Balancing China: Moving Beyond the Containment Fallacy

At a multinational defense forum with ASEAN nations’ defense ministers in late September, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter repeated his call for like-minded nations to “catalyze the Asia-Pacific’s principled and inclusive security network” to ensure regional peace, prosperity, and stability. At the meeting, the defense ministers reaffirmed their shared commitment to strengthening cooperation in maritime security and “to keeping the region’s waterways open and secure.”1 The increasing prominence of maritime security as a shared concern is a significant recent trend in Asia-Pacific security affairs. In particular, the increasingly volatile South and East China seas have emerged as major flashpoints affecting not only territorial claimants but all those with a stake in the region’s peace and prosperity. As reflected in Carter’s speech, one noteworthy policy response is what appears to be incremental multilateralization of the sixty-plus year-old “hub-and-spokes” architecture of bilateral alliances centered on the United States. Indeed, especially since 2010, the United States and key security treaty allies have moved to strengthen diplomatic and military ties bilaterally and multilaterally. Together with their deepening cooperation with other regional nations and an increasingly engaged India, these nascent developments constitute a significant trend line likely to shape the region’s international politics, and an important space to be watched.

Neither regional states’ increased interest in cooperation on maritime security issues nor the US vision for a “principled security network” was born in a strategic vacuum, of course. Both reflect deepening concerns about several regional trends widely viewed as detrimental for regional stability. One traditional security driver has been what many in the region see as China’s increasing employment of strident rhetoric, fait accomplis (e.g., “island building”), and military and paramilitary forces to assert its controversial sovereignty claims. Coupled with longer-term trends of China’s rapidly increasing military spending and opaque decision-making, Beijing’s recent policies have deepened concerns about its commitment to what policymakers within and beyond Washington refer to as a “rules-based global order.” China’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s landmark (unanimous) July ruling concerning the South China Sea, as “null and void and [with] no binding force,”2 has done little to allay these concerns.

Beijing, of course, has a very different view. Whereas current and former US officials warn China that current trends may lead to “self-isolation,” many in Beijing place the blame firmly on Washington, interpreting critical rhetoric and policy responses as part of a nefarious effort to encircle China and to keep it weak.3 From this perspective, Washington’s “rebalance,” and this year’s proposal for a “principled security network” are simply the latest rhetorical trappings for a long-term, machination to keep China down—part of alleged “hegemonic” intentions and a strategy of “encircling” and “containing” it. 

Multilateral Security Architecture in Asia—a Brief History

US consideration of multilateralization approaches to East Asian security has precedent. Indeed, it dates back to the 1940s. With minor, relatively ineffectual exceptions (e.g., SEATO), however, these efforts faced stiff headwinds in a Cold War context. Instead, by the mid-1950s the “hub-and-spokes” system of bilateral security arrangements centered on Washington had consolidated.4 Fast-forward to the post-Cold War period: as recently as fifteen years ago—before China’s rapid military development shifted into high gear—the basic contours had not changed significantly. East Asia’s deepening prosperity, relative stability, and lack of consensus that China did (or would) pose a direct threat meant demand was low, while the potentially self-fulfilling (read: self-defeating) nature of more confrontational approaches augured against multilateralization. In the 2000s, for example, interest in Washington and Tokyo increased, but proposals for multilateralization framed in part in terms of identity or political system (e.g., “concert of democracies,” “arc of freedom and prosperity,” “values oriented diplomacy”) faced particularly stiff political headwinds. To critics, these slogans seemed to many in the region excessively ideological, exclusionary, and inappropriate for a diverse region in which partnerships with non-democracies—including, whenever possible, China itself—were considered essential. Calls for more functional, inclusive, and rules-based approaches also faced significant hurdles.5

Beyond 2016: Toward a “Principled and Inclusive Security Network”?

