Throughout U.S. President Donald Trump’s four years in office, the risk of war in Asia has been alarmingly high. From nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea, to ongoing disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, to escalating Chinese threats to Taiwan’s security, there are numerous potential flashpoints in Northeast Asia that will demand the next administration’s resources and attention – all amid the overarching great power competition with China.
While these threats remain pressing, the next administration would be wise to shift its attention to Southeast Asia, which has emerged as the epicenter of U.S.-China rivalry and more likely site for superpower conflict. Although the potential for smaller powers to kick off a localized conflict should not be ruled out, the real danger stems from the likelihood of the United States and China overreaching by misreading ambiguous alignment of smaller powers in Southeast Asia as they compete for influence and allies.
The Risks of Ambiguity: Small Power Alignment in Southeast Asia
Compared with Northeast Asia, where a deeply embedded system of alliances has led to firmer alliance coordination and deterred potential adversaries such as China, Southeast Asian alignments remain more fluid. Though the People’s Liberation Army regularly tests the airspace over Japan, and the PLA Navy frequently sails into disputed waters around the Senkaku Islands, robust U.S. alliances with Tokyo and Seoul – and strong, albeit informal, defense ties with Taiwan – restrain greater Chinese adventurism that could lead to conflict. By contrast, in Southeast Asia, despite the U.S. history of alliances with Thailand and the Philippines, there has yet been no unified pushback to Beijing’s expansionist tactics.
Thailand has a long history of “bamboo diplomacy,” wherein it has leaned toward one great power or another as external circumstances affected its internal security. During the Cold War, Bangkok relied on U.S. support to shore up a military dictatorship and prevent the spread of communism in mainland Southeast Asia. Following the Global War on Terror, the alliance has run aground as shared interests have drifted, and Thais no longer view China as a significant threat. The Philippines, meanwhile, transitioned from balancing against China by enhancing its alliance with Washington during the administration of Benigno Aquino III to a period of engagement and rapprochement under populist President Rodrigo Duterte.
Recent scholarship has shown that, rather than loyalty, what junior partners often want from more powerful allies is reliability. That is, smaller states may not want the United States to make a large show of force but rather reduce instability by more carefully calibrated responses to case-by-case crises. Fearful of abandonment, the Philippines may have been testing U.S. resolve by threatening to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which underpins the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, and forge similar agreements with China or Japan.
Conversely, other partners, such as Malaysia or Vietnam, may be more concerned with the possibility of entrapment in a regional conflict between the United States and China that they don’t want. As Vietnamese analyst Le Hong Hiep recently observed, “As far as Vietnam is concerned, Hanoi does not wish to see a military conflict between the U.S. and China to flare up in the South China Sea. In case such a conflict does happen, Vietnam will try to stay neutral.” Others, such as Singapore, may resist closer alignment with Washington even if they have a (public or unspoken) desire for stronger U.S. military presence to counterbalance China’s growing influence, which threatens their sovereignty. This behavior tracks with Glenn Snyder’s argument: that in a multipolar system, allies pursue negotiated alignment postures that steer between their twin security concerns of entrapment and abandonment by great powers.
Ironically, small states’ efforts to preserve autonomy and enhance their strategic maneuverability have in reality worsened their position by causing great powers to lean on them more heavily in the hopes of winning them to their respective side. The desire to tilt both ways is understandable in a shifting balance of power. After all, small states have few options for self-defense and rely on external trade for economic growth. In an anarchic world, they seek to increase their wherewithal by playing great powers off one another. In Southeast Asia, that has long meant relying on the United States as regional security guarantor, while becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese trade and investment to boost development and raise living standards in their countries. China is now the largest trading partner for nearly all Southeast Asian countries and its geographic proximity makes it inescapable, even as neighbors try to deflect its influence in various ways.
Still, such a precarious position has advantages, as Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon write: “Even when states do not actively switch patrons, the possibility that they could provides them with greater leverage.” Despite this leverage, hedging is a dangerous game, and numerous players have benefited from great power politics for a time before being deposed. Consider Norodom Sihanouk, who maintained Cambodia’s neutrality during the Vietnam War until a coup led by General Lon Nol ousted him from power in 1970; or Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who curried favor with both the United States and Communist China until a Washington-backed military coup led by General Suharto overthrew his government. In what analysts are referring to as a “new Cold War” between the United States and China, such bloody covert operations could conceivably return to world politics.
The Dangers of Superpowers Overplaying Their Hand
Such tenuous alignments and shaky alliances produce a related danger that great power patrons will overreach in an effort to demonstrate resolve. Fears of China’s increasing influence have fueled regional perceptions of the United States’ declining political and economic influence. History is rife with examples of misguided military action based on fears that inaction would badly damage U.S. credibility. Concerns that the Washington could not risk the credibility hit of failing to defend South Vietnam are perhaps the best studied example of over-commitment to a conflict that was not vital to U.S. security interests.
Today, Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Singapore, and even Malaysia, may quietly support increased U.S. presence to push back on Beijing’s bullying tactics in the South China Sea, but they are careful not to voice those concerns publicly. Mixed messages from Southeast Asian capitals could lead Washington to misplay its cards. Rather than a policy of restraint that lets China alienate itself with its confrontational behavior, U.S. leaders appear tempted to overplay their hand and force a conflict in the South China Sea to forestall Chinese expansion. In such a scenario, the United States may be surprised by how suddenly it finds itself isolated, particularly if allies like the Philippines and Thailand decline to support U.S. confrontation of China.
The recent clarification of U.S. South China Sea policy and subsequent carrier deployment point to the probability of increased presence, not only of U.S. warships, but also those of allies like Australia, Japan, and even India. Indeed, the U.S., Australian, Indian, and Japanese joint exercise in the Philippine Sea in late July indicates this is already taking place. The Chinese military will undoubtedly view these moves as escalatory and respond with increased deployments by the PLA Navy, increasing the odds of more aggressive actions, “accidental” collisions between warships, as well as locking on ships with targeting radars. These developments further highlight the potential for great power conflict in Southeast Asia, which could draw in regional states. A conflict between Beijing and a regional claimant such as Vietnam could also threaten to invite a U.S. military response.
While China has continued its aggressive actions in Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese waters and air spaces, it has also done so with increasing frequency and intensity in Philippine, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian waters in the past few years. The growing presence of Chinese H-6K bombers and J-11 fighters on the Paracel Islands alone underscores how permanent the militarization of the South China Sea has become. While possibly deterring further Chinese assertiveness, the greater presence of U.S. and non-ASEAN member states’ warships increases the potential for conflict.
Chinese regional hegemony is not assured, but nor are sustained American interest and commitment to the region. Nevertheless, demonstrations of U.S. resolve must be carefully calibrated to its partners rather than purely maximalist displays of force and zero-sum declarations of confrontation with Beijing.
Reflecting the shift in threat levels outlined above, Washington must begin thinking of Southeast Asia as the frontline of competition with China and most likely space for interstate conflict.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, and an independent consultant at GlobalWonks.
Thomas Bruce (@tbrue1) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. He is a veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy.