Can Southeast Asia Avoid a New Cold War?
Beyond a Chinese sphere of influence and bipolar competition lies another scenario of a more multipolar order.
A new book argues that for all the talk of a new Cold War, Southeast Asia is more likely to be the epicenter of an emerging multipolar order rather than a site for bipolar competition or a Chinese sphere of influence.
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Can Southeast Asia Avoid a New Cold War?
WonkCount: 1,577 words (~8 minutes)
“A binary choice…is the only choice offered, if not by word, then by deed,” Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently warned at a major regional dialogue in the latest of several statements by Southeast Asian leaders about bipolar competition between the United States and China1. The cautiousness about bipolar choices and great powers in Southeast Asia is not difficult to empathize with for those who know its history — from colonial powers carving the region to a very hot Cold War that, irrespective of its outcome, also sparked genocide, strained ethnic and racial ties and solidified authoritarian rule2. In terms of where the region is today, the narrowness of a bipolar U.S.-China prism both understates the broader range of alternate partners engaging the region such as India and Japan as well as the agency of Southeast Asian states like Indonesia or Vietnam in shaping autonomous regional pathways3. In that vein, a number of recent books on regional dynamics, including my own, have emphasized the need to acknowledge the more complex and multipolar nature of balance of power dynamics beyond simplistic terms like a “new Cold War”4.
A new book by the Asia Foundation’s Thomas Parks, “Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future,” argues that Southeast Asia is more likely to be the epicenter of an emerging multipolar order rather than a site for a bipolar Cold War or a Chinese sphere of influence. Parks sees the region approximating what ex-top Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan (whose new book we reviewed here) has termed “asymmetric, dynamic multipolarity,” with the United States and China in a league of their own and other middle and smaller powers exerting their agency in multitiered competition and collaboration. The book’s argument advances in two parts (see table below for a snapshot). The first part (Chapters 2 to 5) defines some of the features of this order, including the unseen agency of Southeast Asian states, the utility of ASEAN as an organization, the realities of regime diversity and the expansion of external partners engaging the region. The second part of the book (Chapters 6 to 10) surveys a few of the key powers engaging Southeast Asia, with a focus on four: Australia, Europe India and Japan.
Chapters and Select Topics in “Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future”
The book deserves credit for attempting to shed light on the important question of how U.S.-China competition is likely to shape order in Southeast Asia. The oft-heard, simplified Southeast Asian refrain of “don’t make us choose” is only a symptom of a broader reality — that geopolitical rivalry looks fundamentally different to Southeast Asia than it does to either China or the United States. Both the United States and China will find it difficult to resist enlisting Southeast Asian support for their own objectives to preserve or gain influence at the expense of the other. But for Southeast Asian states, the real challenge is how to continue engaging both United States and China while ensuring neither is so consumed by their rivalry that they end up derailing the Indo-Pacific’s status as a hub of global economic growth and damaging the quest by developing countries in the region to advance their own aspirations. Aspects of that dark “endangered Asian century” scenario, a variant of which was laid out by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the pages of Foreign Affairs, are still commonly heard in Southeast Asian capitals5.
The book also makes a comprehensive and highly-readable case for viewing Southeast Asia through the lens of multipolarity. To illustrate the features of this multipolar order, Parks combines familiar concepts – including hedging by scholars such as Cheng-Chwee Kuik and Evelyn Goh and asymmetry theory popularized by academic Brantly Womack – with select qualitative mini-case studies and supporting quantitative data, from agency exerted by Malaysia pushing back against some projects in China’s Belt and Road Initiative to the diversified approaches adopted by major powers like Japan in the wake of the Myanmar coup. This evidence is important because skeptics of multipolarity argue that it represents more of an aspiration rather than the more bipolar reality as it stands today — with most other powers having some influence but not nearly enough to constitute comparable poles. The book also suggests a framework to compare alternative powers across diverse areas including economic attraction; reasonable balance on values promotion; and security cooperation. And for those interested in forecasting regional scenarios, Parks provides a clear sense of where he sees some trendlines heading so it is easy to see where one might agree or disagree (see table below for some illustrative examples).