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Assessing America’s Strategic Options toward China, Part VI: Offshore Balancing

This is the sixth article in a seven-part series examining America’s future strategic options toward China. The first looked at confrontation, the second at enhanced balancing, the third at containment and engagement, the fourth at integration, and the fifth at accommodation. This piece considers the strategy of offshore balancing.

Of America’s future strategic options toward China, offshore balancing is alone in calling for the removal of virtually all U.S. forces from the Asia-Pacific. While opposed to any Chinese bid for regional hegemony, this school of thought believes America’s various treaty commitments to its Asian allies are provocative to Beijing and, even more importantly in a region rife with local rivalries, obligate the U.S. to enmesh itself in any number of potential conflicts that do not directly affect homeland security. Wary of the military build-up advocated by enhanced balancers, the integrationist project of embedding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the liberal global order or accommodationist ambitions of a Sino-American strategic partnership, offshore balancing favours a low-key approach that husbands both diplomatic and military resources, guarding against their use until vital strategic interests are threatened.

America’s elaborate alliance system in Asia is seen by these commentators as indicative of an imperial mindset that has expanded the country’s commitments abroad without consideration of their strategic value. Offshore balancers believe U.S. primacy can best be preserved by practicing self-restraint and judiciously applying power. Instead of pursuing this course, they complain, successive administrations have recklessly thrown their weight about in aggressive efforts to remake the world in America’s own image by exporting ideals of democracy and free markets, fending off multilateral constraints on U.S. power, and denying the emergence of peer competitors.

To guard against imperial overstretch, avoid being drawn into unnecessary conflicts, conserve scarce resources, encourage allies to assume more responsibility for their own defence, and curb the inclination of others to mobilize opposition against U.S. power, they call for reverting to the strategy of offshore balancing that historically served the country well prior to the Second World War.

Such a posture would entail drawing back military forces from over the horizon and curtailing the nation’s several commitments to permit a disciplined, narrow focus on maintaining the balance of power in the strategically pivotal theatres of Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Even as significant power projection capabilities would be retained for the purpose of thwarting a potential hegemon in one of these regions, these forces would be deployed only as a last resort if local actors proved incapable of containing such a threat on their own.

Parting from conventional wisdom, offshore balancing counsels against contesting China’s ascent. A strong, expanding China, according to this logic, is a natural development that is only threatening if it becomes a Eurasian hegemon, which is unlikely when it is surrounded by several powerful neighbours suspicious of its intentions. Far better to let these local actors bear the brunt of Chinese antagonism by having them assume the burdens of their own defence and significantly reducing America’s profile in the region. A reduced role would include tamping down criticism of China’s human rights record and declaring the resolution of Taiwan’s status an internal Chinese affair.

Such a shift, these advocates argue, would enhance Washington’s strategic manoeuvrability, giving it the option of remaining aloof from potential regional conflicts not impinging on the Eurasian balance of power, such as a squabble over unresolved territorial claims in the South China Sea. Accordingly, some offshore balancers insist that the United States should end its defence treaties with Japan and South Korea, and withdraw its troops from the region. In such a scenario, these allies would receive assistance in acquiring the military capabilities needed for their defence, including a second-strike nuclear deterrent for Tokyo. If they were ultimately not up to the task of checking China’s influence, however, America could dispatch its forces to deny a potential Chinese grab for preponderance.

Barring confrontation, offshore balancing is the least likely strategy that American policymakers will consider adopting toward China. To be sure, there are unique circumstances that could yield such a sharp course correction. If the U.S. public’s current anti-interventionist sentiment persists indefinitely, a military crisis in, say, the Taiwan Strait or Korean Peninsula that claimed several American lives while regional allies stood on the sidelines could trigger a groundswell of support for bringing the troops home. Similarly, an extended period of economic malaise may stir latent resentment over U.S. protection of wealthy allies. A seismic event outside of Asia, such as another terrorist attack on American soil or a draining conflict in the Middle East that ensnares the United States, could raise questions of whether far-flung treaty commitments can be sustained.

Short of such shocks, however, offshore balancing faces steep resistance because it is at so much variance with longstanding policy. For over 70 years, America has expansively defined both its interests and the means to secure them; its alliance obligations and support for open markets have become firmly embedded in the country’s foreign policy bureaucracy and political discourse, pursued with considerable consistency by administrations of both political parties. All other possible China strategies, including the relatively benign option of accommodation, borrow from this post-1945 heritage by advising a U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific to varying degrees. There is near unanimity among foreign policy thinkers on the need for a deterrent or coercive capacity when dealing with China.

However cumbersome the demands of alliance management may seem at times, American strength in Asia rests largely on the allegiance of regional powers to its leadership; such strength cannot be sustained in absentia. The assumption of offshore balancers that the United States could stand aside from almost any war in a region inextricably tied to its own prosperity runs counter to the link Washington draws between its physical security and economic welfare. As proponents of a forward military posture in Asia reason, a war that initially started as a blow-up over a matter of little intrinsic value to the United States could quickly escalate into a struggle with implications for Asia’s distribution of power, in which case it would be much harder and more expensive for American forces to fight their way back into the region. Considerations of security, prosperity, and prestige will continue to serve as a formidable barrier to any major U.S. pull back from the Asia-Pacific.

Part VII of this series will consider which strategic option or combination of strategies is likely to flourish in the future.


Michael Lumbers
Michael Lumbers is Program Manager of Emerging Security and co-host of Coffee Talk, the NATO Association of Canada's most popular podcast. He is also a Visiting Fellow at The Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. He obtained his PhD in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His dissertation, which examined U.S. policy toward China during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, was published as Piercing the Bamboo Curtain: Tentative Bridge Building to China During the Johnson Years by Manchester University Press. A specialist in U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, presidential decision making, Sino-American diplomatic history and contemporary strategic relations, and East-Asian security, his various articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The National Interest, Diplomatic History, Journal of Cold War Studies, Jane’s Intelligence Review, and other publications.