China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific: Taking Stock in 2021


China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific: Taking Stock in 2021

Jul 16th, 2021 11 min read
Jeff M. Smith

Research Fellow, South Asia

Jeff Smith specializes in South Asia as a research fellow in Heritage's Asian Studies Center.
Aaron Foster/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Balancing is one of the oldest and most intuitive concepts in international relations. Like humans, nations tend to be concerned foremost with self-preservation.

It will be fair to conclude that large swathes of the Indo-Pacific are witnessing what might be described as a prominent current of “under-balancing.”

Balancing could grow even softer if the allure of Chinese economic largesse, or the fear of Chinese retribution, reaches overwhelming levels.

Balancing is one of the oldest and most intuitive concepts in international relations. It posits that to deter aggressive or coercive acts by other nation states, countries will seek out a stable or favorable balance of power. 

Like humans, nations tend to be concerned foremost with self-preservation. In fact, for nations it is an even greater preoccupation since there is no higher authority—no global policemen—to defend them from acts of aggression by other nations. This state of insecurity grows even more acute when a neighbour or peer begins rapidly accumulating power and military capabilities, particularly when their territorial claims and foreign policy are simultaneously growing more belligerent. 

The influential realist school of thought counsels that the rapid accumulation of power by one country confronts its neighbours and peers with a choice—either pursue bandwagoning by seeking to align with the rising power, or enhance one’s ability to deter or repel aggression from the rising power through balancing.1 Those that choose balancing will seek to improve their military capabilities and posture (internal balancing) and/or increase security cooperation with like-minded peers (external balancing). The downside? Balancing, particularly the internal variety, requires scarce resources. It also risks antagonising the rising power, which might perceive defensive-minded maneuvers as offensive in nature, triggering a security dilemma and heightening the risk of friction or confrontation. 

Bandwagoning can also be a risky proposition, however. There is no guarantee that a rising power that appears benevolently disposed today will not grow more threatening tomorrow, leaving the bandwagoning power vulnerable. Countries also tend to be jealous guardians of their sovereignty and autonomy, which can be compromised when attempting to bandwagon with a more powerful peer.

Realists believe that states generally opt for balancing over bandwagoning. Realist scholar John Mearsheimer claims China’s neighbours “are certain to fear its rise” and “will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony,” including joining “an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise.”2

Is the Indo-Pacific Balancing? 

In 2021, what does the evidence show? Is Mearsheimer right? Has China, and the more assertive trajectory it has charted over the past decade, prompted a wave of Indo-Pacific balancing? Yes and no. In short, it is complicated. 

There is indeed ample evidence of elevated balancing activity underway across the Indo-Pacific. Over the past decade, defence spending in the region (excluding the US) has grown substantially in both absolute and relative terms, rising from 20 percent of total global military spending to 28 percent. According to some estimates, by 2030, it will surpass North American defence spending for the first time in recent history.3 As important, the Indo-Pacific has been witnessing a tangible “thickening” of security networks4 and growth in the quality and quantity of joint military exercises, security-focused dialogues, joint vision statements, and military inter-operability agreements.5

And yet, if regionwide balancing activity is trending upward in aggregate, perhaps its defining characteristic is that it is a highly uneven phenomenon. As notable as the balancing we are seeing is the balancing we are not seeing. For most of China’s immediate neighbours, balancing activity ranges from modest to non-existent. Some are even bandwagoning with Beijing. Most Indo-Pacific capitals have seen trade and investment ties with China grow exponentially over the past decade, despite a spike in regionwide security concerns.6

It may therefore be most useful to envision different tiers of balancing unfolding across the region. It is most evident and pronounced among the “hard balancers,” namely the “Quad” grouping joining Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. The formal revival of the group in 2017 complements a rapidly expanding network of bilateral and trilateral defense and strategic connections among the four democracies.7 It is no great secret this activity is motivated in part by shared concerns about Chinese foreign policy.

Among a larger number of Chinese neighbours and peers, however, often typified by the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), balancing activity is far more subdued, where present at all. Within ASEAN itself there is great diversity, from outright bandwagoners such as Laos and Cambodia, to a larger, more variegated group of “soft balancers.” 

Soft balancers like Indonesia and Malaysia have registered some degree of concern about recent Chinese claims or behaviours and are taking modest steps to either enhance their defense posture vis-à-vis China or diversify their external security partnerships. At the same time, they are pursuing even greater political and economic engagement with Beijing.8

There is substantial heterogeneity among these soft balancers. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have more volatile territorial disputes with China and more salient concerns about its aggressive tactics in the South China Sea. At times, they have been more supportive of pushback against Beijing. In large part, however, all the soft balancers want to avoid making difficult choices, remaining as diplomatically and economically engaged with China as possible while taking the minimum steps necessary to preserve their security and sovereignty. 

