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The United States since the end of the Cold War has continued to stake a claim at being the global superpower. How has this been made possible and why have we not observed a global pushback?
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 concluded the era of Cold War bipolarity, and in its place emerged - for a time at least - a unipolar international system dominated by the United States of America (US).
Structural realists argue that even in a unipolar world, counter-hegemony/balancing would occur. Instead, this has not happened at a global level, rather increasingly on a regional level. Accounting for this is how (a) rivals perceived the US, i.e. as a non-existential security threat, and how (b) in a non-security context balancing against the US, by allies or rivals, is a reimagining of diplomatic counter moves which cannot, in the structural realist sense, be considered a form of balancing.
The theoretical underpinnings of 'balancing' are at the heart of structural realism, as Waltz illustrates (1979 and 2000) and Layne (2009). Here, the international political spectrum's core view considers the world as nearly in a "state of anarchy" – where no overarching international authority exists (Waltz, 2000).
Out of these conditions, states – seen by structural realists as the primary actors – are survival-seeking (Waltz, 1979 p. 126; Layne, 2009). To achieve survival, they must either maximise their military defence capacity to deter any survival threats, 'and/or' collectively counter a hegemonic force (Waltz, 1979; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2005). The latter process is known as 'balancing', a concept that enables a global 'balance-of-power' – which structural realist's hold ensures global stability (Waltz, 1979; Waltz, 2000).
There exist two forms of balancing - "hard" and "soft".
Hard-balancing refers to the concept of direct countermeasures to constrain or even mitigate the capacity of the existing preeminent power – typically in the form of military 'might' (Waltz, 2000). Conversely, soft-balancing occurs in situations where State A cannot achieve military parity with State B and uses "international institutions, economic statecraft, and diplomatic arrangements" to constrain and mitigate State B's capacity to act unilaterally (Pape, 2005 p. 10).
China's ability to 'hard balance' is limited by its military capacity, which is significantly below the US. Though Chinese military expenditure has increased from approximately USD 85 billion to USD 120 billion between 2010-2020, China still does not have a meaningful force projection capability, with only two aircraft carriers than the eleven of the US (CSIS, 2020; Posen, 2003). Glaser (2011) argues that to achieve military parity with the US would be economically impractical for China because the potential expenditure the US can deploy to expand its military - is nearly five times that of China (Glaser, 2011 p. 139; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016).
Glaser (2011) asserts that the nature of US foreign policy has been effectively defensive because the US's potential "to perform … military missions is not … commensurate with its power" perhaps indicating how China may view the US as a non-existential threat despite its military superiority. Hence, China has not pushed back at a global level against US unipolarity, since it believes it can forego 'hard-balancing' against Washington.
Challenging this argument is the evidence that Chinese military expenditure began substantially increasing post-9/11 to increase US global action. However, Gerard et al., argue this is misleading as Chinese military spending was already on the rise before 9/11 (Gerard et al., 2005 p. 122). Additionally, the geostrategic importance of the South China sea - to Beijing, as well as to US allies (Japan, Australia and South Korea) as noted by Kapan (2011) reinforces that rather than a direct response to the US, China is pursuing regional foreign policy 'soft-balancing' initiatives irrespective of the global primacy the US currently enjoys (Kapan 2011; Pape, 2005). Hence, while China has significantly increased militarily since 2000, this does not reflect the Waltzian expectation of a process of counter-hegemony. It is understandable why China's military expenditure increase might reflect a strategy to hard-balance against US supremacy, yet this is no more than illusory.
Proponents for increased soft-balancing strategies, most notably per Cui, argued China ought to utilise its UN Security Council power to thwart US security proposals (Zhiyan, Cui, 2004). Specific examples of Chinese action taken in this manner include coordinated diplomatic efforts alongside the multiple EU States and Russia, to prevent the "institutional approval to the 2003 Iraq invasion" (Gerard et al., 2011; Pape, 2005). A second example is the increased coordination between China and South Korea regarding North Korea "making it more difficult for the [US] to use force" (Pape, 2005 pp. 39 – 40).
More recently, China developed trading-networks across the region to exclude the US, particularly following the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2016. This process culminated in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which banned the US. Thus, it appears that China has undertaken a strategy against the US that does not rely on hard-balancing the US, rather a soft-balancing strategy that is regionally focused.
Conversely, the US has responded by combining both a gentle and hard-balancing approach to mitigate and counter growing Chinese regional primacy. I considered here the notion employed by Fen et al. (2005) and Pape when discussing US soft-balancing China as "the higher the power disparity and economic dependence", the more likely a state employs a strategy of soft-balancing.
The economic interdependence between Sino-US relations favouring China thus explains why the US has undertaken a soft-balancing approach. Furthermore, US engagements economically with China have been to "democratise" - the latter being a core part of the US objective to bring China into the World Trade Organisation triggering domestic reforms which aimed at achieving greater openness and respect for human rights. Taken together, this would mitigate the risk of Chinese regional hegemony (Fen et al., 2005).
