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How Indo-Pacific countries can keep their options open

Multipolar relationships can survive rising US-China tensions

| China
Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping attend the Group of 20 summit event on the Digital Economy in Osaka in June 2019: Japan led the way.   © AP

Bilahari Kausikan is former Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

When Donald Trump recently announced a ban on U.S. companies transacting with Chinese technology giants TikTok and WeChat, it crystallized an approach toward Beijing that will persist long after the November 3 presidential elections, irrespective of who wins.

We are now in a new long-term phase of heightened strategic competition between the U.S. and China.

With telecommunications company Huawei Technologies already on the Commerce Department's Entity List of companies alleged to have engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, other presidential orders may follow.

The focus on technology companies is no accident: the intricate and sophisticated global supply chains for semiconductors and the cross-border accessibility of social media platforms symbolize the complex and ambivalent international relationships that emerged after the Cold War where the lines between opposing adversaries were clearly drawn. New types of interdependencies now crisscross strategic alignments, creating mutual vulnerabilities while doing little to ameliorate strategic mistrust.

With relationships no longer binary, across-the-board decoupling between Washington and Beijing is unlikely as a result of actions taken either by the U.S. or China. But supply-chain fragmentation and restructuring is likely as countries seek to hedge against risks while trying to reconcile increasingly divergent strategic, political, economic and business relationships.

This is the harsh reality facing the Indo-Pacific region today. As China has become more aggressive, America has become less reliable. But there has been far too much advocacy masquerading as analysis about which side will win, or has won, as if international relations were some kind of horse race. This is too simplistic.

The underlying assumption is that countries must make binding choices between Washington or Beijing. Such a reductionist view of available strategic choices is mendacious, dangerous and wrong. It is also condescending, as if the Indo-Pacific were populated by morons incapable of counting beyond two. For some time, key countries have been working to secure their interests in a situation in which both the U.S. and China remain important but neither is particularly trusted.

Japan led the way. After his return to office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quietly made administrative and legislative changes that simultaneously broadened Japan's own options and enabled the Japanese self-defense forces to carry more weight within the U.S. alliance. Tokyo also began to play a more proactive role in Southeast Asia to fill gaps in U.S. policy.

Other countries too are trying to protect their interests with both the U.S. and China. Their policies are subject to the distractions of domestic politics, and are therefore not always entirely coherent. Still, none have had to burn their bridges with either the U.S. or China. Australia seems the most discombobulated by the new situation, swinging from a position of naive complacency toward China, to one of near-hostility toward all things Chinese. Canberra will find its own equilibrium in time.

Canberra will find its own equilibrium in time.   © Reuters

A region as diverse and historically complex as the Indo-Pacific is naturally inclined toward multipolarity. As countries hedge and try to position themselves in relation to major powers whose importance they acknowledge but do not trust -- this natural tendency is amplified. But the emerging multipolarity is not to be understood as a situation where all poles are of equal strategic weight or importance. The U.S. and China are clearly in a league apart.

Indo-Pacific multipolarity involves a dynamic asymmetry. Asymmetric because U.S.-China relations form the central axis. Dynamic because countries will arrange themselves around this axis in new and fluid combinations as their interests in different domains dictate, sometimes tilting one way and sometimes another. This reinforces the bewildering entanglement of multiple overlapping regional frameworks, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its various forums, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific grouping and the Belt and Road Initiative.

The U.S. and China will almost certainly try to force binary choices in order to freeze alignments across different domains. And countries will sometimes have to choose. But their choices need not be binary. Singapore, for example, needs to protect access to American defense technology while maintaining a stable economic relationship with China.

Huawei -- banned from involvement in fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network development in Australia and many other countries -- was not excluded from bidding for Singapore's 5G network. However, as Singapore's two major telecommunications service providers Singapore Telecommunications and M1 are majority owned by the Singapore government, both have said they will not use Huawei for core functions.

This was probably not a decision that pleased either the U.S. or China. But it was a decision that was in Singapore's national interest. Its interests in a different domain or on a separate issue might well see it leaning in another direction.

Managing fluid and variable configurations of interests will be messy, as the coming disruptions to technology supply chains foreshadow. But this is a messy region, and in the messiness there is agency. To seek or accept artificial neatness is to risk losing the capacity to act independently.

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