Geopolitics Public Lecture 1-06

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

Date: 23 August, Tuesday                       

Time: 4pm – 6pm (networking from 3pm)

Venue: Pullman Kuala Lumpur City Centre, 4, Jalan Conlay, 50450, Kuala Lumpur

Hybrid seminar: physical event with live broadcast


Watch the event on Facebook or Youtube

Click here for the details of the programme and speaker’s profile

On the 23rd of August 2022, as part of Research for Social Advancement’s (REFSA) Geopolitics Series and in continuation to a Geopolitics Regional Dialogue held last month, REFSA hosted its inaugural Geopolitics Public Lecture. Titled “Navigating the Great Power Rivalries of the 2020s: Exploring Options of Southeast Asia”, the lecture was delivered by Professor Dr Kuik Cheng-Chwee, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Dr Ong Kian Ming.

This public lecture aimed to faciliate greater public knowledge and understanding of the complex dynamics of geopolitical trends and how it impacts Southeast Asia. It further explored key policy options and dilemmas facing Southeast Asian countries amid growing uncertainty. Professor Kuik and the discussants paid particular attention to the strategy of “hedging” (as opposed to “balancing” or “bandwagoning”) that regional countries have been pursuing vis-à-vis the competing powers, most notably China and the United States. Hedging is a policy without pronouncement: smaller and secondary states have been pursuing it without calling it as such.

While there is no consensus among experts if the current tension between the US and China marks the “New Cold War” or “Cold War 2.0”, it is generally agreed upon that the nature of this rivalry is getting more open, more direct and more confrontational. Professor Kuik unpacked this phenomenon by addressing: (1) how the current US-China rivalry has been unfolding in ways different from the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War; (2) who else is involved in the current big-power competition; and (3) so what: what do these intensifying power rivalries mean for smaller states in Southeast Asia?

The current great power rivalry between the US and China, unlike past tensions between the US and USSR, is not just unfolding along military lines. Admittedly, military competition has been central to the US-China rivalry, particularly over the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits disputes. However, the military aspects of this rivalry have been taking place side-by-side with their growing competition on a range of non-military domains. Examples include the US-China trade war since 2018, the US technology war against Huawei’s 5G, the pandemic diplomacy during the COVID-19, and the “decoupling” efforts surrounding the supply chain on semiconductor chips. Dr. Kuik thus described the US-China rivalry as taking place on the twin chessboards, namely: military and non-military chessboards. The growing attention and competition on the second chessboard has been in large part driven by a geopolitical imperative of pushing back China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and limiting Beijing’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Professor Kuik also stressed that this rivalry is no longer exclusive to just the US and China, but has grown to include players from both inside and outside of Asia, both directly and indirectly. After the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, India, Japan and Australia, the geopolitical situation has shifted dramatically. What was initially a security arrangement saw QUAD members increasing and strengthening their cooperation not only militarily but also developmentally and beyond. The notion of “Indo-Pacific” has evolved from a strategic construct to geopolitical reality, with signs of vertical and horizontal institutional expansion.

Other non-QUAD countries, primarily those located in Europe, have begun involving themselves more directly in the arrangement and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. Member states of the European Union, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands have been strengthening their presence in the region, and the European Union has itself launched an Indo-Pacific document. With Canada and South Korea now looking to do the same, the geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific region is getting more crowded.

This crowding of the geopolitical scene in the region presents opportunities for ASEAN, but also rife with risk. China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, even to friendly states, has caused growing apprehension and anxiety in Southeast Asia. This has, in turn, allowed the US to mobilize regional anxieties into a growing demand for its increased presence in the Indo-Pacific, strengthening its alliances and partnerships while preserving the US primacy, working together with “likeminded” countries in and out of Asia to constrain China.

However, ASEAN sees a thin line between “constraining” and “containing” China. Constraining and restraining China is desirable, but containing China is dangerous, as it would entail isolating and restricting China’s access to the international system. It increases the risk of polarizing the region. By comparison, constraining China is only intended to limit the scope of China’s coercive power.ASEAN views the constrainment of China as its geopolitical goal, but it is wary of how extra-regional powers’ attempts to contain China can escalate into confrontations reminiscent of the Cold War era.

What does this mean for Southeast Asia?

ASEAN sees a wide range of opportunities in the current geopolitical scene, which come hand-in-hand with a variety of risks, challenges, and uncertainties. Professor Kuik highlighted four as most important:

  1. Entrapment

Great power rivalries are not new to Southeast Asian countries, and the Sino-American rivalry is only the most recent iteration of a more pervasive trend. Most ASEAN countries have already suffered centuries of colonisation, followed by decades of the Cold War, and there is little appetite for newer rounds of big-power conflict in the region.

This is why Indonesia and Malaysia expressed concerns about the AUKUS agreement, particularly as they do not want to feel geopolitically entrapped into choosing a side in a rivalry among the big powers.

  1. Polarisation

Another risk in the ongoing rivalry is the risk of polarisation, which increases the risk of entrapment. Signs point to the fact that while we do not yet live in a polarised world, we are heading in that direction. ASEAN member states may not yet see eye-to-eye on the issue, but there is a general rejection of the notion that the US-China rivalry is ideological. Southeast Asian states reject the simple dichotomy of democracy vs autocracy.

This fear of polarisation is not unique to Southeast Asia. When invited to US-led “Chip 4 Alliance”, South Korea showed hesitation, despite being the United States’ long-time ally in Northeast Asia. Other regional leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, have also asserted that the geopolitical reality is not as black and white, not a simple democracy versus autocracy “divide”. In her words: “The world is bloody messy.”

  1. Marginalisation

ASEAN is also concerned that its central role in the region may be challenged by the non-ASEAN arrangements such as Quad and AUKUS. They are worried that as smaller and weaker countries, they will be sidelined in light of the ongoing, intensifying great power rivalries.

As a result, ASEAN has tried to put distance between itself from the QUAD and related arrangements, chiefly out of fears of marginalisation, polarization and entrapment. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) was only finalised in 2019, despite the region being central to the big-power courtships. While this seems like a lack of political will on the part of regional leaders, it is more likely that Southeast Asian states want to promote ASEAN centrality, emphasize ASEAN inclusivity, and preserve small l-state strategic autonomy in the long run.

  1. Miscommunication

Another reason why the ASEAN states have been cautious and prudent in embracing the Quad’s notion of “Indo-Pacific” is a deep-seated concern of sending the wrong signals to China. While ASEAN states are generally uncomfortable and anxious about China’s increased aggression, they want to avoid looking like they are “ganging up against China” with the US and its allies.

War is more likely to occur “by accident”, and if care is not taken to continue engaging China in good faith and avoiding miscommunication. An isolated China is likely to be an even more aggressive China.

So what can Southeast Asian countries do about it?

ASEAN’s options fall into three broad categories: balancing, bandwagoning and hedging, each involves different logics of action and mobilizing narratives.


Balancing calls on the logic of “security-first”, and is a staple idea in the Realist school of thought. According to the theory of Realism, states’ utmost priority is to maximise their own security. Militarily weaker states need to rely on alliances to ensure their survival so that they can concentrate on their domestic governance. This generally means that they need a stable and favourable “balance of powers”, where smaller states align themselves with a particular great power against their greatest existential threat, maximising their security.

Malaysia has a long history of balancing. In fact, it was one of our first foreign policy choice when we obtained independence from the British in 1957. One of our first moves as an independent nation was to join the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement (AMDA), which played a profound role in our defence policy even after Malaya was expanded to a larger federation of Malaysia in 1963, allowing us to contain communist threats from within and outside as well as to fend off the Konfrontasi with Indonesia. This was eventually replaced by the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), which took a more consultative role and drove Malaysia’s strategic shift towards non-alignment.

It is in the DNA of great powers to compete, making it unlikely that either the US or China will reduce their competition presence in Southeast Asia due in large part to the strategic location and other values of the region. Balancing against China is the option that the US and several allies have been trying to push and promote in the region.


