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Consigned to hedge: south-east Asia and America's ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy

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Abstract

This article assesses how south-east Asian countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have responded to the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategies promoted by the United States and the other countries in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the ‘Quad’: US, Japan, Australia and India). Their nuanced ripostes imply a persistent commitment to hedging and shifting limited alignments in the face of growing great rivalry and the lack of a clear FOIP vision among Quad members. In the face of external pressure to take sides, the ASEAN states are likely to keep hedging through working selectively with China and the United States. Given the United States' apparent preference to balance China and Trump's disregard for multilateralism, ASEAN's ability to maintain its centrality in the evolving regional architecture is in doubt—despite the Quad countries' (belated) accommodation of ASEAN in their FOIP strategies. However, the success of the US strategy depends on Washington's ability to build and sustain the requisite coalition to balance Beijing. ASEAN has undertaken efforts to enhance bilateral security collaboration with China and the United States respectively. In doing so, ASEAN is arguably seeking to informally redefine its centrality in an era of Great Power discord and its ramifications for multilateralism.

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Hedging is one of the more commonly used but least studied concepts in international relations. This essay conceptualizes hedging and operationalizes it to the alignment choices of Southeast Asian smaller states. I define hedging as insurance-seeking behavior under situations of high uncertainty and high stakes, where a rational state avoids taking sides and pursues opposite measures vis-à-vis competing powers to have a fallback position. I argue that while Washington and Beijing understandably dislike small-state hedging, they both overlook that it is the uncertainties stemming from their actions that push the weak to hedge. As uncertainties deepen, the non-great powers in Southeast Asia—as elsewhere—are compelled to hedge one way or another, even as the space to hedge is shrinking. Hedging is not a panacea and it entails its own problems. But acting out of their survival instincts, smaller states opt to hedge for as long as conditions compel. Unless US–China rivalry escalates into a direct conflict, or unless strategic certainty prevails, e.g., if Washington retreats or reduces its long-term commitment to Asia—raising certainty about the absence of a reliable aligned support—then states will stop hedging and start bandwagoning with China; or if Beijing’s actions directly threaten most actors on all major fronts—heightening certainty about an imminent, across-the-board danger—then hedging will be replaced by balancing against China. Short of that, hedging is likely to persist, making ambiguities a defining theme of our time.
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This article examines how South Korea has used the ASEAN Plus security platforms to hedge between the US and China and why it has not participated in the FOIP strategy. It argues that the platforms’ neutral guise, owing to ASEAN centrality and their global norms-based agenda has allowed Korea to passively voice its alignment with the US, thereby answering to the pressure for a higher commitment from the US and clearing the political risk of linking the alignment decision to its own views. It asserts, therefore, that access to effective multilateral security platforms allows higher leverage to the weaker ally in an asymmetric alliance relationship.
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This article explores the consequences major power rivalries over connectivity investments have for small states in Asia and thereby contributes to a better understanding of small states’ strength and capabilities in an increasingly multipolar world. With reference to the literature on small states, field work, and interviews, the article explores Bangladesh’s remarkable success in reaping the benefits from relations with rivalling major powers over the past decade. Three explanatory factors stand out: first, Bangladesh’s ‘intrinsic’ value to major powers increased; second, its political leadership has been particularly adept in dealing with such major powers; and third, systemic factors – the number and kind of major powers with stakes in Bangladesh – has been beneficial. Thus, Bangladesh’s foreign policy responses suggest that the competitive nature of connectivity investments substantially improves the autonomy of recipient countries. Moreover, contrary to theoretical expectations, the intensification of major power rivalry so far has not constrained Bangladesh’s autonomy. Thus, the case study also exhibits infrastructure investments’ limitations as a power resource. Nonetheless, the potentially most beneficial cooperation schemes involving rivalling major powers have become less likely. Consequently, the case study dampens incipient hopes in turning competing connectivity schemes into major power positive-sum games.
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The aim of this chapter is to tackle Trump’s grand strategy. It is argued that although Trump was elected on an anti-globalist agenda, he did not ‘drain the swamp’ as he promised, nor he substantially undermined the pillars of post-WWII US grand strategy. Furthermore, the long-term objectives of his foreign policy were in continuity with those of Obama. Yet, the way Trump executed US grand strategy showed a great deal of tactical discontinuity compared to his predecessor. Based on his America First agenda, Trump pursued with equal energy to Obama a policy of off-shore balancing. He continued to maintain a posture of disengagement in the Middle East and Europe—with some contradictions—while choosing the Asia-Pacific and China as a priority. Yet, informed by his nationalist and conservative worldview, he did so by partnering up with Saudi Arabia, insulting European allies, and starting a trade war with Beijing.
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The interests of India and the United States (US) converge on multiple aspects in the Indo-Pacific. These interests range from economics to geopolitics to regional stability. India’s Look East Policy, rechristened as Act East Policy, in addition to economic, cultural and commercial goals, includes strategic interests to expand India’s influence in East Asia and to the larger Indo-Pacific. The US, challenged by the rise of China, has initiated a quadrilateral grouping of democracies (QUAD) and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy with the objective of reasserting American primacy in the Indo-Pacific. The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region signed in 2015 and the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report 2019 emphasize the indispensability of the part- nership between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific. The policies of the US and India towards the Indo-Pacific converge on ensuring peace, stability, maritime security, freedom of navigation, the fight against terrorism, peaceful settlement of disputes and ensuring con- nectivity of land, sea, and air transportation. Though not stated bluntly, containing the growing Chinese influence by mobilizing countries in the region figures prominently in the strategic schemes of both India and the US. As the most important strategic region in world politics, India, the US and China have vital economic and security interests at stake. By relying on a realist approach, the paper probes the main drivers and constraints of the Indo-US strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific. The paper outlines and analyses the con- text of the Indo-US collaboration in the Indo-Pacific, their shared views and concerns, its anti-China mode and the constraints of the partnership.
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This article analyzes Malaysia's alignment behavior visa -vis America and China, with a focus on explaining how the weaker state's insistence on hedging has both motivated and limited its defense links with the competing powers. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that regional states choose to align militarily with the rebalancing America to hedge against China, the article argues that this characterization is only partially true; a more accurate account is that weaker states do not hedge against any single actor per se; rather, they seek to hedge against a range of risks associated with uncertain power relations. In the case of Malaysia, while Putrajaya aims to mitigate the challenges of an assertive Beijing, its alignment behavior is more a function of a desire to offset several systemic and domestic risks, namely, the shadow of entrapment, abandonment, and alienation, alongside the fear of authority erosion at home.
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This article examines Australian grand strategy in the context of China's rise during the period of Labor governments between 2007 and 2013. Australia's grand-strategic posture is treated as the dependent variable, plotted along a balancing-to-bandwagoning continuum. Australia remained within the hedging zone throughout, although there were discernible shifts in posture during the period. While momentum was building towards a more overt balancing posture during the Kevin Rudd era, the various balancing and bandwagoning ‘signals’ were more contradictory after Julia Gillard unseated Rudd 2010; in short, she stabilised Australia's grand-strategic posture, meaning it remains best characterized as ‘dominance denial’.
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Why has South Korea accommodated China, instead of fearing its growth and balancing against it? This article makes two central arguments. First, concepts of balancing and bandwagoning are fundamentally difficult to test, and to the extent that the theory can be tested, it appears to be wrong in the case of South Korea. In fact, we observe many cases in which rising powers are neither balanced nor "bandwagoned" but are simply accommodated with no fundamental change either way in military stance or alignment posture. Second, the factors that explain South Korean foreign policy orientation toward China are as much about interests as they are about material power. South Korea sees substantially more economic opportunity than military threat associated with China's rise; but even more importantly, South Korea evaluates China's goals as not directly threatening.
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It is widely claimed that secondary states across East Asia are not purely balancing or bandwagoning, but rather hedging between the United States and China by combining policies of economic and political engagement with risk management. We argue that hedging behavior should not include costless activities that do not require states to face trade-offs in their security choices. We redefine hedging as signaling that generates ambiguity over the extent of a secondary state’s shared security interests with great powers. This definition returns the focus to security relationships and better accounts for the trade-offbetween autonomy and alignment. Based on this definition, we argue that hedging occurs in far narrower (but arguably more interesting) circumstances than is widely believed. Many Asian states have existing treaty alliances with the United States or major territorial conflicts with China, creating path dependencies that reinforce balancing behavior rather than hedging. We therefore clarify cross-national variation in state behavior and contribute to the larger research project on regional responses to China’s rise.
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Because Washington and Beijing are both hedging their security bets about the other at precisely the time that the East Asian regional order is being redefined, reciprocal hedging today could precipitate a shift toward rivalry and regional instability unless it is carefully managed.
Straight from the US State Department: the "pivot" to Asia is over', The Diplomat
  • Ankit Panda
Ankit Panda, 'Straight from the US State Department: the "pivot" to Asia is over', The Diplomat, 14 March 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/03/straight-from-the-us-state-department-the-pivot-to-asia-is-over/.
See also William T. Tow, 'Sea change or more of the same? Trump's security policies in Asia
  • Sheldon Simon
Sheldon Simon, 'Abandoning leadership', Comparative Connections: A Triannual E-Journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations 19: 3, 2018, pp. 41-52. See also William T. Tow, 'Sea change or more of the same? Trump's security policies in Asia', Asia Policy 13: 4, 2018, pp. 10-16.
