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Navigating Great Power Rivalries of the 2020s: Exploring Options of Southeast Asia

By Tan E Hun

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the world order marked by American dominance in international affairs has been shaken. Against the backdrop of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the continued rivalry between the United States and China, the global geopolitical landscape is becoming increasingly multipolar. To put things into perspective, although tensions had by no means disappeared from the 1990s through to the 2010s, the possibility of nuclear war had been very distant until 2022. We are now entering a convoluted phase in the global geopolitical landscape.

As great powers flex their military and economic might across their spheres of influence, the 11 South East Asian countries are in a precarious position. Located strategically among global competing forces and amid rising global anxieties, the region is fast becoming an area ripe with opportunity and yet: rife with risk. 

In recent years, the region has become the epicentre of the economic, strategic and military rivalry playing out between the global superpowers. Most states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a political and economic union of ten member states in Southeast Asia, view the United States and its allies as indispensable partners. On the other hand, China is a vital source of economic and political partnership as many neighbouring states have also benefited from a largely favourable investment climate, for example being the first in line to benefit from investors’ increased appetite for alternative destinations for foreign direct investments due to China’s frequent pandemic lockdowns. 

So how should Southeast Asian countries respond to the ambitions and these great powers’ actions, inactions and interactions? 

Due to its limited political and military power to influence the current international order, it is clear that the region must find ways to manage global tensions, seek to maintain a viable position to avoid full-blown confrontations and, by extension, unintended negative consequences that would impact the nations socially, politically and economically.

Firstly, and importantly, there is a need to avoid falling into the binary trap of picking sides between the US and China by having an independent foreign policy that is geared towards gaining resilience in economic development, defence and other areas to develop strategic autonomy. Strategies such as ‘hedging’ (as opposed to ‘balancing’ or ‘bandwagoning’) are heavily explored by ASEAN countries and pursued vis-a-vis the competing powers. 

Secondly, the region can and should move away from one-size-fits-all choices and engage in a multi-layered and multi-aligned diplomacy that is inclusive, impartial and integrative. Regional dialogues have talked and deliberated about an à la carte diplomacy, with countries having multiple strategies in their toolbox as a way of resolving conflicts. This requires a mindset shift on the part of Southeast Asian states. Beyond simply rejecting the notion of picking sides between the US and China, ASEAN shouldn’t conceptualise geopolitics as a battle between western and Asian values. Instead of picking sides, the right approach could entail, for example attracting enough investment from larger countries such as the US and China so that acts of aggression become counterproductive to their broader strategic plans. Concerning China specifically, countries should recognise it as a multifaceted nation with its own internal logic rather than resorting to a stereotypical description of the power as a neo-totalitarian state and risking a self-fulfilling prophecy where China can no longer be engaged constructively.

Thirdly, to leverage ASEAN’s economic position as a crossroad between global superpower and economic blocs – that of China, the EU and the US – the region is already beginning to leverage its strategic position by entering into deeper economic partnerships with the great powers, including the US, via the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and China via the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement among 15 countries of the region. Hence, economically, there is great potential here for ASEAN states to coordinate further, not only to promote more intra-ASEAN trade on the back of stronger regional value chains, but also to strengthen ASEAN’s position as a trading bloc with bargaining power on the global stage. 

Whether in foreign policy, defence or economics, Southeast Asia can and should stress its autonomy from the global superpowers. This can’t happen out of thin air. Starting out as merely a geographical construct, ASEAN continues to evolve into a very important geopolitical bloc, with the notion of an ASEAN identity trending in the region. The EU plays a role in this by building new norms that can challenge the current world order – for example, the EU’s potential closer economic engagement with ASEAN can be part of the EU’s strategy and effort to counter China and/or the United State’s growing geoeconomics influence in the region. ASEAN countries, for their part, may warm up to more such engagements as the EU is typically regarded as a “neutral” party in the global superpower tussle. We have seen such efforts through the EU-ASEAN strategic partnership, and the EU’s pledge to support ASEAN Digital Masterplan 2025 and ASEAN Smart Green Cities program, to name a few. Further, acting as a balance amongst great power rivalries, the EU also serves as an important example of how multilateralism works. Deeper collaboration with partners around the world, including establishing deeper economic relations, has the potential to strengthen relations between the EU and ASEAN, against the backdrop of overall geopolitical complexities. 

The world as we know it has changed dramatically in a short period of time, from geopolitics and the economy to energy and food security. ASEAN will play a crucial role in not only navigating the great power rivalry but also building new relationships in this regard. Geoeconomics complexity would provide more leverage for ASEAN to carve out a middle ground between global competing interests. 

Ultimately, the Southeast Asia region finds itself at a crossroads amid the growing complexity of the multipolar world, and it needs to reinvent itself and come up with new strategies to manage its relationship with foreign powers. If it plays its part well, the region can benefit from global tensions and serve as a bridge between east and west. 

– Published in Progressive Yearbook 2023 on 25 January 2023 (full publication here).

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