The net effect of rising Chinese and declining US defense expenditures has been growing regional uncertainty. The cause of this uncertainty is twofold. First, policymakers in China have left the purpose of its buildup unsaid. The Chinese Communist Party has not defined an official mission for the PLA since 2007, and continues to allude to a strategic opportunity in the region. Second, US allies increasingly doubt US commitments. Although the US has positioned an additional 10% of its naval assets in the Pacific as part of the “rebalance” strategy, US allies believe the response is insufficient. In response to this growing uncertainty, US allies are faced with two strategic alternatives to the status quo. They could switch sides and bandwagon with China. Or, they could internally balance and take more of their security into their own hands. No country has yet pursued the former option, but at least Japan is experimenting with the latter. The US must prevent both outcomes. The first case portends the acceptance of a foreign-dominated Asia Pacific, a strategic risk unknown since 1945. The second case would share the security burden more equitably, but the tradeoff would be disastrous for regional security. First, an imbalanced and uncoordinated military buildup by US allies would further drive regional instability. Second, stronger US allies, able or emboldened to operate independently, could drag the US into an unwanted war. Instead, the US should externally balance to shape the environment in which China’s rise will take place. External balancing will restrain and discourage weaker US allies from internally balancing and acting provocatively, while also providing an alternative to bandwagoning with China. Faced with such a coalition, China would have to continue an increased pace of military expenditures to maintain parity, a difficult resource tradeoff given China’s increasing focus on internal stability and slowing economic growth.
As US policymakers consider strategies to counter China, they should do so with the three potential outcomes of bandwagoning, internal balancing, and external balancing in mind. It is true that pursuing the last option could increase tensions with China. Yet, if the US wants to reassure its allies, maintain its position in the region, and reject Chinese ascendency as a regional fait accompli, then it must externally balance.