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.

First, the lack of a clearly articulated strategic agenda by less powerful states is notable in the region. Experts in the PH-AU Dialogue noted that defense cooperation between the Philippines and Australia, while robust, remains tactical-technical in nature- illustrative of the lack of strategic ends underpinning the gamut of cooperative activities. This rings true for the Indo-Pacific which has arguably not had a firm collective position on Sino-American rivalry, despite leaders’ expressions of anxieties over the trade war and avoidance of more boots-on-the-ground by not militarizing arrangements like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as done by India. Strategic autonomy’s doctrine of non-alignment, as noted by India’s foreign minister, should not be mistaken as having no issue-based position. The Bandung Conference and Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War are examples where states formally articulated an outlook different from those of the major powers.

Second, strategic autonomy as currently practiced is also relatively uncoordinated. Where they do have national positions, Indo-Pacific states have a proclivity to individually perform balancing acts. This will be tested by the fact that the issue-areas creating friction between America and China- such as cyber/tech security, nuclear arms proliferation, and contested territorial claims- are transnational in nature. The coordination aspect is vital to making the management of strained US-China relations a truly strategic effort.

Third is the need for proactive brokerage. Ambassador Robinson highlighted that regional players cannot “passively await their fate” in this great power contest. However embryonic, the newly enunciated ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific signals such an intent to (a) utilize an existing multilateral dialogue native to the region, and (b) actively involve regional stakeholders in such discussions. Even if ASEAN states  and other regional actors are unable to form a common position- understandably, due to conflicting national interests- their status as third-parties to the conflict enhances the diplomatic value of regional forums.

Brokerage builds on the credibility of international institutions as fair negotiating tables, the moral legitimacy of international publics bearing collateral damage from US-China tensions, and the ascendancy of Indo-Pacific states’ strategic narrative as middle powers preventing two giants from sliding down the Thucydides trap. Strategic narratives according to Dr. Caitlyn Byrne are important since they orient peoples’ perspectives about conflict, and are critical in building constituencies for constructive dialogue moving forward.

In my view, strategic autonomy in itself will count for little. Like the story of the tower of Babel, speaking in different tongues or the inability to articulate common interests impairs cooperation; in turn, coordination problems muddle the ability of states to translate individual capacity to their desired regional outcomes such as non-escalation of conflict. Status quo strategic autonomy operates in an environment lacking a common strategic agenda and purposeful coordination- it is an order that blunts the ability of regional bodies to broker a credible middle ground. Moreover, in disengaging from managing great power relations, it ensures that states in the region are only reactive to policies made in Beijing and Washington.

Small and middle powers have a stake in a regional architecture that defends their national interests and actively negotiates with, rather than merely obeys, great powers. Beyond strategically autonomous countries, we need to consider building a proactive strategically autonomous region. The latter differs from the former in that it demands a unified baseline position, some measure of coordination of balancing acts, and conscious engagement toward mending tensions rather than a wait-and-see attitude. Regional peace will increasingly depend on states that (a)  rebuke further militarization of the South China Sea, (b) refuse  to formally align with either US or China, and (c) actively use regional bodies as discussion-cum-pressure groups to dissuade great powers from unduly interfering in regional affairs. Status quo strategic autonomy dangerously assumes that such outcomes will naturally occur even without pertinent facilitative regional norms and a shared security vision, simply because states are motivated to do so. Amid Sino-American rivalry, it behooves us to interrogate the deficits of the strategic autonomy we have, so it may be optimized to be one responsive to our needs.

Indo-Pacific states face a United States whose response to China they will not agree with, but nevertheless need it as an “offshore balancer” to deter further aggression in the area. The United States will need to come to terms with a regional order whose interest in substantive strategic autonomy would mean that some US foreign policy objectives and initiatives will not be adopted in toto, even by its treaty allies- an outgrowth of what Prof. Herman Kraft calls the new Hub and Spokes system in the face of incentives for strategic autonomy. China on the other hand needs to restrain its behavior in the South China Sea and acknowledge that its pursuit of national interest should not be at the expense of the rights of its neighbors.

Perhaps it is time to shift discussions from the rather unproductive yes-or-no question “is war between US and China inevitable” to one of “how can we Southeast Asian nations and the region’s middle powers contribute in managing great power rivalry, given our collective interest to pursue strategic autonomy?”. 


Justin Keith Baquisal is a researcher and coordinator for research projects at the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress.