United States Leadership in East Asia and China’s State-by-state Approach to Regional Security
United States Leadership in East Asia and China's State-by-state Approach to Regional Security
Xuefeng Sun 0 1
0 Tsinghua University , Beijing , China
1 & Xuefeng Sun
China's rapid growth in comprehensive capabilities has been accompanied by an increasingly serious rise dilemma. The rise dilemma refers to the dilemma a rising great power faces, as it seeks to maintain the growth in comprehensive capabilities and international influence, while simultaneously managing the increasing external security pressures generated by its growth. Provided that the United States continues to lead its East Asian allies through providing security protection and shared norms, China must adopt a state-by-state approach in integrating the tripartite relationship between China, the United States and China's neighbors into a coherent policy framework. In the context of a state-by-state approach, China needs to employ strategic hedging to maintain stability in ChinaUS strategic relations. At the same time, two dimensions need consideration in determining a specific security policy towards a given neighbor, i.e., whether a state is help-dependent (depending on the US security protection) or self-help (safeguarding its security independently), and the extent to which that a state harbors concerns over China's rise.
US leadership; China; Rise dilemma; East Asia security
Since the mid-1990s, China’s rapid growth in comprehensive capabilities has been
accompanied by increasing security pressures in East Asia. On one level, this
includes the territorial/maritime disputes that have flared between China and several
East Asia countries, and which are increasingly difficult to manage (Fravel 2008;
Sui and Zhou 2015, 208–209, 227–237). On another level, competition between the
US and China vis-a`-vis the regional order more broadly has gradually intensified
(Mearsheimer 2010; Mearsheimer 2014; Kong 2013/2014, 153–154)
. As such,
China finds itself in an increasingly unfavorable position vis-a`-vis its regional
security, which translates into serious obstacles vis-a`-vis its broader rise as a great
power (Liff and Ikenberry 2014, 55–58).
This phenomenon, also known as the rise dilemma, refers to the dilemma a rising
great power faces, as it seeks to maintain the growth in comprehensive capabilities
and international influence, while simultaneously managing the increasing external
security pressures generated by its growth
(Sun 2013b, 24)
. For China, specifically,
this dilemma manifests itself in the need to ensure an external environment
conducive to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. As China cannot afford to lose
sight of either objectives, addressing this dilemma represents the core challenge
facing China in its grand strategy, and particularly with respect to its East Asian
China sees its relationship with the United States as central to addressing the
growing rise dilemma, and has long identified the United States as the top priority of
its foreign policy. China’s hope is that stable Sino–US relations will keep external
security pressures at bay, providing a healthy environment for its rise. At the same
time, while China has also proposed a concept of “neighboring countries as a top
priority” in its foreign relations, it is clear that the level of attention given to China’s
neighbors lags far behind that directed towards the United States
(Xu et al. 2016, 9)
Scholars are increasingly vocal in pointing out the need for more attention to this
priority. In April of 2013, Shi Yinhong pointed out in a media interview that many
years ago Chinese only talked about the importance of China–US relations.
However, as a great power, China cannot just have one priority. A second priority is
China’s relations with its neighbors
(Xu et al. 2016, 9)
In October 2013, China held the Conference on the Diplomatic Work with
Neighboring Countries, which functioned to raise considerably the relevant level of
importance of China’s relations with its neighbors. At this conference, Chinese
President Xi Jinping stated that China’s relations with its neighbors had changed
considerably, and that this change requires China to adjust its strategy in the
direction of a more proactive form of diplomacy. Xi Jinping further emphasized that
to achieve this, “China needs to develop closer ties with neighboring countries, with
more friendly political relations, stronger economic bonds, deeper security
cooperation and closer people-to-people contacts.…letting the awareness of
community of common destiny take root in the neighboring countries”.1
As the importance of its “neighborhood diplomacy” or foreign policy vis-a`-vis
neighboring states grows, scholars have started a broader debate on the top priorities
of Chinese foreign policy. One school of thought argues that China’s relations with
neighboring countries should be the top priority of Chinese foreign policy, arguing
that without the support of her neighbors, it will be impossible for China to realize
its rise. A second school points out that the United States is not only the world’s
1 “Xi Jinping: Let the Sense of Community of Common Destiny Take Deep Root in Neighboring
Countries”, October 25, 2013, http://au.china-embassy.org/eng/xw/t1093870.htm.
only superpower, but it is also the greatest obstacle to China’s rise. As such, getting
China–US relations correct, needs to be maintained as the top priority of Chinese
(Yan 2015; Xu 2016, 482)
. Since 2013, another group of scholars has
raised the argument that China now faces two core priorities in its foreign policy:
great power relations (United States) and neighborhood diplomacy
(Xu et al. 2016,
This paper argues that provided the United States continues to lead its East Asian
allies and partners through the provision of security protection and shared norms,
China’s regional security strategy must effectively integrate both of these core
concerns. The tripartite relationship between China, the United States, and China’s
neighbors must be integrated through a coherent state-by-state approach.2 In the
context of a state-by-state approach, China needs to employ strategic hedging to
stabilize Sino–US relations. Meanwhile, two dimensions need consideration in
determining a specific security policy towards a given neighbor: whether a state is
help-dependent or self-help; and the extent to which a state harbors concerns
regarding China’s rise.