What Malaysia's "Mahathir doctrine" means for China-US rivalry', South China Morning Post
  • Chwee Cheng
  • Chin Tong Kuik
  • Liew
Cheng-Chwee Kuik and Chin Tong Liew, 'What Malaysia's "Mahathir doctrine" means for China-US rivalry', South China Morning Post, 20 Aug. 2018, www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2160552/ what-malaysias-mahathir-doctrine-means-china-us-rivalry.
Malaysia's Mahathir positive about Belt and Road initiative', gbtimes
  • Weida Li
Weida Li, 'Malaysia's Mahathir positive about Belt and Road initiative', gbtimes, 20 Aug. 2018, gbtimes.com/ malaysias-mahathir-positive-about-belt-and-road-initiative.
US-China rivalry in south-east Asia
  • Shambaugh
Shambaugh, 'US-China rivalry in south-east Asia', p. 99.
Singapore not joining US, Japan-led free and open Indo-Pacific for now: Vivian Balakrishnan', Straits Times
  • Clarissa Yong
Clarissa Yong, 'Singapore not joining US, Japan-led free and open Indo-Pacific for now: Vivian Balakrishnan', Straits Times, 14 May 2018, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-not-joining-us-japan-led-free-andopen-indo-pacific-for-now-vivian-balakrishnan.
Speech by minister for foreign affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan during the committee of supply debate
  • Vivian Balakrishnan
Vivian Balakrishnan, 'Speech by minister for foreign affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan during the committee of supply debate, 1 March 2018', Russia-Singapore Business Council, www.rsbctrade.com/mfa-press-releasespeech-by-minister-for-foreign-affairs-dr-vivian-balakrishnan-during-the-committee-of-supply-debate-1-march-2018/.
What does a "free and open Indo-Pacific" actually mean
  • Valencia Cited In
Cited in Valencia, 'What does a "free and open Indo-Pacific" actually mean?'.
Indo-Pacific versus Asia-Pacific as Mackinder faces Mahan', The Strategist
  • Graeme Dobell
Graeme Dobell, 'Indo-Pacific versus Asia-Pacific as Mackinder faces Mahan', The Strategist, 5 June 2018, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/indo-pacific-versus-asia-pacific-as-makinder-faces-mahan/.
ASEAN's role in the US Indo-Pacific strategy
  • Kavi Chongkittavorn
Kavi Chongkittavorn, 'ASEAN's role in the US Indo-Pacific strategy', Asia Pacific Bulletin, no. 425, 27 June 2018, www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/aseans-role-in-the-us-indo-pacific-strategy.
South-east Asia feared next on list for US trade sanctions
  • See Hiroshi Kotani
See Hiroshi Kotani, 'South-east Asia feared next on list for US trade sanctions', Nikkei Asian Review, 9 April 2018, https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Trade-war/Southeast-Asia-feared-next-on-list-for-US-trade-sanctions;
US unlikely to target Singapore yet for punitive trade action
  • Nirmal Ghosh
Nirmal Ghosh, 'US unlikely to target Singapore yet for punitive trade action', Straits Times, 1 March 2017, www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/us-unlikely-to-target-spore-yet-for-punitive-trade-action.
Vietnam tops list of biggest winners from US-China trade war
  • Michelle Jamrisko
Michelle Jamrisko, 'Vietnam tops list of biggest winners from US-China trade war', Bloomberg, 3 June 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-03/vietnam-tops-list-of-biggest-winners-from-us-china-trade-war.
Vietnam is most vulnerable in South-east Asia to trade war
  • Ft Confidential Research
FT Confidential Research, 'Vietnam is most vulnerable in South-east Asia to trade war', Nikkei Asian Review, 13
Trump signs Asia Reassurance Initiative Act into law
  • Ankit Panda
Ankit Panda, 'Trump signs Asia Reassurance Initiative Act into law', The Diplomat, 3 Jan. 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/01/trump-signs-asia-reassurance-initiative-act-into-law/.
What ARIA will and won't do for the US in Asia
  • Ankit Panda
Ankit Panda, 'What ARIA will and won't do for the US in Asia', The Diplomat, 14 Jan. 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/01/what-aria-will-and-wont-do-for-the-us-in-asia/.
Behind China's $1 trillion plan to shake up the economic order
  • Jane Perlez
  • Yufan Huang
Jane Perlez and Yufan Huang, 'Behind China's $1 trillion plan to shake up the economic order', New York Times, 13 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/business/china-railway-one-belt-one-road-1-trillion-plan.html.
