Countries in Asia will not side with one great power or another all the time, regardless of the issue.
Rather, they will consider their own interests before deciding who to back, if at all, said panellists at a conference yesterday.
"We are not wedded to any one great power," said Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a deputy in Indonesia's vice-president's office.
"On particular issues, we can be closer with one country. On another issue, we can be closer with another country," she said.
"Having very, very close economic relations with China does not make us agree with China on its policy in the South China Sea. So it should not be seen as one or the other."
Smaller countries in East Asia simultaneously hedge their bets between the United States and China, "bandwagon" behind one on an issue while balancing against it on another because of the uncertainty of international politics, said Singapore Ambassador-at- Large Bilahari Kausikan.
"We see no contradiction in doing so," he added at the conference, "South-east Asia and the United States: A Stable Foundation in an Uncertain Environment?", jointly organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Brookings Institution, a think-tank in the US.
This uncertainty, Mr Kausikan said, could stem from how neither the US nor China "really knows what they want from each other", although they know they must work together or accommodate each other, he said.
Speakers added that this is compounded by the US and China competing for influence in East Asia and South-east Asia.
"Smaller countries respond to major power competition by taking a middle way between the two big powers," said political scientist Richard Hu from the University of Hong Kong.
Mr Kausikan said the US remains the clearly dominant superpower as China neither fully nor enthusiastically embraces its global responsibility.
But a lot of uncertainty has arisen from doubts about the role of the US in Asia, said Dr Richard Bush, director of Brookings' Centre for East Asia Policy Studies. "We have not done a good job managing the global economy," he said. "We have not been able to maintain and build our own strengths and this is a result of our dysfunctional political system."
China, meanwhile, is beefing up its maritime capacity in its quest to be a major naval power.
It has also developed new ideas and institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Economic Belt.
None of these involves Asean in a central role. But the 10-member grouping can stay in charge of its destiny in the region if it remains united, said observers.
"The division of South-east Asia will allow external powers to intervene," said Dr Dewi.
Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay said Asean members could build this unity by having candid conversations on regional issues.
But some participants felt Asean should be judged on its own merits, not by overly high standards.
Likening it to a cow rather than a horse, Mr Kausikan said: "It is utterly pointless to criticise a cow for being an imperfect horse. It is better to discuss how you can improve the breed of the cow."