2 China’s Rise Dilemma in the Shadow of America’s Dominance
Chinese capabilities have grown rapidly since the mid-1990s in both economic and
military terms. On the economic front, in 2010, China became the world’s second
largest economy in terms of GDP. In the years since, the gap in GDP between China
and the world’s third largest economic power, Japan, has continued to widen, while
the gap between China and the United States has narrowed
(Liu 2016b, 45)
respect to military power, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, China’s
military expenditures have steadily grown, China ranking number two in the world
as of 2009. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as of
2016, China continued to rank second with respect to military expenditures,
representing 13% of global military spending.3
The growth of China’s comprehensive capabilities has been accompanied by an
expansion of its regional influence. In terms of economic influence, at the beginning
of 2010 China marked the formal establishment of the China–ASEAN Free Trade
Agreement.4 In the second half of 2013, China further initiated the Belt and Road
Initiative, which functions to promote Euro-Asian economic integration and
establish the community of common destiny with its neighbors.5 With respect to
security, China grew more proactive terms of its policies on security disputes with
2 Li Chenyang and Yang Xiangzhang have briefly discussed a state by state policy on the developing
countries in China’s neighborhood. But they fail to elaborate the theoretical logic and practical
mechanisms of such an approach. See
Li and Yang (2017)
3 “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2016”, April 2017, p. 2, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/
4 “ASEAN-China Free Trade Area”,
5 “Full text: Action plan on the Belt and Road Initiative”, March 30, 2015, http://english.gov.cn/archive/
its neighbors, and has seen significant progress with respect to disputes around
Huangyan Island (黄岩岛) and the Diaoyu Islands (钓鱼岛)
(Zhou 2016, 879–884;
Sui and Zhou 2015, 210–216)
In response to the growing Chinese regional influence, both states in the region
and the United States have adopted measures targeted at hedging or balancing
against China, causing China to face a dramatic rise in security pressure
Ikenberry 2014, 57)
. These pressures have risen, especially, around a range of US
actions over the past decade. Since 2006, the United States began pivoting its
military position in the Asia–Pacific, strengthening its regional alliances as a means
of checking the expansion of China’s strategic influence
(Hughes 2016, 145–147)
Pressures increased further as the United States began intervening in maritime
disputes between China and its neighbors. Most dramatically, in the case of the
Diaoyu Islands, the US publicly asserted that those islands are subject to US defense
obligations under Article 5 of the US–Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and
In the case of the South China Seas, the US went as far as deploying naval ships,
aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to areas adjacent to disputed waters.7 During
his Japan visit in February 2017, the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis likened
China’s expansion in South China Sea to an effort to re-create the tributary system
of the Ming Dynasty. According to Mattis, Beijing could be trying to use its military
and economic might to re-create a similar set-up today, though such efforts will not
be tolerated in the modern world.8
In turn, China’s neighboring states have initiated their efforts to hedge or balance
against a rising China. Japan, in particular, has taken several such steps
. For example, in September 2012, Japan ignored strong Chinese
sentiments in determining to nationalize the Diaoyu Islands, thereby provoking a
standoff between China and Japan. To follow, Japan passed a new security law in
2015, lifting restrictions on its right of collective self-defense as a means of better
uniting with the United States in balancing against China.9
As these developments played out, states without any direct territorial/maritime
disputes with China began to express their concerns regarding China’s rise. Just as
Singapore’s late leader Lee Kuan Yew once predicted, the small- and medium-sized
powers in the region worry that China will resume its position of imperial
dominance in Asia, which may lead to them being treated as “vassal states”. As
6 Justin McCurry and Tania Branigan, “Obama Says US Will Defend Japan in Island Dispute with
China”, April 24, 2014,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/24/obama-in-japan-backs-statusquo-in-island-dispute-with-china; “Gist of Joint Statement after Japan-U.S. ‘Two-Plus-Two’ Security
Talks”, August 18, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/08/18/national/politics-diplomacy/
7 Guo Yuandan, “America’s Nuclear Aircraft Carrier Enters the South China Seas for the First Time
under the Trump Administration”, February 19, 2017,
8 Hiroyuki Akita, “Time’s up for Soft China Policy: US Defense Chief Sees More Active Role in South
China Sea”, February 8, 2017,
9 Tong Qian, “Committee of the Lower House of the Japanese Diet Passes Self-Defense Law”, July 15,
such, following the 2008 global financial crisis, Lee Kuan Yew called upon the
United States to continue to burden the responsibility of balancing Chinese power.10
As should be apparent, the growth in China’s capabilities and international
influence has reached a point where China now faces a rise dilemma. The growth of
Chinese power has resulted in China’s expanded and intensified security disputes
with its neighbors. Considering America’s power advantage
(Brooks and Wohlforth
and leadership in East Asia,11 many of China’s neighbors have a
strong desire to seek help from the United States in addressing their security
concerns over a rising China. As a result, bilateral contradictions between China and
its neighbors are inherently interrelated with the broader competition between China
and the United States around the regional security order. In other words, if we want
to understand the dynamics at play around China’s rise dilemma, we must fully
understand how the United States lead its allies and partners in East Asia.
3 American Security Protection Weakens China’s Strategic Reassurance
Over the first decade of twenty-first century, China largely followed a policy of
strategic reassurance to moderate its rise dilemma. China’s strategic reassurance is
manifested through its efforts to express strong goodwill in bilateral and multilateral
economic cooperation and through the low-profile posture it maintains in
management of security challenges. For cases where China is not able to find an
immediate and suitable means to overcome security challenges, its preference is to
shelve disputes, prevent escalation of conflict to reduce short-term security
pressures, and work to create conditions favorable to the future resolution of
(Shambaugh 2004; Sun and Huang 2011, 30–32)
. Despite its preferences
and efforts, China has great difficulty in effectively reassuring its neighbors
To understand why this is the case, one must fully understand the nature of the
security challenges that China faces. Strategic reassurance functions to moderate
security dilemmas in cases for which both parties have no intention of harming one
(Tang 2010, chapter 6)
. With respect to security conflicts
involving a state’s fundamental survival or territorial integrity, a reassurance
strategy may be effective over the short term, but over the long term cannot
successfully control conflict. This is due to the largely zero-sum nature of such
conflicts, which renders it impossible for parties to identify space to make
substantial concessions. Unfortunately, against the backdrop of its rise, China
increasingly finds itself faced with these types of zero-sum security conflicts
and Ding 2017, 58)
Beyond the challenges associated with zero-sum competitions, a more critical
factor functions to undermine the effectiveness of China’s strategic reassurance:
American security protection. The US alliance system was established during the
10 “Lee Kwan Yew: The Thinking of an Elder on China, the U.S., and the World”, http://mil.news.sina.
11 For a different analysis, see
era of strategic competition with the Soviet Union, and has sustained and even
expanded in the post-Cold War period. The system functions based on the
assumption that the United States provides its regional allies with security
protection in exchange for their strategic supports or resources, including the
placement of US troops on allied soil, the US acquisition of military bases, and the
bilateral or multilateral integration of military capacities between the US armed
force and those of its allies
(Lake 2009, 9; Thalakada, 2012, 26, 70, 96, 111; Sun
2013a, 15–16; Liu 2016b, 47–56)
In the wake of Cold War, the US alliance system in East Asia includes five key
treaty allies: Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Of these, the US maintains major military deployments in Japan and Korea, and
smaller military bases or deployments in Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. In
addition to these formal treaty allies, the US security umbrella works with two other
key partners. While it never signed an alliance treaty with the United States, since
1992 Singapore has provided US aircraft carriers with a naval base and related
facilities. Beyond this, the US also provides informal security protection to Chinese
(Liu 2016b, 49–54)
With decades of strategic integration with US military capabilities, the great
power allies (Japan, UK, Germany, and France) together with other allies have
heavily depended on the US support to tackle effectively any primary security
threats. In other words, the United States allies, including great power allies, have
transformed to help-dependent states.12 As Lake argues, the United States has the
authority to make demands of its allies according to their agreements on mutual
exchange of interests, and these states cannot change their status as clients of the
(Lake 2009, 11)
Put differently, the United States has the authority to determine “redlines” with
respect to both domestic and foreign policies, which these help-dependent allies
must respect. From the perspective of its allies, respecting the US authority to
determine such “redlines” both is seen as a low cost means of obtaining security and
increased capacity to respond to threats, especially as these allies are largely
afforded full sovereignty and control over their foreign and domestic affairs
provided that they do not cross a “redline”. As such, in normal times, these
helpdependent states acknowledge the legitimacy of American leadership
It is important to recognize that the legitimacy of American leadership stems not
only from its reliable security protection, but also from shared values and principles.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has worked to share its values with
its allies, encouraging non-democratic states to embrace democracy and market
economics, while also working to establish common norms, principles, values and
(Adler and Pouliot 2011, 164–165)
By their shared experience of the Cold War and their joint recalibration in the
post-Cold War period, the US and the majority of its allies achieved a relationship
which far surpasses the standard military alliance. What has emerged is relationship
of security protection based on a high level of cooperation, and a culture of
12 On the escape from self-help within the West, see
, 269, 275).
(Adler and Pouliot 2011, 164)
As scholars have pointed out, for
example, the meaning of the Japan–US alliance for Japan is manifested in military
terms, but even more in terms of its political and psychological meanings vis-a`-vis
American leadership in the post-War era (Zhang 2016).
