwagoning as viable options vis-a-vis China. In the case of the original members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), none of the countries have chosen to contain against or crouch under China in the post-Cold War era. Instead, they have taken a middle position that is now widely termed as the "hedging" strategy. (9) Borrowed originally from finance, the term is brought into IR to refer to an alternative strategy distinguishable from balancing and bandwagoning. …