Goals of This Study

Analyzing countries in the middle
In this flurry of tit-for-tats between the two superpowers and their allies, many countries are largely forgotten. Although the US-China competition is featured on the main stage of regional politics almost every day, it is usually framed as involving just a handful of countries: the United States, China, Australia, Japan, Russia, India, and some European countries extending their activities to the Indo-Pacific region with their own Indo-Pacific strategies. If the Indo-Pacific is defined as a wider region encompassing countries around the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it includes South Asia, East Asia, South-East Asia, Oceania and some major countries bordering or effectively participating in regional affairs. The total number of countries in the above categorization is around 60. Out of more than 60 countries, only 10 or so countries are considered the main players in the US-China strategic competition. The remaining 50 are largely cooperating and engaging with both camps without clearly aligning themselves with a particular strategic bloc.

More often than not, these countries feature as potentially important variables in the superpowers’ strategic competition. ASEAN or the Southeast Asian region is often dubbed as one of the flashpoints or venues for US-China rivalry. Nevertheless, these countries and regional organizations are described as subjects influenced by the strategic competition rather than as actors that actively shape the competition. Given the clear power asymmetry between these countries and the superpowers, they are often seen as the dependent variable rather than independent variable in how US-China relations will develop.

To fully appreciate the likely trajectory of how US-China competition will play out in the Indo-Pacific, a better understanding of the region’s perceptions and calculations is crucial. More importantly, these countries have their own ways to influence the US-China equation. One cannot simply brush aside these smaller powers if one wants to understand the whole picture and dynamics of strategic competition. This report is about these smaller countries and players. These countries in the middle may be small in power but are powerful in numbers. Their collective influence, if exercised effectively, is not a small variable. The report seeks to understand the perceptions, calculations, and strategies of these countries in the context of US-China strategic competition. This is the first goal of this report: unravelling smaller powers’ perceptions and strategies towards the two competing superpowers.

Systemic and analytical approaches: SWOT analysis
The second goal of this report is to take a deep dive into the individual countries in a more systemic and analytical approach. There is a growing interest in these countries in the middle, particularly Southeast Asian countries. In fact, there are long and short surveys of the strategic perceptions, postures, and calculations of these countries towards the superpower competition and towards the competing two superpowers. In many cases, however, the examination is largely based on anecdotal observations by experts in single isolated cases. The countries have diverse strategic and economic interests across the fields of great power competition. A country’s response to a particular issue, say maritime disputes in the South China Sea, supply chain issues, or joint military exercises, does not reveal the whole picture of a country’s outlook. Their strategic calculation in one issue area may substantially differ from its response in another area. Furthermore, a country’s perception of the great powers changes over time and its response to the same issue area can differ depending on the nature of the stimulus, such as demands or pressure from a superpower.

It thus requires a more systemic analysis of the country’s strategic perceptions, calculations and strategy towards the superpowers and their competition. It necessarily requires an analysis put in historical context of changing perceptions, relations, and partnerships with the superpowers over time. It also requires a higher level of abstraction in terms of the coverage. Rather than having a myopic focus on a particular issue or event, one has to cover a bigger picture over a longer time span. This approach may sacrifice a fine-grained insight on a particular event or development. However, it can reveal a pattern of behavior by these smaller powers, which can be utilized as a filter to interpret their responses towards the superpowers.

To add analytical value in this survey of individual countries’ perceptions, calculations, and strategies, the contributors to this report were asked to conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. A SWOT framework offers a unique comparative lens to identify similarities and differences across the countries in terms of the key dynamics at play in their relations with the United States and China. The authors were asked to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the United States and China vis-à-vis their countries. This reflected on the historical development of the respective bilateral relationships across issue areas from diplomacy and security to trade and culture. In addition, they were asked to canvass emerging opportunities and threats from the superpowers that will inform how their countries will engage them in the years to come. Using a SWOT framework that looks back into the past and also forward into the future enables a more systemic and analytical examination of these very diverse countries.

Individuality of strategies
As a scholar of Southeast Asia and ASEAN, some of the most difficult questions to answer relate to the question of individuality and collectivity in the region. Should we refer to Southeast Asia as singular, such as ASEAN, or as plural, such as its member states? When we discuss the region’s place in the US-China rivalry, individual countries might be considered “small” but ASEAN as a collective is undoubtedly a major actor, not to mention Korea’s second-largest trading partner. Do we have to deepen cooperation with ASEAN as a collective or with individual Southeast Asian countries? For example, what is the preferred format for trade cooperation? Similarly, is it possible to speak of a single ASEAN position on security crises like wars and military crises given the creation of an ASEAN Political-Security Community?

Of course, my answer is it depends on what cooperation we are talking about. Depending on the nature and areas of cooperation, there are areas we can cooperate with ASEAN as a  collective Southeast Asian entity and there are areas where we have to cooperate individually with Southeast Asian countries. While that may be an unsatisfactory answer, that is because of the nature of ASEAN as a collective regional organization of Southeast Asian countries. There are areas that Southeast Asian countries have enough consensus among themselves. For example, they can agree on a single ASEAN view on free trade agreements. In many non-traditional security issues, Southeast Asian countries also have similar interests and outlooks. But there are also areas in which individual Southeast Asian countries have diverse, perhaps even competing or conflicting, interests within the centrality of ASEAN. When it comes to defense and security cooperation, which are quint essential subjects of national sovereignty, Southeast Asian countries are not quite prepared to advance a single idea towards outside powers.

