Asia’s middle powers are emerging as key fulcrums of strategic change in the region. The decision by the Philippines to virtually ignore the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration-based tribunal on the validity of China’s claims in the South China Sea; South Korea’s decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system; and the reorientation of Indonesia’s defense policy towards a greater focus maritime security illustrate this emerging facet of Asian geopolitics. When analyzing geopolitical developments in Asia, there is a tendency to focus on the actions of the region’s major powers: the U.S.-China relationship is at the top of the totem pole alongside the actions of Japan and to a lesser extent India. However, recent developments have illustrated that sometimes the key drivers of strategic change have come from below.
To be sure, this phenomenon is not new. Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in 1978 was a key driver of strengthening ASEAN unity and cementing Sino-U.S. rapprochement. Earlier, North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950 officially brought the Cold War to Asia and cemented confrontation in the Sino-U.S. relationship. However, more often than not these actions were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) orchestrated by major powers. The same cannot be said today. Asia’s middle powers are now more independent and free from the shackles of Cold War-era superpower rivalries. The U.S. strategic pivot/rebalancing policy toward Asia has also placed a greater emphasis on burden-sharing with allies and partners. Countries such as Japan, Australia, India and the Philippines are being called on to “do more” in the region, which has increased their ability to emerge as independent actors.
Taking the examples of the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea, there are conflicting views on the extent to which the United States goaded the Philippines into submitting a case on its maritime territorial dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. However, the decision by the Philippines to not only virtually ignore the PCA ruling made in July, but also question the utility of the alliance with the United States has as much to do with domestic politics as the actions of major powers.
China may have offered incentives to the new government of President Rodrigo Duterte to soften its stance on the territorial dispute but it was Duterte himself who decided to go further with several verbal attacks on U.S. President Barack Obama and sharp criticisms of the relationship with the United States (calling for an end to joint military exercises, reviewing the 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement concluded in 2014, and calls for an “independent foreign policy” that would entail improved relations with China and Russia). This can be attributed to Duterte’s more transactional style of politics, which has resulted in a more pragmatic approach towards relations with China, compared to his predecessor Benigno Aquino who maintained an ideological and historical affinity for close relations with the United States. This has been illustrated by Duterte’s statements calling for Chinese infrastructure investment in exchange for silence on the Philippines’ sovereignty claims.
Domestic politics in Indonesia is also a key driver of strategic change in the region. Notably, a recent cabinet reshuffle in July, which resulted in the appointment of Luhut Panjaitan as the coordinating minister for Maritime Affairs, has elevated the importance of maritime security in Indonesia’s defense posture. Even before his recent appointment, Luhut was a key advisor to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and an architect of Indonesia’s increasingly assertive position on Chinese encroachments into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands, which partially overlaps with China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea. Under the Jokowi government Indonesia has elevated the strategic importance of the maritime domain by referring to the country as a “maritime fulcrum” with ambitions of emerging as a “global maritime power” and unveiling a new defense white paper in May that put a renewed focus on maritime security.
This rhetoric and symbolism has been accompanied by more robust maritime policies. This includes a more aggressive approach in protecting the country’s maritime resources, as seen by the detention and sinking of foreign fishing vessels that stray into its waters (a policy overseen by the country’s feisty Minister for Marine Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti); plans to step up military deployments and oil and gas exploration activities around the Natuna Islands (spearheaded by Luhut and hawkish Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu); and a greater emphasis on developing Indonesia’s maritime economy and upgrading the country’s maritime infrastructure (led by the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Natural Resources and the Environment; a position created by the Jokowi government). Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have also established coordinated patrols in the tri-border area around the Sulu Sea in response to a surge of kidnap-for-ransom incidents in this poorly governed area. These developments are a significant shift from Indonesia’s traditional “hands-off” approach on maritime affairs, as evidenced by the country’s official position of being a non-claimant state to the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and a defense policy that has historically been more inward looking and focused on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency rather than maritime security.