Since US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the Trump
administration has further affirmed the United States’ security commitment to the
Asia–Pacific. As the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis remarked in June 2017, the
American administration is demonstrating the relationships in Asia–Pacific region
as its policy priority. He also quoted Vice President Pence’s words that United
States has affirmed its enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of the
Asia–Pacific region. The American enduring commitment is based on strategic
interests and on shared values.13
American security protection and leadership in East Asia constrain the
effectiveness of China’s reassurance strategy through two mechanisms: dependence
and leverage. Dependence on American security protection can encourage the
helpdependent states to challenge China’s reassurance policies when they seek to
maintain a favorable position in strategic competition with China. It is because a
temporary improvement in their relations with China will not resolve the long-term
security challenges they face vis-a`-vis China’s rise. Therefore, they strongly prefer
making full use of reliable US protection to manage security pressures from a rising
(Sun 2013b, 200–201)
Leverage functions largely with respect to self-help states outside of the
American security umbrella. For these states, to the extent that they face a security
challenge vis-a`-vis China, they will harbor deep concerns that a long-term solution
will play to China’s benefit, especially as its capacities grow. Such self-help states
further recognize that it is not possible to obtain any effective security protection
from the United States. As such, beyond efforts to enhance their capacities, they will
inevitably leverage tensions between the United States and China or between
helpdependent states and China to their benefit. This also functions to undermine the
effectiveness of China’s reassurance policies
(Sun 2013b, 202)
Another point to consider in assessing the effectiveness of reassurance strategies
relates to the economic-security nexus. As China offers neighboring states forms of
economic reassurances, they will develop closer economic ties with China.
Assuming that these states are not able to resolve their security disputes with China,
the increased economic dependence will serve to heighten their concerns that if they
continue to respond favorably to China’s reassurance policies, they will gradually
lose the ability to secure their core security interests. In the end, these states will
seek greater security dependency on the United States, or leverage US security
assistance to undermine China’s reassurance policy.14
13 “Remarks by Secretary Mattis at Shangri-La Dialogue”, June 3, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/
14 See also John Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully”, October 25, 2014, http://nationalinterest.
4 China’s State-by-state Approach to Regional Security
The declining effectiveness of China’s reassurance strategy has caused its policy
makers to recognize that China now faces a rise dilemma, and that reliance only on
efforts to reduce misunderstanding cannot effectively manage external security
pressures. China needs to become more proactive in its security policies,15 and
needs to identify more sophisticated measures to address effectively the growing
As China has advanced a more proactive policy, other states find themselves
increasingly concerned that they are in disadvantaged position vis-a`-vis competition
with China. As these dynamics continue to develop, China will face greater security
pressures, as the United States and its allies in the region adopt a more unified
approach to hedging and balancing against China. The joint US, Australia and Japan
military exercise conducted on May 2015 is a clear example of this.16 This has
further extended to non-allied states (like India).17
China thus needs to find a way of integrating the United States and its neighbors
into a coherent policy framework. If China fails to find such a solution, it may find
that relations with its neighbors improve, but that strong American intervention will
lead to significant setbacks vis-a`-vis any progress made. This was clear in 2015
when Thailand planned to purchase Chinese submarines, but later put the
transaction on hold in the face of American opposition.18
4.1 Hedge Against the United States
A coherent framework integrating the US and China’s neighboring countries is
premised on maintaining to the greatest extent possible stability in China–US
strategic relations. Stable bilateral relations will help to prevent China’s neighbors
from exploiting contradictions or conflicts between the US and China to exert
security pressures on China. Meanwhile, China can create conditions whereby its
neighboring states will seek to improve relations with China, thereby reducing the
acuteness of the rise dilemma.
As China still suffers from a huge gap in term of military capabilities, hard
balancing (pursuing military alliances or engaging the US in an arms race) is not a
feasible strategy vis-a`-vis bilateral strategic relations. At the same time, a simple
reassurance policy or strategic accommodation will not be beneficial for addressing
the rise dilemma over the long term. The reason for this is that such policies imply
15 For the typologies of a rising power’s regional security strategy, see Liu (2016a), 157–161.
16 “Japan to Join US-Aussie Military Drills in July”, May 26, 2015,
17 Vivek Raghuvanshi, “US, India and Japan Launch Joint Naval Exercises to Keep China in Check”,
July 11, 2017,
https://www.defensenews.com/air/2017/07/11/us-india-and-japan-launch-joint-navalexercises-to-keep-china-in-check/. See also Hughes 2016, 148.