Yet, circumstances seem to be changing over the past several years. One major driver of this shift is the apparent consolidation of a critical mass of elite opinion across maritime Asia regarding traditional security concerns and the importance of proactively championing widely-accepted principles that have long underpinned the region’s positive trajectory. In response to these developments, and mindful of criticisms of past proposals, earlier this year Washington began actively promoting a “principled and inclusive security network.” In his September 2016 speech on the US “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific’s future, Carter identified this network as part of the rebalance’s “third phase,” delineating several key developmental trajectories:

1) expanding extant bilateral mechanisms to be increasingly trilateral (e.g., US-Japan-South Korea; US-Japan-Australia);
2) new bilateral and trilateral mechanisms among partners who previously did very little together (e.g., Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines trilateral maritime patrols);
3) networked, multilateral regional security architecture (e.g., ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus); and
4) deepening US contributions, including: increasing forward-deployed personnel, enhancing interoperability, increasing the frequency and complexity of exercises, Coast Guard engagement of ASEAN partners, and expanding security assistance programs.

Carter further explained the network’s intent, saying, “[It] will help us uphold important principles, like resolving disputes peacefully; ensuring countries can make their own choices free from foreign coercion and intimidation; and preserving the freedom of overflight and navigation guaranteed by international law.”6

At its core, the network’s aim appears to be expanding functional cooperation to support shared principles—e.g., freedom of navigation—underpinning regional (and global) peace and prosperity, and to bolster traditional and nontraditional security cooperation (e.g., enhanced multilateral HA/DR operations). Perhaps reflecting a lesson of history, it is—in Carter’s own words—not aimed at formal security alliances. It is self-consciously open and inclusive, with no ideological, economic, or political conditions on participation. Though it appears to be in large part a slogan capturing policies already underway, rhetorical framing as a form of diplomatic signaling can be important.

Whether that signal is received as intended in one major intended target—Beijing—however, is a separate question. As discussed below, despite Washington’s effort to explicitly frame engagement and cooperation with China in military and other domains as a key aspect of this inclusive approach (and the rebalance writ large), reactions from Beijing to Carter’s proposal suggest much work remains to be done.

Different Beds, Different Dreams? The Persistent US-China Disconnect

Washington clearly sees its approach as open and inclusive, aimed at encouraging cooperation over principles and rules to serve regional countries’—including China’s—shared interest in stability and prosperity. As Carter explained at Shangri-La 2016, US invitations to joint training and exercises with China (e.g., RIMPAC) demonstrate Washington’s commitment to an “inclusive” future where “disputes are resolved peacefully; and the freedoms of navigation and overflight, guaranteed by international law, are respected.” He continued, “America wants to expand military-to-military agreements with China to focus not only on risk reduction, but also on practical cooperation. Our two militaries can all also work together, bilaterally or as part of the principled security network, to meet a number of challenges—like terrorism and piracy—in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.”7

At a press conference that month, however, the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s response poured cold water on the proposal, criticizing Carter’s effort to call China out on its policies vis-à-vis contested territory as a US “smear;” one that was “doomed to fail.” It dismissed the “principled security network” proposal as a thin veneer for US self-interest, not any “widely accepted international norms or [] ‘principles.’” It ended by defining “this type of ‘principle,’” which enables freedom of navigation operations, as “manifestation of US hegemony,” and stated that China was “resolutely opposed” to a security network based on such “exclusive” principles.8 Three months later, following Carter’s September speech further detailing the network’s role in the rebalance’s future, China’s official state broadcaster dismissed it as a “ploy to extend U-S [sic.] hegemony in the region” and one that “needlessly ratchets up tensions.”9 In short, despite Washington’s conscious effort to preemptively minimize this type of response, Beijing’s initial reactions appear consistent with its past criticism of US alliances in the post-Cold War era, which it often dismisses as “zero-sum,” confrontational, exclusionary, and destabilizing.10

Balancing China

For its part, Beijing’s reaction is also not occurring in a strategic (or political) vacuum. Indeed, ongoing efforts by the United States and its allies/partners to bolster force structure and posture unilaterally and through expanded bilateral and multilateral efforts are a reality. They are also one pillar of the rebalance strategy, driven partly by concerns about China.11 Though the Pentagon and others in Washington have long held concerns about China’s future trajectory and strategic intentions, (with the important exception of stability across the Taiwan Strait) those concerns were until recently relatively abstract. What is new in the past few years, and far more significant in shaping the views of regional states, is China’s recent rhetoric and policies vis-à-vis disputed territory and features on its periphery. Especially since 2009, Beijing’s assertive deployment of military and paramilitary forces in the South and East China seas appears to many regional observers newly provocative, even aggressive and destabilizing. Beyond specific policies and rhetoric, and specific to the maritime domain, two decades of major investment mean that China’s navy is far more capable qualitatively, in addition to now being the world’s second-largest. Meanwhile, less widely recognized but equally significant is that Beijing increasingly utilizes its rapidly expanding paramilitary coercive capabilities: its coast guard, which now has more hulls than the rest of the region combined, and irregular maritime militia.12 Though a desire to cooperate with Beijing to the fullest extent possible in mutual self-interest remains a shared objective of all regional actors—including Washington—these trend lines appear to be weakening erstwhile political and other headwinds preventing multilateralization of security ties. Meanwhile, regional leaders are increasingly vocal about their concerns, often calling China out by name—something even Japan was hesitant to do fifteen years ago.