In conjunction with such economic engagements, such as an increase in trade between both countries, the US has bolstered its military coordination with Japan, Australia, India and Korea and increased weapon sales with Taiwan – moves many perceive as soft-balancing measures against China (Ibid). Ultimately, however, US policy's aim in the region is to integrate China into the world economy and limit weapons proliferation via a soft-balancing strategy.
Henceforth, Chinese security-seeking behaviour since 2000 has not presented a process of counter-hegemony to US unipolarity. While Beijing has engaged in soft-balancing measures to frustrate US primacy, it does not appear to view it as an existential threat. Moreover, the US has been actively managing rising Chinese regional importance – reflecting that the emphasis on hard and soft-balancing efforts has been from the US and not China. Nevertheless, the nature of soft-balancing is problematic when evaluated further.
The utility of soft-balancing to mitigate against US unipolarity instead of hard-balancing has been a logical response to US unipolarity. For instance, Pape (2005) argues that the early part of the twenty-first century's conditions has made it implausible for any meaningful hard-balancing against the US.
Following the conventional view that states' security-seeking behaviour will balance against a unipolar system, Pape argues only via institutions - like the UN or Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) - will states balance US primacy (Pape, 2005). Notable examples include the UN Security Council's opposition in authorising the Iraq War and intervention in Kosovo in the late '90s.
Specifically, regarding China, different moments of soft-balancing measures include its establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) through which it sought to decrease the "regional economic governance" of the US which had acted through the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (Chan, 2017).
However, what arises here is a divergence from the structural realist conception of balancing against a unipolar actor as a process borne out of security-seeking behaviour. While undoubtedly frustrating US economic influence and power in the region, China's soft-balancing approaches do not necessarily – or at least directly – reduce the capacity of US unilateral military action.
The theoretical discrepancy surrounding soft-balancing within structural realism makes the concept indistinguishable from mere diplomatic friction. Brooks and Wohlforth highlight this academic dilemma by showcasing how rather than being motivated by security-seeking behaviour, soft-balancing efforts from both allies and US competitors have mainly resulted from broader inter-regional politics and economic policy (Brooks and Wohlforth, 2008).
Moreover, Walt discusses soft-balancing as states' diplomatic behaviour that counters the US's preferences (Walt, 2004). However, it becomes increasingly challenging to distinguish soft-balancing from mere diplomatic disputes and considering the examples of the US inability to secure UN support for its eventual invasion of Iraq. This example highlights how soft-balancing is challenging to distinguish from general instances of diplomatic disputes (Gerard et al., 2011).
Even if we dismiss this discrepancy, the lack of a direct correlation between soft-balancing and security-seeking behaviour, i.e. directly countering US unilateral military action, may not be sufficient. I immediately refer to the fact that despite Washington's failure to secure UN authorisation for Iraq's invasion, it proceeded to do so regardless - reinforcing its unipolarity and the lack of meaningful external hard-balancing its unipolarity.
While soft-balancing attempts have reconciled the lack of hard-balancing processes against US unipolarity, such an account reflects glaring limitations in explanatory power. There are no meaningful constraints on US military behaviour, and 'soft-balancing' acts are primarily indistinguishable from mere diplomatic disputes which only frustrates not balances, US foreign policy objectives.
US unipolarity has not been 'pushed back' against mainly because of Washington's clear military supremacy at a global level. Immediately this outcome challenges the expectations of structural realists who expected counter-hegemonic processes. Regionally there is some evidence that China is seeking - through soft-balancing- to constrain US activity, but the reality is less clear.
Part of the reason for Chinese soft-balancing – and lack of hard-balancing – has been its perception that the US does not present an existential security threat, and this has meant that Beijing has not sought to identify or prosecute hard-balancing measures.
At the same time, however, the US has noted China's re-emergence as a regional force and develops its soft-balancing measures to respond. Washington's increased foreign policy (and security) cooperation with regional allies reflects US countermeasures to soft-balance China regionally. Trump's withdrawal from TPP has posed challenges for Washington's traditional
This analysis benefits more comprehensive IR scholarship by demonstrating the effect of changing power dynamics – specifically in Asia regarding China – have had on US foreign policy decision-making. Though militarily still vastly superior, the US does not understate China's growing regional power.
In light of the newly elected Biden Administration, this analysis offers a contextual basis to benefit future policy initiatives by US foreign policymakers and its partners and competitors. Especially since the irregular and unprecedented shifts in geopolitical power dynamics since the 2010s', and the current significant challenges posed by COVID-19. How the Biden Administration operates over these next four years in foreign policy will determine whether US unipolarity will linger moving forward.