A Better Approach to Competing with China among “Middle Powers” in Southeast Asia Published April 27, 2023 By Prof. Michael Kraig In the maritime expanse of Southeast Asia (SEA), US challenges in power projection and deterrence are the result of complex geopolitical realities as much as “the tyranny of distance” or the growth of Chinese conventional missile forces. Even as the United States loses its (relative) military edge, it is operating amidst an exponential increase in common free-market interconnections and a continued inability of even ‘friendly’ regional states to come together behind common goals at a social and political level of relations. In particular, diplomatic efforts to stitch together an all-Asian coalition to mount an effective “defense by denial” campaign in a militarized crisis in the Taiwan Straits or Senkakus will almost certainly run afoul of the actual developmental interests and concerns held by diverse states in SEA. This article describes and explains what is meant by “middle power behavior” in SEA, in the process demonstrating that this sub-regional operating environment is in fact as strongly defined by diverse middle-tier states as by “great” or rising” powers, encompassing Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Singapore. The region is thus defined not by domestic similarities but by extreme differences in national interests due to a diverse array of domestic ethnicities, political institutions, economic capacities, and territorial claims. This said, SEA mid-tier developing states share three core, defining characteristics: national political and cultural diversity, including complex ethnic identity schisms within as well as between states; positive economic interdependence; and negative transnational threats to development. As argued below, these geopolitical factors then motivate common strategic foreign policy behaviors that are often at odds with US (and Chinese) strategic views of the world. I describe and define this operational environment by first outlining US and Chinese strategic practices, expectations, and worldviews, then proceeding into the very different strategic views of disparate middle-tier states. The analysis then suggests implications for great power relations, including the necessity of new and more effective US approaches across the instruments of power. American and Chinese Strategic Cultures Each great power has their own biases for how smaller powers should behave economically, militarily, and diplomatically. The United States as a preeminent liberal power has traditionally expected nations to resist non-liberal economic ideas and institutional roles promoted by the authoritarian, statist-capitalist Chinese rising power, favoring classic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank. All such institutions have focused increasingly on “good governance” as the core developmental vision, including attacking corruption, as opposed to large construction projects that the United States once touted in the Cold War and which are now instead promulgated by Chinese industrial aid policies. Also, the United States expects a hardline commitment to the Law of the Sea’s view of territorial disputes and resource claims, and in general, a shared commitment to balancing Chinese “assertiveness.” In contrast, China remains focused on following the dictates of an evolving strategic culture premised on three broad influences. First, elites and the populist intelligentsia, and even a significant part of the novel-reading public, now celebrate and sincerely believe in a “glorious” and “benevolent” dynastic past, in which minor powers voluntarily gave fealty via cultural and economic binding to the superior (yet magnanimous) civilizational dictates of the Middle Kingdom. Second, elites and popular sentiments alike now define their common bonds in terms of historical grievances: a cultural focus on China’s Century of Humiliation as a colonized state under the thumb of Western imperial powers, which resulted in a landless, economically repressed and destitute majority of peasants, followed by the deaths of 10s of millions of citizens in WW II. Finally, both elites and citizens harbor the sentiments of a mature pro-system power now enjoying Great Power status within its own region, based upon its tremendous capitalistic rise – the primary nationalist sentiment here being pride rather than grievance. Based on these intertwined strategic-cultural factors, Beijing tends to view middle powers as natural counter-weights against presumed-hegemonic Western designs – and, expects these same powers to generally welcome beneficent Chinese intrusions of capital and labor. Middle Power Realities SEA as a vast sub-region will continue to dash the idealized futures imagined by both Washington and Beijing. The vast sub-region is defined by several behavioral – that is, strategic-cultural – commonalities amongst the original founders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely: Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In particular, these states’ primary concern is less a bald takeover bid by a larger