Introduction to the Special Forum

The tension around the South China Sea has shown no sign of diminishing. China keeps flexing its muscles, as aircraft land on newly built runways on artificial islands and warnings are issued to any who dare to traverse close by. The United States is increasingly clear about its willingness to use a show of force to defend freedom of navigation. On January 30, a US navy destroyer demonstrated this by passing a short distance from one of the Paracel Islands to China’s consternation. On the front lines watching this confrontation are the littoral states of Southeast Asia. The Special Forum examines recent thinking in Australia and three states in ASEAN—Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. The coverage reaches beyond their attitudes to the Sino-US struggle over sovereignty and freedom of navigation to broader questions of foreign policy, emphasizing how domestic leadership is impacting strategic choices as the regional security situation grows more dangerous. It analyzes thinking about new, maritime challenges, reviews recent reassessments in these countries, and, thanks to Evelyn Goh, draws together views in the Southeast Asian states in comparisons. We begin with the Goh chapter, whose framework sets the tone for what follows. Indeed, she has been the driving force in bringing together this Special Forum.


Southeast Asian States Compared

Goh summarizes three findings about the Southeast Asian states’ strategies toward the great powers. First, there is strategic thinking behind the political and security policies of key Southeast Asian states vis-à-vis great powers, even though they might not fall neatly into the categories common to international relations theory, such as balancing or bandwagoning. Second, while there are variations in individual Southeast Asian states’ strategic preferences and behavior, the shared pattern in their aspirations is of “hedging” or not overtly choosing sides. This entails engaging China and trying to socialize it as a responsible great power, while helping to sustain US forward deployment and military deterrence in the region. Third, because these strategic efforts center on managing uncertainty, their effectiveness and durability will have to be continually evaluated.


Since 2009-2010, apparent changes in Southeast Asian alignment inclinations have resulted from China’s more assertive approach to maritime territorial disputes, leadership changes in key, neighboring countries, and the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia. Goh concludes that over the last decade there have been four notable trends in Southeast Asian strategies toward the United States and China: 1) more pronounced differences have emerged within the two groups at the extremes of the spectrum, the US allies and the China-constrained states; 2) the number of states that might be thought of as hedging has grown, consolidating the claim that hedging is the most widespread strategy in the sub-region; 3) the hedgers have significantly strengthened their “bets” on Chinese aggression in the short-run and have intensified elements of their insurance policies, including US security cooperation, in order to deter China; and 4) the median point on the sub-region’s alignment spectrum has moved towards the United States.


Goh further observes that over the last five years the Southeast Asian landscape has increasingly resembled realist predictions of power balancing in the form of growing security cooperation with the aim of countervailing the greatest perceived threat, China. She finds that the past decade is marked by regional states’ responses to China’s maritime assertiveness after 2009 and the US rebalance to Asia after 2011, leading to significant growth in behavior associated with balancing: increased military expenditures; defense postures reoriented towards a key external threat; broadening and deepening of alliance relationships; and the pursuit of more targeted external security cooperation, military assistance, and support for defense capability development. Over a period of general decline in military spending in other parts of the world, total Southeast Asian defense spending grew by 45 percent between 2005 and 2014. The biggest gains were in Vietnam (128 percent) and Indonesia (122 percent), while Philippines expenditures rose by a third.


Over the past decade, a pronounced divergence has grown between the two US treaty allies, she notes. Thailand has experienced something of a strategic limbo vis-à-vis the United States because of military coups in 2006 and 2014 and the associated domestic political unrest. In contrast, the Philippines moved to leverage overtly the US alliance in resisting Chinese maritime assertiveness. As for the hedgers, Goh states that while they have not deviated from an overall long-term hedging strategy, many have intensified elements of their insurance policies to deter Chinese aggression in the short term. Notably, Singapore has extended clear support for the US rebalance. Yet, none of the hedgers has deviated from their long-standing deep engagement with China, and each has grasped opportunities to benefit from China’s growth. They have supported China’s Maritime Silk Route, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and membership in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia have tried to manage China’s assertiveness not only by signaling their ability to increase security cooperation with other great powers, but also by generally improving their relationships with China itself, she concludes.