These concerns’ concrete policy manifestations, especially in changing force structure and posture, evince the reactive, targeted nature of incremental balancing underway. They are in large part direct responses to specific actions and rhetoric by China vis-à-vis its sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas. They occur concomitant with a significant uptick in associated bilateral and multilateral official declarations from the region and beyond highlighting shared interests in ensuring maritime security, freedom of navigation, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

Beyond widely publicized US initiatives captured in the rebalance, a concise survey of additional notable developments since 2010 includes13:

      1. Australia (/Japan)
        1. Building on ambitious procurement plans of previous administrations dating back to 2009 (e.g., largest ever-military purchases in 2014 and 2016 (58 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters; twelve submarines), the Turnbull administration’s 2016 Defense White Paper:
          1. Committed to increased defense spending over ten years to support the “most ambitious plan to regenerate the Royal Australian Navy since [1945]”; called for its alliance with Washington to be “the core of Australia’s security and defense planning”; and called for strengthened force posture in northern Australia.
        2. Expanding on earlier agreements, conducting more extensive joint military exercises with the USA, calling for increased US naval and air access to Australian bases, and reportedly considering future rotations of US strategic bombers and refueling aircraft.
        3. Expanding military ties and exercises with Japan, including their first-ever joint air operations and bilateral antisubmarine warfare exercises; signing agreements on acquisition and cross-servicing (ACSA), information security, and joint development of defense technology; as well as deepening trilateral strategic dialogues, enhanced interoperability, and policy coordination (with Washington). Meanwhile, under a landmark 2014 reinterpretation of Japan’s “pacifist” Constitution Tokyo has said its Self-defense Forces could protect Australian forces and the two sides have reportedly begun negotiation of their first-ever Status-of-Forces Agreement. Meanwhile, bilateral and trilateral joint statements have expressed “serious concern” over maritime disputes in the South and East China seas, stress a “rules-based maritime order,” respect for freedom of navigation and overflight, and “not using force or coercion in trying to advance their claims.”14
      2. Japan (/SE Asia)
        1. Five consecutive years of defense budget increases.
        2. Major institutional reforms to bolster crisis response (especially gray zone threats in the East China Sea), including the creation of a National Security Council and, with Washington, establishment of a standing Alliance Coordination Mechanism.
        3. Extensive efforts to deepen the US-Japan alliance, reflected in new Guidelines on Defense Cooperation and security laws, inter alia, allowing Japan to defend US forces in certain scenarios and significantly expand the scope of logistical support.
        4. Force structure and posture adjustments aimed at a possible East China Sea contingency, including increased focus on jointness, procurement of highly mobile forces, creation of Japan’s first-ever amphibious forces, and deployment of an additional F-15 squadron and coastal defense units to and construction of signal intelligence facilities and monitoring posts on its southwestern islands, as well as new capabilities (e.g., more advanced surface-to-ship missiles).15
        5. Increasing Coast Guard funding and capabilities, including supplementary budgets specifically earmarked for the East China Sea, and the deployment in 2016 of a new fleet of ships deployed exclusively to patrol those waters.16
        6. Deepening cooperation with key Southeast Asian countries, including:
          1. official statements expressing concern about South China Sea developments and even noting rule of law and maritime security as a focus of Japan’s foreign aid policy,17
          2. holding the first-ever Japan-ASEAN defense ministers meeting (2014)
          3. participating in multilateral exercises in the South China Sea
          4. (in 2016 alone, taking measures to expand presence and strengthen partnerships: increased stop-overs of P-3C aircraft in Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia;18 unprecedented agreement with the Philippines on defense equipment and transfer (Japan’s first with an ASEAN nation); commitment to provide the Philippines with training aircraft and patrol boats;19 JMSDF port calls at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the Philippines’ Subic Bay; and doubling defense attaches in Manila and Hanoi.20
      3. Southeast Asia
        1. Region-wide: a US Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) to build regional capacity and deepen maritime dialogue and maritime domain awareness, including increased involvement of the US Coast Guard.21
        2. Singapore: Signed agreements with Washington to upgrade its fleet of F-16C/Ds and host four US Littoral Combat Ships, and launched new joint training on air defense, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare.
        3. Vietnam: Significantly increased defense spending, including procurement of advanced fighter craft, coastal defense and missile systems, and six Kilo-class submarines; deepening links with Washington, including first navy-to-navy engagements, port calls by US navy, and an end to a 1975 US ban on provision of lethal arms to Vietnam; various joint declarations with regional neighbors (including Japan and Australia) upholding freedom of overflight and navigation, and prohibitions on threats or use of force in disputed waters; elevation of its relationship with Manila to a strategic partnership, calls for deepened maritime cooperation, and its first-ever defense dialogue with and port call in the Philippines.
        4. Philippines: signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allowing the United States to rotate forces through Philippine bases, and plans to reestablish limited US access to Subic Bay—the site of a former US naval facility on the South China Sea; Manila’s largest-ever defense budget, with aim of procuring frigates, planes, and radar to enhance maritime domain awareness.22
      4. India
        1. With Washington, New Delhi signed a landmark defense agreement in 2016 to increase strategic cooperation, deepen military-to-military ties, and expand cooperation on defense technology.23
        2. With Tokyo, New Delhi in 2014 upgraded bilateral ties to a “special strategic and global partnership,” including regular naval exercises, security dialogues, and defense technical cooperation. In 2016 so far there has been an expansion of joint training with Japan’s coast guard and maritime self-defense force—as well as its involvement in the US-India Malabar naval exercise near the East and South China Seas.