South Korea is probably the clearest example of this assertive middle power status at work. Over the last decade the country has played several roles that have illustrated its status as a key pivot power: the progressive Roh Moo-hyun government sought to facilitate South Korea’s role as a regional balancer while the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration placed more emphasis on South Korea as a global facilitator and agenda-setter (through hosting the G20 and Nuclear Security Summits for instance) while the current government of Park Geun-hye has reverted to a more geopolitical interpretation of a middle power. This was demonstrated by the country first tilting towards China, as indicated by the frequency of meetings between Park and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (in contrast to the relative dearth of senior-level interactions between China and North Korea). South Korea was also admitted as a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and participated in China’s Second World War victory parade in September 2015. This has then followed by the country reaffirming its alliance with the United States with several large-scale military exercises, rekindling trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, and the decision in July to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system. Notably, the THAAD deployment, which is in response to North Korea’s belligerent behavior, has served to undermine relations with China, as evidenced by thinly-veiled Chinese sanctions in the form of restricting visits of South Korean celebrities, commercial visa restrictions and more stringent customs regulations on selected South Korean products.
North Korea’s most recent nuclear test in September (the country’s fifth, the third since Kim Jong-un assumed North Korea’s leadership in 2011 and second this year) has also revived the debate among the conservative ‘Nuclear Forum’ for developing South Korea’s indigenous nuclear weapons capability and a possible return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula. While these remain fringe views, they are nonetheless gaining traction in the context of North Korea’s continued bellicosity and the failure of great power intervention with China’s inability to restrain Pyongyang under the now-defunct six-party talks framework and the failure of the U.S. policy of “strategic patience.”
To be sure, the actions of middle powers cannot be disconnected from broader strategic developments. The Philippines’ tilt towards China under the Duterte government is driven by recognition that the Philippines will need to “do business” with China if it is to do well economically. Similarly, China’s growing maritime assertiveness is a catalyst of Indonesia’s more assertive posture in the maritime domain. And South Korea’s decision to reaffirm its alliance with the United States follows China’s failure to make headway in curbing North Korea’s belligerent behavior.
Nonetheless, it is also clear that the actions of the region’s middle powers will matter more in the context of the U.S. preoccupation with other parts of the world (e.g., deteriorating relations with Russia, security situation in the Middle East) and a greater focus on burden-sharing in the event of a continuation of the U.S. strategic pivot/rebalance policy under a future Hillary Clinton presidency or a more uncertain but likely hands-off U.S. policy towards Asia under a future Donald Trump presidency. At the same time, there remains reluctance to “band-wagon” with any of the other major powers, including China (which lacks the legitimacy to project power), Japan (which lacks the ambition to project power), and India (which lacks the capability to project power). This will increasingly leave middle powers to fend for themselves.
The downside to these developments is that more assertive behavior by the region’s middle powers will add to the complexity of regional strategic dynamics while straining the existing regional architecture. For instance, the U.S. ‘hub and spoke’ bilateral alliance system – which has been the centerpiece of U.S. strategic engagement with Asia since the Second World War – will come under growing strain in the context of more independent behavior by its alliance partners. There are already signs of this as noted by Duterte’s statements regarding the U.S.-Philippines alliance and debates under previous governments in Japan (Democratic Party of Japan) and South Korea (Roh Moo-hyun) to chart a more independent foreign policy. ASEAN centrality and proclivity for consensus-based decision-making has also come under growing pressure as member-states have struggled to speak with one voice. This was reflected in the inability of the body to issue a joint communiqué in 2012 and confusion over issuing a joint press statement during the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June amid disagreements over maritime territorial disputes with China. Indonesia, in seeking a more assertive and independent foreign policy, may also “outgrow” ASEAN at some point, which will raise further questions about the usefulness of the regional body.
Taking the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea as examples, policy shifts by the region’s middle powers will increasingly have an impact on broader regional strategic dynamics. For instance, while it will take more than Duterte’s verbal abuses to sever the long-standing mutual defense treaty with the United States, in the context of leadership changes in Washington, the Philippines’ actions could nonetheless apply strain on one of the key links in the chain of U.S. geopolitical influence in Asia. Similarly, a more robust maritime policy from Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s largest country – could alter China’s strategic calculations in its increasingly assertive approach towards maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Finally, the renewal of South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. and Japan could also strain or cement China’s relations with North Korea. In this context, countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea, but also others such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand are increasingly likely to emerge as key drivers of strategic change in Asia.
Chietigj Bajpaee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has worked with several public policy think-tanks and political risk consultancies.