Of the four China-constrained countries, Vietnam since 2009/2010 and Myanmar since 2011/2012 have managed to create previously unfeasible political and security ties with the United States and its allies, so as to move along the spectrum toward joining the hedging states. They still feel the China constraint acutely, but their ability to signal ambiguity in alignment intentions toward the United States has increased. Of the Southeast Asian states, Vietnam has demonstrated the most significant alteration in its strategic posture. Yet, Vietnam remains far from being an exclusive emerging security partner of the United States—it retains deliberately intimate political, economic, and military ties with China, which it has worked harder than any other Southeast Asian country to keep at an even keel, and while Vietnam may have moved into the edge of the hedging group, it is likely to remain a relatively weak hedger, assiduously activating its dual-track alignment options only when under duress. Similar deep-seated constraints will be felt, and to an even larger degree, by Myanmar, the other country in this group that has significantly changed its prospects for strategic positioning between China and the United States, and while Myanmar has bought significant new room for maneuver between China and the United States, it is very unlikely to move towards alignment with Washington, Goh finds.



Of the China-constrained states, Vietnam has been and most inclined to move into what Goh calls the “edge of the hedging group.” Do Thanh Hai describes Vietnam’s typical response to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea as a mixture of defiance and deference, which arouses confusion among Vietnam observers. China is perceived as the greatest threat in terms of its intention to dominate the sea and its capabilities to do so, but Vietnam persistently works to preserve its ties with China and stick to an autonomous defense posture, Do argues. The key strategic challenge for Vietnam in the South China Sea remains to achieve twin goals simultaneously: to protect what it assumes to be its legitimate sovereign and maritime interests and to maintain friendship with China. If one goal were more favored than the other, it would be much easier for its politicians to decide. Regarding existing territorial disputes, including ones in the South China Sea, the conservative ideologues argue that disputes can be managed satisfactorily and better resolved in the context of the fraternal socialist ties between Hanoi and Beijing, i.e., Hanoi should cultivate relations with Beijing, defending its own interests in a manner that should not destabilize overall relations. In contrast, the pragmatists are distrustful and believe that China would eventually seek exclusive control of the South China Sea and hegemony over Southeast Asia, calling for working with Southeast Asian states, the United States, Japan and other powers to constrain China’s expansionism. The intractable nature of the South China Sea disputes dashed the hopes of conservatives about amicable socialist ties and proved that deference has not been rewarded by constraining China.


These developments provided Hanoi’s pragmatist leaders with stronger reasons to seek more friends and broaden the range of options. They believed that China did not want to confront the United States and was afraid of Southeast Asian countries sticking together. From this vantage point, they advocated rapprochement with ASEAN countries, the United States, Japan, and Western European countries. The conservative elements were afraid that greater engagement with these countries would threaten political stability in Vietnam, but China undermined their argument. As China quickly grew stronger and more influential, Hanoi became concerned as ASEAN’s processes and bilateral pledges were no longer effective in constraining it. Hanoi then had little choice but to reach out beyond ASEAN to hedge against the uncertain future of China’s rise. The strategic turning point took place in June 2003 when Resolution 8 opened the door for greater engagement with the United States. Officials travelled to Washington more frequently. They privately warned their US counterparts of “China’s aggressive pursuit of influence over Southeast Asia.” Do sees this as proof that Hanoi had no intention of acquiescing.


Vietnam defied China’s assertiveness in two directions, internally and internationally, pursuing internal balancing through strengthening its maritime capabilities and bolstering maritime nationalism. Behind its strong display of determination, there is self-restraint to keep its reactions in appropriate bounds, contends Do. Hanoi has been very cautious in handling incidents, even crises, in a way to avoid unnecessary escalation of tension and significant damage to overall Vietnam-China relations. It deliberately avoided responding with tit-for-tat actions, tirelessly protesting what it deemed to be China’s assertive actions, but also persistently calling on China for direct dialogue. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has not yet been willing to take China to court. There is a basic fear that such legal actions would lead to a breakdown of Vietnam-China relations.


