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Foreign Policy

Smaller Powers in Asia Can Make a Difference

Dec 17, 2019
  • Lye Liang Fook

    Senior Fellow, Regional Strategic and Political Studies, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

The heightened competition between the United States and China has not only dampened growth prospects but also deepened concerns about how smaller countries in Asia ought to respond to the evolving strategic landscape. There appears to be no respite in sight, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest remarks at the NATO Summit in London in December that the United States was doing “very well” in the trade war and that he was in no hurry to sign an agreement before the election in November.

Compared with the two major powers, the other countries of the region are widely considered middle-size or even small players. It is already well-known that small countries cannot set or dictate trends in which the big powers have an interest. But this does not mean that small countries are effectively powerless to shape, influence or even have a voice. In fact, one may argue that because big powers sometimes suffer from what is known as “big power autism” — meaning they’re preoccupied with those they regard as their equal — and so tend to neglect the views of their smaller counterparts. Thus, it is even more important for small players to actively play a role in making their views or stands known.

Small countries can play a role in a number of ways. The first is to be forces of moral persuasion, urging the big players to remain calm and rational and, more important, urged them to resolve their differences in an amicable manner — a new modus operandi with each other.

For example, on a number of occasions, Singapore has said that the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is the most important in the world today and how the two countries work out their tensions and frictions will define the international environment for decades to come.

With its rapid socioeconomic progress and heightened international stature, today’s China is different from what it was before the opening-up and reform period. Hence, it can no longer expect to be treated in the same way it was when it was much smaller and weaker. China itself also needs to be more sensitive to how other countries regard its rise and actions — and there are signs that it is cognizant of this.

Even the United States needs to adjust to a China that sees itself playing a larger role in regional and world affairs. In this sense, it would not be fruitful, and may even be counterproductive, to try to constrain its growth.

Even before the onset of the U.S.-China trade war, Singapore had consistently urged them to work out their differences peacefully through negotiations. That advice is even more pertinent today as all-out competition appears to have become the defining characteristic in the relationship.

Beyond moral suasion, the second role that small countries can play is to take concrete action to promote multilateralism and uphold the principles of free and open trade that are the lifeblood of a majority of countries since the end of World War II. In this regard, the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, by 11 countries, most of them middle-size or small, at the end 2018 — despite the withdrawal of the United States — is a notable achievement. China is at present not a signatory. 

Equally commendable is the conclusion of the “text-based” negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, by 15 of the 16 countries (including China) on the sidelines of the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok after several delays. In the current climate of rising protectionism and anti-globalization sentiment, the fact that those countries were able to conclude negotiations on an agreed text is to be welcomed. If all goes well, a formal signing is expected sometime in 2020.

It would certainly have been of greater strategic significance if the 16th country, India, would have come on board, and there appears to be some possibility, however slim, of this happening, as Japan has indicated that it is not thinking of a RCEP without India.

The third role that small countries can play is to take concrete action to engage other partners that have a stake in the peace and stability of the region. One of the foremost examples is the first ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise-2018, which took place when Singapore was chair of ASEAN. The exercise was an important confidence-building measure for the participating navies and was aimed at promoting regional peace and stability.

In line with this approach, the organization went on to conduct the first maritime exercises by ASEAN and the U.S. in 2019. Such exercises open up the possibility of ASEAN conducting similar exercises with other dialogue partners.

The roles played by small countries, whether in terms of moral influence, upholding free and open trade or promoting regional peace and stability, stem from their respective national interests.

In playing its role, Singapore has sometimes been mischaracterized by other countries as taking the side of one major power over the other. This is an incorrect interpretation and the wrong conclusion to draw. From Singapore’s perspective, its words and actions are determined foremost by its own national interests. As a small country, it is in Singapore’s interest to see the United States and China cooperate and sort out their differences in a manner that causes the least disruption. Such an outcome would create a conducive environment for small countries such as Singapore to have more room to grow and prosper.

On the other hand, rising tensions and confrontation between the United States and China will only mean that smaller countries have less space. Worse, they may even be forced to take sides, which will further constrain their room to maneuver.

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