The Containment Fallacy

That China sees these trends as detrimental to its perceived self-interest and is reacting negatively is hardly surprising. Yet official and popular narratives’ frequent misdiagnoses of the drivers have real-world consequences. In particular, to present such trends—as Chinese commentary often does—as part of an alleged Washington-centered, nefarious “hegemonic” plot or as aimed at “containing China’s peaceful rise” is misguided. Widespread use of the term “containment” to describe US policy and intentions may make for provocative headlines, but on both conceptual and empirical grounds it is inapplicable to contemporary affairs in the Asia-Pacific. Rather than an anodyne disagreement over semantics, widespread usage in China appears to exacerbate US-China political and strategic mistrust, while often dismissing the legitimate concerns, rights and interests of its neighbors. In this regard, its effects appear analogous to other decades-old, hackneyed phrases well-known to China watchers, including summary spurning of concerns expressed overseas regarding various aspects of China’s policies or rhetoric—be they abstract (e.g., low military transparency) or concrete (e.g., perceived coercion)—as mere manifestations of an alleged “China threat theory” (zhongguo weixielun) promulgated for “ulterior motives” (bieyouyongxin).24 The consistency with which such phrases permeate Chinese discourse and appear to reflect an uncritical dismissiveness essentially renders them threadbare.

Balancing, not Containment

So why is “containment” inappropriate in the context of US strategy or what appears to be a nascent balancing coalition forming in the maritime Asia-Pacific today? First and foremost, containment is—by definition—a multi-domain strategy designed to weaken an adversary’s material wealth and power across-the-board (think US-Soviet competition during the Cold War, when each saw the other as an existential threat). Its rationales are manifold, but to a large extent flow from an assumption of relative gains—that two states have nothing to gain from anycooperation, especially in the economic realm—and entail little people-to-people contact and virtually no trade. Though the US-China relationship is clearly characterized by significant frictions, and Washington undoubtedly has concerns about the PLA’s development trajectory, America’s quarter-plus century embrace of deepening economic interdependence, popular exchanges, and substantive policy cooperation belies the widespread fallacies that Washington is attempting to contain China, or that doing so would be superior to the more nuanced reality of the US post-Cold War Asia-Pacific strategy, which sees alliances as stabilizing, reducing the need for arms buildups and nuclear proliferation; as a hedge against uncertainty; and as a necessary instrument of engagement.25 Even despite recent developments, the core of US strategy has not changed. As the regional situation changes, what we are seeing today is deepening engagement coupled with incremental balancing intended to shape China’s choices in a stabilizing direction and to deter in response to perceived threats—not containment. Balancing is analytically and theoretically distinct from the former—conflating the two—as commentators often do—oversimplifies a far more complicated policy reality and imputes nefarious intent of a sort that does not exist. Such misapplication of these concepts has real-world consequences.

