Strategic Hedging of Middle Powers in an Era of Great Power Competition

With the ongoing great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia, middle powers attempt to rearrange their security strategies and alignment behaviours by taking shifts of power distribution and the regional security dynamics into consideration. As the great power competition between major powers has intensified, secondary states increasingly have adopted hedging strategy to avoid taking sides on US-Russia and US-China competition by engaging all sides simultaneously. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 accelerated this trend. The hedging strategy allows secondary states maximize benefits from all competing powers while simultaneously adopting insurance policies to minimize risks and preserve their strategic autonomy. The middle powers also called ‘swing states’ demonstrate ambiguity over their alignment by adopting flexible cooperation to respond the ongoing structural power shift. These secondary states’ main concern is how to navigate in great power rivalry and exploit the ongoing competition for their national interest rather than the concern over the future of the rules-based international order. Therefore, swing states equally incline toward competing powers to avoid great power engagement by adopting non-taking side posture. To this end, they prefer multi-aligned hedging strategies over single sided balancing or bandwagoning strategies.

2095

Mehtap Kara (Bahçeşehir Cyprus University/SNUAC)

Great Power Competition

The United States (US) competition with China and Russia is often referred as a great power competition and also called a new Cold War, Cold War II or 2.0. Russia’s first military incursion in Ukraine in 2014 and seizure and annexation of Crimea as well as China’s economic rise, military modernization, and maritime expansion in the South and East China Seas since 2012 have been perceived major indicators of the shift in great power rivalry.[i] Russia’s invasion of the multiple parts of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has further fueled the existing debates on the challenges to the liberal international order and its future. Ikenberry (2022) admits that the US-led international order is in crisis, but he argues that despite the problems liberal internationalism still has a future because China or Russia do not have an alternative model to the rules-based order that the rest of the world finds appealing. While Ikenberry believes that the world cannot afford the end of the American era, Mearsheimer (2019) claims that expecting other countries to welcome and embrace liberal democracy was a mistake and impossible dream in the first place.

The great power competition has become the dominant discourse in US foreign policy in the last decade. June 2015 American National Military Strategy document acknowledged the ongoing competition (DoD 2015, 1-4). During the Trump administration ‘decoupling’ and ‘trade war’ with China dominated American foreign policy and the Biden administration has set American strategy as ‘strategic competition’ with China. The National Security Strategy (2022) prioritizes the Indo-Pacific and enduring competition with China over Europe. The Biden Administration’s National Defense Strategy (DoD 2022, 5) document defines China as the ‘pacing challenge’ and the most comprehensive challenge to American national security while accounting Russia as an ‘acute threat’. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further complicated Washington’s plans to focus on the Indo-Pacific and now the U.S. and its allies have to deal with two threatening major powers simultaneously.

In the last decade as the great power rivalry has intensified both China and the US have launched their own respective strategic initiatives, namely the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). The BRI has been perceived as an attempt to increase Chinese leverage to shape partner nations’ preferences as well as end the American influence in the region which gradually elevates China’s status from a ‘rule-taker’ to a ‘rule-maker (Zhou and Esteban 2020). On the other hand, Washington sees the BRI investments in developing world’s infrastructure projects as ‘debt-trapping diplomacy’ that undermines the sovereignty of participating countries by Chinese authoritarian rule with an objective to reorder both the region and the world in China’s favor (The White House 2017, 46).

To maintain international rules-based order as a part of FOIP strategy the US has mobilized coalition-building with like-minded states to balance against China through minilateral and multilateral frameworks such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad, an informal grouping of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S.), Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF, unites 13 countries in the region and the U.S. to diversify supply chain away from risky countries (China) and counter China’s BRI), and the Australia- UK-U.S. submarine grouping (AUKUS). However, despite the ongoing American effort, many countries in the Indo-­­Pacific region prefer to balance economic ties with China with security reassurances provided by the US.

