Lessons in hedging from Southeast Asia

Lessons in hedging from Southeast Asia

China and the US are ratcheting up their pressure on Southeast Asian countries to choose between them for security in their struggle for regional hegemony. Some have already done so while others continue to hedge, some successfully and some not so much.

Hedging in international relations can be defined “as insurance-seeking behavior, with three attributes: not taking sides; pursuing opposite, mutually counteracting measures; diversifying; and cultivating a fallback position.” However, states “hedge in different forms and to different degrees” for different structural and domestic reasons. A major domestic factor is the leanings of the “ruling elites.” 

Cambodia, Laos and apparently Myanmar have already chosen China.  

Thailand’s recent predilections seem to favor China, although it is technically a US ally. But in May 1975, the Thai government asked the US to remove all of its combat forces (27,000 troops, 300 aircraft). Nevertheless it still allows the US to use its U-Tapao air base and just hosted a port visit by the USS Nimitz aircraft-carrier strike group. 

Singapore claims to be neutral and is trying to demonstrate that by undertaking military exercises with China, improving the security of the strategic Malacca Strait. But its defense memoranda and “warm and friendly defense relations” with the US that include hosting of rotating US military forces and assets indicate its true leanings.

Indeed, this probably puts Singapore in the US camp as far as China is concerned. It and Malaysia are members of the Five Powers Defense Arrangement with US allies Australia and the UK. 

Malaysia also hosts Australian air forces at Butterworth that surveil China’s defense assets in and adjacent to the South China Sea and it allows US spy flights to refuel on its territory. Nevertheless, Malaysia is still trying to hedge.  

Indonesia has so far been able to maintain its neutrality between the two, notably refusing to host US spy planes. 

But the models for worst and best “hedging” are the Philippines and Vietnam

Marcos sides with US – sort of

Filipino elite anti-China hawks and Americanophiles (Amboys) have persuaded the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr to abandon previous president Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of balancing between the two and to side with the US.

It has strengthened its military relationship with its US ally with massive joint exercises in the South China Sea, agreement in principle to undertake joint patrols there, share real-time intelligence on China, and extend the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) under its alliance with the US.

To the five places for US military access under EDCA, it has added four new ones. Several of the nine have ready access to the South China Sea, and two recent ones are in northern Luzon, one only 400 kilometers from China-threatened Taiwan. China is concerned that they may be used for intelligence collection and preparation for a conflict with it.

In seemingly desperate attempts to mollify an angry Beijing, Manila has qualified the arrangement. Enrique Manalo, secretary of foreign affairs, told a Senate hearing that the “Philippines will not be allowing the US to stockpile weapons for use in operations in Taiwan at sites American troops have access to under EDCA.” 

Marcos was equally blunt. He said the US cannot use the places for “offensive action” against any country.

Moreover, “the Philippines will not allow US troops to refuel, repair and reload at EDCA places.” Of course it will be difficult to discern if weapons are intended to be used in the defense of Taiwan. However, the ban on refueling, repairing and reloading at EDCA places undermines their strategic usefulness for the US vis-à-vis China and will likely be lifted on a case-by-case basis.

On the heels of a visit to Manila by China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, President Marcos went to Washington to discuss with President Joe Biden and others the “need to tone down the rhetoric. The discussion is heating up. Some harsh words are being exchanged and we are worried.” 

He added: “We will not allow the Philippines to be used as a staging post for any kind of military action.” This blatant attempt to level the seesaw is an indication that the Philippines miscalculated in enhancing its embrace of the US. 

The choice of the US has serious potential negative consequences for the Philippines. China may step up its aggressive behavior against the Philippines to set an example for others that might so blatantly chose the US.  Indeed, it may even increase its pressure on the remaining hedgers to compensate for the loss of the Philippines.

Moreover, it may retaliate economically, something the Philippines and the Marcos administration can ill afford. Internal pressure and divisions may grow between pro-China and pro-US factions, creating political turmoil that may involve US clandestine agencies operating behind the scenes, as they have before

From the example of the Philippines, other Southeast Asian countries may now better understand the potential negative consequences of choosing and thus strengthen their hedging. They do not want to get dragged into a no-win US-China conundrum. 

Vietnam guided by history

The remaining hedgers should also take a lesson from Vietnam’s successful strategy and actions. Vietnam has so far skillfully hedged its security between China and the US without overtly angering or siding with either big power. This is probably based on its history of suffering at the hands of great powers.

The Vietnam Civil War was partly a result of a great-power ideological struggle. The US viewed Vietnam as a “domino” in its theory that China’s communist revolution would spread to Southeast Asia and these small countries would follow suit like dominoes.

Vietnam is technically an ally of Russia and a comprehensive strategic partner with China and has dabbled in military cooperation with the US (although in recent years it has  declined port visits by US carrier strike groups). But it has also stood up to China’s attempts to intimidate it from maintaining its maritime claims.

It has declared and maintained a “four-nos” policy: no military alliances, no siding with one country to counteract the other, no foreign military bases, and no force or threat of use of force in international relations. This has proved to be a foundation of its hedging and a shield from getting dragged into big-power military conflict.

The political arena in Southeast Asia has become a test tube of experiences in hedging and will continue to provide many lessons to other countries in the region and beyond. If others learn from the experiences of the Philippines and Vietnam, they may yet be spared from involvement in a catastrophic big-power war from which they can only lose.

An edited version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post.