Malaysia & Singapore’s China Policy


A review of Smaller States’ Alignment Choices: A Comparative Study of Malaysia and Singapore’s Hedging Behavior in the Face of a Rising China, by Cheng-Chwee Kuik.

China’s ascendance has raised many new questions about the country’s rising power in international relations. In particular, this has had an impact on the states of Southeast Asia because they are in the near vicinity and have many overlapping territorial claims.  It is in this context that the foreign policy strategies of two relatively similar Southeast Asian states, Malaysia and Singapore, are compared according to the most similar cases design. Except for their size and population, the two countries share many aspects, such as geographical location, historical roots, a comparable ethnic composition, similar political systems, relatively similar economic structures and last but not least similar diplomatic and strategic assets. In particular, these two smaller states are ideal cases to understand how, despite similar conditions, they have reacted differently to the rise of the new regional power.

Even though the dissertation is grounded in a neorealist understanding of international relations with a focus on the behavior of two states toward China in a largely anarchical international system and the impact of power asymmetries, it diverges greatly from mainstream neorealist literature as it concentrates on the role of smaller states, grants international institutions a greater role than the traditional literature, provides an argument for a much more complex strategy of smaller states, and  considers domestic elites as crucial in understanding the differences in the foreign relations of smaller states. The qualitative study examines first the structural conditions of the country, then analyzes their impact on the legitimation of the domestic elites, and studies the policy responses of the smaller states to the rising power.

The main theoretical argument is laid out in the first three chapters (Chapter 2-4). First of all, instead of focusing on larger states and their interaction, this dissertation argues that it is important to understand the behavior of smaller states. A small state is defined using a qualitative definition as “a sovereign actor who recognizes that its own inherent inadequacies and vulnerabilities will confine its foreign policy priorities to its immediate areas, and who realizes that it must enlist the assistance of others (great powers and / or like-minded states) in its struggle to pursue its multiple goals of security, prosperity, and autonomy” (p. 19). This focus is chosen because smaller states are not competing for more power but are rather fighting for their own survival. Moreover, international relations should not only be seen as the result of the competition between major powers but are also shaped by smaller states.

Because of their smallness, states face three interlinked risks to their survival: security, economic, and political risks. Due to their relative weakness they naturally face threats to their very survival through annexation or elimination. Moreover, smaller states are faced with dangers resulting from the international environment as they are more vulnerable to economic shocks such as economic crises. To shield themselves, they have to diversify internally and focus on interstate cooperation externally. Political problems can come from both internal and external sources: internally, smaller states are often prone to insurrection, secessionist movements, subversion, ethnic conflicts, etc.  External political threats are possible political interference and political domination by stronger powers.

Even though smaller states are often mainly fighting for their own survival, they can occasionally have considerable power over stronger powers. During times of peace, previous scholars have assumed that small states have two different kinds of alignment choices, they can either focus on “balancing” or “bandwagoning.” The former refers to the decision of smaller states to align themselves against a larger power and the latter means that they align themselves with the larger power. However, to limit oneself to one of these two types of strategies happens, according to the author, only under extraordinary circumstances such as an imminent military threat. Instead, a smaller state is more likely to adopt a strategy which involves aspects of both “balancing” and “bandwagoning” as a pragmatic choice in order to avoid betting only on one horse. The author calls this kind of mixed strategies “hedging” which consists of aspects such as economic pragmatism, binding engagements with larger powers to maintain channels of communication, limited-bandwagoning which is a certain degree of alignment in order to win favorable terms from the larger power, dominance-denial in order to avert the emergence of a predominant power which may interfere in the internal affairs of smaller states, and indirect-balancing which means that a state engages in military efforts to cope with uncertainties that are kept diffuse instead of naming a specific threat.

The main comparative analysis of the two cases is divided into three historical periods. The first one (Chapter 5) focuses on the Cold War era from 1945 until the 1970s. During this period, the two states were mostly aligned with the West. Nevertheless, at the time Malaysia already realized that it was impossible to maintain its unrestricted anti-Communist stance and the country eventually shifted toward a strategy of non-alignment and equidistance policy. Singapore, on the other hand, remained more staunchly anti-Communist. While Singapore did join Malaysia in supporting the People’s Republic of China’s bid to replace Taiwan in the United Nations, it did not yet establish diplomatic relations at the time.

The next chapter (Chapter 6) concentrates on the period between 1976, the death of Mao Zedong, and 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, an era in which the relations of both countries with China remained ambivalent. In general, this era was a time when Western powers reduced their commitment from the region. While Malaysia adjusted its China policy by pursuing a rapprochement (albeit a guarded and incomplete one) with Beijing, Singapore decided to stick to its stance of not formalizing its relations with the People’s Republic of China. It only established diplomatic ties with China after Indonesia had done so. Moreover, it emphasized the need for the continuation of American involvement in the region. At the same time other countervailing strategies are also visible. For instance, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, Singapore sided with China against a possible Soviet expansion, while Malaysia was much more worried about growing Chinese role for the long-term security in the region.

The most recent period stretches from 1990 to 2010 (Chapters 7 and 8). Here the author stresses that the China strategy of the two Southeast Asian countries is characterized by different degrees of hedging. Malaysia’s approach continued its much closer relationship with China even as it downplayed the potential risks from the asymmetrical relationship. This is particularly surprising considering the mutual claims of China and Malaysia in the South China Sea. This largely amicable approach toward China is called “light hedging” while Singapore’s belief in the need for greater balance is considered “hard hedging”. The latter has pursued a much more ambivalent strategy toward China, which has been positive in regard to economic and diplomatic matters but much more distant in political and strategic regards. The reason for this difference lies in domestic reasons for Malaysia, which needs favorable ties to China for the legitimation of its ruling elite, and in strategic concerns in Singapore, which, as a majority Chinese island in a Malay sea, is worried about being too closely associated with China. Instead, Singapore has tried to prevent the emergence of a predominant hegemon by using other powerful states such as the United States as a countervailing force. This can be seen as an attempt of “dominance denial.”

In conclusion, the main argument of the thesis is that smaller states are not forced to either align themselves with or against a more powerful country in the vicinity. Instead, they can follow a two-pronged approach which combines a relatively cordial relationship during peacetime with countervailing strategies meant as long-term contingencies in case the unequal relationship might become a problem for the survival of the smaller states.

Stephan Ortmann
Research Fellow
Department of Asian and International Studies
City University of Hong Kong


As the work was meant to be theoretical-oriented, the author relied mainly on secondary sources (books and academic journals), as well as elite interviews (with former leaders like Mahathir Mohamad, Abdullah Badawi, and former senior officials from ministry of foreign affairs) as the basis for the analysis.

Dissertation Information

Johns Hopkins University. 2010. 406pp. Primary Advisor: Karl Jackson.

Image: Courtesy of Teoh Ai Hua

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