Asia Defense | Security | Southeast Asia

Searching for Guardrails: A Vietnamese Perspective on Strategic Equilibrium Amid Uncertainty

The onus is on Southeast Asian countries to seize the initiative and collectively assert their role in shaping a regional order in a state of flux.

Searching for Guardrails: A Vietnamese Perspective on Strategic Equilibrium Amid Uncertainty
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In a world marked by growing geopolitical uncertainties, Southeast Asian nations are at risk of being entrapped in an increasingly intense and complex power struggle between the United States and China. This is particularly true for countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, which lie along the fault line of the Sino-U.S. rivalry.

As Southeast Asian states engage in strategic adjustments to maintain a delicate sense of equilibrium, we should take a pause and contemplate the truly vital questions: What does strategic equilibrium look like from a Southeast Asian perspective? Could “hedging” – a diplomatic strategy that allows states to manage risks by maintaining open and flexible relations with competing powers – remain a viable option in light of greater geopolitical uncertainties? We provide some preliminary answers to these critical questions, first by making the case that Southeast Asia can only achieve strategic equilibrium if it can nudge the two superpowers toward a new modus vivendi.

Such a modus vivendi should not be a “superpower condominium” but rather a set of transparent guardrails to prevent the world’s most important bilateral relationship from spiraling out of control. Consequently, we provide an evaluation of the utility of hedging vis-à-vis the available alternatives. Ultimately, we argue that hedging remains viable but will increasingly require more creativity and active balancing efforts.

Strategic Equilibrium: A Regional Perspective

Drawing inspiration from the concept of Nash Equilibrium in game theory, strategic equilibrium can be generally understood as a situation where no actor can improve its position by altering its strategy, regardless of the actions taken by others. In the context of international relations, strategic equilibrium refers to a state of balance and stability among the key players in the international system. This strategic equilibrium thus falls apart when major actors take actions to improve their relative power positions. For instance, the early years after 1945 witnessed a lack of strategic equilibrium on a global scale as the U.S. and USSR actively sought to push the borders of their respective blocs to the limit and gain relative advantage over their rival.

From Vietnam’s perspective, there are two distinct but interconnected levels of strategic equilibrium: superpower and regional equilibriums. Superpower equilibrium refers to the stability of the bilateral relationship between the leading superpowers, in this case, the U.S. and China, whereas regional equilibrium pertains to the stability in the ranking among various states in the region and the absence of events that could endanger the region’s security. While the two levels are mutually reinforcing, the former tends to have a greater impact on the latter than vice-versa, as superpowers are more capable of shielding themselves from the negative impact of instability.

From the perspective of Vietnamese policymakers, strategic equilibrium in Southeast Asia is likely to be predicated on the U.S. and China reaching a modus vivendi – that is, an informal set of rules to limit their power competition and allow both to peacefully coexist. More specifically, there should be mutual respect between the superpowers and a mutual acknowledgment that neither can truly dominate this critical region. Therefore, such a vision of regional equilibrium, first and foremost, depends on a lack of superpower crisis and conflict in Southeast Asia. In particular, the South China Sea issue must be peacefully managed and eventually resolved in accordance with international law and regional norms.

Furthermore, the superpowers should avoid forcing states in the region to take sides, as the Cold War had shown that taking sides can be highly detrimental to smaller states’ security and autonomy. Ideally, they should recognize that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as the leading regional institution, has a central role in maintaining a sense of balance and harmony in Southeast Asia. Indeed, ASEAN is well-positioned to enforce regional norms and foster a more equitable rules-based order that would not only curb excessive competition but would also promote prosperity for countries in the region.

Hedging Against Geopolitical Uncertainties

Hedging remains the optimal strategy for Southeast Asian states as they seek to navigate an increasingly unforgiving geopolitical landscape. From a Vietnamese perspective, diversifying foreign partnerships while targeting none, engaging with multiple powers in a transparent and balanced manner, and playing an active role in multilateral institutions could allow states to enhance their strategic autonomy and reap the benefits of economic growth while mitigating security risks.

However, hedging is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of growing U.S.-China tensions and the intensifying competition for influence in the region. Southeast Asian states must walk a fine line, balancing their relationships with both superpowers while ensuring that neither fully hegemonize the region. This requires a nuanced and flexible approach, which demands that policymakers remain constantly attuned to the shifting dynamics of great power competition.

If hedging becomes increasingly tenuous, the key alternatives are alignment, non-alignment, and multilateralism.

The first option, alignment, requires siding with either the U.S. or China, potentially leading to dependency and direct repercussions with the rival superpower. At the minimum, the aligned state will have less autonomy in foreign policymaking as it must toe the line set by the superpower patron. In contrast, non-alignment can help a state from becoming entrapped in the U.S.-China rivalry by virtue of neutrality. However, this may limit the benefits that such states can gain from their engagement with the two superpowers. By avoiding direct involvement in disputes, non-aligned states might miss out on opportunities for economic growth and security assistance.

Ideally, instead of simply maintaining equidistance from both superpowers, states would need to carefully calibrate their support for each superpower depending on the particular set of issues.

In practice, they would sometimes need to favor the U.S. more in one area and sometimes support the Chinese stance on different issues. This is called selective balancing, a form of hedging whereby a state selectively supports either superpower on a particular issue based on its own interests. The twin goals of selective balancing are to bolster one’s strategic autonomy and to satisfy the superpowers to the extent they would believe that revising the political status quo in the region is unnecessary and even counterproductive. For instance, a state may support the U.S. upholding maritime freedoms while not supporting the militarization of a particular maritime domain.

Guardrails as Great Power Nudge

To enable selective balancing, the third option of creating multilateral guardrails, with the goal of counterbalancing the superpowers’ influence, must be explored. While this may seem ideal in theory, building multilateral institutions is always fraught with difficulties, and states will constantly have to deal with collective action problems. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the entire group could shield themselves from the pressure of taking sides.

Although achieving strategic equilibrium in Southeast Asia will require a new U.S.-China modus vivendi, Southeast Asian states must also adapt their strategies to respond to the evolving dynamics of great power competition. This approach now requires more creativity, flexibility, and a greater commitment to regional cooperation.

To successfully navigate these tumultuous times and nudge the superpowers toward a modus vivendi, Southeast Asian leaders must engage in flexible diplomacy and commit to strengthening ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms, while exploring novel partnerships to diversify their economic and security relationships.

Southeast Asian states need to revitalize the idea of comprehensive regional security while taking the lead in promoting a normative and institutional order through the preservation of an ASEAN-centered regional architecture. Simultaneously, they must continue upholding regionalism and multilateralism anchored in international law and key principles, shared values and norms enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). This order would enhance ASEAN’s institutional strategic autonomy and unity, ensuring the bloc’s sustainable growth and resilience against disruptions and discontinuities.

The grouping also needs to push forth confidence-building measures and preventive diplomacy in the ASEAN Regional Forum and other ASEAN-led mechanisms while further institutionalizing the East Asia Summit as the region’s premier leaders-led forum on longer-term strategic issues. No less important are stronger alignment and effective coordination between the AOIP and ASEAN partners’ initiatives and cooperation frameworks, thereby testifying to the latter’s goodwill and public good responsibility.

Ultimately, the onus is on Southeast Asian countries to seize the initiative and collectively assert their role in shaping the regional order at a time of flux. By adopting a proactive and pragmatic approach, these states can safeguard their future as geopolitical uncertainties continue to grow and ensure that they remain autonomous in an age of superpower rivalry.

This article is based on the authors’ presentation at the Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update at the Australian National University, Canberra, on May 1, 2023.