Local Flavor: What Asia’s Hedging Trend Tells Us about Asia, and Strategy

January 5, 2015

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When modern scholars and strategists discuss trends as a hook to some larger observation or policy argument, they typically do so with an eye to trends at the global level — the global diffusion of power, rise of non-state actors, urbanization, and climate change are typical examples. To the extent that regional trends are considered, they come in the form of how global trends particularize in a regional context, or of how localized phenomena constitute part of a global phenomenon. Often overlooked are organic trends occurring specifically at the regional or local level. A crucial basis for strategy inheres not simply in pattern recognition, but in separating strong or meaningful patterns from weak or irrelevant ones.

In a recent academic article, and in the most recent volume of the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Strategic Asia series, I argued that an important regional pattern has emerged in Asian international relations: a trend of strategic hedging. Increasingly, Asian governments are being driven to pursue hedging strategies in their approaches to foreign policy — by which I mean avoiding any new long-term security commitments while pursuing policies that, by design, do not reflect logically consistent geopolitical alignments.

There are multiple ways of explaining this trend. One is ambiguity about the prospect of a power transition between the United States and China. Another is a return to multipolarity in the neorealist sense — the so-called “rise of the rest.” The third is sheer issue complexity in the modern world, which makes it hard for states to make geopolitically consequential decisions that reflect consistent loyalties with international allies and partners. To put it another way, Asian policy elites make foreign policy decisions about issues infused with sometimes contradictory incentives — like when an economic logic pulls in China’s direction while a security logic may pull in the direction of the United States.

In fairness, I am not the first scholar to point out the rise of strategic hedging in Asia (examples here, here, and here). My contribution was to inquire about why, and what that explanation suggests for American strategy in Asia. There are two reasons why this pattern of strategic hedging matters.

First, if we are to deal with the world as it is, rather than as we would have it be, it makes sense to start with the most compelling observations we can find. In Asia, the strategic hedging trend is one such observation; one can debate why it is happening or how long it may endure, but there is little arguing against what everyone can see for themselves. For this reason, it needs to serve as a key assumption, or framing factor, in the development of Asia strategy — which does not seem to be the case today. Various statements from U.S. policymakers about the rebalance seem to account for the possibility of conflict and intra-regional shifts in power. But there is little evidence to suggest that the Obama administration has recognized the prevalence of hedging, whether by close allies or distant partners.

Neither the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030, DoD’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, nor the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review mentions anything about strategic hedging or the dueling incentives of competing loyalties in describing the Asian security environment — and it is a safe bet that the next National Security Strategy (should it ever come out) will make no mention of it either. That allies and partners are hedging their bets should not worry the Obama administration per se, but the fact that such a commonplace trend has been overlooked in the development of strategy should be worrisome to all of us: A region of hedgers offers a different set of opportunities and constraints for U.S. policy than a region of balancers, bandwagoners, or revisionists.

Second, the existence of a diffuse and powerful trend that is unique to Asia is itself a commentary about a strategist’s mindset and the design of strategy: look for trends at every level, but attend most studiously to those occurring at the level of your strategy. If a strategy is truly global in scope, such as a National Security Strategy or Quadrennial Defense Review, looking for trends at the global level is essential, and looking for additional empirical patterns within specific regions or functional issues is prudent. But if a strategy is inherently localized, such as the U.S. rebalance to Asia, it is essential to search for local signals within local noise. The same logic applies to the development of country-specific strategies: Framing assumptions for a North Korea or China strategy should account for the most compelling observable patterns that exist relative to that country, irrespective of the level at which they occur.

The failure to account for key regional attributes in a regional strategy is understandable, if inexcusable. During my time in the Pentagon, I worked as both a regional policy adviser and a strategist, positions that were bureaucratically and analytically worlds apart. At the risk of caricaturing each job too much, a general sketch of their distinctions is useful here. Whereas the policy adviser focused on real-time decision-making, crisis management, and coordinating diplomatic engagements, the strategist was asked to look years ahead, focusing on big normative questions about the missions for which the future joint force should be prepared, and the size and shape that force needed to be in order to handle those missions. By tradition and function, regional policy offices do not have the luxury of spending much time on such big questions. At the same time, strategists often lack the luxury of spending time focusing too narrowly, or too much on current affairs. Strategists necessarily spend more time with assessments and artificial projections of the future that sometimes have little anchoring in empirics or history. For strategists, a real-world trend is easy to overlook if it stays localized to a specific region or country. With such an intellectual division of labor between the policy adviser and the strategist, it is understandable how U.S. strategies might fail to capture regional trends, especially one that paints a more nuanced picture of Asia than U.S. Government talking points and speeches about the strength of alliances and the desirability of U.S. leadership.

To be sure, trends can be problematic. As my financial adviser tells me, past performance is no guarantee of future performance; just because a recurring pattern exists in history does not mean it will carry forward. It is easy to bet on the wrong trends, or fail to see how trends might converge to produce new types of outcomes. Worse yet, it is entirely too easy to overlook trends altogether. Even when the right trends are discernable, identifying them is not the same as understanding them. The likelihood that a pattern repeats in the future depends on the explanation for why it exists in the first place.

But strategists care about trends because they represent the strongest observable patterns on which to ground analysis about the future in a highly complex and uncertain world. They represent a starting point for analysis, not a conclusion of it. As problematic as trends can be, they are often preferable to pure speculation or logical assumptions that lack empirical mooring. Given that trends are nothing more than observable patterns, we should look for them wherever they occur, especially within regions, proceeding analytically with caution.


Dr. Van Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. Prior to his current appointments he served as a strategist and policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views expressed are his own. Twitter: @WonkVJ.


Photo credit: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Cheong Wa Dae)

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