Abandoning Hedging: Reconsidering Southeast Asian Alignment Choices.

AuthorMarston, Hunter S.

Much has been written about the reasons why states adopt hedging strategies. Hedging is a rational position for dealing with an uncertain strategic environment or transitions in the balance of power. (1) Evelyn Goh sees hedging as "a set of strategies aimed at avoiding (or planning for contingencies in) a situation in which states cannot decide upon more straightforward alternatives such as balancing, bandwagoning or neutrality. Instead they cultivate a middle position that forestalls or avoids having to choose one side at the obvious expense of another." (2) According to Cheng-Chwee Kuik, hedging entails several critical dimensions: "an insistence on not taking sides among competing powers"; "adopting opposite and counteracting measures; and... cultivating a 'fallback' position". (3) In a multipolar or even a unipolar world, hedging can be advantageous for secondary states as it allows them to play larger powers off one another, thus increasing their own bargaining power. (4) However, most scholars agree hedging is less viable in a bipolar context, as the ideological or systemic pressures would weaken small states' capacity to hedge. (5)

In response to intensifying great power competition in the region, nearly all Southeast Asian states continue to practice hedging in the face of high risk and "hyper-uncertainty". (6) Studies have focused on the cases of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, (7) in which scholars have analysed what makes hedging strategies successful for these countries and how to evaluate when hedging fails to achieve its desired outcomes. For instance, John Ciorciari has analysed the failure of regional countries to effectively address the security dilemma in the South China Sea due to uncertainty regarding US security commitments, the inability of member states to collectively defend their interests, and the varying responses to China's encroachments and harassment of fishing boats. (8) While the literature has provided a good understanding of when and why states hedge, there is limited knowledge on when and why states abandon hedging. This article addresses this gap by examining the conditions under which states stop hedging and explores the link between internal security and hedging. It will demonstrate that internal threats can shape alignment choices and have a significant influence on whether a state will continue to hedge or not.

This article examines two countries in Southeast Asia whose foreign policies have diverged from hedging based on several critical domestic political variables: Cambodia (2012-22) and Myanmar (2011-22). In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has increasingly centralized political power and weakened democratic opposition to his autocratic rule. Despite the lack of external security threats, he has defied US and EU economic sanctions over deteriorating human rights by unilaterally shifting Phnom Penh's alignment from hedging to bandwagoning with Beijing. This is exemplified by the construction of a Chinese naval base in Ream, as well as Cambodia's assistance in advancing Beijing's regional agenda within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (9) In Myanmar, the National League for Democracy (NLD) gradually distanced itself from international fora such as the United Nations and ASEAN due to international condemnation of the military's human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslim minority in 2016-17. This resulted in renewed economic sanctions in 2019, prompting State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to deepen Naypyidaw's strategic partnership with Beijing, promote strict self-reliance and abandon the flexible and proactive hedging displayed by the Thein Sein administration (2011-16). (10) Following the February 2021 military coup, the State Administration Council (SAC) junta has further isolated Myanmar and increased its reliance on China and Russia.

In the absence of a direct threat to national security and/or bipolar ideological competition, states have little reason to abandon hedging. (11) However, internal threats to regime security can still compel them to do so. As these two case studies will demonstrate, autocratic centralized rule and a lack of independent civil society institutions (as seen in Cambodia), or internal security crises and political dysfunction (as seen in Myanmar), can cause states to forgo hedging strategies even in the absence of external threats. The common theme in these cases is that, when faced with limited restrictions on their power, elites are more likely to prioritize regime interests over national interests.

The article begins with a brief review of the concept of hedging. It highlights the gap in the current literature regarding the role of internal threats in shaping alignment choices and links scholarship on "third world" alignment with that on hedging. It then examines two case studies, Cambodia and Myanmar, to show how they have shifted from hedging strategies to aligning with China (and Russia in the case of Myanmar). Through a comparative analysis of both countries, the article also assesses the impact of internal threats on alignment choices and discusses their implications for the balance of power in Southeast Asia.

Literature Review

The body of literature on hedging has expanded significantly since the term's introduction in the early 2000s. (12) Scholars of international relations have expressed frustration with realism's tendency to reduce East Asian alignment behaviour to simplistic concepts of "balancing" and "bandwagoning". Balancing is a state's attempt to increase its own defensive capabilities and relative power in the face of a security threat. (13) This may involve both internal measures, such as bolstering defences and resources, and external measures, such as forming alliances with outside powers. (14) Bandwagoning, on the other hand, describes a state's decision to align itself with a threatening power. Rather than balance or stand up to the threat, it seeks to enlist that state's protective powers. (15)

In contrast, hedging refers to a middle position between balancing and bandwagoning and entails characteristics of both extremes. (16) Hedging is thus more proactive than neutrality and consists of frequent small decisions on a range of issues--from security cooperation and defence modernization to expanding economic ties and regional diplomacy--aimed at preserving a balanced ledger in a state's international affairs. It is also distinct from "fence-sitting", (17) "buck passing", (18) or simply waiting out great power competition, as hedgers "look for opportunities" to engage with competing great powers. (19) Hedging is a deliberate policy aimed at preserving autonomy by embracing ambiguity. (20) Therefore, hedging resembles its historical precedent of non-alignment, which distinguished itself from neutrality by forging a more active approach to world events and great powers' efforts to enlist small states in their ordering projects. (21) Thomas S. Wilkins has identified a key difference between Cold War non-alignment and current non-alignment, noting that today's small states tend to form strategic partnerships rather than alliances. (22) In this light, hedging can be seen as a "sophisticated and updated manifestation of positive non-alignment". (23) For the purpose of this article, hedging is defined as a set of mutually counteracting policy initiatives that is intended to signal ambiguity to competing powers or power blocs, and to preserve maximum strategic autonomy in a state's international relations.

Hedging is primarily concerned with managing security risks (i.e., potential threats), rather than imminent threats. (24) As long as a smaller state is ambivalent about the threat posed by a rising power, it can afford to hedge. (25) In a multipolar order, small states have options to play the great powers off one another for maximum manoeuvrability. (26) Yet, in a bipolar world, pressure to choose sides escalates, rendering hedging increasingly difficult. (27) In addition, the ideological dimension of such great power competition--which seeks to impose firm dividing lines and to draw regional states into competing power blocs--undermines smaller states' ability to hedge and preserve their autonomy in the international system. (28) This is the current situation in Southeast Asia, where countries are looking for ways to hedge against "a broad range of risks", including Chinese hegemony, US withdrawal from Asia and broader regional instability. (29) For decades, Southeast Asia has grown accustomed to the United States' role as the regional security provider, even as most countries have enjoyed enormous economic benefits from China's rise. In this context, hedging can be seen as a utility maximizing strategy or middle path designed to "have your cake and eat it too". (30)

Despite mounting pressures on small states to choose sides, as well as the increasing recognition of China as a security threat, most Southeast Asian countries are continuing to practise--and indeed deepening--hedging strategies. (31) Regional states are highly reluctant to choose sides in great power competition and prefer to maintain the maximum degree of flexibility in their international relations by partnering with a variety of other countries. They often resist the pressures of larger powers to fit them into their own regional agenda and opt for various forms of limited alignment as a way of avoiding difficult choices that may require concessions in the form of bases or territory. (32) This preference is firmly entrenched in the strategic culture of Southeast Asian leaders, whose worldviews have been powerfully shaped by the legacy of colonialism in the region. (33) Yet, despite the proliferation of recent scholarship on hedging, there is a clear gap in the existing literature with regard to a question which remains unanswered: under what conditions do small states abandon hedging...

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