on geopolitics

In China's Backyard, Charting the Course of Most Advantage

Evan Rees
Asia-Pacific Analyst, Stratfor
11 MINS READMar 7, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Dragon dancers perform as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Wuhu visits Manila, Philippines, in January 2019.
(TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Dragon dancers perform as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Wuhu prepares to dock at the international port in Manila, Philippines, on Jan. 17 on a goodwill visit along with three other Chinese naval ships.

  • In the mounting great power competition between the United States and China, both countries will strive to build influence among the smaller powers of Southeast Asia.
  • Southeast Asian nations, however, will not fall into neat Chinese or U.S. spheres, instead playing the middle to gain advantages from both.
  • This fits the strategy many pursued during the Cold War and, in the new great power arena, they will find it easier to preserve greater autonomy.

The growing great power competition between the United States and China has assumed center stage in Asia, where the Chinese push to build out a buffer in the land and maritime domains in its near-abroad is running up against the U.S. desire to maintain its dominant role in the region. The smaller states along the rims of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, in particular, have become arenas of competition between Washington and Beijing, and in Southeast Asia, long the maritime and terrestrial crossroads of empire in the Indo-Pacific, their contest has reached a robust and deep level. The U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy hinges on enlisting the support of these smaller powers. China has countered by using its Belt and Road Initiative to specifically target these middle players in hopes of forging deeper economic and strategic ties.

The Big Picture

Stratfor has long tracked the burgeoning great power competition between China and the United States, particularly as it plays out in China's backyard — Southeast Asia. As their competition mounts, the region's lesser powers will seek to avoid being co-opted by either side and instead pursue autonomy — and wring advantage from both.

But as much as the United States and China would prize a stable of stalwart Southeast Asian partners, countries in the region have other agendas, making a future bipolar world composed of unipolar U.S. and Chinese blocs unlikely. Instead, Southeast Asian countries will tactically align with the great powers only when it suits their needs. And in doing so, they will choose the available option with the fewest strings possible. As Indonesian founding father Sukarno said in 1965, explaining the perspective of the newly emerging Southeast Asian states: "We want to be free — completely free. Free to be free. We want to be left alone."

Of course, it's impossible to truly fulfill a country's desire to be left alone — particularly so for smaller powers always in need, to some degree, of the benefits of a relationship with a great power. Even during the seemingly zero-sum competition of the Cold War, most countries in Southeast Asia managed to find room to maneuver among the clashing titans from East and West. And, in the current configuration of global power, ambiguity, overlap and limited alignments will be the rule.

Building Blocs?

Small and middle powers are not relegated to simply being pawns of the great powers, bound to slot into spheres of influence. Most choices for smaller powers are not as stark and, usually, there is an alternative path available to them.

In his book on Southeast Asia, The Limits of Alignment, John Ciorciari lays out the three traditional choices that smaller countries caught between great powers seem to have: "balance," "bandwagon" or neutrality. None is ideal; each has pitfalls. In a strategy of balance, a country would align with the rival of whichever great power presents the most proximate threat — choosing a far patron over a neighboring titan. This comes with the risk of not only antagonizing the powerful neighbor but also that the distant ally would decline to fulfill its obligation in a time of need. On a bandwagon path, by contrast, the minor power would align with the nearest great power, entering its sphere of influence in hopes of becoming a partner instead of prey. This brings clear risks that the aligning nation would lose the ability to pursue its own interests or even fall victim to domestic meddling by the dominant partner. The third option, neutrality, means just that — remaining aloof, an option that Ciorciari points out is all but impossible and always entails some sort of tilt toward one side or the other.

However, to this trinity, Ciorciari proposes a fourth option sitting somewhere between neutrality and alliance: limited alignment. A minor power following this line of thinking resists being drawn into any one sphere of influence, remaining in a gray zone where it is free to make provisional arrangements with either or both sides when it can and break them off or renegotiate their terms as needed. A minor power can parlay a flexible approach into arms sales, military training and economic windfalls while losing neither significant autonomy nor access to the same benefits from a rival power. Ciorciari cites the U.S. relationship with Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Egypt as examples of this type of limited alignment, in contrast to more formal allies such as Japan or Israel. And it is this type of muddy, shifting playing field that seems to be the most common (and likely) in the emerging multipolar world of Southeast Asia.

Stuck in the Middle?

Even through the hot wars that punctuated the Cold War era in Southeast Asia, most of its countries managed to — and preferred to — navigate between the two camps. While Sukarno's dream of being "left alone" certainly never came to pass, Western attempts to forge tight U.S. defensive networks on par with NATO, such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), fell flat. Instead, the motivation to stand outside of the zero-sum blocs of the Cold War was the most prominent feature of Southeast Asian countries.

Alongside Yugoslavia, India, Egypt and Ghana, Indonesia was a founding member of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which aimed to resist the stark choice between the Soviet and Western spheres. Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia and, after its war with the United States, Vietnam all joined this movement. The members of NAM clearly failed in their intention to remain truly outside great power politics, with many swinging in and out of aligned blocs, but each of them to some degree resisted being fully encompassed by either camp when they could. The most robust product of the Cold War was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967 and originally comprising noncommunist powers Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Its formation was motivated by a shared interest in counterbalancing mounting Japanese economic domination and Sino-Soviet meddling. This bloc was explicitly modeled to amplify national interests, and it possessed neither authority above its members nor a strong veto power nor the ability to limit their individual actions.

