Caught between the superpowers that are China and the United States, Southeast Asian countries may feel the pressure to choose sides. What then, is a prudent course to take?
Professor Khong Yuen Foong is the Li Ka Shing Professor in Political Science at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS. He was formerly Professor of International Relations at Nuffield College, Oxford University. His research interests include US foreign policy, international relations of the Asia-Pacific, and cognitive approaches to international relations. His recent publications cover the American tributary system and the US’ response to China’s rise.
In recent years, Asia has become bipolar, that is, it houses two great or ‘super’ powers whose comprehensive capabilities are head and shoulders above the rest in the region. The two powers are the US and China. And as international relations theory would have it, when the structure of an international or regional system is bipolar, the dominant logic is one that is characterised by serious geopolitical competition between the two main powers, not unlike the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
A major implication of bipolarity is that there is the tendency of the antagonists to view their own gains as losses for the other, and the need to corral as many allies as possible. This imperative has concerned leaders in the region about the looming pressure to choose between the two superpowers – and of making the right choice.
Where does Singapore stand?
As with most of its neighbours, Singapore would prefer to be in a position that does not necessitate the making of this choice. However, remaining good friends with both superpowers is likely to become increasingly difficult, with mounting pressure from them on Asian nations to make a choice. As evidence of this, one need only consider the pressures the two superpowers have exerted on their allies and friends to join, or avoid joining, the Trans Pacific Partnership, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Belt and Road Initiative, Huawei’s 5G, and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
The imperative of choosing wisely
Whether, how and when Singapore and its neighbours choose to align themselves with China or the US will undoubtedly have an impact on the future of their economies and societies. Choosing, or not wanting to choose, is creating so much ‘strategic angst’, because one lesson of the Cold War was that picking the ‘correct’ side greatly facilitated one’s chances of becoming a ‘little dragon’ or ‘tiger’ — the literature’s label for Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. In contrast, those who vacillated or chose the ‘wrong’ side found it much more challenging to scale the ladder of economic prosperity and political-social resilience.
A continuing conundrum — with a word of caution
Countries in Asia — particularly those in Southeast Asia — are likely to continue to face strong pressures from the two superpowers to choose between them. For some, China has the economic momentum and geographical advantage; for others, the US, as a multi-dimensional power, seems to be more attractive and formidable. One thing to watch out for in the ensuing years is which superpower will be more successful in coming up with political, economic and strategic initiatives that command the “buy in” of the ASEAN states.
While the Asian tigers and little dragon chose well in the past, we caution against assuming that previous success in choosing guarantees future success. That is why it seems worthwhile and important to drill deeply into understanding the anatomy of choice.
As the nations pick and choose between the programmes offered by the two superpowers, they are likely to reach a tipping point, one where their cumulative choices place them in one camp or the other — against their better judgement.
An ad-hoc approach to decision-making
To dissect this political conundrum, we need to examine four key questions. What does it mean to choose between the US and China? How can we track the shifts in movements or choices of Southeast Asian nations over time? What explains their alignment choices? And, finally, what are the implications for Singapore, the superpowers, and the region?
It may seem at first instance that states choose by deliberating on and summing up their strategic, economic, and values-based interests, and — when push comes to shove — simply aligning with the superpower that best meets their needs. While this may seem to be the way for survival, we suspect this is unlikely to be feasible. Instead, we propose that things are likely to proceed in a more piecemeal or ad hoc fashion — that is, Southeast Asian nations will decide whether to support and join discrete programmes and initiatives offered by the two superpowers.
Following that, we raise the second hypothesis: As the nations pick and choose between the programmes offered by the two superpowers, they are likely to reach a tipping point, one where their cumulative choices place them in one camp or the other — against their better judgement.
By clarifying the meaning of choice of the first hypothesis and theorising about the process by which alignment choices are made based on the second, we are in a stronger position to measure and track a nation’s shifts in alignment over time. Our work uses three sets of variables to track the movements: those that measure the strength of bilateral political-diplomatic, economic and military relations; those that measure a country’s involvement in multilateral initiatives on offer by the two superpowers; and the discursive actions (or “speech-acts”) of Southeast Asian leaders and cabinet-level officials.
We are measuring their positions over three-year time spans from 1985 to 2022, which will yield more than 12 data points for each country. We will then examine four drivers in particular: domestic politics, perceptions of economic opportunities, assessments of the US’ staying power, and threat perception. To validate the findings, the relevance and importance of these factors will be investigated via historical analysis of all 10 ASEAN countries’ relationships with the US and China.
Fieldwork — by which we mean going out to the ‘field’ to tap elite perceptions by interviewing policymakers, analysing their speeches and statements, and examining media portrayals of the US and China — will also be part of the research strategy. Through these efforts, we seek to further understand how the ASEAN countries make their geopolitical decisions on which power to align closer to.
This article was written by Professor Khong Yuen Foong and first published on 23 January in NUS News at news.nus.edu.sg/research/looking-2020-southeast-asian-countries-choose-between-us-and-china and has been edited for The AlumNUS.