Under-Balancing in The Indo-Pacific

For now, it will be fair to conclude that large swathes of the Indo-Pacific are witnessing what might be described as a prominent current of “under-balancing.” Even the Quad has not pursued an outright, Cold War-era containment strategy. Nor could they. China is the largest trading partner of all four members. 

Why might Indo-Pacific balancing be less pronounced and more diverse than realist theory or strategic logic might dictate?

I examined this question in a 2018 book I edited and co-authored, Asia’s Question for Balance, China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific.9 Together with 12 co-authors from across the Indo-Pacific, we sought to shine an analytical light on Indo-Pacific balancing. We identified several factors that are likely contributing to this under balancing, including globalisation and economic interdependence, strategic cultures averse to overt balancing strategies, free-riding, domestic political and economic considerations, and China’s own efforts to forestall balancing, among others. Balancing is driven, or mitigated, by factors that are diverse, complex, and local, tethered to the costs, benefits, incentives, and domestic politics in each capital.

The diplomatic culture in many ASEAN capitals, for example, is historically averse to military blocs and alliances. It cautions against airing geopolitical grievances in public. They are more likely to view Chinese actions as a “challenge” rather than a “threat,” and more likely to see harder balancing strategies as prone to invoke Beijing’s ire. Critically, they are not as capable or as resilient as the Quad countries in withstanding Chinese pressure or coercion. 

Beijing has also effectively wielded both carrots and sticks, co-opting, enriching and threatening influential patronage networks in neighbouring countries to induce alignment with Chinese foreign policy priorities. It has used economic diplomacy and elite capture strategies to discourage balancing impulses, creating a generation of regional elites more eager for engagement with China than their broader populations; China’s unfavorable ratings in many countries has reached historic highs in recent years.10

Finally, to its credit, Beijing has carefully avoided crossing many of its neighbours’ red lines, even as it skirts dangerously close to them with greater frequency. At times, it has also been more effective in its public diplomacy and strategic messaging than the US or its Quad partners. 

Balancing in Context

While acknowledging the region is witnessing an undeniable current of underbalancing, there is a risk of underselling the balancing that is taking place. Sceptics are quick to note that the hard balancing Quad is a just minority of capitals, a “small clique,”11 that has failed to enlist more allies and partners in adopting more rigorous balancing strategies.

Yet, characterising the Quad as a small minority is both technically true and exceptionally deceiving. The Quad may only consist of four capitals, but they collectively represent one-third of the world’s population (1.8 billion) and gross domestic product (US$30 trillion) and nearly half of the planet’s defence spending (US$1 trillion).12

With no offence to ASEAN, the Quad’s disposition is far more consequential to the regional and global balance of power than whether Kuala Lumpur is hedging its bets. Saying that “balancing is only happening among the Quad” obscures more than it illuminates. It is more accurate to say, “Balancing is not happening among China’s smaller neighbors but it is accelerating among the four countries best positioned strategically and militarily to resist Chinese aggression, hosting a unique mix of will, capabilities, and geopolitical alignment.” 

Part of what distinguishes the Quad is its ability to say “no” to Beijing. The Quad led the way in raising concerns about and stonewalling China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Huawei’s 5G ambitions. The U.S. and Australia are taking the lead in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as Japan and India resist Chinese adventurism along their disputed land and maritime borders. 

The rising threat perceptions and growing cooperation among the Quad in recent years is the most consequential trend in Indo-Pacific balancing. After formally reviving the group in 2017 after a ten-year hiatus, Quad meetings were elevated to the ministerial/cabinet secretary level in 2019, and the group conducted its first joint counterterrorism exercise in the same year.13 In 2020, the four countries conducted their first joint naval exercise since 2007 and organised a broader group of “Quad-Plus” countries to coordinate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.14 Early 2020 saw the first ever Quad summit, joining the leaders of the four countries by videoconference. They pledged to meet regularly and in-person moving forward.15