18 Wang Yonghuan, “Thailand Put Plan to Purchase Chinese Submarines on Hold, Expert Asserts
American Involvement”, July 16, 2015, http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1352989; Akita,
Hiroyuki, “Thai Plan to Buy China Subs Has US on Edge”, August 15, 2017, https://asia.nikkei.com/
that China will continuously need to make concessions to the United States and its
allies, which will prompt the US or other states to secure greater interests vis-a`-vis
China. In other words, a policy of only enhancing cooperation or making
accommodations comes at the unaffordable cost of sacrificing the pace of China’s
Therefore, strategic hedging will be the most promising means of stabilizing
China–US strategic relations.19 Under a framework of strategic hedging, restrained
competition and principled cooperation are employed in unison rather than being
used as alternatives. Specifically, restrained competition functions to increase
capacities to check US power, and can be achieved by moderately increasing
military expenses and deepening strategic partnership with relevant countries
and Ding 2017, 59–60; Stru¨ ver 2017, 42–59)
. Principled cooperation, on the other
hand, functions either bilaterally or multilaterally to coordinate management of
security challenges, or can even involve positive security cooperation while China’s
core interests are not undermined. For example, China has proactively participated
in the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008
Erickson and Strange 2015)
What needs to be made clear is that strategic hedging does not simply consist of
repeating traditional modes of cooperation and competition between China and the
US, but it fundamentally is a competitive policy. The objective of strategic hedging
is not the elimination of structural competition between the two countries, but is
instead an effort to ensure that the two states do not repeat the full-scale
confrontation in Europe that was the experience of the United States and the Soviet
Union during the Cold War. It is also means of preventing the two states from
getting engulfed in military conflict over regional security challenges.
The Diplomatic and Security Dialogue that the China and US held in June of
2017 represents the application of this idea. Both parties hope that this dialogue can
consistently enhance mutual trust, expand mutual understanding, promote
cooperation, and manage differences, thereby opening the greatest space possible for the
development of China–US relations.20 By preventing full-scale confrontation and
military conflict, not only can China and the United States create conditions for
cooperation in global governance, China can further coordinate security policies
between neighboring countries and the United States, and generate greater space for
managing regional security challenges.
4.2 A State-by-State Approach to China’s Neighbors
In the framework of a state-by-state approach, coordinating policies vis-a`-vis the
United States and neighboring states can do with reference to two variables: (1)
whether a state is help-dependent (depending on the US security protection) or
selfhelp (safeguarding national security independently); and (2) level of a state’s
concerns with regard to China’s rise. Based on these two dimensions, neighboring
19 For the latest discussion of strategic hedging, see Liu (2016a, 9–16).
20 “The First Sino-U.S. Diplomatic and Security Dialogue is Held in Washington, DC”, June 22, 2017,
states can be classified into four categories, for each of which a distinct security
policy may be applied towards moderating China’s rise dilemma (Table 1).
In cases of help-dependent states which have serious concerns regarding China’s
rise, China can leverage the “security redlines” that the United States has
established for these states, and unite with the United States in adopting a “tit for
tat” strategy,21 whereby China takes the first step in adopting measures to prevent
states from crossing the redline. For example, in November of 2015, President Xi
Jinping met with then Taiwanese leader Ma Yingjiu to express his hope that the
later would re-affirm the “One China” principle, thereby preventing the Democratic
Progressive Party candidate from crossing the US redline with respect to
“Taiwanese independence”. The United States expressed positive support for this
The joint China–US effort in preventing Taiwanese independence following the
2008 elections in Taiwan is another classical example of this approach. As means of
preventing the Chen Shuibian administration from seeking de jure independence,
Mainland China repeatedly demanded that the United States put pressure on
Taiwan, and in the end received a positive response from the US side
. By coordinated efforts between China and the US, the 2008 Taiwan elections
did not generate any obvious challenge for peace and stability across the Taiwan
Should China and the US find it difficult to reach a consensus regarding a security
redline, China needs to emphasize the rational for adopting a counter measure and
weaken to the greatest extent possible American strategic pressure. In September of
2012, in taking a hard line in responding to Japan’s “nationalization” of the Diaoyu
Islands, China paid special attention to articulating to the US how this represented a
challenge to the international norms which the US worked to establish, and on this
basis, demanded that the US take steps to reign in Japan. The US responded with
considerable restraint. In other words, given the strength of China’s opposition and
the framing of China’s arguments in terms of broader US security interests, the US
found itself unwilling to get involved in a military dispute with China over the
(Sui and Zhou 2015, 213)