The Biden administration highlights the competition between democracies and autocracies and emphasizes cooperation between democratic allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific to support a rules-based international system. However, this discourse is not appealing for many countries outside the West. Middle powers or secondary states are increasingly becoming assertive regional players and seeking a larger voice in world politics. Therefore, these states’ refusal to take sides in ongoing great power competition threaten the Western countries’ desire to build a stronger coalition against both China and Russia across the world. The deepening rivalry between these great powers has created acute strategic dilemmas for secondary powers around the world in terms of their economic, political and security interests.

Nye (2022) argues that the use of ‘a new Cold War’ metaphor to define current US-China rivalry is misguiding since containment and decoupling from Chinese economy as the West did to Soviet Union during the Cold War would not only be costly due to the existing interdependency, but compare to Cold War era only few allies would follow since China is main export/import partner for many countries in Asia. At the same time, while the US-China compete on several issues, they also have to accept coexistence and cooperation to address global issues such as climate change. Nye (2022, 1641-43) also warns that the Russian threat should not be underestimated and reminds that it was a declining Austria-Hungary was the one that was most accepting of the risk entailed in the disaster of the WWI. According to Nye (2022) the US deals with two different powers one is declining Russia the other is rising China and any underestimation of Russian threat could be costly for the US and its allies because Russia still retains enormous resources that it can employ as a spoiler on from nuclear weapons to cyber conflict in various regions. Middle powers’ economic, political and security strategies have become an important part of the great power competition debate as competing powers make pressure and try to convince these secondary states to choose one side over the other.

Middle Powers and Swing States

During the Cold War and in the post-Cold War period middle powers have been a supporter of the liberal international order. However, Jordaan (2017) argues that there should be distinction between traditional middle powers and emerging southern middle powers and middle power concept should be restricted to use only for middle powers that support the liberal hegemonic project. The traditional middle powers that actively supported the liberal order perceived as good citizens and stabilizers of the international system. On the other hand, emerging, non-traditional or southern middle powers have been often playing. the destabilizing role for a counter-hegemonic streak and preference for multipolarity.

While western middle powers are seen as conformist powers that support the liberal order, southern middle powers/emerging middle powers are seen as reformists that challenge some of the key aspects of the international order (Jordaan 2003; 2017). The traditional conformist middle powers such as South Korea, Japan, Australia choose to strengthen their alignment with the US to support. the American led order as the conflict between US, China and Russia increased. Wilkins (2023) underlines that Australia and Japan as western conformist middle power support liberal internationalism and their alliance with the US aims to counter China’s economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific is an example of the coalition building between like-minded states. On the other hand, southern middle powers such as Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, India, and Turkey increasingly define themselves as non-aligned middle powers. Although they follow regionalism and multilateralism characteristics of the middle powers, they are reformist in nature and call for the reform of international institutions. These states are driven by the desire of multipolarity and more fragmented world order where they believe they can have greater representation.

In the last decade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly stated that ‘the world is bigger than five’ to stand against global injustice and called for reformation of the UN Security Council (Presidency of Republic of Turkiye 2018). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s winning the presidential and general elections in May 2023 and the return of Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva as Brazil’s President in 2023 demonstrates that both Turkey and Brazil as reformist influential middle powers will play more proactive role in the future of the regional and the changing world order.

