The world’s analysts are being kept busy by the tensions between the US and China. In fact, there is an entire industry trying to predict what will happen next and thus gain a competitive edge; others are in the business of assessing the extent to which the trade war (and what could come next, especially in terms of technology and, more broadly, of the use of hybrid war tactics) will contribute to a global recession. Worrying about great-power competition is justified, but what is more important is the starting point.
A few months ago, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged China and the US not to pressure small nations to take sides. The pressure is mounting on Southeast Asian countries, with China becoming more and more aware of its new status and with the US preferring a strong rather than accommodating approach. By talking about a false choice, Lee stressed cooperation, reconciliation, and an overhaul of the global system. An engagement strategy always starts with a principled stance, and this is what politicians from small states or middle powers should consider an answer to the increasingly Manichaean take on the world that is being forced upon them.
So, what about the rest of us, the non-great powers? What should citizens of the middle or small countries do in a world that seems to force us to choose? How should we operationalize the advice of the Singaporean PM and what can be learned from such a bold approach? Could this be a model to deal with great-power competition?
We know that before 1990 there was the Non-Aligned Movement, with the US and USSR vying for influence and support, using both sticks and carrots to gain the upper hand in the long Cold War. After 30 years of the US being and acting as a great – even superpower – the world is increasingly multipolar, with other players asking for a better place at the table and with America in partial retreat and predominantly focused on domestic issues. This is not a post-2016 surprise, but an evolution that started with the Obama administration and accelerated during (and, off course, due to) President Donald Trump. The question is how to position oneself and how to act to prevent being crushed by the periodic clashes of great powers. Whether you are an ASEAN country, a Central and Eastern European or an African one, great-power competition seems to ask us to make immediate and decisive choices. The Singaporeans understand that we should not be forced into choosing, but what should a coherent and efficient strategy look like?
Trying to take sides depending on the nature of the issue will, given the growing polarization, be a recipe for doom. What we need is a common-sense framework in relation to our key political stakeholders, in relation to great powers. I should stress the three-dimensional nature of this framework.
First, we need to move fast and adopt a position similar to the one put forward by the Singaporean PM. If we do not like being on the menu, then we have to change it. It all starts with taking a principled stance and defining both the terms of engagement and the red lines. Obviously, this is not something for a small country or middle power to do on its own – unity is key here. Coordinating our answers and affirming our right to choose when to choose is the way to go. Rather than being rule takers, we should aim to become rule makers (at least from time to time), to use diversity and common interest to reimagine sovereignty and national interest in a period that is unfortunately full of imperial undertones.
If we do not like being on the menu, then we have to change it. It all starts with taking a principled stance and defining both the terms of engagement and the red lines
Second, and in direct relation to my first point, we should move from principles to action. A few days ago, Mark Rutte, the PM of the Netherlands, spoke, in Sydney in favor of the middle powers stepping in and fixing the broken international order, by reimagining the WTO or the UN Security Council. It does not take much to see that the international organizations, the backbone of the current order, have fundamental flaws, and this time of transformation should be seen as an opportunity for redesign. The responsibility of providing international public goods should be incorporated into the new order and organizations, and it is the task of a coalition of like-minded small and middle countries to be creative, resolute, and decisive.
Third, we have to acknowledge that great-power competition is not something that takes place openly in front of our eyes. The multipolar new Cold War is less about mutual assured destruction and more about hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare could very well be used to deter diversification, to discredit countries and political leaders, to strain bilateral relations, and to change perceptions and narratives. Identifying when such techniques are deployed in the context of great-power competition will determine whether our menu of choices will be binary or more varied. Leaders in non-great-power countries should prepare themselves and their teams for a world of continued pressures in the years to come. Things will get worse before they get better because better can only happen after a new balance, or order, of the world system, comes to exact shape get. This new world order, currently in the making, will need legitimacy, first in the form of tacit acceptance if not open acknowledgment.
The common thread running through these three points is that multilateralism can and should be saved, but we need a plan and we need to learn from the behavior of those who have the resources to think strategically and the courage to act. The alliance of multilateralism can be maintained, with smaller and booming states (like Singapore) having a united and clear position, and with countries such as India, Australia, and Japan stepping in and making extremely concrete this game of strategic diversification. Great-power competition is always a temptation, but it should not be viewed from a deterministic standpoint – fortunately, a network of counterbalancing its effects is in the making in Asia and its charter was spelled out by the Singaporean PM.
Central and Eastern Europe, under the specter of three disruptive dyads (US-China, US-Western Europe, and Russia-the West), can learn from the positive experience of ASEAN countries, which have adopted a smart position on maintaining good relations with both US and China, while bridging towards Japan and Europe. It is worth emphasizing not only the strategic dimension but also the communicational one, with a narrative embraced by political leaders showing that the choice would necessarily mean bad news for some of the players – see the recent report by Brookings highlighting that the US has much to lose if it forces Asian countries to take an unequivocal stance in the trade war with China. Rejecting old templates and fixed choices and being strategically creative is what can save us, the non-great powers, from the consequences of a toxic global competition. We can start by taking stock of some positive examples.
Also read: New great game in the Himalayan landscape