Navigating ‘major power’ rivalry in Southeast Asia: Strategies for small states

Major powers like the United States and China, both giants of the global economy, are showing interest in Southeast Asia due to its enormous economic potential and geopolitical relevance.

The United States has long worked to increase its influence throughout Southeast Asia through programmes including the Blue Dot Network, the Build Back Better World effort, the George Marshall Plan, and a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS).

There’s also the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) a strategic forum comprising the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, and a strong involvement in the Asian Pacific Economic Congress.

China has advanced its goals through the expansive Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, forming the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Additionally, China is a key member of the BRICS group, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. These initiatives are part of China’s broader strategy to enhance its geopolitical and geo-economic influence, particularly in Africa.

Small and emerging middle powers in Southeast Asia must balance defending their sovereignty and interests with navigating the conflicting interests of these powerful nations within this complex geopolitical environment.

In light of this, let’s examine the strategies Southeast Asian small states and emerging middle powers can employ to survive and prosper amid fierce competition from global superpowers.

Strategy 1: Equitable Trade Relations

While smaller Southeast Asian governments have distinct geographical and political significance, they have the perfect location to play significant parts in the global economy.

To optimise their position, these countries should concentrate on distributing their commercial connections between China and the United States, the two leading powers with substantial regional impact. In order to improve trade portfolio diversification, diplomatic leverage, and economic resilience, this strategy involves expanding economic ties.

These nations may reduce their reliance on a single country by fostering a variety of bilateral and multilateral relationships, which will reduce the dangers associated with geopolitical tensions. Thanks to this strategy, they can also bargain more freely globally, allowing them access to additional markets and improved trading conditions.

Singapore is an excellent example of this approach. It ensures its economic interests remain secure in the face of tensions and changes in the world economy by sustaining a strong security alliance with the United States, while engaging in substantial trade with China. Smaller Southeast Asian governments could benefit from their strategic importance by addressing China and the US governments equally via this calibrated approach to trade relationships.

In addition to protecting them from excessive influence from either nation, such balanced trade policies put them in a position to benefit from business opportunities from both the Eastern and Western domains, promoting stability and sustainable progress in the region.

Strategy 2: Trade with non-US and non-China Partners

It makes sense for small Southeast Asian states to pursue trade prospects outside China and the United States aggressively. Small states can strengthen their economic independence and lessen their susceptibility to geopolitical swings by extending their trading networks outside these powerful nations.

This strategy comprises forging deeper economic connections with developing countries like India and Japan, and investigating unexplored markets in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Malaysia has demonstrated a strategy for effectively diversifying commercial partnerships.

This emerging power has recently expanded its trade portfolio by strengthening its economic ties with nations like South Korea, Australia, and Japan. Due to its strategic diversity, Malaysia has promoted resilience and economic growth while mitigating the effects of geopolitical tensions between the US and China.

Other small states can gain from following Malaysia’s lead and aggressively pursuing trade prospects outside the boundaries of great power rivalry. By exploring untapped markets and establishing alliances with a wide range of nations, these governments can lessen their reliance on any one superpower and create the conditions for long-term economic growth.

Strategy 3: Diplomatic Engagement and Conflict Resolution

Small Southeast Asian states must understand how crucial it is to resolve disputes amicably and diplomatically to control tensions with powerful nations, particularly China. These states prioritise a diplomatic strategy based on communication, negotiation, and consensus-building rather than confrontational approaches.

To resolve conflicts and promote regional stability, this diplomatic tactic entails the active involvement in multilateral organisations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). By cooperating constructively within these frameworks, small states can effectively manage conflicts and safeguard their interests without resorting to armed escalation.

A notable example of successful diplomatic outreach to China is the Philippines. Despite South China Sea territorial disputes, the Philippines has followed a constructive dialogue strategy, seeking diplomatic channels to mediate peaceful agreements.

The Philippines has protected its territorial integrity and maintained peaceful relations with China by putting diplomacy above confrontation. The Philippines’ strategy, which strongly emphasises diplomacy and conflict resolution in its dealings with major countries, offers valuable lessons for smaller Southeast Asian states.

These governments can maintain regional security and prosperity while managing the intricacies of a big power rivalry by embracing communication and negotiation. They also demonstrate their commitment to peaceful resolution and stability by refraining from conducting military drills and training in contested areas.

Strategy 4: Strategic Bipolar and Multipolar Diversification

Southeast Asia, a region of considerable geopolitical significance and economic commitment, is situated at an intersection of major power interests, particularly those of China and the United States. With several efforts to expand its influence, the United States has grown its presence in Southeast Asia.

In light of this, Southeast Asian nations must navigate an uncertain situation in which they must protect their sovereignty while juggling the competing needs of these superpowers.

It becomes clear that a multipolar and bipolar relationship strategy is required. Southeast Asian countries can strengthen their security and strategic independence without excessively depending on any one force by cultivating various alliances and partnerships.

In addition to reducing the dangers of geopolitical dependency, this strategy uses China and the United States’ competitiveness to draw in investments and development initiatives that advance their respective countries’ interests.

Ultimately, these countries can preserve a balance of power that upholds their sovereignty and fosters regional stability because they have adopted a multipolar policy. A bipolar engagement, on the other hand, allows nations to optimise acquisitions from both domains of power based on changes in global politics and national goals.

States alternate between siding with China and the United States in specific situations. For Southeast Asian nations hoping to survive in a high-stakes, highly competitive environment, this dual approach may be essential to their survival and prosperity in the face of threats from world heavyweights.

Handling the fierce rivalry between the United States and China presents significant hurdles for small Southeast Asian states.

However, these governments can effectively protect their sovereignty and interests in the complexity of the geopolitical landscape by adopting strategic tactics such as diversification of trade relations, engagement with non-US and non-China allies, and diplomatic conflict resolution.

Furthermore, small states may work together to address common issues and advance peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia by fostering regional collaboration made possible by organisations like Asean. Small states must continue to be flexible and robust in achieving their national goals and objectives as the dynamics of major powers change.

Small states can prosper in Southeast Asia’s changing geopolitical climate by being proactive and displaying strategic acumen in navigating the complexities of great power rivalry.

These states can promote stability, security, and prosperity for the entire region by working together and demonstrating a dedication to diplomatic engagement.

Brigadier General Mohd Shauari Mat Piah is a senior military officer with the Royal Malay Regiment of the Malaysian Army. He is currently a course member at the National Resilience College, Putrajaya.