Even cursory consideration of the historical record belies the fallacy that the US, Japan, or any other country’s strategic objective is to “contain China.” Though the “containment meme” is most frequently trotted out to characterize US (and sometimes Japanese policy) toward China,26 since the 1970s Washington and Tokyo have done more than any other foreign countries to encourage China to deepen its involvement in the international community, contribute to its economic development, and engage it economically, diplomatically, and strategically. To be sure, this was not charity: these states have benefited significantly from China’s economic rise, as have other regional countries—most of whom currently have China as their top trading partner. Yet this engagement has—predictably—enabled China to significantly narrow the capabilities gap militarily, exponentially increase its regional and global influence, and at times even caused significant, painful economic dislocation at home (e.g., support for China’s accession to the WTO in 200127)—hardly the behavior of grand strategists working in a zero-sum world and trying to keep China weak.

Thus, the containment meme fundamentally misdiagnoses the US and other regional states’ policies in the military domain as driven by some elaborate machination to keep China down. Though key US military policies are undoubtedly shaped by concerns about China’s policies and rhetoric, in most cases they are a manifestation of fundamentally contingent balancing responses to perceived threats; not containment. Indeed, an irony of the “rebalance’s” public image is that a key feature of it was actually deeper cooperation with China. To borrow language from Kurt Campbell, one of its key architects, US strategy is designed to ensure the credibility of its alliance commitments, “sustaining Asia’s ‘operating system’ (the “complex legal, security and practical arrangements that have underscored four decades of Asian prosperity and security),” and embed Beijing in a regional framework that “advances relations with countries across the region, including China.”28 Rhetorical rollout, media hype, distractions elsewhere in the world, and difficulties launching the Trans-Pacific Partnership seem to have muddled Washington’s intended message and led to disproportionate focus on its military aspects.

That in support of shared principles a growing number of countries with no direct stake in territorial disputes, much less any incentive to antagonize Beijing have stepped up criticism of China’s policies further supports the idea that what we are seeing is contingent balancing, not containment. For example, in 2014 Australia’s then cabinet minister Malcom Turnbull called China’s policy of “muscl[ing] up” to its neighbors “singularly unhelpful” to regional security confidence.29 Earlier this year, a remarkable French proposal called on European navies to establish “regular and visible” presence in the region to uphold freedom of navigation and the law of the sea. Making clear that France’s concerns included but also transcended any specific action by Beijing, the French Defense Minister stated, “If the law of the sea is not respected today in the China seas, it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, in the Mediterranean, or elsewhere.”30 Talk of norms of peaceful settlement of disputes and rules-based order as underpinning regional peace and prosperity is neither cheap nor empty.

Finally, as reflected in the reactions to Carter’s speeches cited above, a view that “US hegemonism” is Washington’s objective permeates Chinese discourse concerning recent developments, further contributing to the containment narrative. Yet, one of this simplistic narrative’s critical flaws is that it simultaneously denies China’s neighbors agency, neglects to recognize that regional states have encouraged the rebalance, and exaggerates US influence. It also fails to demonstrate that the United States seeks a confrontational relationship with China. In reality, because of the extent to which Washington values mature, stable relations with Beijing—to a fault, some advocates of a more assertive US posture argue—in important cases it has been China’s neighbors that have asked Washington to do much more. These factors seem to undermine the claims of some Chinese commentators that smaller countries on China’s periphery are merely “pawns” of a US puppet master engaged in some zero-sum struggle for regional dominance.31

It Takes Two to Tango

As in all strategic interactions, in developments unfolding across the Asia-Pacific it takes two to tango. Though containment is an inappropriate characterization of either US strategy or the motivations driving it, one must also recognize that—however intended—bolstering capabilities aimed at deterrence can leave China more insecure. Herein lies the famous security dilemma.32 Also relevant is sincere frustration in some internationalist policy circles in China with what they interpret as a Catch-22—the USA asks China to “step up” and play the role of a responsible stakeholder (e.g., in global governance) but sometimes reacts negatively when it attempts to do so. Frequently cited recent examples include reflexive opposition to constructive if imperfect Beijing-proposed reforms to international institutions (e.g., AIIB), or even efforts to cooperate with Washington on climate change. Such reactions run the risk of worsening the political and strategic trust between the two countries.