Chinese military, and more about so-called “non-traditional” or “transnational” human security threats, which in turn often are intertwined with fractious and potentially destabilizing domestic disputes between starkly-different communal identities. Across SEA, these interconnected governance challenges could undermine leaders’ efforts to build their own cohesive, unified, and prosperous national polities. Except for the example of Singapore, domestic underdevelopment is the common driver of both illicit globalization and domestic societal feuds. Here, the worrying list includes: severe worsening of illicit and illegal fishing, which is now believed to threaten the entire ocean ecosystem and the very existence of a fish diet throughout Asia within a few decades if not dealt with; the poaching and trafficking of rare wildlife as well as human beings, again threatening ecosystem collapse and erosion of the rule of law in capitalistic trade; and finally, still in the background: traditional conventional deterrence against external predation, including ongoing disputes with other middle powers as well as China. In the face of these governance challenges, common foreign and security policy approaches include: A fierce search for national sovereign autonomy from the dictates of others, despite globalized economic interdependence; A focus on economic security often over and above pure military security, and connected to this: a tendency to rely very strongly on subtle, and largely bilateral, diplomatic and economic punishments to “send a message” to a competitor (or even an errant friend or partner), rather than relying on all-out coercive sanctions or hard-military threats; A deep and abiding allergy to anything resembling a principles-based, long-term military alliance that includes full predictable basing rights and common defense doctrines (as in Western Europe or in the US-Japan alliance); An elite focus on quiet, fluid, and pragmatic bilateral diplomacy to hammer out sensitive issues, based on diffuse diplomatic norms such as avoidance of sharp coercive threats; persistent seeking of consensus; shelving of a dispute until a better, later date; achieving compromise by opening the bargaining space to multiple unconnected issue areas (e.g., combining together agreements on resource disputes, immigration issues, the environment, and illicit trafficking concerns); acting according to norms of reciprocal benefit and respect in relations; and partaking of confidence-building activities in shared areas of maritime security, such as search and rescue exercises and maritime law enforcement in the Commons; Finally, and underlying all of the above: a longstanding, post-colonial allergy to interference in their internal affairs, whether in the form of US democracy promotion or Chinese pushing through of corrupt and culturally-invasive forms of financial and manufacturing deals. Moreover, these shared strategic-cultural, elite foreign policy behaviors do in fact have a commonly-held geographic basis. Despite absence of strong defense cooperation between them due to their extremely diverse socio-economic and political systems, these powers possess an innately high level of societal and physical autonomy from larger powers. In some cases, this is due to relatively large population sizes (all examples except Singapore); in other cases, a large expanse of national territory for strategic depth (Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines), and/or very clear blue-water or landed buffers from the societies and militaries of a much larger and stronger power (e.g., Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore – but alas, not Vietnam). Finally, these diverse Asian middle powers generally share a more intangible, but still very real, “societal” asset: a strong “sense of civic self,” that is, a well-defined civic-political community tied to a deep sense of historic territory or historical accomplishment. While this quality still often eludes the Philippines and Indonesia – the most under-developed middle powers of SEA – it is present in all other examples, either in the form of an intense pride in having constructed a modern meritocratic political and economic system (Singapore) or via equal pride in a more mythic, ethnic form of national cultural identity (e.g., Vietnam, Thailand, the Malay sub-population in Malaysia). The Operating Environment Facing Great Powers The behavioral result of these strategic commonalities amidst complex domestic differences is a regional operating environment defined by a complex web of largely bilateral ties, both with each other and with larger economies such as Japan, Australia, India, China, and the United States. These “spider web ties” are not exclusive in terms of “picking” one larger power as an ally or friend over another, covering both economics (finance, trade, manufacturing) and military relations (equipping, training, exercises, allowed use of ports and airstrips by varied external powers). Already, intermediate powers throughout Asia seek maximum economic, political, and military flexibility to ‘pivot’ in several directions