Secondary states’ search for strategic autonomy and pragmatic policies in great power competition particularly following the War in Ukraine have been perceived as a threat to the rules-based international order. In recent years China and the US constantly put pressure on the region’s secondary states to align with them and choose one power over the other (Doyle and Rumley 2019). However, secondary states are determined to resist such pressure and adopt the middle zone in their alignment strategies. One of the most prominent demonstrations of secondary states resistance to the ongoing great power competition and lack of willingness to be drawn into the great power rivalry occurred following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Despite violations of the United Nations Charter, secondary states avoid isolating Russia economically and diplomatically. 141 countries in the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of condemning Russia’s invasion, but only less than 40 countries have joined the sanctions against Russia (United Nations 2022). These countries that refused to take sides in the Ukrainian War are frequently called ‘fence-sitters,’ or new ‘non-aligned’ (Stent 2022). Some of these neutral-swing states’ alignment decisions will play a more effective role on the balance of power. The leading swing states include Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey.[ii] These geopolitical swing states are not only influential regional actors but also have strategic advantages for instance Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, others have advantage in global supply chains or economic advantages such as India’s large labor and consumer markets, Brazil leads in commodities and agriculture, and Saudi Arabia with strategic geographic position and oil reserves (German Marshall Fund 2023).

Therefore, these geopolitical swing states occupy a strategic geography in the changing international order, and not simply aim to avoid engagement of great power competition, but also aspire to be active players in shaping their surrounding region and the international order by exploiting the ongoing rivalry. To achieve their objectives these swing states equally incline toward competing powers by adopting non-taking side posture through multi-aligned hedging behaviours. By aligning themselves with all competing sides these states keep all their options open during the structural power shift.

Hedging Strategy

Hedging strategy has been often used to explain Southeast Asian and East Asian countries’ response vis-à-vis great power rivalry in the region with special focus on the rising China and repositioning America. These states hedge against the multiple future scenarios including possible Chinese aggression and American withdrawal from the region despite the ongoing effort to ‘pivot to Asia’. Hedging strategy offers an alternative to the two straightforward alignment models, called ‘balancing’ and ‘bandwagoning’. While balancing refers to states’ decision to balance against a rising hegemon or more threatening state (Waltz 1979), bandwagoning involves choosing to align with rising/threatening great power for security and/or profit (Schweller 1994). Both strategies require states to choose one great power over the other. However, in the age of globalization states are more connected than ever to competing great powers in economic, political and security domains.

Hedging offers a third strategic option by blending elements of both balancing and bandwagoning. measures to address secondary states’ concerns especially during the power transition where the future of world politics is uncertain. Goh defines hedging as “a middle position that forestalls or avoids having to choose one side at the obvious expense of another” (2005, viii). According to Kuik, hedging can be seen as “insurance-seeking behavior” (2021, 302) and secondary states’ response to uncertainties in power concentration trends (Tessman 2012).

The bandwagoning elements in hedging involves ‘return-maximizing’ measures including economic pragmatism (trading with threatening power), biding engagement (engagement with threatening power through institutional platforms) and limited bandwagoning (issue-by-issue alignment with threatening power) (Kuik 2008, 2016, 2021). To avoid becoming overdependent on the threatening/rising power state simultaneously adopt balancing through ‘risk contingency’ measure include economic diversification (diversifying trade partners), dominance denial (political balancing with friendlier great powers to ensure its involvement in the region) and indirect balancing (internal balancing by improving its own defense and external balancing by building stronger security relations with friendlier power and regional countries) (Kuik 2008, 2016, 2021).

The return maximizing policies of hedging strategy allow secondary states to maximize a range of economic and political returns vis-à-vis China and Russia but increase the risks of becoming dependent and losing its autonomy. To offset these risks states simultaneously pursue the opposite balancing policies including dominance denial, strengthening their security ties with the US and increasing their self-defence capacity. Therefore, hedging strategy aims to improve secondary states’ relations with both the rising/threatening and declining powers to mitigate the risks to its security posed by China’s intentions and the consequences of the American decline (Lim and Cooper 2015, 699). To this end, through hedging strategy while states increase economic and political gains. And manage to mitigate security risks and keep their autonomy with use of deliberately opposing hedging measures. Simultaneous use of cooperative (bandwagoning) and confrontational (balancing) strategies to remain in the middle position gives secondary states more flexibility to manage their relations with all competing powers.