Yet, from the Clinton administration’s support for China to enter the WTO to the Bush administration’s efforts to engage China as a “responsible stakeholder” and the Obama administration’s efforts to cooperate with China constructively, including in the military domain, the idea that the basic thrust of American strategy is to “contain” China’s 21st-century rise may make for catchy rhetoric, but appears to be a conceptually vacuous fallacy of real-world consequence. Recent developments are best understood as balancing against perceived threats, not containment. The distinction is not merely academic; recognizing the former dynamic at play opens up significant space for diplomacy, substantive cooperation and other efforts to ameliorate political frictions and other drivers of mutual arming.33

One innocent bystander of worsening political mistrust may be cooperation on regional and global security issues on which China, the United States, and other regional states’ interests and, indeed, principles, appear more directly aligned. To minimize this, as they seek to simultaneously bolster deterrence Washington and its regional partners must take pains to continuously engage Beijing, and to avoid unnecessary provocation, in rhetoric or policy. Some experts suggest that the rebalance’s execution also has room to improve. Its objectives are to credibly signal the US fundamental interest, ability and resolve to remain fully engaged in East Asia, encourage shared economic prosperity, ensure peaceful resolution of disputes, to deter destabilizing activities, and to reassure allies and partners. Yet regardless of the intent and policy reality, as J. Stapleton Roy recently assessed, it is perceived by many as “excessively weighted on the military side,” with “non-military components underfunded.”34

This is not just about avoiding a negative spiral with rising China—a potentially challenging geopolitical needle to thread under any circumstances. Given the extent to which the region has benefited from China’s rise economically, no country has any interest in choosing between the Washington and Beijing. This is particularly true in Southeast Asia. As a former Singaporean diplomat recently argued, “to promiscuously and simultaneously balance, hedge, and band-wagon is embedded in our foreign policy DNA.”35 Though it is still early, Washington’s current difficulties with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may—in part—illustrate the complicated trade-offs that regional leaders—especially in smaller economies—face and the tight-rope that all parties must walk in perceived self-interest.36 To the extent possible, Washington’s objective should continue to be positive, careful and sustained partnerships with all regional actors (including Beijing).

Past not Necessarily Prologue

In 2011, Joseph Nye, the key architect of the US post-Cold War Asia-Pacific strategy of “deep engagement,” famously remarked that “only China can contain China.” Significantly, as Nye recalled, during the Pentagon’s major East Asia strategic review in 1994 he and his colleagues rejected the idea of containing China for two reasons:

“If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing an enemy in the future. If we treated China as a friend, we could not guarantee friendship, but we could at least keep open the possibility of more benign outcomes. In addition, it would have been difficult to persuade other countries to join a coalition to contain China unless China resorted to bullying tactics, as the Soviets did after World War II. Only China, by its behavior, could organize the containment of China by others.”37

Five years later, and owing largely to recent developments in the South and East China seas, discourse on China policy in Washington and beyond appears marked by significantly deepened cynicism concerning China’s domestic trajectory, strategic intentions, and US-China relations. Not limited to so-called “hawks,” across the political spectrum even many longstanding advocates of active engagement express deepening frustration. Similar trends appear in other key countries, albeit to varying degrees. One example is Japan, where it appears an inflection point in both elite and popular perceptions vis-à-vis China was reached in the 2010-2012 period, driven in large part by the significant worsening of Sino-Japanese tensions over the contested Senkaku Islands.38 As Carter noted in his Shangri-La speech, in response to China’s maritime, air, and cyber activities, “countries across the region have been taking action and voicing concerns publicly and privately, at the highest levels, in regional meetings, and global fora.  As a result, China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking.” As he famously warned, “if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.”39


Such an outcome is far from preordained. Nevertheless, current trend lines on both the demand- and supply-side suggest that the nascent balancing coalition forming in the Asia-Pacific may continue, characterized not only by further consolidation of decades-old bilateral US alliances, but also what is perhaps best characterized as a nascent web—or “network”—of functional security cooperation among regional states aimed largely at diplomatic signaling and bolstering deterrence.

