Webinar on “Stuck in the Middle? Southeast Asian Choices in an Increasingly Multipolar World”

In this webinar, Dr Zack Cooper examines the evolution of global competition.


12 April 2023, Wednesday ­– In a webinar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute entitled “Stuck in the Middle? Southeast Asian Choices in an Increasingly Multipolar World”, Dr Zack Cooper shared his views about the multipolar nature of the emerging global competition between various powers, the rise of “coalitions” which are organised around specific issues, and how Southeast Asia can respond to such geopolitical developments.

Speaker Dr Zack Cooper with Ms Lee Sue-Ann (moderator). (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Cooper argued the world is heading towards multipolarity rather than bipolarity – an assessment that pushes against the conventional wisdom that the global power competition is primarily between the United States and China. According to him, multipolarity is characterized by “different powers competing for influence in different domains at different times”. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China was an indication of how countries may not necessarily settle themselves firmly in either the Chinese or American camp, but instead pursue a foreign policy that best advances their own interests.

Dr Cooper suggested that, in a multipolar system, countries would need to be “flexible” and expect frequent and rapid changes in geopolitical alignments, especially when circumstances change. In a bipolar system, the strategic options were more straightforward: a country could choose either to bandwagon with one particular pole or stay neutral between the two poles. The “nebulous” nature of the multipolar system means that countries will have to make a series of strategic choices at specific junctures and for different issues, rather than fall back on “clean alliance structures”. This has given rise to “coalitions” featuring “different countries working together in different [issue] areas at different times”.

The increasing prevalence of “coalitions” marks a shift from multilateralism to minilateralism. Multilateralism has traditionally been the platform for negotiating “big undertakings” such as dealing with climate change and establishing “rules of the road”—including the global trading regime under the WTO and the law of the sea under UNCLOS. However, Dr Cooper explained that multilateral groupings have struggled to build consensus in recent years due to the divergent interests of countries in a multipolar system. As a result, there has been a turn towards minilateralism, which generally involves a smaller number of countries, is issue-specific, and tends to be “more exclusive” in nature. Dr Cooper suggested that the United States’ greater attention to mechanisms such as AUKUS and the Quad reflects the belief in Washington that these minilateral groupings are better able to deliver results.

Dr Cooper identified the four different issue areas—security, economics, technology, and global governance—that characterized the various US-led minilateral engagements. He described the Quad as a minilateral grouping whose members share a common security concern about China. Tellingly, though the Quad forms a “security diamond” around ASEAN, the region has been excluded from the minilateral arrangement since few ASEAN member states are willing to make the strategic choices necessary to ameliorate the security concern posed by China.

Meanwhile, the United States is trying to advance an economic “coalition” with some selected countries in the region through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Dr Cooper said that Washington may find it difficult for IPEF to find traction in the “fractured” economic sector since the US-led initiative needs to compete with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) (which now includes the United Kingdom) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (which counts China as a participant). Furthermore, because IPEF is more modestly directed at aligning standards and rules, it is likely to be less attractive than “traditional economic agreements”—such as the CPTPP and RCEP—that reduce trade barriers and tariffs.

Dr Cooper identified the so-called “Chip 4 alliance” as another effort by Washington to curate a technological coalition in the region. The Chip 4 alliance would consolidate the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan—all key players in the semiconductor sector—and establish the “leading technology grouping in Asia”, enabling the countries to better manage the resilience of the semiconductor supply chain and potentially coordinate on export controls for the chips.

The G7 is the minilateral platform of choice through which the United States will seek to advance its “values” and principles of global governance. According to Dr Cooper, the United States and Japan will use the forthcoming G7 summit in Hiroshima to push their partners to align their policies about global governance, including on issues related to democracy promotion and economic coercion.

Dr Cooper pointed out that the commonality of these various US-led “coalitions” is that they involve countries which are willing to “lean very far forward on specific issues”. This raises the question of where Southeast Asia can fit in, given the region’s preference of not wanting to choose. However, Dr Cooper argued that it is a “misnomer” that Southeast Asian countries can avoid making choices since these countries are “already making choices”—whether in terms of their choices in investment, technology or security partnerships. While countries may not have to make a singular choice between the United States or China per se, governments, companies and individuals in the region are inextricably making many choices daily—while the sum of these decisions will reveal the direction of their alignment.

Dr Cooper said that the turn towards minilateralism indicates the inefficacy of ASEAN mechanisms, which then risks diminishing ASEAN centrality. For ASEAN to reclaim its relevance, it must show that the grouping is indeed able to “deliver on tough issues”. However, if ASEAN is not capable of furnishing such results, Dr Cooper suggested that individual member states may have to consider operating outside ASEAN and participating instead in the minilateral arrangements—though at the potential cost of undermining ASEAN unity.

The emerging multipolar world presents formidable challenges but also opportunities. Dr Cooper noted that the United States is itself still trying to grapple with the transition to multipolarity, citing the tendency in the US strategic community to transplant the strategic bipolar logic of the Cold War to the current multipolar environment—even though the circumstances are markedly different. He argued that multipolarity could work to Washington’s advantage since the presence of multiple strong “poles”, such as India and Southeast Asia, can benefit the United States. He argued that the United States should empower its allies and friends, which includes countries in Southeast Asia—this, however, means that the region cannot “sit on the sidelines” but instead assume “a leadership role in making the multipolar system work”. 

During the Q&A session, Dr Cooper addressed various issues, including the challenges associated with the transition towards multipolarity, the role of values and identity in coalition-building and the possibility of Southeast Asian cooperation with the Quad. He also fielded questions related to China’s outreach to the Global South, the Philippines’ recent security tilt towards the United States, and the future of the US dollar as the global reserve currency. The webinar was attended by more than 100 participants from Singapore and abroad.