at once, minimizing their dependencies on any one power (which would threaten their evolving ethno-nationalist identities) while maximizing material returns. They seek to turn weakness into strength through a complex foreign policy “portfolio” of transactional, pragmatic, and single-issue-based agreements that do not involve “siding” with any one power on a lasting basis. Such agreements involve mutual interests on one particular issue or threat (such as illicit immigration or smuggling), rather than a more abstract “values” agenda such as human rights, rule of law, democracy, or moral principles of free trade. Moreover, friendly relations in one area (such as weapons sales or trade) does not mean absence of intense competition in other areas (such as in contested fisheries or maritime oil and gas deposits) – including between the middle-tier SEA powers themselves. The past two decades, for instance, have seen serial disputes over military airspace and competing maritime claims between Singapore and Malayisa, while intense disagreements and brokered cooperation alike have defined bilateral relations between Indonesia and Malaysia on the issues of maritime oil claims and sensitive ethnic migrations across borders. Nonetheless, such deal-making may have properties of ‘limited’ or ‘partial’ alignment with one great power pole so as to signal displeasure towards a competing great power that is “overstepping its bounds.” However, such partnerships tend to be temporary and highly conditional, rather than resembling a deep alliance based on shared values.[22 Bluntly: SEA middle powers share a deep wariness towards any attempts by major powers to “integrate” Asia on their terms. Thailand, for instance, has dragged to a halt an ambitious Thai-Chinese high-speed rail project that would benefit China greatly by linking China to Malaysia via Thai sovereign territory, coming through Laos. The trans-border aspects of the railway promise far more benefits to China than to the major population centers and tourist attractions within Thailand-proper, which are already linked via slower rail lines and budget airlines. Moreover, cultural frictions have surfaced as Thai project managers have apparently chafed under the dictates of Chinese construction company management. And in next-door Malaysia in 2018-2019, Malay diplomats delivered blunt ripostes against Chinese financial deals and large infrastructure projects, fueled by a highly-nationalistic, inter-ethnic electoral coalition that was focused on protecting internal construction firms, Malay laborers, and domestic sources of capital – as well as the Malaysian fiscal balance sheet from unsustainable, white elephant projects that were pushed through by a previously-corrupt regime. Reluctantly, Beijing agreed to new and far more equal financial, corporate, and labor terms for the planned projects. Given that China had pushed through such deals with the previous, highly-corrupt leadership circles in Kuala Lumpur prior to the latter’s rout in elections, this turnabout in affairs was an embarrassing strategic setback in bilateral relations. Notably, SEA reactions to interference often occur at both the elite and popular levels. For instance, the Chinese naval towing of a new deep-ocean oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast in 2014 resulted in such violent public, mass popular reactions that thousands of Chinese resident workers had to flee Vietnam. Two Chinese nationals ultimately died in riots directed against ethnic-Chinese-owned businesses amid elite-level diplomatic sparring and naval clashes surrounding the rig. It is not, however, always about China. In the early 1970s, these same states pushed back against perceived Japanese attempts at soft power hegemony in development, trade, finance, and culture. In Thailand, this resulted in mass protests of citizens against Japanese embassies, with threats to turn violent. At issue was growing dependency upon Japan, in which its reparations payments for WW II occupations were generally accompanied by greater Japanese access to both raw commodities and to SEA domestic markets for finished products. SEA powers suffered from chronic trade deficits amidst a perception that Japanese foreign direct investment was “shallow” in nature, serving only its most direct material needs. Given the fairly recent realities of Japanese colonialism, this stoked popular as well as elite mistrust. Simultaneous elite and societal protests were ultimately effective: Japan responded with renewed cooperative diplomacy and changes in the ways it gave development aid and monies under the new “Fukuda Doctrine” of 1977, with $1 billion added in the form of condition-free aid and friendlier inter-society relationship-building alongside economic ties. Finally, Malaysia and Indonesia have also issued negative diplomatic broadsides at the recent US-Australia-British “AUKUS” agreement, which they view as unhelpfully aimed at hard-balancing of China via exercises and advanced submarine sales and construction. Core ASEAN members do not want to see East Asia “divided” in a grand ideological contest