Foreign Policy Blogs

Increased Great Power Competition Changes Strategy of “Swing” Powers


Chinese President Xi Jinping and Filipino Rodrigo Duterte ( The New York Times)

Intensified U.S.-Russian and U.S.-China rivalry is actually proving beneficial to several states as it increases their room for maneuver between the major powers and pushes them more toward a multi-vector foreign policy strategy. Unlike during the Cold War, where most states were either strictly aligned with one camp or the other, or non-aligned, these modern states have several features in common.

They are all: 1) U.S. allies, 2) situated at the geographical confluence of great power influence, 3) struggling with local nationalistic sentiment with respect to local great powers, and 4) eager to conclude trade and investment deals with these very same local great powers, particularly in energy and/or infrastructure. The Philippines, Japan, and Turkey are all case studies of this new phenomenon.

The Philippines

Recent attempts to portray the Philippines’ new President as a “strongman in the making” willing to “jump into bed with China” have been quite simplistic. Rather than making a full tilt towards China, the Philippines’ new foreign policy strategy is much more nuanced. The goal is to achieve more of an actual balance between the U.S. and China (as well as Japan and Russia). This approach will give the Philippines maximum flexibility to achieve its security objectives (U.S.), while simultaneously seeking new avenues of economic cooperation (China).

This strategy is a necessity not merely from a negotiating standpoint, but from an eternal geographic reality as well. In order to ensure that it will not be taken for granted by any party (not even its treaty ally, the U.S.), the Philippines needs to diversify its foreign policy “investment portfolio”. With respect to actual financial investment, the Philippines has chosen to take a level-headed approach to China after the recent favorable Hague South China Sea ruling. This has occurred despite widespread domestic opposition to China regarding its conflicting South China Sea claims.

The Philippines has used the court’s findings as a platform to begin negotiations with China, not end them. Economically, the Philippines is hungry for investment opportunities. Although the U.S. and, especially, Japan currently account for a sizable share of the Philippines’ inbound FDI portfolio, the Philippines is looking specifically at more infrastructure-related investment. Because of this, China’s traditional political conditions-free investment packages and its previous quick infrastructure investment turnaround times in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America have made quite an impression on the Philippines. Lastly, the opportunity to be part of China’s OBOR initiative, specifically focused on infrastructure, is highly appealing as well.


Japan, the anchor of the U.S.’s re-balance to Asia to contain China, is currently in the midst of its most independent foreign policy stance in quite some time.  Japan, still considered a great power in its own right for historical reasons, feels the pressure of great power rivalry even more acutely than does the Philippines. This is because Japan is situated in Northeast Asia, home to China and Russia, both of whom have had their own historical issues with Japan.

From a security perspective, Japan still considers the U.S. to be the bedrock of its overall security portfolio. However, Japan also can not ignore the potential benefit of enlisting other great powers in its own bid to counter China. In South Asia, India fits this bill perfectly. In Northeast Asia, Russia would be extremely useful to Japan in creating some strategic uncertainty on China’s northern and northwestern frontiers. Japan sees this Russian benefit despite their ongoing dispute over the Kuril Islands and strong domestic nationalistic undercurrents in both the Japanese and Russian populations on this particular issue.

Crucial to resolving the Kuril Islands dispute, and actually signing a peace treaty with Russia, is increased economic cooperation between the two neighbors. Resource-hungry Japan and geographically-proximate resource-rich Russia are a match made in heaven. Because of U.S. and European sanctions, Russia is desperate for much-needed infrastructure investment and technical expertise to more fully develop the Russian Far East. Japan has displayed a willingness to explore this possibility despite the application of its own post-Ukraine sanctions on Russia, although these sanctions aren’t quite as severe as their American and European counterparts. Lastly, these economic maneuvers with Russia are given increased salience due to the uncertain future of actual TPP passage.


Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, nonetheless has its own calculus to follow in crafting a holistic foreign policy strategy. Like the Philippines and Japan, this is a necessity for Turkey as it sits at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This rich historical and unique geographical position has led to hostilities with Russia in the past, eventually leading to the Crimean War, and with Europe, eventually leading to World War I, and presently continuing uncertainty over eventual EU accession and Syrian refugee crisis resolution.

More recently, Turkey’s relations with Russia had taken a nosedive due to the shooting down of a Russian airplane near Syria. At the time, it was widely assumed that this incident would strengthen Turkish solidarity with the West with respect to Russia in the wake of U.S.-Russian hostilities. However, the recent coup attempt in Turkey has altered this calculus with Turkish suspicions that the U.S. might itself, in fact, have been behind the coup attempt. As a result, Russia and Turkey have temporarily put the aircraft incident behind them with Turkey pursuing more of a balanced diplomatic track between Russia and the West.

This reorientation, however, is not without its problems as Turkey and Russia both have competing visions over Syria’s future. Regardless, the two powers have not allowed these differences to impede potential economic cooperation, already faltering post-Ukraine sanctions and post-Russian aircraft incident. The Turkish Stream project, once thought to be dead because of past Russo-Turkish hostilities, is currently proceeding apace. Ukraine is referenced yet again, as the project would allow Russia to export more gas to Europe through Turkey, bypassing Ukraine in the process. Lastly, this rapprochement has occurred despite historical Russo-Turkish domestic grievances with respect to influence over the Black Sea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in Vladivostok (RT)



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.