Regional developments leave no doubt as to the appropriateness of this year’s security buzzword: great power competition. Its resurgence in the lexicon of policy circles presupposes declining American hegemony and the emergence of an uncomfortably multipolar world order shared with Russia and China. Fareed Zakaria calls this the end of the “unipolar moment” , a new era where conflicts will abound.

However, China and Russia are learning painfully that their international resurgence will not come without cost, amid broad hawkish pushback from the United States in the form of trade sanctions, willingness to dismantle arms control agreements, and an ever-tightening military posture. Middle powers, engaged in nuanced non-alignment but also quiet military build-up, remain pivotal in avoiding conflict escalation. 

Arms (Out of) Control? 

The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) limiting medium range missiles is being lowered to its grave.  The United States is set to conclusively pull out from the accord on August 2, given the lack of breakthrough in the NATO-Russia talks. Interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that he told US President Trump at the G20 Summit last June that Russia is willing to resume bilateral dialogue on a broad set of strategic agenda.

This remark comes after US apathy amid the impending expiration in 2021 of another treaty reducing nuclear missile launchers, called by Trump as a “bad deal”. US impatience with arms control agreements  is motivated by China’s exclusion. China’s National Defense White Paper released in July worries about “growing signs of arms races” but makes no mention of their willingness to enter pertinent treaties. Japan’s foreign minister urged the multilateralization of the INF treaty to include China. However, China’s foreign ministry immediately rebuked this suggestion. 

Regarding North Korea, Trump unexpectedly met with Kim in late June at the Demiltarized Zone (DMZ), becoming the first serving American president to set foot on North Korea. Critics however point out that it was no more than a publicity parlor trick after failed negotiations in Hanoi last quarter, whilst US demands remain unrealistic.     

Smaller Countries in Great Power Rivalries

The first half of this year saw more aggressive force projection by Indo-Pacific states and even external middle powers. French, Canadian, and US warships passed through the Taiwan Strait in April and May. More joint maritime drills were also conducted, notably a four-country exercise by Japan, US, India, and the Philippines in the South China Sea in May, and the ADMM Plus Maritime Security Exercise 2019 in Busan South Korea in late April.

But despite the US drumming up its Asian alliances to pressure China, Indo-Pacific states are keen to perform a balancing act. ASEAN has extended the bloc’s secure hotline for rapid communications to Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. Malaysia, which has defied US calls to not use Huawei 5G equipment, has initially turned down China’s offer for a one-on-one dialogue regarding the South China Sea. President Duterte likewise downplayed the controversial Recto Bank incident. During the ASEAN Summit, he instead joined other leaders in urging for the conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Vietnam is involved in an ongoing standoff with China in the Vanguard Bank,  which it initially tried to hide from the press. To save face, Hanoi released a public demand for Chinese ships to leave the area.

The temperance of middle powers in the region has avoided escalation. But quietly dealing with China-related incidents to stave off conflict appears unsustainable as it fosters nationalist backlash back home. A recent survey in the Philippines actually shows a drastic decline in the public’s trust of China after the Recto Bank incident.

India, another regional power, also exemplifies moderation: it has mended relations with China, increased linkages with Russia, and joined US military exercises. However, such a balancing act is strained due to US pressure. In early June, American policy elites railed against India’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, arguing that their tandem operation with American systems currently used by India poses a security risk. Both India and ASEAN should carefully watch US impatience as it may draw the line on the sand. After all, the US recently cut Turkey out of its F-35 program for purchasing the same Russian weapons. Middle powers should be mindful of the limits of wanting to have their cake and eat it too, given the US’ “with-us-or-against-us” tendencies.

Strategic Narratives

ASEAN also came out this quarter with its “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” and underscored its intention to manage regional developments through ASEAN-led mechanisms. It rather bluntly bragged of its status as the “broker within the strategic environment of competing interests”. However, it may be noted that the document lacks specific suggestions needed to manage increasingly volatile US-China relations. The ADMM’s recent statement for instance focused on sustainable security and low-hanging fruit such as border management.  How will ASEAN fare in a changing international order using the same regional arrangements?  Great power competition accentuates the need for ASEAN to muster the political will and resources to create a viable middle ground that staves off unnecessary conflict.

Meanwhile during the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security symposium, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe confidently asserted that China only has a defensive posture and that their activities  on South China Sea islands and reefs are “legitimate rights of a sovereign state”.  However, a member of the audience raised a poignant concern of smaller states: “but the question of course is how valid is China’s consideration of what is China’s and what is not China’s?... because it seems to have a very expansive approach to what belongs to China”. China may have to recognize that it does not only have a public relations problem, but rather an objective one inherent in its security posture in the South China Sea.