Bandwagoning, on the other hand, is seen as the opposite of balancing. If and when small states choose to bandwagon, they ally themselves with the strongest power which can offer them maximisized economic and political advantage. The underlying logic is profit-first: if you cannot beat them, then join them for benefits. This is the option preferred by China.

Bandwagoning was a de facto approach for many states in the past, especially for those of us who once lived in a Sinocentric world order. While some believe that history is doomed to repeat itself, we are not bound by the past. The post-Westphalian norm of “sovereign equality” means that states care about sovereignty and territorial integrity; and states care about the rules-based world order we live in. The norm has been internalized and empowered small states not to kowtow to larger powers such as China or the US.

Some degrees of strategic alignment with the US, Australia and other countries is critical, but it does not necessarily need to be upgraded into a fully-fledged alliance. Instead, most ASEAN states choose to maintain and use “alignments without alliance” as a platform to mitigate threats to regional security, all while maintaining prosperity, security and stability of its individual members.


Accordingly, there is a third option that small states have been practising quietly. This is known as hedging, which has become the preferred strategy over time. The underlying logics of hedging include: don’t place all eggs in one basket; avoid burning the bridge; keep the options open; work for the best and prepare for the worst. There are some misunderstandings about what hedging is. Some see the term negatively because they link the word “hedging” with “hedge funds” which caused the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s; and some view the word with reminiscent of uncertainty and instability. The uninitiated often consider hedging opportunistic and dishonest.

However, hedging is a perfectly rational and logical behaviour, especially under two conditions: (i) stakes are high and (ii) uncertainty is high. Hedging, derived from the phrase “hedging bets”, is about avoiding speculation. It works by maintaining good relations with both ends of the bipolar power divide, and is seen as the in-between of balancing and bandwagoning. Hedging is not ideal, never perfect, and it entails its own problem; but hedging is a necessary approach, chiefly because nobody can predict how the Sino-American rivalry will turn out. Nobody knows for how long the US will maintain its commitment in the region, whether China will grow more aggressive, and whether there will be Cold-War 2.0 and how it will affect us.

Professor Kuik concluded his lecture with the reminder that in the real world, there is no such thing as the ideal or “first best” policy option; there is no such thing as a policy choice that comes without a cost or tradeoff. As an insurance-seeking approach, hedging is aimed at mitigating and offsetting risks. It cannot eliminate risks; no policy can do that. Though hedging cannot guarantee any outcome, the approach allows states to reduce risks and reduce losses if things go awry. By insisting on not taking sides among the competing powers while diversifyng strategic and developmental links as inclusively as possible, hedging allows states to preserve their autonomy externally and preserve their authority internally for as long as possible, even and especially as the space for manoeuvring is shrinking as big-power rivalries intensify.

Panel discussion

YB. Dr Ong Kian Ming, Former Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industrymoderated a panel discussion between Professor Kuik Cheng-Chwee, Dr Zokhri Idris as well as Ms Stephanie Char.

Ms Stephanie Char brought up salient points about the distinction between internal and external balancing. She stressed the importance of capacity building from within, from both military and economic standpoints, as well as increased self-sufficiency and diversified economic ties with the great powers of our times.

She also stressed the importance of maintaining political independence from great powers and maintaining sovereignty, especially as the ratification of the CPTPP and attendance at the Summit of Democracies become increasingly politicised.

Dr Zokhri Idris raised four scenarios that Southeast Asian nations should consider in formulating their foreign policy.

  1. Are we truly returning to a cold war era with a clear bipolar system?
  2. In the event that we are entering into a new cold war, what are the characteristics that distinguish it from the previous cold war?
  3. If we discount the clear structure of a cold war, could a multipolar structure be the new world order?
  4. What are the intentions of the great powers in the context of the US-China rivalry?

The panelists also delved deeper into various adjacent topics, including the Malaysia-China relationship, India’s role as a rising power, as well as foreign policy initiatives moving forward. To hear exactly what they discussed, watch our recording of the event on YouTube or Facebook!


– Report prepared by Lauren Lopez, intern at REFSA

Your Cart