21 For the tit-for-tat strategy and its application in Chinese foreign policy, see Tang (2000), 27–28.
22 “U.S. Welcomes Steps by Both Sides of Taiwan Strait to Improve Ties”, November 3, 2015, http://
As for help-dependent states which have moderate concerns related to China’s
rise, China can take full advantage of its own strength in providing strategic support
to these countries, provided that it does not fundamentally challenge their security
dependence on the US. This will serve on the whole to weaken the pressures
generated by America’s security umbrella. For example, in late June of 2016
following President Duterte’s inauguration, the Philippines shifted the anti-China
policies of the outgoing President. In response, China provided the Philippines with
the strategic support it needed, and relations between the two countries improved
dramatically, thereby also bringing stability to the South China Seas.23
The improvement in Sino–Thai relations since the Asian Financial Crisis
represents another classical example of this approach. The 1997 Asian Financial
Crisis severely harmed the Thai economy, in response to which China not only
provided 1 billion US dollars in capital, but also maintained a policy of not
depreciating the Chinese Yuan. In 1999, two countries signed the Joint Statement on
the Plan of Action for the twenty-first century between China and Thailand, which
included specific measures such as enhancing joint military and foreign affairs
negotiations, engaging in exchanges on military technology, and sharing various
types of intelligence. This amounted to Thailand becoming the first Southeast Asian
state to sign such statement with China
(Sun and Xu 2012, 90)
China has continued to extend its firm support to Thailand as Thailand suffered
from domestic turmoil over the past decade. As a result, Thailand accepted a
Chinese proposal for the two sides to engage in their first joint naval search and
rescue exercise in December 2005. Even after China’s competition with the
Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Seas intensified, Thailand persisted
in coordinating and bridging disputes between China and ASEAN. At the same
time, Thailand continued to deepen its security cooperation with China, engaging in
numerous joint exercises
(Sun and Xu 2012, 91)
As for self-help states with serious concerns over China’s rise, China must apply
a policy of tit-for-tat, applying in unison policies of reassurance as well as proactive
policies that can weaken their challenges towards China. Specifically, China must
reply positively when such self-help states adopt cooperative policies towards
China, and to the greatest extent possible, prevent these states from deepening
cooperation with the United States and its help-dependent allies and partners, lest
China see an unnecessary rise in strategic pressure.
For example, in May of 2014, in the course of drilling near the Zhongjian Island
(中建岛), CNOOC’s (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) No. 981 oil drilling
rig not only escalated the conflict between China and Vietnam, but further prompted
the Vietnamese side to lean closer to the United States. In May of 2016, during his
visit to Vietnam, Obama officially lifted the ban on arms transfers to the country.24
These are the types of growing pressures that China must prevent vis-a`-vis self-help
23 “Routine Press Conference Convened by Speaker of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Lu Kang, July 25,
24 “Obama: Lifting Ban on Weapons Sales to Vietnam unrelated to China”, May 23, 2016, http://news.
China’s use of proactive policies should be targeted at denying efforts of these
states in challenging China’s core interests. As these self-help states cannot depend
on the US security protection, they are also very cautious with respect to their
security conflicts with China and fear that China may adopt punitive measures
2013a, 20; Liu and Sun 2015, 764–765)
. Therefore, China must avoid targeting
these states directly in adopting counter-policies when these states adopt aggressive
policies together with help-dependent states under US security protection.
Otherwise, it will give the international community the negative impression that
China picks on weak states and fears strong states, and that it will not challenge the
United States. For example, while both the Philippines and Vietnam abandoned
policies of restraint with respect to the South China Seas, China would focus its
counter efforts on the Philippines and not on Vietnam.
As for self-help states which have moderate concerns regarding China’s rise,
China should work with them to enhance strategic coordination and cooperation,
and provide them with strategic support to the greatest extent possible. Faced with
bilateral security disputes vis-a`-vis such states, China should afford them a great
deal of tolerance so that these states can perceive positive benefits associated with
China’s rise, further weakening any reservations they may have regarding the
expansion of Chinese influence. In this way, when China faces other security
challenges, these states will seek to assist China, thereby moderating China’s rise
dilemma. China’s relations with the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization provide one successful example
(Ding 2017, 39–42)
In other words, China can deepen its strategic partnership with such self-help
states, but without taking the further step of establishing military alliances
State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China 2017, 4)
the short term, not only will Chinese attempts to pursue military alliances aggravate
strategic confrontation between China and the US, it will further result in deeper
strategic cooperation between the United States and help-dependent states which
have moderate concerns regarding China, as well as states looking to lean on
American strategic assistance. As a result, China’s rise dilemma will be aggravated.
Scholars have emphasized that pursuing military alliance may enhance China’s
strategic credibility, which will also serve to reduce China’s external security
(Yan 2014, 161; Liu and Liu 2017, 156–158)
. It is acknowledged that
overcoming the rise dilemma does depend on maintaining strategic credibility.
However, the key to enhancing strategic credibility is offering other states effective
solutions when they are faced with challenges or crises, and there are many ways to
accomplish this short of alliance formation
(Liu and Liu 2017, 158–161)
For example, during the 2017 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum,
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for boosting free trade as means of restoring
confidence in the global economy. This helped enhance China’s credibility and
global economic leadership.26 To offer a second example, from 2002 to 2006,
25 For “Shanghai spirit”, see also “The Astana Declaration of the Heads of State of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organisation”, June 9, 2017, http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
26 “Foreign Media on Xi’s Speech in Davos”, January 18, 2017, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/
China’s coordination of the Six Party Talks effectively prevented the Korea
Peninsula from war or military conflict. This also played a positive role in
strengthening China’s strategic credibility in that period
(Sun and Huang 2011, 31–
In other words, the efforts to enhance strategic credibility should integrate the US
and China’s neighboring countries into a coherent framework and prevent China
and the US from becoming embroiled in broader confrontation. China’s strategic
credibility will not be strengthened through bloc contests between China and the
United States—that will only result in further aggravation of China’s rise dilemma.