reminiscent of the Cold War, as this might (in their perception) undermine mutual areas of cooperation towards socio-economic development and amelioration of transnational threats. SEA middle powers thus work hard to keep “Great Power Competition” firmly at bay. In sum: mid-tier SEA states have a rich history since achieving independence of steering multifaceted relations away from whichever regional great power seems the most domineering at the moment, and towards other powers seen as providing a moderating influence against regional hegemony. Middle SEA powers eschew over-dependent relations so as to equally avoid “abandonment” or “entrapment” by a greater power, in the process making clear that current channels of cooperation in any particular issue area can be selectively ended or diluted if sovereign autonomy is threatened. However: such bilateral punishments, when they occur, are not geared towards making a state an “enemy” by ending all areas of mutual cooperative benefit. These dynamic diplomatic, security, and economic gyrations create a fluid “balance of interests” that is far cheaper for developing polities than the purely military version of deterrence that dominates US posture in Asia. Conclusion: US Adaptation across the Instruments of Power SEA will continue to be fragmented among diverse polities with highly-divergent national interests, even as it is becoming more densely interwoven in the economic sphere. Given this environment, the focus of a broader US security posture should not just be about military and hard-economic balancing of Chinese power. To compete effectively with China, the United States should adopt a more nimble, as well as more reliable and sustained, commitment to meet middle-tier SEA states “where they are.” This requires a reformed US diplomacy via new organizational capacities in the US State Department for tracking of the complex web of bilateral deals and animosities amidst these middle-tier states, and more crucially, for seeking pragmatic, fluid areas of mutually-beneficial cooperation on a discrete issue-by-issue basis. A new US approach would also ideally see a revitalization of the US Agency for International Development as an independent department, separate from the State Department, focused on infrastructural improvements, water access, and more effective education systems. Finally, in the military realm, the operating environment is ripe for a US politico-military push to create a ‘common maritime operating picture’ in Asia. Via using growing commercial satellite vehicles and ground terminals as much as purely military platforms, an evolving information grid could latently feed into a military balance of power with China while more obviously helping middle-tier nations enforce laws in the global commons. A mixed military-commercial, government-civilian effort by the United States and its space industries could bilaterally increase each separate middle powers’ ability to see, hear, process, and interpret data relating to maritime awareness. In this regard, Air Force efforts towards realizing “Joint All-Domain Command and Control” (JADC2) could suggest areas of further technology and platform sharing with less-developed SEA states. Dr. Michael Ryan Kraig Dr. Kraig is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at Air Command and Staff College. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University at Buffalo, New York, with a major in international security studies and a minor in comparative politics. Dr. Kraig served in several senior capacities with the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan foundation devoted to researching and advocating security policy options for the US and its competitors that would moderate the extremes of their geopolitical disagreements. He was a frequent traveler to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to give scholarly presentations on US policy thinking and strategy, alongside management and implementation of broad-based “track-2,” informal diplomatic dialogues among a wide range of senior national and global political leaders, think-tank analysts, and academics from global capitals such as Tehran, Riyadh, Damascus, Cairo, Dubai, Muscat (Oman), Berlin, London, Moscow, and Beijing. 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Mak, “Malaysian Defense and Security Cooperation: Coming Out of the Closet,” 127-153, Chulacheeb Chinwanno, “Thailand’s Perspective on Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific,” 190-205, and Rizal Sukma, “Indonesia and Regional Security: The Quest for Cooperative Security,” 71-87, in Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation: National Interests and Regional Order ed. Seng Tan and Amitav Acharya (Singapore and NY: East Gate and M.E. Sharpe, 2004); Bilahari Kausikan, “Dodging and Hedging in Southeast Asia,” The American Interest 12 no. 5 (January 2017), https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/01/12/dodging-and-hedging-in-southeast-asia/; Cheng-Chwee Kuik, “How Do Weaker States Hedge? – Unpacking ASEAN states’ alignment behavior towards China,” Journal of Contemporary