If you want to know what the future of international affairs in the Asia-Pacific will look like stop looking at India, China, and the United States. Most states in Asia are not great powers, and it how they relate with regional and global hegemons that will set the tone for the future of the region and perhaps the international order.
The small states of South and Southeast Asia are not simply squares on the check-board of the New Great Game. Rather, they are seeking to balance the influence of multiple regional and global actors simultaneously. And, its working in their favor.
The rise of China and its potential challenge to U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific remains a major debate for many international analysts, International Relations scholars, and everyone in-between. There is now little question that China is a global power, and it is hard to imagine a future where the United State’s unipolar moment can sustain itself beyond a vague memory. How the relationship between these two massive economic and military powers develops can tell us a lot about what happens when established global powers are confronted with a rising challenger, and its repercussions for international politics, security, and stability.
However, to understand the future of Chinese hegemony in what has long been assumed to be America’s playground, we need to look beyond these two competing great powers. Analysts must first understand how small states are responding to shifting balances of power in the region. Maps that suggest smaller states either align or balance against a rising China miss the unique characteristics of small state foreign policy decision-making.
Small states (defined in loosely relative terms) make foreign policy choices in markedly different ways than their more powerful neighbors.
Scholars and analysts have never really moved past Thucydides’ often (mis)quoted observation that “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” Fortunately, for Asia’s smaller countries it is the the weak that will ultimately decide the future balance of power in the region.
Smaller/less power states do not simply bandwagon with a rising power or balance against it. It is clear that such states are actually uniquely positioned to do both, and do it with a level of sophistication that few great powers could hope to muster. Professor Evelyn Goh has noted that Southeast Asian states pursue a strategy of “omni-entrenchment,” whereby they seek to attract the interest and influence of multiple regional and global great powers simultaneously. Their primary concern is ensuring their sovereignty. They do that by ensuring that no one country holds the trump card on their economies, security policy, and general decision-making ability.
Mongolia has done this explicitly since its transition to democracy in 1991, where the “Third Neighbor Policy” has been a central component of the small states’ ability to balance the influence of its two overbearing neighbors, China and Russia. It does this by developing strong ties to the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, and the E.U. so as to ensure that multiple countries are entrenched, or have a stake in its continued autonomy and sovereignty. While it is not really possible to balance out the economic influence of China, as a key market for Mongolian natural resources, the country is more than capable of ensuring significant military and diplomatic relations with the U.S., E.U., and U.N. to diversify its economic ties by trade relations with South Korea, Japan, and India.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN states, with some exceptions, have been an ideal model of omni-entrenchment for quite some time. The goal of countries like Singapore and Indonesia clearly have nothing to do with alignment or balancing. These small states recognize that their interest lies in ensuring an optimal balance of Chinese and American influence. This gives them access to Chinese markets and goods, while relying on U.S. military prowess to guard their security interests.
Myanmar’s own fast-pace democratization and liberalization was largely motivated by its increasing isolation and reliance on Chinese diplomatic and economic relations to the possible detriment of its own sovereignty. The Generals of the Burmese Tatmadaw may have been worried about loosing their own hold on power, but they were even more worried about being isolated with China holding their only lifeline.
For South Asia’s smaller states, namely Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, the circumstances are a bit more complicated, but the guiding logic of omni-entrenchment remains. Rather then concern about the the U.S. or China, these states look almost exclusively to another aspiring, regional hegemon: India. Despite New Delhi’s explicit interest in developing and maintaining friendly relationships with the rest of South Asia, India has taken provocative actions against its neighbors, interfering in domestic politics and trade. India implemented an undeclared trade embargo on Nepal following the passing its new constitution, has supported opposition forces in Bangladesh, and meddled in Sri Lanka’s Tamil areas, to name some examples that would set any state or government on edge.
China is on track to challenge U.S. hegemony around the globe, unless its own tendency towards belligerence, especially, but not exclusively, in the South China Sea holds it back. The United States is not necessarily a more reliable partner for small states in the region, with its history of supporting authoritarian regimes and destabilizing rhetoric and actions in the region.
That said, many observers seem to have missed that small states have more freedom to act and develop their own foreign policy objectives that at any other time in history. The norms of the international system, especially the broad consensus against overt imperialism and colonialism, means that small states cannot be simply conquered and forced to comply with the strong.
Small states that are in the driving seat of Asia-Pacific geopolitics. The good news is that they are not interested in unipolarity, regardless of who is on top. They don’t want Chinese predominance in the region any more than U.S. hegemony. This means that no one powerful state need worry that it will lose all influence or interest. The bad news is that great powers and scholars of international affairs still haven’t gotten the memo, continuing to assume that small states balance or bandwagon (align) in an imagined all-or-nothing game.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.