China’s Defense White Paper released in July also hints that it is compelled to win hearts and minds. The document’s rationale was to “explain the practice, purposes, and significance of China’s… national defense and a strong military”. Curiously, despite the blunt accusation against the US for provoking competition, China devoted many pages to explain that its defense expenditure relative to its economy is low and that it “still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries”. In contrast with the US Department of Defense’ Indo Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) released earlier in June, China appears in its Defense White Paper to be the more conciliatory party.

The IPSR of the United States explicitly frames the great power competition in civilizational and normative terms: a “geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions”. More noteworthy are US actions: in May after trade talks floundered, the US Commerce Department added Huawei to a trade blacklist, later easing this but still keeping it subject to national security regulations. The US also expanded the interpretation of their Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with Japan to cover cyberattacks. Meanwhile, its Department of Defense has recently approved a whopping $2 billion arms sale to Taiwan of tanks and missiles.

The Philippines

The Philippines meanwhile continues to diversify its partners. It held the third iteration of Philippines-Russia consultations between their Security Councils in late June. The Armed Forces of the Philippines also hosted an unprecedented bilateral counterterrorism training with Israel, a departure from a relationship “that has so far been confined to weapons sales”. However, Manila remains firmly within the US defense orbit. During the high profile 8th Philippines-US Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, Manila did not discuss any review of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington despite Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s earlier pronouncements.

Lorenzana for his part avoided aggravating China during the Shangri-La Dialogue but politely raised a firm national position on dispute territories: “they claim that it is their territory because of historical records which do not exist… China’s role in the South China Sea is very much welcome, but it should also display some sort of responsibility”.

The Philippines, like many Indo-Pacific states, has quietly but consistently beefed up hardpower assets. In terms of increase in defense budgets over the past 5 years, the Philippines (25.7%), Vietnam (25.7%), Singapore (19.6%), Thailand (17.5%), and Indonesia (8.9%) are regional leaders. International major arms exports between 2014-2018 reached the highest levels since the end of the Cold War, and is projected to increase until 2024. Observers often frame such expenditures as an dangerous “arms race”, but this entirely misses the point that hard power provides the most reliable and credible deterrence against great power aggression while also increasing their ASEAN members’ individual and collective value as strategic partners.


One spillover from the previous quarter (January to March)  is heightened US attention to great power competition and growing legislative support for hawkish policies: there is a bipartisan bill that seeks to block Trump’s attempt to scale back pressure on Huawei. Also, expectations that  economic interest would restrain American militant nationalism may be misguided.  The US announced de facto dole-outs to local farmers to offset losses in the trade war, signaling willingness to take economic hits for strategic leverage.

Russia and China may have misinterpreted previous victories in Crimea and the South China Sea. American policy restraint was mistaken as actual decline, when in fact it still widely outspends its rivals (even allies) militarily, and has a robust economy compared to a resurgent Russia and an emergent China.  Trump’s foreign policy peacocking is therefore a glimpse of what a provoked US can do. What is different is Washington’s unprecedented unwillingness to foot defense bills for its allies like Japan, forcing them into greater self-reliance.

Herein lies the rub: capability tends to be more enduring than policy. Analysts with a China-centric frame to international security miss out how US actions largely dictate developments in arms control, sanctions, and defense spending.  Where the world spoke a few years ago of China’s rise to preeminence, the world’s anxieties today will increasingly stem more from how to limit an America on the warpath to preserve relative superiority.  

Middle powers like India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN are seeking a middle ground between muscular confrontations with China prodded by US forces and outright Chinese hegemony. Strategically, a rivalrous environment increases the bridge-building value of multilateral and minilateral fora hosted by middle powers. However, within this bloc, there remain issues of divergent interests, the lacuna of leadership, and domestic policy shifts.

Finally, the great powers themselves face challenges. China’s problem is that it dismisses the security tensions arising from its force projection as merely a public relations issue. The situation behooves China to recognize threats objectively inherent in its ambitious foreign policy.   On the other hand, the US may be uncomfortable with efforts of middle powers to seek strategic autonomy. Their aid will be welcome, but other security initiatives will have lukewarm reception. Such an environment demands patience and understanding. Washington elites may perceive middle power diplomacy  as free-riding and duplicity. Henry Kissinger recalls a comment by an Indonesian official on the US role: “don’t leave us, but don’t make us choose”.

Will non-alignment by Indo-Pacific states become a luxury in an era of great power rivalry?