As secondary states from the global south have adopted the reformist vision rather than the stabilizer/supporter of the liberal international order these states’ geostrategic significance is on the rise in the ongoing competition especially in Asia and Europe. Turkey and India stand more than the other geopolitical swing states as both countries occupy strategic significance in the ongoing structural changes and great power rivalries in Europe and Indo-Pacific. As important regional actors both countries actively desire to (re)shape their surrounding regions in multipolar world order vision. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi India has pursued a multi-aligned foreign policy, while increasing its partnership with the US and Quad members it increased its trade relations with China despite border tensions and increased its import from Russia despite ongoing Western sanctions.

As a response to India’s position in the Ukrainian conflict Jaishankar had stated that, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems” (Munich Security Report 2023, 23). His response demonstrates general perception of the global south over unrealistic western expectations for the unified global response to Russia while the West remains unresponsive about developing countries problems which is generally perceived as Western hypocrisy. Hedging strategy is helpful for India’s quest to balance the benefits of being close to an increasingly assertive China and risk management joining a network of alliances with like-minded countries.

Despite its increasing economic ties with the Western partners India has opted to stay out of Trade (Pillar I) pillar of IPEF and joined only Supply Chains (Pillar II), Clean Economy (Pillar III), and Fair Economy (Pillar IV) pillars (Indian Ministry of Commerce & Industry 2023).  India’s decision to stay out of the Trade Pillar is related with the country’s strategy of retaining regulatory autonomy. The U.S accepts India’s flexible alignment model as the country is cornerstone of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. To enhance its relations with India the American Congress amended the law to waive sanctions due to the American desire to access Indian market and deepen arm trade with India, over its purchase of five S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.

Following the invasion of Ukraine India hedges to maintain its ties with Russia by refusing to be part of the sanction regime it is getting closer with the West to counter China. Similarly, Turkey also refused to join Western-led sanctions and increased its trade relations with Russia while solidifying its status in NATO and demanding concessions from its transatlantic allies during the Nordic enlargement of the alliance. Both countries’ economic pragmatism and increasing trade relations particularly export of cheap Russian oil undermines the Western sanctions that aim to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine.

BRICS leader at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 27, 2018
From left Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra, South Arican President Cyril Ramaphosa, Brazilian President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin
Source: Wikipedia

Hedging strategy projects strategic ambiguity over these states’ preference amid great power competition. Lim and Cooper (2015) underline that signaling ambiguity over alignment decision is not a cost-free strategy and states autonomy seeking behaviours might be punished by great powers. In this context Turkey’s independent foreign policy and close economic and political ties with Russia despite being a NATO member had consequences for the country’s western relations. As a result of its decision to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems Turkey removed from the F-35 stealth fighter program and the US imposed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions on Turkish defense industry (U.S Department of State 2020). For the first time CAATSA was imposed to a NATO ally.[iii] Sanctions on Turkey shows that hedging and ambiguous behaviours is more costly for an ally compared to non-ally India that received waiver over its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. However, despite these costs Turkish policy making elites have continued to pursue strategic hedging following the Ukraine instead of demonstrating stronger alignment with the West. Turkey’s democratic erosion became another important issue with its Western allies and contradicts with liberal norms and democracy that the US promotes under the ‘democracies vs. autocracies’ narrative. As economic pragmatism is one of the main characteristics of the hedging states, these states inevitably maintain trade relations with autocracies like Russia and China, so their strategies do not align with the Western narrative.

