Time to Revisit ‘Hedging’

A strong consensus has formed that many secondary states have adopted security strategies best categorised as ‘hedging’. This argument is most often made with respect to Southeast Asia. However, hedging remains a contested concept though few works acknowledge this. At least four conceptualisations of hedging can be distinguished.[1] I posit that we are now at a crossroads in terms of how we make sense of hedging and how we apply relevant insights empirically.

Arguments about hedging really took shape when scholars assessed responses by states in China’s neighbourhood to the latter’s re-emergence as an economic and military power. Hedging was then advanced as an analytical category to convey the point that regional countries were generally resorting neither to conventional balancing nor bandwagoning strategies to manage China’s growing power. Hedging was widely taken to be an expression of positionality or alignment, in particular, in the context of Southeast Asian security strategies. In the eyes of some, however, hedging addressed uncertainty about China’s intentions and future policies and served the goal of maintaining a regional order led by the United States as regional states engaged the People’s Republic;[2] for others, the ultimate purpose was regime legitimation.[3]

Although there are competing conceptualisations of hedging, the most popular is by now one which – broadly speaking – sees hedging as a portfolio approach. Several variants have been proposed. For instance, Evelyn Goh sees hedging strategies as encompassing balancing or containment elements alongside engagement and reassurance components. Cheng-Chwee Kuik goes further and sees hedging as involving mixed and ‘opposite’ positioning, where states exhibit forms of both power-acceptance and power rejection.[4] By comparison, Øystein Tunsjø regards hedging as merely constituting an intermix of co-operation and confrontation.[5] In the context of their empirical studies, scholars tend to employ a basic version of hedging as a portfolio approach.[6]

Embracing this conceptualisation is consequential. First, even in the case of Kuik’s well-thought out work, it follows that all combinations of opposite behaviours short of ‘pure’ balancing and ‘pure’ bandwagoning should be understood to constitute hedging strategies. Given the supposed rarity of ‘pure’ forms of these conventional security strategies, hedging really becomes a rather large ‘residual’ category. In other words, which countries are not hedging? There is another conceptual issue: most of those who identify hedging strategies tend to see states adopting indirect balancing moves, with some even considering hard balancing an aspect of hedging. Such a perspective leaves the distinction between balancing and hedging rather blurred. Methodologically, where authors point to indirect balancing as part of hedging, they tend to look for limited military strengthening – usually alongside economic engagement – as evidence of a hedging strategy. However, the underlying purpose of such strengthening is frequently not examined.

Instead of conceptualising hedging as a portfolio approach, it is also possible to conceive of it as a form of risk management.[7] After all, we live in an age of risk[8] in which , for some, even war has become an exercise in risk management.[9] Hedging would thus be a security strategy crafted to address major security risks. Notably, although the terms security threat and security risk are often used interchangeably, they should not be. Security risks are potential security threats. In other words, security risks are probabilistic and are consequently evaluated both in terms of their likelihood and potential magnitude. In contrast, security threats are imminent and well-defined challenges to security. If the management of risk is anticipatory and proactive, threats are normally associated with an action-reaction dynamic. It follows that perceived immediate state-based threats to the survival of the state or its major interests should be expected to prompt countervailing moves that are distinct from hedging.

At this point, ascertaining hedging empirically requires a focus on how a security challenge is understood. If we are looking for indicators to judge, we should bear in mind that hedging by secondary states tends to be associated with limited military capabilities enhancement measures, but these should also not be concentrated on a specific contingency as this would be more likely signal balancing.[10] If strategy is pursued in the context of triangular relations with two major powers, hedging should moreover involve ambiguity in terms of alignment signals communicated.[11] More specifically, I argue that hedging involves alignment signalling that leaves open how a state would react should the potential security challenge materialise.

Depending on what conceptualisation of hedging we invoke, our empirical findings are likely to differ. Focusing on Southeast Asian countries, an understanding of hedging as a portfolio approach is likely to yield the conclusion that at least the majority of regional states are hedging, including Myanmar, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Singapore, and even the Philippines (at least under President Duterte’s Administration). As to whether Brunei Darussalam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand would also be regarded as hedging might be more debateable. In some cases, this would depend – inter alia – on how much significance one attributes to any military co-operation these states have had with the United States or other powers. Nevertheless, the conclusion would likely be that most Southeast Asian states are hedging irrespective of the nature of the security challenges these states are facing and despite the different approaches they seem to be adopting to manage their main security challenges. To be sure, following the work of Kuik or Tunsjø, for instance, analytical differentiations could still be made for the countries one considers to be hedging: between light and heavy hedgers, or between countries that are taken to emphasise co-operation over confrontation or vice versa, and those where co-operation and conflict are more evenly balanced.

