The rise of global multipolarity is set to increase as the rate of change in world politics continues to accelerate. Exacerbating this trend is the risk resulting from uncertainty surrounding the new U.S. administration’s foreign policy with respect to several states. This is clearly evident in the South China Sea as increased uncertainty in the region is not only affecting U.S.-China relations directly, but relations between minor powers and the major states as well.
It is currently highly uncertain as to whether there is a coherent U.S. foreign policy strategy at all. Adding to this uncertainty is the incompleteness of the new U.S. administration’s foreign policy team. This uncertainty has the potential to severely negatively affect not only U.S.-Russia relations, but U.S.-China relations as well.
Three issues have arisen in the U.S.-China relationship which may have negative ramifications for the future. This is roughly one new issue every week that the new U.S. administration is now dealing with in its relations with China alone. Controversy has arisen not only over the U.S. phone call to the Taiwanese President (thereby questioning the “One China” policy), but also the possible U.S. imposition of 45% tariffs on imported Chinese goods, and the possible new U.S. naval maneuvers to deny China access to some of its claimed artificial islands as well.
Simply put, the U.S. has more than enough on its plate in terms of U.S.-Russia relations alone without possibly further damaging U.S.-China relations also. It’s no longer sufficient for the U.S. to consider these two key relationships as separate and distinct from one another. Indeed, both China and Russia have requested a revision in status in terms of their respective relations to the U.S..
With China, the concordant phrase is “New Model of Great Power Relations”. While Russia may have no equivalent phrase (yet), its geopolitical desire for parity with the U.S. has been quite evident for at least the last ten years ever since Russian President Putin’s infamous Munich Security Conference address in 2007. For better or worse, the world has definitively returned to the area of great power politics and its corresponding regional spheres of influence.
While some may consider spheres of influence to be an outdated, 19th century concept, it is very much a harbinger of the future. Both China and Russia have accepted this, being the only true aspiring rivals to the U.S. in terms of global influence. Counterintuitively, however, it is the minor powers’ acceptance of this new reality which has the potential to either increase or decrease global geopolitical risk.
As global uncertainty has increased, an increasing number of minor powers have pursued multi-vectored foreign policy strategies in order to leverage maximum maneuverability between the major powers. This has been apparent for some time in selected theaters such as Central Asia, where the regional powers balance between Chinese, Russian, and U.S. ambitions alike.
However, Southeast Asia is considerably more complex as several major actors in addition to the U.S. and China are vying for power. These actors include India and Russia as well. In order to diversify not only their respective trade portfolios, but security portfolios as well, Southeast Asian states are pursuing this balancing strategy while maintaining positive relations with as many major players as possible.
Nowhere has this been more evident recently than in the case of The Philippines. The island nation had decidedly (and decisively) pursued a more balanced foreign policy strategy between China and the U.S. However, this includes outreach efforts to other major powers (Russia and India) and minor powers (Japan and Vietnam) too.
While this may decrease geopolitical risk for the individual minor state concerned, it also increases risk for those major powers that are unable or unwilling to adapt to this new reality. This is because certain states, like the U.S., may have grown comfortable with being able to count certain other states as being firmly in its camp.
While this may indeed be the public stance of various client states, it masks the harsh reality of 21st century geopolitics. Lastly, this risk also spells tremendous opportunity for those states which swiftly recognize the fluidity and non-exclusive nature of partnerships in the region and are able to more clearly elaborate their security and trade value propositions not only to the individual client state involved, but to the region as a whole as well.