Maneuvering between the major poles of competition allows the smaller powers to play the larger ones off of one another to extract gains while simultaneously maintaining their autonomy.

Even those Southeast Asian nations most subject to great power politics found some wiggle room. Vietnam, for example, sought to find a middle ground by reaching out to the United States in the late 1970s. Although Washington rejected its overtures, Hanoi was able to navigate between Moscow and Beijing. Tiny, landlocked Laos managed to find some room for maneuver among Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union. Even ostensibly pro-Western powers such as Thailand and the Philippines pursued a sort of strategic ambiguity as the Cold War dragged on. Following the end of the Vietnam War, Thailand closed U.S. bases and moved to develop a security partnership with China as well. Around the same time, while leaving its alliance intact, the Philippines pre-empted the United States in normalizing ties with China and the Soviet Union while helping bring about the formal end of the long-foundering SEATO grouping. And, as the Cold War ended, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia all joined the ASEAN bloc as well.

The New Chapter of Great Power Competition

The current era of burgeoning Sino-U.S. great power competition, if anything, provides greater latitude for the countries of Southeast Asia to gain benefits from both sides, while minimizing the risks of aligning too closely with one or the other. In some ways, in fact, the emerging two-way competition is more amenable to their national interests than the U.S.-dominated post-Cold War period. Maneuvering between the major poles of competition allows the smaller powers to play the larger ones off of one another to extract gains while simultaneously maintaining their autonomy. Thus, they can minimize the risk of domination and maximize the rewards of cooperation in a way that would be impossible under one undisputed hegemon.

The ethnic and regional difficulties that roiled Southeast Asian countries during the Cold War have waned as their security and state structures have matured. That, combined with the lack of an ideological component to the U.S.-China competition, means that, with the exception of Myanmar, the domestic militant movements that ripped apart so many of these countries decades ago (with foreign help) are no longer in play. Additionally, unlike during the Cold War period, when countries had the choice between distinct economic spheres that were largely mutually exclusive, in the current system, the U.S. and Chinese systems operate within the same global trade networks. Moreover, Southeast Asian powers have built up a great deal of economic heft in the modern order. Whereas during the Cold War, Southeast Asia was largely a collection of developing countries, by 2015 it accounted for 3.3 percent of global gross domestic product and nearly 8 percent of world trade in goods, with a collective GDP growth of 4.7 percent. (That growth rate hovers near 7 percent in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.) Instead of aid-hungry, newly independent countries — or ones still divided by the postcolonial process — many Southeast Asian nations are now poised to receive the windfall of China's low-end manufacturing outsourcing and foreign investment.

This map shows territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Indonesia provides a clear case study for success in charting a limited, strategic path between the two great powers. Indonesia's geographic position gives it command of the strategic straits that link the Indian and Pacific ocean basins, making it a prime destination for great power outreach. In recent years, the United States has increased counterterrorism cooperation with Jakarta and boosted arms sales as well. China, meanwhile, launched the Maritime Silk Road portion of its Belt and Road Initiative in Indonesia in 2013, with billions of dollars in prospective infrastructural investment now in play. But Indonesia cannot be said to be in either camp — and there is little likelihood that it will move firmly into one or the other orbits.

Instead, its status as Southeast Asia's largest economy by far, not to mention its most populous and geographically extensive, has long allowed it to pursue a more autonomous foreign policy, insulated from outside influence. Its main focus has been on quelling internal ethnic and religious unrest while developing its domestic economy to foster greater unity among its fractured islands. The United States represents an opportunity in the form of military assistance to bulk up Indonesia's navy, while China represents an opportunity as a source of critical infrastructure investment and a market for products and resources. But neither one would be an attractive enough partner to shake Indonesia from its relatively limited alignment.

The Philippines, meanwhile, provides an example of the mutability of alliances in the region — and the latitude available to smaller powers. Despite some later ambiguity as treaty ally, the Philippines was clearly the closest U.S. partner in the region during the Cold War. The island nation has long been attractive to great powers as an avenue by which to project power onto continental Asia. Today, for the United States, the Philippines is a key component of its so-called First Island Chain, giving it leverage through which it could shape affairs in the maritime sphere. But the country, particularly under President Rodrigo Duterte, has sought to extract gains from both great powers.

Following the end of the Cold War, with reduced threats to its security, the Philippines moved to close U.S. bases in the islands. At the same time that U.S. alignment was being perceived as a growing liability, China's economic rise increased its attractiveness as an option. The U.S. focus on counterterrorism allowed Washington to help with the stubborn militant and terrorist threats surrounding Mindanao that have long been among the Philippines' main concerns. And, while this shared interest appeared set to swing the Philippines back into the U.S. camp, Duterte's presidency and the failure of its U.S. alignment to help it meet its goals in the South China Sea drove outreach to China. The Duterte administration, however, has not fully swung into the Chinese camp, either. Instead, it continues to rely on U.S. counterterrorism assistance, while it continues to seek Chinese infrastructure largesse and conciliatory behavior in the South China Sea — making gains from both sides while aligning truly with neither.

In the mounting U.S.-China competition, the states of Southeast Asia will have a certain degree of wiggle room, weighted by their geopolitical positions, between the two powers. And this situation will endure as long as the two great powers seek to co-opt these smaller players into their broader strategies.

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