Though a variety of drivers are at play, key features of associated force posture and structural changes, as well as diplomatic signaling, suggest strongly that these trends are reactive, driven largely by specific Chinese policies and rhetoric emanating from Beijing, especially vis-à-vis the South and East China seas. Though there is no doubt that China’s policies are also in part reactive, driven by concerns about regional developments its leaders consider threatening, China’s “containment” narrative appears to be, at best, over-simplistic, misleading characterizations of recent developments, especially as it concerns US and regional partners’ policy objectives, policy drivers, and most importantly, strategic intent. Coupled with structural and international political factors at play, current trends suggest that not more actively recognizing its neighbors’ sincere security concerns, legitimate rights and interests, and the causal relationship between China’s policies and regional states’ balancing behavior risks moving parties further toward action-reaction arming and increasing confrontation. As demonstrated by recent trends, Washington’s position is transparent, bipartisan, and remarkably stable.40 As Robert Zoellick warned in his widely-cited 2005 speech (which encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder”):

“China needs to recognize how its actions are perceived by others. China’s involvement with troublesome states indicates at best a blindness to consequences and at worst something more ominous. China’s actions—combined with a lack of transparency—can create risks. Uncertainties about how China will use its power will lead the United States – and others as well—to hedge relations with China. Many countries hope China will pursue a ‘Peaceful Rise,’ but none will bet their future on it.”41

Though important recent trend lines provide grounds for concern about the region’s trajectory, tensions in the South and East China seas do not define US-China relations, which are “huge, vast, and complicated.”42 That same basic truth holds for China’s relations with all its neighbors. Given the objective reality of the contemporary region, including China’s rapidly growing power and influence, disparate views over territory in particular, frictions are to be expected. More important than their mere existence is how involved parties understand and handle them. Even where disputes exist, more candid recognition of the strategic interactions at play in driving regional tensions can foster stability, opening space for dialogue and efforts to ameliorate more competitive elements. As other claimants have already demonstrated, with sufficient political will even seemingly intractable territorial disputes can be managed peacefully and in a manner that bolsters, rather than weakens, strategic trust. Whether such political will exists, of course, remains to be seen.

1. Ash Carter, “Remarks on ‘The Future of the Rebalance’: Enabling Security in the Vita,” US Department of Defense, September 29, 2016,; “Carter, ASEAN Ministers Reaffirm Commitment to Regional Security,” US Department of Defense, October 1, 2016,

2. “Statement of Chinese Foreign Ministry on the Award of 12 July 2016 of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration Established at the Request of the Republic of the Philippines” (Full-text English version available at Beijing Review, (

3. For example, see the overview in Denny Roy, Return of the Dragon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 39-43.

4. Explanations for the lack of Cold War-era collective security in Asia includ the region’s diversity, geography, and lack of consensus concerning security threats.

5. Hitoshi Tanaka and Adam P. Liff, “The Strategic Rationale for East Asia Community Building,” in East Asia at a Crossroads, ed. Jusuf Wanandi and Tadashi Yamamoto (Tokyo: JCIE, 2008), 90-104.

6. Carter, “Remarks on ‘The Future of the Rebalance.’”

7. Ash Carter, “Remarks by Secretary Carter and Q&A at the Shangri-La Dialogue,” US Department of Defense, June 5, 2016,

8. “Defense Ministry’s Regular Press Conference on June 30,” China Military Online, June 30, 2016, 30,

9. “Pentagon Vows to Continue ‘Rebalance’ in Asia,”, October 2, 2016,

10. Adam P. Liff, “China and the U.S. Alliance System,” Working Paper, Indiana University, 2016.

11. Though often hyped as “all about China,” the rebalance is much bigger than that: aimed at ensuring that America’s economic, diplomatic, and military commitment to the region is commensurate with its growing economic, political, and security interests there.

12. On the former, see Ryan Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” Proceedings Magazine 141 (April 2015), On the latter, see Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy, “Meet the Chinese Maritime Militia Waging a ‘People’s War at Sea,’” China Real Time Report, March 31, 2015. .

13. Unless noted otherwise, the summary below draws on Adam P. Liff, “Whither the Balancers: The Case for a Methodological Reset,” Security Studies 25, no. 3 (2016): 438-456.