China’s island building has further tilted Vietnam toward hedging. It has stepped up defense cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, which offered patrol boats and other assistance to enhance its maritime capabilities. Vietnamese officials are more vocal in urging Washington to lift its ban on selling lethal weapons. Threatened by China’s expanding presence in the South China Sea, even most conservative leaders started turning to Washington. The intractable nature of the South China Sea wrangle, China’s rapid naval modernization, and its assertive actions at sea prompted Hanoi to capitalize on a multi-component hedging strategy. It joined ASEAN and normalized relations with the United States in 1995. Since 2001, it has gradually expanded its network of strategic and comprehensive partnerships with major powers to broaden its range of options and create constraints on China’s behavior. In addition, it has undertaken internal balancing through naval modernization and patriotic campaigns. Hanoi stepped up its security relations with China’s rivals, the United States and Japan. However, it is unlikely to cross the line to disrupt Vietnam-China relations unless China aggressively encroaches upon the Spratly islands now under Vietnamese control is Do’s conclusion despite arguing that hedging prevails over bandwagoning.



Indonesia is the second country treated in detail in the Special Forum. Ristian Supriyanto argues that Indonesia’s fragile national unity and its maritime crossroads’ dilemma elicit a persistent wariness toward foreign maritime powers seeking unfettered access into or through the archipelago for military purposes. Limiting such access, thus, becomes a primary strategic objective. Partly to meet this objective, Indonesia believes that it must never enter into formal alliances with foreign powers so as to prevent the latter from interfering in attempts to govern its own maritime domain. Supriyanto explains that the new “Global Maritime Fulcrum” (Poros Maritim Dunia, PMD) concept of Widodo basically rests on five pillars: rebuild maritime culture, manage maritime resources, develop maritime infrastructure and connectivity, advance maritime diplomacy, and improve maritime defense. In foreign policy too, he does not depart far from his predecessor. The difference is more in style than substance: Indonesia will maintain the slight lean to the West as it was under Yudhoyono, while taking a more nationalist stance on specific issues that capture the imagination of the political and diplomatic elite. At the same time, the Widodo administration intends to focus more on developing infrastructure in the maritime sector.


Although insisting that the substance of Jokowi’s foreign policy does not depart far from Yudhoyono’s, its process has become more complicated, Supriyanto finds. One analyst suggested that, unlike Yudhoyono, Jokowi is relatively inexperienced in foreign policy, and, thus, would leave the matter largely to his advisors. Given the diverse political backgrounds of his advisors, foreign policy making is more contested. The disagreement between the foreign and trade ministries regarding Indonesia’s participation in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact is a case in point. Another example is the impression that government ministries and agencies define and implement the PMD individually owing to the lack of central operational guidelines from the cabinet. Developing a coherent maritime strategy for the PMD will require Indonesia to identify at least three interrelated aspects: the future strategic environment, its interests and threats in that environment, and the application of foreign and maritime policy instruments to meet them.


The Indo-Pacific’s strategic environment will be increasingly characterized by Sino-American geopolitical competition. A 2014 national intelligence report predicts that competition will “intensify” in the maritime domain “in the coming years.” The 2015-2019 national development plan likewise mentions the US “rebalance” as a way to check China’s rise, which will lead to a growing competition between the two powers. Thus, he suggests, Indonesia could face a fork in the road where an independent and active foreign policy will be more difficult to implement, if not become more irrelevant, in meeting the challenges of major power competition. Absent the possibility of replacing this policy, the only alternative is reinterpretation. Precisely because of its flexibility and pragmatism, Indonesia could reinterpret this principle to prioritize its major power partners based on their alignment with its security interests. While such relationships would still fall short of alliances, they would be more than just strategic partnerships.


The success of the PMD depends on Indonesia’s ability to develop a coherent maritime strategy, which requires it to identify the future strategic environment, its interests and potential threats in that environment, and the application of Indonesia’s foreign and maritime policy instruments to meet those interests and threats. As this environment will be characterized by the growing competition between China and the United States, Indonesia’s primary interests and threats will likely revolve around the preservation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The prospect of conflict over unresolved maritime boundary disputes, particularly in the South China Sea, as well as increased foreign military traffic through “archipelagic sea lanes” (ASLs), could compromise Indonesia’s sovereignty. Facing this possibility, Indonesia needs to reinterpret its foreign policy principle to allow greater flexibility in choosing its major power partners and redesign its maritime policy to better suit the security requirements by developing a maritime defense strategy and enhancing naval diplomacy. These are conclusions drawn in the paper.