However, if we understand hedging to be about a response to a perceived security risk rather than an imminent threat and also take seriously the assumption that hedging by a secondary state in the context of its great power relations involves ambiguity in alignment signals (insofar as these relate to a major security challenge in question), our conclusions about which countries in Southeast Asia are hedging are likely to be different. While Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s respective responses to China’s security challenge in the South China Sea should be categorised as hedging, findings for countries such as Viet Nam, the Philippines, Myanmar and even Singapore might differ. Why? The internal balancing pursued by Hanoi and Manila in response to China’s actions raises questions about whether these governments still regard China’s security challenge in the South China Sea as constituting mere security risks. Moreover, even under President Duterte, there seems to be little ambiguity about how the security establishment of the Philippines prefers to position itself. In the case of Myanmar, judging by the recent response to the Kokang insurgency, there would also appear to be little ambiguity about how the military would likely react to the possibility of another major security challenge in northern Myanmar if Chinese authorities ever decided to pressure Naypyidaw by leveraging their relations with ethnic armed groups.

A particularly interesting case is Singapore, which tends to be regarded as the archetypal ‘hedging state’ because, as the official discourse has it, the city-state does not wish to choose between Beijing and Washington. On the other hand, Singapore has been quite forceful in its communication about how it perceives China’s challenge to international law and regional order, certainly as far the freedom of navigation is concerned. At least for the moment, there is also little ambiguity about how Singapore would respond should existing security challenges posed by China turn to clear-cut security threats. The city-state has for many years preferred to strengthen its relations and indeed its interoperability with the U.S. military in the first instance. Arguably, Singapore might therefore be seen to be in balancing mode against China.[12] This is not to deny that Singapore, like other regional states, has to deal with a variety of security risks as far as China is concerned, including the possibility of a serious downturn in Sino-U.S. relations.

How we understand hedging – whether as a policy mix of co-operative and conflictive policies or as a response to a risk to a significant security referent – matters greatly. The literature has veered towards the former conceptualisation. It is time to debate whether, for analytical reasons, there would not be an advantage in returning to a focus on hedging as involving responses to security risks, that is, as such a conceptualisation at the very least forces us to investigate more closely how security challenges are really understood by those concerned.



[1] Haacke, J. (2019) ‘The Concept of Hedging and its Application to Southeast Asia: A Critique and a Proposal for a Modified Conceptual and Methodological Framework’. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 19(3). It is expected to be published online next June. The print version is not yet available.

[2] See the extensive works in that field by Evelyn Goh. Among all, Goh, E. (2016) ‘Southeast Asian Strategies toward the Great Powers: Still Hedging after All These Years?’, ASAN Special Forum, 22 February 2016; Id. (2005a) ‘Meeting the China Challenge: The U.S. in Southeast Asian Regional Security Strategies’, Policy Studies 16, Washington, D.C.: East-West Center; Id. (2005b) ‘Introduction’, in Id., ed., ‘Betwixt and Between: Southeast Asian Strategic Relations with the U.S. and China’, IDSS Monograph No.7, Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

[3] Kuik, C.C. (2008) ‘The Essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore’s Response to a Rising China’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 30(2), pp. 159-185.

[4] See Ibid.; Kuik, C.C. (2016) ‘How do Weaker States Hedge? Unpacking ASEAN states’ alignment behavior towards China’, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 25(100), pp. 500-514.

[5] Tunsjø, Ø. (2017) U.S.-China Relations: From Unipolar Hedging to Bipolar Balancing, in R. S. Ross and Ø. Tunsjø, eds, Strategic Adjustment and The Rise of China: Power and Politics in East Asia, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

[6] See Hornung, J. W. (2014) ‘Japan’s Growing Hard Hedge Against China’, Asian Security, Vol. 10(2), pp. 97-122; Le H. H. (2013) ‘Vietnam’s Hedging Strategy against China since Normalization’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 35(3), pp. 333-68.

[7] Ciorciari, J. D. (2019) ‘The Variable Effectiveness of Hedging Strategies’. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 19(3). Published online on May 16, 2019. The print version is not yet available; Tunsjø, Ø. (2013) Security and Profit in China’s Energy Policy: Hedging against Risk, New York: Columbia University Press.

[8] Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage Publications.

[9] Heng, Y. (2018) ‘The Continuing Resonance of the War As Risk Management Perspective for Understanding Military Interventions’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 39(4), pp. 544-558; Coker, C. (2009) War in an Age of Risk, Cambridge, Polity.

[10] For a discussion on this topic, see Liff, A. (2016) ‘Whither the Balancers? The Case for a Methodological Reset’, Security Studies, Vol. 25, pp. 420-459.

[11] Lim, D. J. and Z. Cooper (2015) ‘Reassessing Hedging: The Logic of Alignment in East Asia’, Security Studies, Vol. 24(4), pp. 696-727.

[12] Haacke, J. (2019) ‘The Concept of Hedging and its Application to Southeast Asia’, quoted.



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