Since the mid-1990s, China’s rapid growth in comprehensive capabilities has been
accompanied by an increasingly serious rise dilemma. Provided that the United
States continues to lead its East Asian allies and partners through the provision of
security protection and shared norms, China must adopt a state-by-state approach in
integrating the tripartite relationship between China, the United States and China’s
neighbors into a coherent policy framework that can systematically address this
In the context of a state-by-state approach, China needs to employ strategic
hedging as means of maintaining stability in China–US strategic relations. Under a
framework of strategic hedging, restrained competition and principled cooperation
are employed in unison rather than being used as alternatives. Meanwhile, two
dimensions need consideration in determining a specific security strategy towards a
given neighbor: whether a state is help-dependent (depending on the US security
protection) or self-help (safeguarding its security independently), and the extent to
which that a state harbors concerns over China’s rise.
In cases of help-dependent states which have serious concerns regarding China’s
rise, China can unite with the United States in adopting a “tit for tat” strategy. As for
help-dependent states which have lesser concerns related to China’s rise, China can
extend its strategic support to these countries, provided that it does not
fundamentally challenge their dependence on the US protection. As for self-help
states with serious concerns over China’s rise, China must adopt a policy of
tit-fortat to manage their challenges towards China. As for self-help states which have
limited concerns regarding China’s rise, China should provide them with strategic
support to the greatest extent possible.
These findings will benefit China in moderating its increasing rise dilemma and
thereby function to enhance regional stability in East Asia against the backdrop of
structural competition between sustained US leadership and China’s rise.
Theoretically, these findings may deepen our understanding of the nature and impacts of US
leadership in East Asia. More broadly, by considering the US allies as
helpdependent states rather than self-help ones, we may develop a more convincing
theory of US unipolarity in comparison with theories based on structural realism.27
27 For the latest structural realist theory of U.S. unipolarity, see
Acknowledgements This research is supported by the National Social Science Fund of China (No.
Xuefeng Sun is Professor of International Relations and the Chair of the Department of International
Relations, Tsinghua University. He also serves as Executive Dean of Institute of International Relations,
Tsinghua University and Executive Editor of the Chinese Journal of International Politics (CJIP). He is
the author or co-author of many academic papers and books on international relations theory, Chinese
foreign policy, and East Asian security. He has been selected as 2014–2015 Fulbright Scholar affiliated
with Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Adler , Emanuel, and Vincent Pouliot (eds.). 2011 . International practices . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brooks , Stephen G., and William C. Wohlforth . 2015 / 2016 . The rise and fall of the great powers in the Twenty-first Century: China's rise and the fate of America's global position . International Security 40 ( 3 ): 7 - 53 .
Christensen , Thomas J. 2007 . A strong and moderate Taiwan. Speech to US-Taiwan Business Council Defense Industry Conference , Annapolis, Maryland. https://2001-2009.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2007/ 91979.htm.
Ding , Lu. 2017 . Security dependence, strategic threat and great powers' partnership in post-cold war period (Anquan yilai zhanlue weixie yu lengzhanhou daguo huoban guanxi) . Master Thesis , Tsinghua University.
Erickson , Andrew S., and Austin M. Strange . 2015 . Six years at sea… and counting: Gulf of Aden antipiracy and China's maritime commons presence . Washington, DC: The James Foundation.
Fravel , M. Taylor . 2008 . Strong borders, secure nation: Cooperation and conflict in China's territorial disputes . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hughes , Christopher W. 2016 . Japan's 'resentful realism' and balancing China's rise . Chinese Journal of International Politics 9 ( 2 ): 109 - 150 .
Kaufman , Alison A. 2009 . China's participation in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa: Drivers and implications . CNA China Studies Report . https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/D0020834.A1. pdf.
Khong , Yuen Foong . 2013 / 2014 . Primacy or world order? The United States and China's rise-a review Essay . International Security 38 ( 3 ): 153 - 175 .
Lake , David. 2009 . Hierarchy in international relations . Ithaca: Cornell University.
Lebow , Ned. 1994 . The long peace, the end of the cold war, and the failure of realism . International Organization 48 ( 2 ): 249 - 277 .
Li , Chenyang, and Xiangzhang Yang . 2017 . China's Cooperation with Its Developing Neighbours since the 21st Century (Lun ershiyi shiji yilai Zhongguo yu zhoubian fazhanzhong guojia de hezuo) . International Outlook (Guoji zhanwang) 4 : 1 - 21 .
Liff , Adam P. , and G.John Ikenberry . 2014 . Racing toward tragedy? China's rise, military competition in the Asia Pacific, and the Security Dilemma . International Security 39 ( 2 ): 52 - 91 .
Liu , Feng. 2016a. China's security strategy towards East Asia . Chinese Journal of International Politics 9 ( 2 ): 151 - 179 .
