[Thesis] Nikolaj K. Andersen: “A Balancing Act”

President Obama and Prime Minister Abe Visit USS Arizona Memorial

More than its war on terrorism or even its relationship with Russia, it is America’s relationship with China and the Asia-Pacific more broadly that will define the future world order. This dynamic and vast region holds the most strategic threats and possibilities to US foreign policy and hence understanding American activities in the region is crucial to understanding current and future international relations.

This article presents Nikolaj K. Andersen’s master’s thesis A Balancing Act: Assessing and Explaining US’ Asia-Pacific Strategy which investigates President Obamas so-called “Pivot” or “Rebalance” to Asia. The thesis was submitted for the master’s program in International Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark in August 2016.

The thesis in its entirety can be accessed here.

Nikolaj K. Andersen is the founder and editor of Global Readers’ Club. He has previously worked as a lecturer for TALERØRET, been on the Political and Economic Team at the Danish Embassy in Tokyo, and done translation on a freelance basis. He holds an MA in International Studies and a BA in History of Ideas from Aarhus University.


forside-jpgA persistent theme of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been an increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Labelled the “rebalance to Asia” in 2011, the stated intention has been to improve American ties with the region in diplomatic, economic and security terms. The initiative has been the subject of much discussion which can for the most part be condensed into two questions. First, has the rebalance actually materialized in any significant way? And second, is the rebalance best explained as a liberal project to support cooperation and international institutions or is it really America’s attempt to counter the rise of China through a power balancing strategy?

Nikolaj K. Andersen’s  master’s thesis explores the rebalance and engages the above questions. The first objective of the thesis is to provide an empirical assessment of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia, hence investigating the substantiality of the strategy. Finding that the rebalance has indeed been a significant change in US foreign policy, Andersen moves on to theoretically explain the strategy behind the rebalance by drawing on the theories of offensive neorealism and structural neoliberalism.

Chapter I makes a number of introductory remarks on the object of study and methodology, highlighting both the explanatory purpose and case centrism of the study as well as how theory testing is used as a means to this end. Chapter II lays out the diplomatic, economic and security aspects of the rebalance, focusing particularly on US engagement in Asia-Pacific multilaterals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the posture and activities of US forces in the region. The chapter concludes that significant developments have taken place.

Chapter III lays out the neorealist and neoliberal theories and derives hypotheses from them. These form the basis for the analysis in chapter IV which revisits the empirical developments and investigate which theory provided the more accurate set of expectations. This chapter concludes that the hypotheses of both theories enjoy broad support and that the US seems to be pursuing a both neorealist and neoliberal strategy.

To explain how the rebalance can be both a neorealist and neoliberal strategy chapter V engages in a theory synthesis. The argument is made that the US is indeed working to create a liberal international order built on multilateral institutions, cooperation and rule-based behavior but that in order to reach that liberal goal the US must follow a neorealist strategy of offshore balancing since China remains the largest threat to the liberal order. This means that the US will in for foreseeable future seek to keep China contained until a point where the liberal order is so deeply rooted and internationally supported that China will have no interest in attempting to overturn it. In short, the US is pursuing liberal goals but must rely on realist means for the time being. The chapter is concluded with some possible objections to and critiques of the theory synthesis which are addressed in turn.

Chapter VI concludes the thesis with a summary of its findings and arguments. Andersen then presents a list of both empirical and theoretical questions that deserve further research and could contribute to our understanding of the Asia-Pacific and the developments of the regional order there.

Some of the central themes of this thesis are the concept of international order, the strategies of hegemons facing a possible power transition, the similarities and differences between neorealist and neoliberal theories, and the effect of international institutions on the behavior of states. Furthermore, it engages some empirical phenomena which have received insufficient attention within international relations studies, such as the concept of asset-specificity in military capabilities, the role of regional free-trade agreements such as the TPP and the notion of capacity building assistance as a way of discouraging bandwagoning among smaller states.

The subject of this thesis is central in both empirical and theoretical terms. Empirically, it is the interaction between the US and China which will be the most important great power relationship in the foreseeable future. Analyzing the American rebalance tells us much about which strategy is guiding Washington’s approach to China and the region as a whole. Furthermore, the development of the US-China relationship will in all likelihood necessitate further theoretical studies of different forms of regional order, power transitions and great power relations. Bridging the gap between neorealist and neoliberal theories, as the synthesis does, could prove paramount for a holistic theoretical understanding of these great power dynamics

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