China 25 no. 100 (2016): 500-514; Ann Marie Murphy, “Beyond Balancing and Bandwagoning: Thailand’s Response to China’s Rise,” Asian Security 6 no. 1 (2010): 1-27; Amirza Adi Syailendra, “A Nonbalancing Act: Explaining Indonesia’s Failure to Balance Against the Chinese Threat,” 237-255, in Asian Security (Special Issue on Great Power Rivalry, Domestic Politics, and Southeast Asian Foreign Policy) 13 no. 3 (2017); and N. Ganesan, “Historical Legacies in East and Southeast Asian International Relations,” in N. Ganesan, Bilateral Legacies in East and Southeast Asia, 9-14. [18.] On chronic challenges still facing civic society and socio-economic development in the Philippines, see Donald Weatherbee, “Political Change in SEA: Challenges for U.S. Strategy,” in Ashley Tellis and Michael Wills (ed.), Strategic Asia 2007-08: Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy (Seattle, Washington: National Bureau for Asian Research, 2008), 235-266; on Indonesia, see Aspinall and Mietzner, “Non-Democratic Pluralism in Indonesia” and Bayuni, “Is Indonesia’s national unity falling apart?” [19.] Shiraishi Takashi, Maritime Vs. Continental Asia: National Strategies in a Region of Change (Boulder, CO: Lynne-Reinner Press, 2021); for Malaysia, see also James Chin, “The Costs of Malay Supremacy,” The New York Times, August 27, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/opinion/the-costs-of-malay-supremacy.html. [20.] See all sources in footnote 17. [21.] Ganesan and Amer, “Conclusion,” International Relations in Southeast Asia, 313-337; Ck Tan, “Five things to know about the Singapore-Malaysia territorial dispute: Flare-up over air traffic spreads to maritime map,” Nikkei Asian Review, December 11, 2018, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Five-things-to-know-about-the-Singapore-Malaysia-territorial-dispute2; for Malaysia-Indonesia, Bernama, “Malaysia, Indonesia achieve breakthrough in territorial disputes,” FMT News (Kuala Lumpur), November 22, 2018, https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2018/11/22/malaysia-indonesia-achieve-breakthrough-in-territorial-disputes/; Donald Greenlees, “Oil-rich islands split Malaysia and Indonesia,” The New York Times, March 8, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/08/world/asia/oilrich-islands-split-malaysia-and-indonesia.html. [22,] Kuik, “How Do Weaker States Hedge?”; “Mak, “Malaysian Defense and Security Cooperation”; Chinwanno, “Thailand’s Perspective on Security Cooperation”; Sukma, “Indonesia and Regional Security: The Quest for Cooperative Security.” [23.] Toru Takahashi, “China’s pan-Asian railway sputters to a halt in Thailand,” Nikkei Asian Review, January 16, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/China-s-pan-Asian-railway-sputters-to-a-halt-in-Thailand. [24,] Richard Javad Heydarian, “Malaysia’s new government is pushing back against China,” Al Jazeera, September 4, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/malaysia-government-pushing-china-180903094313472.html; Alexandra Stevenson, “China Yields on Malaysia Rail Project as Global Infrastructure Program is Reexamined,” The New York Times, April 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/12/business/chinese-high-speed-rail-malaysia.html; “China Signals Belt and Road Shift with Malaysia Rail Project,” Al Jazeera, April 15, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/china-signals-belt-road-shift-malaysia-rail-project-190415072550955.html. [25.] Jane Perlez, “Chinese Oil Rig Near Vietnam to Be Moved,” New York Times, July 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/world/asia/chinese-oil-rig-near-vietnam-to-be-moved.html?_r=0; see also Cheng Guan Ang, “China’s Influence over Vietnam in War and Peace,” 80-100, in Goh (ed)., Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia [26.] Il Hyun Cho and Seo-Hyun Park, “The Rise of China and Varying Sentiments in Southeast Asia toward Great Powers,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Summer 2013), pp. 69-92, especially pp. 78-79. [27.] Staff Writers, “Indonesia and Malaysia jointly amplify warning about AUKUS Pact: Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines could start arms race” Radio Free Asia, October 18, 2021. [28.] Ngeow Chow Bing, “Have Friendly Malaysia-China Relations Gone Awry?” (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 16, 2021), https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/07/16/have-friendly-malaysia-china-relations-gone-awry-pub-84981; Cheng Guan Ang, “China’s Influence over Vietnam in War and Peace,” 80-100, and Ralf Emmers, “China’s Influence in the South China Sea and the Failure of Joint Development,” in Goh (ed)., Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia; Freedman, “Malaysia, Thailand, and the ASEAN Middle Power Way.” [29.] Michael Kraig, “The Globalized System, Air and Space Power, and the Geostrategic Value of Maritime Small and Middle Powers in Asia,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs (Summer 2019), The Globalized System, Air and Space Power, and the Geostrategic Value of Maritime Small and Middle Powers in Asia (af.edu).