Opinion: Great power competition requires fine balancing act

New Zealand could do worse than look to the regionalism of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) to navigate the great power rivalry that is increasingly dominating discourse on the Indo-Pacific, writes Track II participant Jack Smylie. Jack attended the 15th ASEAN Australia New Zealand Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur in October as a NextGen participant on the Foundation's delegation. Jack is a graduate of the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies programme at the University of Auckland. Dialogue partners were the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia and Asialink, Australia.
Jack Smyle speaking at a roundtable

Jack Smylie: "Our [New Zealand's] relations with China have been characterised as balancing on a tightrope."

As competition in the Indo-Pacific heats up, Southeast Asian states have become masters of balancing their national interests.

Strategic developments in the region are sometimes framed externally as a sort of chess game between the US and China, with Southeast Asian countries caught in the middle (or perhaps viewed individually as pawns). This setting diminishes the agency with which ASEAN member states are manoeuvring to further their own interests.

Hedging — sending ambiguous signals to competing powers about possible future alignment decisions— allows ASEAN states to leverage great power competition for their own advantage, maximising Southeast Asia’s position on the chessboard whilst maintaining a position of neutrality. This is a proactive approach that sees ASEAN remain a key player.

ASEAN comprises 10 small and middle powers, hugely diverse in their politics, demographics, economies, and interests. They value autonomy in sovereign decision making and exercise a high degree of agency therein.

By dint of their individually limited power, however, and the fact that their region is an epicentre of global trade, ASEAN states pursue constructive ties with both China and the US for stability and growth, encompassing trade, security, and development agendas.

It’s worth noting that these countries take various approaches to hedging — somewhere between balancing and bandwagoning — distinct from ASEAN’s regional hedging outlook (which takes a soft, non-militarised form). Yet, banding together as ASEAN gives these countries a voice which they would otherwise lack if they pursued security unilaterally, or through unequal military alliances with the great powers. ASEAN states truly understand the significance of regionalism in this regard.

Recently, there has been some debate over whether the world is moving from a unipolar (US-led) order to a multipolar one, where US hegemony is dispersed through various global ‘poles’ of power.

Both sides of this debate have strong arguments, but one way that ASEAN is helping to shape the multipolar trend is its insistence on ‘ASEAN centrality’. This principle keeps a rhetorical focus on ASEAN as being at the heart of regional architecture.

A destryoer at anchor with the sun rising in the background

In effect, ASEAN centrality is an acknowledgement by ASEAN that they cannot shut great power rivalry out of the region. ‘Centrality’ instead enmeshes the great powers within ASEAN’s evolving form of regionalism, maintaining that ASEAN is the key stakeholder in each and every issue of regional consequence. These behaviours chime with Professor Cheng-Chwee Kuik’s argument that Southeast Asian hedging contains elements of both ‘power acceptance’ and ‘power rejection’, driven in large part by economic pragmatism.

Centrality also sees externally-initiated strategic ‘projects’ such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy approached through the lens of ASEAN principles. Even the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, originally shunned by many in Southeast Asia as a Western construct, has gradually found favour as these states reclaim their own narrative by putting themselves at the centre of its ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN centrality frames Southeast Asian countries — diverse in their domestic agendas, and in some cases at territorial loggerheads — as a bloc, united in regional outlook, with decisions built on consensus.

Consensus is itself a vital ASEAN principle, one which goes deeper than simply ensuring intraregional equity of voice; consensus is the cornerstone of the bloc’s ‘stronger together’ vision.

While reaching consensus on key issues and then acting accordingly can be difficult and clunky, presenting together as a group represents heft. This is the power of centrality. In this way, ASEAN countries strengthen their hand(s), collectively and individually, when hedging against external actors.

Here in New Zealand, the government contends with an economic-security paradox that is not unlike ASEAN’s. Our most essential economic partner is also viewed as a potential threat to regional stability.

Our relations with China have been characterised as balancing on a tightrope. Our government continues to weigh its geopolitical and strategic decision making against the sensitivities of its relationships with China, and with the US and its allies. What can we learn from Southeast Asia in this regard?

First, we should emphasise the value of regionalism.

In this area, New Zealand scores highly, with a foreign policy that stresses the importance of multilateralism for New Zealand’s security and prosperity. However, New Zealand would do well to learn from the ASEAN value of consensus, recalling that successive New Zealand governments have been criticised by smaller Pacific neighbours for throwing their weight around in regional discussions.

We should also take note of the successes of ASEAN states’ non-aligned stance.

New Zealand has not taken a side in great power competition, but its ability to hedge may be squeezed as current trends continue to develop (hedging manages risk rather than threat). Advantageously, like countries in Southeast Asia, we have our own family of nations here in the Pacific with whom together we are stronger through regionalism.

Recent discussions between ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum might also offer new avenues for cooperation and strengthening ties across the Indo-Pacific. In regional fashion we should assert our own centrality, making ourselves indispensable through diverse and enhanced cooperation as strategic partners, and thus active players, rather than chess pieces in the great game for the Indo-Pacific.

About the author

Jack attended the ASEAN Australia New Zealand dialogue as an Asia New Zealand Foundation NextGen participant. He is a graduate of the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies programme at the University of Auckland.

Jack's research interests include the global security-development nexus, subnational conflict in South East Asia, and New Zealand’s foreign policy and engagement in the Pacific.

He is currently contributing research and analysis to forthcoming reports on extremist threats and disinformation within New Zealand for HEIA (Hate and Extremism Insights Aotearoa), an Auckland-based think tank.

The Foundation's Track II programme supports informal diplomacy with thinktanks in Asia on issues and challenges facing the region.