The third Southeast Asian state examined in detail is Myanmar. Jürgen Haacke discusses the shift from focusing on land-based security challenges to maritime ones in Myanmar. He asserts that maritime security issues and challenges have come to increasingly preoccupy its recent governments: both military and nominally civilian. At stake is not so much the South China Sea, although Myanmar shares the interest of other member states of ASEAN in freedom of navigation, but its own maritime boundaries and jurisdiction in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Even when Myanmar could be seen to have opted for limited alignment with China in order to deal with Washington’s regime change challenge during the years of the George W. Bush administration, it did not visibly undermine ASEAN’s joint principled position on the South China Sea. At the same time, Myanmar has not taken a position on the sovereignty and maritime claims put forward, which should not come as a surprise as Myanmar has traditionally been committed to neutrality in its foreign policy, argues Haacke.


In 2014, as chair of ASEAN, Myanmar was tested. Under its stewardship, ASEAN basically reaffirmed the line that the grouping finds unacceptable any proprietary behavior by China. In contrast to Cambodia in 2012, Myanmar reassured other ASEAN states. Haacke concludes that it did much better than Cambodia in responding to the grievances of ASEAN claimants and maintaining ASEAN unity while not overplaying their hand vis-a-vis Beijing. He adds that lessons learned from the 2008 naval standoff with Bangladesh and the appreciation of the diverse nature of challenges to its maritime interests seem to have been key factors in prompting Myanmar to strengthen its own naval capabilities. A program of indigenously built frigates, which benefit also from foreign systems, has been the result. Over the longer term, Myanmar’s navy stands to become more integrated in collaborative efforts to address wider maritime security challenges, this chapter optimistically predicts.



Myanmar occupies the western flank of Southeast Asia, while one could argue that at its southern end ASEAN is undergirded by Australia. Brendan Taylor argues that Australia has been a remarkably vocal presence around the East and South China Sea disputes. During the 2014-2015 period, it reportedly began increasing military surveillance flights over the South China Sea, much to the chagrin of the Chinese government. The initial months of the Turnbull government suggest that there is likely to be a greater level of continuity than change when it comes to the substance of Canberra’s approach towards Asia’s maritime disputes, Taylor concludes. Indeed, barring a handful of temporary policy oscillations, the case is made that the trajectory of Australia’s approach towards Asia’s major powers more broadly has actually remained remarkably consistent for the better part of two decades. This argument flies in the face of those who keep expecting one leader or another to change Australia’s course, as some former officials advocate.


The case for major fluctuations has touched on both Beijing and Washington, but most of all, it can be heard in arguments about relations with Tokyo. For Taylor, while Canberra-Tokyo ties improved steadily through the 1990s, during the period since they have arguably been the most inconsistent of any of Australia’s relationships with Asia’s major powers. During the last year of the Howard government in 2007, for instance, Canberra tilted sharply towards Tokyo as a new “joint declaration” on security was reached, which Howard, reportedly, would have preferred to have been a fully-fledged alliance treaty. The relationship moved in the opposite direction during the Rudd government as the new prime minister bypassed Tokyo completely in favor of China on his first overseas trip and took Japan to the International Court of Justice over its illegal whaling practices. The relationship thawed considerably during the Gillard prime ministership. Canberra-Tokyo ties then accelerated considerably under Abbott, who controversially described Japan as a “strong ally” and as Australia’s “best friend in Asia.” The outcomes of Turnbull’s early Tokyo trip were not well received in the Chinese media, which accused the new prime minister of favoring Japan and America over Beijing. This suggests further continuity.


The US-Australia alliance has become the subject of intensifying public debate in recent years driven in large part by prominent former politicians and senior officials. Turnbull’s first prime ministerial visit to the US in January 2016 was widely interpreted as one reflecting a reaffirmation of the importance of American power and of the alliance to Australia. Australia under a Turnbull government has not tilted sharply towards Beijing, relations with Tokyo have not stalled, nor has significant daylight opened up between Washington and Canberra as a result of the new prime minister charting a more independent foreign policy course. Instead, the early months of the Turnbull tenure have exhibited a much greater degree of continuity with recent Australian governments than many commentators were anticipating. Taylor, thus, concludes, Turnbull has, thus far, pursued what might be termed an “engage and hedge” strategy toward rising China, as did the Abbott, Gillard, Rudd, and Howard governments before him. While reaching out to Beijing he has simultaneously continued to keep Tokyo close by both broadening and deepening Australia-Japan security ties, as his predecessors—with the possible exception of Rudd—had also done. Indications, thus far, are that a Turnbull government will continue the long tradition of viewing the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) alliance as the central pillar of Australian foreign and strategic policy, he argues at the end of his article