The accelerating balancing among the Quad is not the only reason China should temper its enthusiasm about this regionwide underbalancing. In recent years, China’s drift toward a more externally aggressive and internally repressive rising power has sparked a broader, if thinner, backlash further abroad. The international narratives surrounding China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its technology ambitions and 5G plans, and its Wolf Warrior diplomacy have grown more suspicious and hostile in recent years.16 There is rising alarm over China’s increasingly brazen use of “sharp power,”17 its interference in the domestic politics of its neighbours,18 its bullying tacticsabroad,19 and its crackdown on academic freedom,20 freedom of religion, 21 and human rights.22

While they are still averse to public confrontation with Beijing, a growing number of regional capitals are quietly becoming more sympathetic to the Quad’s activities and concerns. They prefer a rules-based regional order, where freedom of navigation and peaceful dispute settlement prevail over a “might-makes-right” approach. They prefer a stable balance of power to a region governed by Chinese hegemony. For now, however, many believe the U.S. and its partners are already providing that balance and stability without the need for them to make costly sacrifices or “choose sides.”

The softer balancers will continue striving to avoid making difficult choices, but their postures are not cemented in stone. If Chinese actions cross key thresholds in their threat perceptions, either deliberately or via an unplanned crisis, they could become harder balancers in the years ahead. 

By contrast, balancing could grow even softer if the allure of Chinese economic largesse, or the fear of Chinese retribution, reaches overwhelming levels. For states to entertain balancing in the first place, there must be another superpower or bloc of countries powerful enough to resist the rising power and provide viable economic, diplomatic and security alternatives. Absent that, bandwagoning becomes the only viable option. For most regional capitals, that is the least desirable scenario. For while they are loathe to choose between China and the Quad, countries across the Indo-Pacific very much want choices and the freedom to choose. 

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  1. John Mearsheimer, “The James Madison Award Lecture: Liberalism and Nationalism in Contemporary America,” American Political Science Association, 10 September 2020.
  2. John Mearsheimer, “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia,” The University of Sydney, 5 August 2010.
  3. Janes, “Asia Pacific to Overtake North America as Highest Regional Defense Spender, Says Janes,” Janes, 7 December 2020.
  4. Richard Fontaine et al., “Networking Asian Security: An Integrated Approach to Order in the Pacific,” Center for a New American Security, 19 June 2017.
  5. Adam P. Liff, “Whither the Balancers? The Case for a Methodological Reset,” Security Studies, 8 July 2016.
  6. UN Comtrade Database, “Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division, International Trade Statistics Yearbook Series, 1992 to 2019,” UN Comtrade.
  7. Jeff M. Smith, “Democracy’s Squad: India’s Change of Heart and the Future of the Quad,” War on Rocks, 13 August 2020.
  8. Jeff M. Smith, “China’s Rise and (Under?) Balancing in the Indo-Pacific: Putting Realist Theory to the Test,” War on the Rocks, 8 January 2019.
  9. Jeff M. Smith (Editor), “Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific.” Rowman and Littlefield. 2018.
  10. Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries: Majorities Say China Has Handled COVID-19 Outbreak Poorly,” Pew Research Center, 6 October 2020.
  11. Quad a ‘small clique’ intended to target China, Says Beijing,” Times of India, May 13, 2021. 
  12. Jeff Smith, “The Quad 2.0: A Foundation for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder no. 3481 (6 July 2020).
  13. Jeff Smith, “Democracy’s Squad: India’s Change of Heart and the Future of the Quad,” War on the Rocks, 13 August 2020.
  14. Mallory Shelbourne, “The Quad’ Kicks Off Malabar 2020 Exercise in Bay of Bengal,” USNI News, 3 November 2020.
  15. Fact Sheet: Quad Summit,” White House Briefing Room, March 12, 2021.
  16. Jeff Smith, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Strategic Implications and International Opposition,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder no. 3331, 9 August 2018.
  17. Thorsten Benner et al., “How to Fight China’s Sharp Power,” ChinaFile, 20 August 2 2018.
  18. Clive Hamilton, “Australia’s Fight Against Chinese Political Interference,” Foreign Affairs, 26 July 2018.
  19. KH디지털2, “McCain Slams China for ‘Bullying’ Korea over THAAD,” The Korea Herald, 20 January 2017.
  20. Eli Friedman, “It’s Time to Get Loud About Academic Freedom in China,” Foreign Policy, 14 November 2018.
  21. China is Creating Concentration Camps in Xinjiang. Here’s How We Hold It Accountable,” The Washington Post, 24 November 2018.
  22. Human Rights in China under Xi Jinping ‘Worst Since Tiananmen Crackdown’: Amnesty,” South China Morning Post, 17 November 2017.


This article was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation. The PDF can be found here: