Interrogating “Strategic Autonomy” amid Sino-American Competition
- Justin Keith Baquisal
Photo Source: South China Morning Post
A recent strategic dialogue between security sector experts and practitioners in the Philippines and Australia discussed prospects and sobering realities for cooperation and conflict-prevention amid great power rivalry. Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson’s keynote speech neatly summed up stark facts facing the Indo-Pacific: (a) geopolitical adjustments stemming from China’s rise, and (b) US policy mood that has shifted from engagement to strategic competition.
The problem however lies in how we make sense of these realities. It has become popular for smaller powers to pursue “strategic autonomy”: non-aligned, cordial relations with both US and China pursued at the national level. However, I argue that strategic autonomy conceived as such is insufficient and leads to international bystanderism that makes the region susceptible to fallout from great power rivalry. Strategic autonomy may be better complemented by proactive brokerage by middle powers, clear articulation of common interests, and a degree of international coordination of national balancing strategies where possible. Discussions from the 2019 Philippines-Australia Dialogue are instructive in this regard.