As a risk management strategy, hedging does not only attract states from the global south, France also sought for a strategic autonomy. Following his visits to China French President Emmanuel Macron strongly emphasized on the strategic autonomy of Europe, and not to be involved in possible US-China confrontation over Taiwan (Anderlini and Caulcutt 2023). On the other hand, instability in Europe pushed some countries to choose sides in great power competition such as Finland and Sweden abandoned their neutrality and applied to NATO. Similar trends continue in East Asia, Japan and South Korea chose stronger alignment with the US to condemn Russia and stand against China’s growing power and assertiveness in the region as the Russian aggression of Ukraine provided a glimpse of what might happen in the South China Sea. Leaders of South Korea and Japan attended the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 11-12 July 2023 for the second year along with leaders of New Zealand and Australia. NATO’s 2022 Indo-Pacific report stresses that “the global strategic pivot to the Indo-Pacific remains the most significant tectonic shift of the 21st century” (NATO 2022, 16) that requires NATO to adopt. Therefore, countries like South Korea and Japan that exposed to China’s economic and military coercion strategic repositioning and establishment of closer relations with the U.S is helpful also for NATO’s engagement with like-minded countries in Asia to counter China’s rising military might.

President Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida, and South Korea’s President Yoon meet at the Trilateral Leaders’ Summit on June 29, 2022.
Source: Wikipedia

Mazarr (2022) argues that the greatest threat to the rules-based international order is not only the excessive ambitions of the great powers, but also the ambiguous hedging behaviors of the middle powers. Swing states project ambiguity over their alignment and pursue flexible cooperation on several issues including the War in Ukraine, in the Indo-Pacific, and the future of the rules-based international order. As the liberal international order confronts several challenges with rise of China, destabilizing role of Russia in Ukraine, and other challenges including global pandemic and climate change the US and its traditional allies need to develop more inclusive strategies to win the swing states of the global south that challenge the order more than ever and determined to lead fragmented international order.

 Conclusion

Hedging strategy allows secondary states to pursue engagement with all great powers to (re)position themselves between dominant powers due to uncertainties surrounding the future of the international system. Through strategic hedging states adopt non-taking sides posture as a response to systemic change and ongoing power deconcentration trends by to adopting flexible partnerships to balance their relations with competing powers. Therefore, it is not only the ongoing cooperation between great powers that will shape the global order, but geopolitical swing states’ strategic choices will be influential in shaping regional and the emerging world order. Middle powers do not have a power to shape regional and dynamics individually, but steadily rising assertive numerous players from the global south might lead formation of the multi-aligned hedging bloc that will gradually enable them to shape the behaviours of great powers as well as regional and international order according to their preferences and interests. Winning over the middle powers is key to maintaining the rules-based international order. The traditional middle powers are being part of the like-minded states coalition building, but the question is how the US can win over the middle powers from the global south? and how to convince geopolitical swing states to stop hedging their bets against the US?

 

About the author

Mehtap Kara (mehtap.kara@baucyprus.edu.tr)is
a visiting fellow at Seoul National University Asia Center (SNUAC). She received her PhD in International Relations from Eastern Mediterranean University and works as an assistant professor at Bahçeşehir Cyprus University. Her articles have appeared in peer-reviewed journals including Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Turkish Studies, and Uluslararası Iliskiler-International Relations. Kara’s research at the SNUAC focuses on hedging strategies of secondary states including Turkey, India, South Korea, and Brazil in great power competition. Kara’s research fellowship at SNUAC has been funded by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Türkiye.

 


Endnotes

[i] For many Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 was perceived as the first confrontation against American-led unipolar order and marked the beginning of the Russian desire for multipolar order. For the full transcript of Putin’s speech see http://www.en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034. Russia’s 2008 invasion and occupation of part of Georgia, 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. and Europe, American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to the discussion of the American decline.

[ii] For discussions on swing states see Poulshock, Michael, Swing States in Great Power Competition (June 1, 2022). Available at SSRN:  http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4124778; Kupchan, Cliff. 2023. “6 Swing States Will Decide the Future of Geopolitics,” Foreign Policy, June 6, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/06/06/geopolitics-global-south-middle-powers-swing-states-india-brazil-turkey-indonesia-saudi-arabia-south-africa/;

[iii] The CAATSA was adopted in 2017 to prevent countries purchasing Russian military equipment and s calls for US sanctions.

 


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