Largely because of the complex nature of ASEAN, which is not quite a solid organization of regional integration but still has a semblance of regional integration in some areas that go beyond simple regional cooperation, the debate over strategic perceptions, calculations and postures often does not make a clear distinction between national and ASEAN views. In many existing research works, experts move freely between discussing ASEAN and individual Southeast Asian countries at the expense of accuracy. An individual country’s perception and strategy are often extrapolated as covering all 10 ASEAN countries in general. On the contrary, sometimes, subtle differences among Southeast Asian countries are ignored by a broad brush of ASEAN. Both approaches do not give us a clear picture about either ASEAN or individual Southeast Asian countries.

This study examines the strategic perceptions and activities of seven of these countries in Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Also, a chapter focuses specifically on ASEAN as a distinct entity. Out of 10 ASEAN countries, seven countries along with ASEAN as a regional organization were carefully selected. Three countries were omitted: Myanmar, Laos, and Brunei. Practically, it was not easy to find authors from these countries with a deep foreign policy insight into the countries’ relations with the superpowers. Second, these countries are among the smallest of the ASEAN member states and whose foreign policy choices have been of the lowest priority to both the United States and China in their competition for influence, notwithstanding the current domestic turmoil in Myanmar.

Before I move on to individual chapter outlines, a few words should be added on why this volume still keeps ‘ASEAN’s SWOT on China and the US’ as a separate chapter since this volume’s intention is more an analysis of individual countries’ strategy. ASEAN does not have a mechanism of foreign policy decision-making. The regional organization has neither instruments to enforce collective decisions to its members nor rules by which ASEAN can punish its members that do not keep up with the collective decisions. ASEAN is not European Union which has more consolidated institutions and rules. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the ASEAN is not a variable in regional international dynamics. ASEAN may not have its own foreign policy, but still ASEAN has a stance in major issues of regional affairs.

Within ASEAN, leaders, foreign ministers, other government agencies and officials have frequent meetings and workshops that they can share their views on many issues. Within those, they can develop a loose consensus. This loose consensus sets the boundary of one member states can move around and maneuver. The consequence is a collective stance rather than a policy among ASEAN member countries. Of course, a member can be so much self-interest oriented and can go beyond the loose boundary or ASEAN stance. This act of breaching ASEAN consensus would not put the member under collective sanctions by ASEAN. The embodied norms, rules, or expected pattern of behavior in member countries, however, substantially reduce the chance for such an opportunistic action by members. In general, conforming to the loose consensus would bring more benefit to individual members than breaching it in ASEAN context. So much so, still dealing ASEAN as a unit has a merit.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Cambodian Perspectives of the US and China: A SWOT Analysis
3. Indonesia’s Relations with the United States and China: A SWOT Analysis
4. Malaysia’s National Interests and Threat Assessment of the United States and China
5. The Philippines in the China-US Cold War with 21st Century Characteristics
6. Singapore’s Perspective to Major Power Competition: The Lion Between the Eagle and the Dragon
7. Thailand’s Perspective of the United States and China: A SWOT Analysis
8. An Analysis of Vietnam-China and Vietnam-US Relations
9. An ASEAN SWOT Analysis of the US and China
10. Conclusion: Southeast Asian Perspectives and Implications for Korea


Dr. Pongphisoot BUSBARAT is the director of the Institute of Security & International
Studies (ISIS Thailand), and an assistant professor in International Relations at the
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
Dr. CHHEANG Vannarith is the president of the Asian Vision Institute in Phnom
Penh, Cambodia.
Ms. HOANG Thi Ha is a senior fellow and co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic
and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Dr. Benjamin Tze Ern HO is an assistant professor at the China Programme,
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Dr. HOO Chiew Ping is a senior lecturer in Strategic Studies and International
Relations at the National University of Malaysia (UKM).
Mr. Andrew Wiguna MANTONG is a researcher in the Department of International
Relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.
Dr. NGUYEN Thi Bich Ngoc is the Assistant Director General of the Institute for
Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
Dr. Aaron Jed RABENA is a research fellow at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress in
Manila and a member of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not reflect those of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.


About Experts

Lee Jaehyon
Lee Jaehyon

Center for Regional Studies ; Publication and Communications Department

Dr. LEE Jaehyon is a Principal Fellow of the Center for ASEAN and Oceanian Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Previously, Dr. Lee was a research fellow at the Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS) and a visiting professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS), Korean National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA). Dr. Lee’s research focuses on Southeast Asian politics and international relations, East Asian regional cooperation, and non-traditional and human security issues. His recent publications include “Transnational Natural Disasters and Environmental Issues in East Asia,” IFANS Review (2011), “Political Crises after Democratization in South Korea and Thailand: Comparative Perspectives of Democratic Consolidation,” Korea Observer (2008), “A 2+2 for the Future: The First Korea-Australia Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting,” (2013), “Identifying South Korea’s Regional Partners: On the Environment, Family Values, Politics and Society,” (2015). Dr. Lee received a B.A. and M.A. from Yonsei University and his Ph.D. in politics from Murdoch University, Australia.