Liu , Ruonan. 2015 . How American authority shapes the diplomacy strategy of its East Asian Allies (Meiguo quanwei ruhe zuzao Yatai Mengguo de duiwai zhanlue) . Journal of Contemporary Asia Pacific Studies (Dangdai yatai) 4 : 55 - 75 .
Liu , Ruonan. 2016 . Explaining the hedging strategy of Southeast Asian States ( 1997 -2015) (Dongnanya guojia duichong zhanlue de dongyin 1997- 2015 ), Ph.D. Dissertation , Tsinghua University.
Liu , Ruonan, and Feng Liu. 2017 . Contending ideas on China's non-alliance strategy . Chinese Journal of International Politics 10 ( 2 ): 151 - 171 .
Liu , Ruonan, and Xuefeng Sun . 2015 . Regime security first: Explaining Vietnam's security policies towards the US and China ( 1992 - 2012 ). Pacific Review 28 ( 5 ): 755 - 778 .
Mearsheimer , John J. 2010 . The gathering storm: China's challenge to US power in Asia . Chinese Journal of International Politics 3 ( 4 ): 381 - 396 .
Mearsheimer , John J. 2014 . Can China rise peacefully? National Interests . http://nationalinterest.org/ commentary/can-china - rise-peacefully- 10204 .
Monteiro , Nuno P. 2014 . Theory of unipolar politics . Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Shambaugh , David. 2004 . China engages Asia: Reshaping the regional order . International Security 29 ( 3 ): 64 - 99 .
Stru¨ver , Georg. 2017 . China's partnership diplomacy: International alignment based on interests or ideology . Chinese Journal of International Politics 10 ( 1 ): 31 - 65 .
Sui , Guangjun, and Fangyin Zhou (eds.). 2015 . Report on the development of China's regional diplomacy ( 2015 ) [Zhongguo zhoubian waijiao fazhan baogao ( 2015 ) ] . Beijing: Social Science Academic Press (China).
Sun , Xuefeng. 2013a. Rethinking East Asian regional order and China's rise . Japanese Journal of Political Science 14 ( 1 ): 9 - 30 .
Sun , Xuefeng. 2013b. China's rise dilemma, 2nd edn (Zhongguo Jueqi Kunjing Di'er Ban) . Beijing: Social Science Academic Press (China).
Sun , Xuefeng, and Lu Ding . 2017 . Partner types and the upgrade of China's partnership (Huobanguo Leixing yu Zhongguo Huoban Guanxi Shengji) . World Economics and Politics (Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi) 2 : 54 - 76 .
Sun , Xuefeng, and Yuxing Huang . 2011 . China's rise and the evolving East Asian regional order (Zhongguo jueqi yu Dongya diqu zhixu yanbian) . Journal of Contemporary Asia Pacific Studies (Dangdai yatai) 1 : 6 - 34 .
Sun , Xuefeng, and Yong Xu . 2012 . Thailand's moderate response to China's rise: Motivations and lessons learned (Taiguo wenhe yingdui Zhongguo jueqi de dongyin ji qishi) . Journal of Contemporary Asia Pacific Studies (Dangdai yatai) 5 : 57 - 70 .
Tang , Shiping. 2000 . Games in China-India relations and China's South Asia strategy (Zhongguo Yindu guanxi zhong de boyi he Zhongguo de Nanya zhanlue) . World Economics and Politics (Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi) 9 : 24 - 29 .
Tang , Shiping. 2010 . A theory of security strategy for our time: Defensive realism . New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Thalakada , Nigel. 2012 . Unipolarity and the evolution of America's cold war alliances . New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China . 2017 . China's policies on AsiaPacific security cooperation . Beijing: Foreign Language.
Waever , Ole. 2017 . International leadership after the Demise of the last superpower: System structure and stewardship . Chinese Political Science Review (Forthcoming).
Xu , Jin. 2016 . Debates in IR Academia and China's policy adjustments . Chinese Journal of International Politics 9 ( 4 ): 459 - 485 .
Xu , Liping , et al. 2016 . Development paths for a community of common destiny: China and its neighbors (Zhongguo yu zhoubian mingyun gongtongti: goujian yu lujing) . Beijing: Social Science Academic Press (China).
Yan , Xuetong. 2014 . From keeping a low profile to striving for achievement . Chinese Journal of International Politics 7 ( 2 ): 153 - 184 .
Yan , Xuetong. 2015 . Collectively our neighbors are more important than the United States (Zhengti de 'zhoubian' bi Meiguo zhongyao) . January 13 Global Times (Huanqiu shibao).
Zhang , Yun. 2016 . Strategic thinking on international order and the “Japan Problem” (Guoji zhixu yu “Riben wenti” de zhanlue sikao) . May 11 . http://pit.ifeng.com/a/20160511/48751061_0.shtml.
Zhou , Fangyin. 2016 . Between assertiveness and self-restraint: Understanding China's South China sea policy . International Affairs 92 ( 4 ): 869 - 890 .