By Colin Vaida
China and the United States are typically viewed as regional hegemons vying for influence and glory in the Asia-Pacific. This realist clash of civilizations and titans is not the full story, and in fact the other countries in the region have plenty to say about it. Other countries in the region like South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia are more involved than many might think. These smaller countries are not pawns in a game between two great powers, but instead are ingenious manipulators integral to the safety and stability of the region. These countries are the master double agent playing both sides of the field in order to receive benefits and incentives from both sides. Using their hedging powers, these states are able to use China’s economy and America’s security in an important and stabilizing game of manipulation.
South Korea, for example, is a country that since normalizing relations with China in 1992 has benefited from a booming Chinese economy and robust American security. Despite all of South Korea’s entanglements and discontents with China, China remains South Korea’s largest trading partner. From 6 billion in trade in 1992 to 220 billion in 2011, South Korea continues to benefit and so does China. However, when China supports North Korea, it is quick to rally with the United States for a joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea. The ability of South Korea to engage China economically furthers its goals, but its security relationship with the U.S. hedges Chinese claims and influence. This game of playing both sides is critically important because though it situates South Korea with tough decisions, it manipulates both powers while keeping them at arm’s length. Hedging against Chinese influence by interacting with the United States is the smartest and most stable approach for the current South Korea.
In Southeast Asia the same relationship endures. The Philippine’s third largest trading partner is China, while its historical relationship with the United States is extremely strong. The Chinese relationship with the Philippines is quite paradoxical and representative of other state interactions. The two countries lay claim to the same islands in the South China Sea, yet China is a huge trading partner for the island nation. Singapore in a similar fashion heavily trades with China, in excess of 300 billion in Chinese imports, yet still plays the hedge game. Despite being economically involved and linked to China, these countries do not put all of their eggs in one basket. These countries diversify their portfolio playing the geopolitical game as well as both China and the United States.
The best part of this manipulative game is that China and the United States benefit too. China continues its economic rise, while the United States continues its presence in the region. Despite all of the issues over islands and growing Chinese and Japanese nationalism, small countries know what they are doing when they manipulate the region’s two hegemons.