22 May 2018
ASEAN member states have been pursuing a strategy based largely on soft balancing and diplomatic engagement towards China for over three decades. The soft balancing makes use of institutional mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, and the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus. These platforms as well as negotiations to craft a Code of Conduct all play a part in efforts to restrain Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
Soft balancing refers to the restraint of a threatening power using institutions, limited ententes and economic sanctions to delegitimise its policies. Hard balancing is based on military power and formal alliances to deal with such a state.
In recent years, however, fears have been expressed about the inability of such soft balancing efforts to produce concrete results, especially at a time when Asean members are increasingly divided, with some even possibly pursuing soft bandwagoning (i.e. not actively opposing expansionism while reaping economic benefits) vis-a-vis China.
The question then is what the future of soft balancing is when pursued by using institutional mechanisms and limited ententes or informal alliances in restraining China and, to some extent, the US from generating aggressive policies in the region. Is it time to make a bold move to declare the South China Sea a zone of peace under United Nations auspices and encouraging China and the US to respect peace and tranquility in this theatre, with binding confidence-building measures and arms control commitments?
… T.V. Paul is James McGill Professor of International Relations, McGill University, Canada, and currently a visiting professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era’ (Yale University Press, September 2018).
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Last updated on 23/05/2018