As the US-China rivalry intensifies amid the COVID-19 crisis, more observers have opined that the “hedging” by smaller states—widely interpreted as a “middle position” between being fully aligned with the US camp and fully bandwagoning with China—is irrelevant, irresponsible, and even dangerous. I engage this debate from a Southeast Asian perspective, addressing the what, how, and why questions surrounding hedging in post-pandemic Asia. I contend that hedging is likely to become even more prevalent at a time of great uncertainty.
Is hedging becoming untenable because of the shrinking space resulting from the increasingly intense rivalry between the two strongest powers? The answer depends on whether or how soon the two powers’ current round of rivalry escalates into outright war. If all-out war erupts, there will be little room for lesser powers to maneuver and no room for small-state hedging. Practically all the smaller Southeast Asian states—especially those located along the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea—would be entrapped into the conflict, regardless of their preferences. But, short of this, if rivalry remains without direct military confrontation, then the smaller states will have the space, reasons, and perhaps even leverage to hedge—the only path the weaker states have to ensure their survival in an increasingly uncertain world.
Head of the Center for Asian Studies, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, National University of Malaysia; Nonresident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins SAIS