Covert balancing: Great Powers, secondary states and US balancing strategies against China

By Luis Simón, Hugo Meijer

International Affairs, iiaa228, https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiaa228
Published: 12 February 2021


Throughout history, Great Powers have devised balancing strategies aimed at checking the ambitions of rival Great Powers. To do that, they have sought to enter and mobilize alliances and security partnerships with secondary states. Yet, the influence of secondary states on the balancing strategies of Great Powers remains largely underestimated in the International Relations literature. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we posit that secondary state preferences play a key enabling or constraining role in shaping the balancing choices of Great Powers. We focus specifically on how the adoption of hedging strategies on the part of secondary states affects the balancing strategies of established Great Powers. We argue that when secondary states adopt a hedging strategy established Great Powers are incentivized to engage in what we call ‘covert balancing’. Covert balancing occurs when an established Great Power conceals its security cooperation with a secondary state beneath a cover that is seemingly unrelated to balancing a rising Great Power, thus working around the secondary state's hedging strategy while at the same time helping generate a latent capacity to balance. We probe our argument by examining US balancing strategy against China in the Asia–Pacific.