By invitation

Small states need flexible outlook in today's world


FOR countries such as Singapore, today's global environment is very challenging. Unlike the certainties of the Cold War, the positions of smaller states on issues affecting the major powers need to be more flexible.

The reflexive loyalties of Cold War alliances, in which alignments were clearly drawn and very predictable, are being replaced by more fluid relationships.

Beijing's response to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 tragedy, for example, highlighted the complexity of Asean's relationship with China. The large number of Chinese on the flight reminded us that China's economy has grown.

Chinese are now travelling outside the country on business or leisure, helping to boost South-east Asia's growing tourism and hospitality sector. At the same time, China's growing naval capabilities are being showcased. Beijing has the largest naval presence in the search for the missing aircraft.

Malaysia's irritation with Chinese pressure and harsh criticism from the Chinese public were also noticeable.

For China's neighbours in South-east Asia, growing economic integration with China has been accompanied by closer security ties with the US. China's extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea have produced renewed concern. Yet, China is increasingly influential in the region, and is Asean's leading economic partner.

Vietnam and the Philippines have the largest overlaps with Chinese territorial claims. The Philippines has revived its defence alliance with the US. Vietnam has also strengthened its defence relationship with the US, its erstwhile enemy during the Cold War.

Like Singapore and Malaysia, Vietnam is participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations aimed at liberalising commerce and investment. These discussions involve the US and exclude China, even as China has emerged as Vietnam's leading trade partner.

The TPP negotiations are also taking place alongside negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, involving the Asean states, China, Japan and South Korea.

Since the Russian takeover of the Crimea, pundits have been highlighting the risk of a replay of the events in 1914 leading to World War I.

Other commentators have drawn attention to the return to the Cold War, which marked the 40-plus years after World War II.

These make easy analogies. But as the current search for Flight MH370 illustrates, in reality, the current global environment is far more complex.

Relations between the major powers today are shaped by an intricate web of competitive and cooperative relationships. We no longer live in the unipolar world of the 1990s. The US will continue to be the strongest military power, although China will surpass it economically in the next decade.

After long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which will not end in absolute victory, Americans are now more chastened. Budgetary pressures and a war-weary population have forced US policymakers to build coalitions and to adopt strategies aimed at leading from behind. The bloody conflict in Syria, for example, is seen as primarily a concern for Europe, even though the US had earlier drawn red lines tied to the use of chemical weapons.

While the European Union continues to wield global influence, some of its members struggle to overcome recessions. Nationalist passions are revived, propelling political parties once on the periphery of European politics into seats of power. But while the EU will be influential on economic issues, and could be a diplomatic and moral force, it is unlikely to emerge as a centre of military power independent of the US.

Russia will continue to flex its muscles on its borders. But today's Russia is much more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union of the 1980s.

Hawks in the West stress that because the EU depends on Russian oil and gas, Russia can hold Europe to ransom. On the other hand, doves emphasise that Russia will be constrained by its economic linkages with the EU and the influence of its domestic oligarchs with major financial interests outside Russia. This complex interaction between cooperation and competition is also seen in China.

In the West, fears have been expressed about China's military build-up. At the same time, however, China's economic growth since Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms of the 1980s has meant that China sees itself as regaining its rightful place in global affairs. Even as the US talks of rebalancing towards Asia to meet the challenge posed by a rising China, Sino-American trade, tourism, investments and student exchanges have continued to grow rapidly.

Chinese perspectives also reflect this dual approach, with President Xi Jinping highlighting to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel last Wednesday that both sides must avoid conflict and confrontation as they build a new type of military relationship.

President Xi's comments came just a day after General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan sharply criticised Mr Hagel for his strong support of Japan in the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute in the East China Sea.

One consequence of this pattern of relationships between the major powers, which go beyond the clear divisions of the Cold War, is that there will be a mix of positive interactions and periodic criticisms as well as mutual suspicions. All this uncertainty means policymakers in small states need to be aware of new circumstances, changing alignments and power shifts. The risk is their mental maps may tend to be too rigid, and their responses may lack the flexibility to adjust to changes and rapidly evolving situations.

The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.