Trump has a fairly astounding track record in self-contradiction. See Michael Kruse and Noah Weiland, 'Donald Trump's greatest self-contradictions
Indeed, for a person who prides himself as one who 'tells it like it is', Trump has a fairly astounding track record in self-contradiction. See Michael Kruse and Noah Weiland, 'Donald Trump's greatest self-contradictions', Politico, 5 May 2016, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/donald-trump-2016-contradictions-213869. On Trump's demand that US allies undertake increased burden-sharing, see Doug Bandow, 'Trump and US alliances: from burden-sharing to burden-shedding', Foreign Affairs, 25 Jan. 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs. com/articles/united-states/2017-01-25/trump-and-us-alliances.
The misplaced burden-sharing fight
  • Robert E Kelly
Robert E. Kelly, 'The misplaced burden-sharing fight', The National Interest, 4 Dec. 2016, nationalinterest.org/ feature/the-misplaced-burden-sharing-fight-18601.
Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy aligns well with Singapore
  • Yi Seow Bei
Seow Bei Yi, 'Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy aligns well with Singapore, ASEAN priorities: PM Lee', Straits Times, 15 Nov. 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/japans-indo-pacific-strategy-aligns-well-withspore-asean-priorities-pm-lee.
Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy challenge in the spotlight
  • Parameswaran
Parameswaran, 'Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy challenge in the spotlight'.
ASEAN-China maritime exercise helps boost regional stability: Dr Ng
  • Koh Eng
Koh Eng Beng, 'ASEAN-China maritime exercise helps boost regional stability: Dr Ng', Pioneer, 23 Oct. 2018, www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/pioneer/article/regular-article-detail/ops-and-training/2018-Q4/23oct18_ news.
ASEAN and US to conduct joint maritime exercise in 2019
  • Ministry Of Defence
Ministry of Defence, Singapore, 'ASEAN and US to conduct joint maritime exercise in 2019', 19 Oct. 2018, https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/mindef/news-and-events/latest-releases/article-detail/2018/ october/19oct18_nr2/!ut/p/z0/fY27DsIwFEO_hSFjdNOKRxkLDIAoXQoKWVBoLxAoN31EB-
The ADMM and ADMM-Plus: regional security mechanisms that work?
  • See Seng Tan
See Seng Tan, 'The ADMM and ADMM-Plus: regional security mechanisms that work?', in Tim Huxley and William Choong, eds, Asia-Pacific regional security assessment 2018 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies), pp. 165-75.
Singapore paving the way for greater regional security
  • See Seng Tan
See Seng Tan, 'Singapore paving the way for greater regional security', Straits Times, 23 Feb. 2018, p. A21.
What's next for China-Thailand defence ties?', The Diplomat
  • See Prashanth Parameswaran
See Prashanth Parameswaran, 'What's next for China-Thailand defence ties?', The Diplomat, 18 June 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/whats-next-for-china-thailand-defense-ties/;
The Philippines' "pivot" to China: a review of perspectives
  • Edcel John
  • A Ibarra
Edcel John A. Ibarra, 'The Philippines' "pivot" to China: a review of perspectives', CIRSS Commentaries 4: 9, 2017, http://www.fsi.gov. ph/the-philippines-pivot-to-china-a-review-of-perspectives/.
The effectiveness of minor powers' hedging strategy: comparing Singapore and the Philippines
  • Ryan Yu-Lin Liou
  • Philip Szue-Chin Hsu
Ryan Yu-Lin Liou and Philip Szue-Chin Hsu, 'The effectiveness of minor powers' hedging strategy: comparing Singapore and the Philippines', unpublished paper, 2017, p. 3.
US wants "rebalancing" in trade ties with ASEAN, says top Trump trade official
  • Nirmal Ghosh
Nirmal Ghosh, 'US wants "rebalancing" in trade ties with ASEAN, says top Trump trade official', Straits Times, 28 April 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/the-us-wants-rebalancing-in-tradeties-with-asean-says-top-trump-trade-official.
The limits of Trump's transactional foreign policy', The National Interest
  • Leon Hader
Leon Hader, 'The limits of Trump's transactional foreign policy', The National Interest, 2 Jan. 2017, nationalinterest.org/feature/the-limits-trumps-transactional-foreign-policy-18898.
Democracy and human rights shouldn't take a backseat in US Southeast Asia policy', The Diplomat
  • Michael Larkin
  • Hunter Marston
Michael Larkin and Hunter Marston, 'Democracy and human rights shouldn't take a backseat in US Southeast Asia policy', The Diplomat, 10 Jan. 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/democracy-and-human-rightsshouldnt-take-a-backseat-in-us-southeast-asia-policy/.
Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy challenge in the spotlight at 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue', The Diplomat
  • Prashant Parameswaran
Prashant Parameswaran, 'Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy challenge in the spotlight at 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue', The Diplomat, 5 June 2018, thediplomat.com/2018/06/trumps-indo-pacific-strategy-challenge-inthe-spotlight-at-2018-shangri-la-dialogue/.