14. See, for example, “Joint Statement of the Japan-United States-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue,” US Department of State, July 25, 2016.

15. “New missiles key to FY17 defense budget,” Yomiuri Shimbun, August 20, 2016.

16. “Japan deploys 12 coast guard ships to patrol Disputed Diaoyu Islands,” South China Morning Post, April 4, 2016.

17. “Amid South China Sea spat, Japan foreign aid white paper stresses importance of sea lanes,” The Japan Times, March 11, 2016.

18. “MSDF to cover more of S. China Sea,” Japan News, January 11, 2016.

19. “Japan to Provide Philippines with 2 large patrol vessels,” Japan News, September 7, 2016.

20. “Japan to increase defense attaches in Philippines, Vietnam,” Jiji, August 11, 2016.

21. Prashanth Parameswaran, “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia,” The Diplomat, April 2, 2016,

22. Dennis Blair and Jeffrey Hornung, “South China Sea: How to Prevent China from Changing the Status Quo,” The Diplomat, September 23, 2016,

23. “India and US Deepen Defense Ties with Landmark Agreement,” The Washington Post, August 30, 2016.

24. See, for example, “Guofangbu: Riben xin baogao xuanran Zhongguo junshi weixie bieyou yongxin,” Jinghua Shibao, July 28, 2013.

25. Joseph S. Nye Jr., “The Case for Deep Engagement,” Foreign Affairs 74, no. 4 (1995): 90-102.

26. Widely used in reference to Washington, US allies are also increasingly targeted. For example, an authoritative PLA textbook claims Japan’s recent policies are aimed at “active containment” (zhudong ezhi). See Zhanluexue (Beijing: AMS Press, 2013), 62.

27. Jordan Weissmann and Daniel Gross. “Waking the Sleeping Dragon.” Slate, September 28, 2016,

28. Kurt Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (NY: Hachette, 2016), 7.

29. “Chinese Territorial Claims Driving Asia Closer to US,” The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2014.

30. Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce, “Europeans Push Back Against Beijing in the South China Sea,” Foreign Policy, September 28, 2016,

31. “Mei jie xin xieyi ‘yongjiu zhujun’ Feilubin weixie Zhongguo?” Guoji Xianqu Daobao, April 17, 2014,

32. Adam P. Liff and G. John Ikenberry, “Racing toward Tragedy? China’s Rise, Military Competition in the Asia Pacific, and the Security Dilemma,” International Security 39, no. 2 (2014): 52-91.

33. For example, see Adam P. Liff and G. John Ikenberry, “Racing toward Tragedy?”: 88-91.

34. Mercy A. Kuo, “US-China Relations: The Long View,” The Diplomat, August 24, 2016,

35. Bilahari Kausikan, “ASEAN & US-China Competition in Southeast Asia,” IPS-Nathan Lectures, March 30, 2016,

36. “Obama’s top Asia diplomat says baffled by Duterte pronouncements,” Reuters, October 12, 2016.

37. Joseph S. Nye, “Should China be ‘Contained?’” Project Syndicate, July 4, 2011,–contained.

38. For example, on policy, even the (relatively dovish) Democratic Party of Japan accelerated balancing measures in 2009-2012. Meanwhile, by 2016 four out of five Japanese citizens feared a military conflict with China. “80% of Japanese fear military clash around Senkakus, poll finds,” The Japan Times, September 14, 2016.

39. Ash Carter, “Remarks on ‘The Future of the Rebalance.’”

40. Compare Nye, “The Case for Deep Engagement” and Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy 189 (November 2011): 56-64.

41. Robert Zoellick, “Whither China? From Membership to Responsibility” (remarks, National Committee on US-China Relations, New York, September 21, 2005).

42. Quoted in “Carter warns of Chinese ‘Great Wall of self-isolation,’” Defense News, June 4, 2016,

  • YiJiun

    Not a balanced analysis though :)

    How about China’s security concerns, given that the country with the world’s largest population is also the world’s largest trading nation requiring adequate defense for its increasing dependence on the freedom of navigation to conduct its growing maritime trade?

    Remember that China is by far, the largest regional stakeholder.

    And, who will balance the USA, which has not even ratified UNCLOS, with its disproportionate projection of military power, from half the globe away?