In a Vital Region, a Vital Perspective: A Review of Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future by Thomas Parks

Journal of International Affairs
September 06, 2023

The rivalry between the United States and China does not suffer from a lack of attention and anxiety in 2023. China’s growing global assertiveness has prompted many to label it a revisionist power that seeks to remake the U.S.-led liberal international order on its own terms. International relations scholar Graham Allison famously coined the term, “Thucydides’ Trap,” referring to the historical phenomenon of a rising power threatening to displace a dominant power, often leading to conflict.[1] Just as the threat of a rising Athens to displace the dominant Sparta laid the groundwork for the Peloponnesian War, the United States and China could likewise soon be headed toward conflagration. Some pundits have already concluded that the U.S.-China rivalry represents Cold War II.[2]

Within this frame, it is tempting to view the small and middle powers that make up Southeast Asia as caught in the crossfire of today’s great power competition, forced to choose between allying with rising China or hegemonic U.S. Indeed, recent works such as China scholar David Shambaugh’s Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia tell a story in which the two superpowers are the determinative actors in the region.[3] However, as Thomas Parks details in Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future, regional dynamics give the nations of Southeast Asia far more room to maneuver than this narrative credits, informing a more optimistic vision of a regional order than simplistic U.S.-China bipolarity would project.

Parks’s argument boils down to two core pronouncements on Southeast Asia that go unappreciated by both U.S. and Chinese officials. First, that the nations of Southeast Asia prefer a regional order that is characterized neither by U.S. nor Chinese hegemony, but by non-alignment and “asymmetric multipolarity”, in which no one or two poles dominate, but where nations with various degrees of power simultaneously exert influence.

Beyond suspicion of great powers rooted in the region’s experience during European imperialism and the Cold War, the small and middle powers of Southeast Asia have much to gain from using a tactic known to political scientists as “hedging.” Traditional realist theory dictates that, faced with the threat of a greater power, smaller powers will principally either balance against, or bandwagon with the greater power. However, nations can also hedge, a strategy marked by “simultaneous cooperation and resistance with the intention of maintaining a mixed relationship of selective partnership and opposition with each great power.”[4]

Parks’s second chapter, Unseen Agency, is powerful in its numerous recent examples of Southeast Asian nations preserving non-alignment in the face of great power pressure. He recounts an April 2020 dispute involving a group of Chinese vessels that approached Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), to which the United States responded by sending an aircraft carrier and two naval escorts. To the surprise of U.S. officials who believed they were upholding international law, Malaysia responded with an ambiguous official statement that the U.S. Navy’s action escalated tensions and were not in Malaysian interests. As Parks emphasizes, it would behoove U.S. and Chinese officials to appreciate the value placed by Southeast Asia on the non-aligned—oftentimes, ambiguous—status quo which has enabled regional development.

Parks’s second pronouncement (which he spends most of the book arguing) is that asymmetric multipolarity is not just Southeast Asia’s preference, but constitutes the current state of affairs and is likely to strengthen in the future. First, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plays a crucial role in facilitating multipolarity. Many in the West have been quick to label ASEAN dysfunctional in the wake of episodes such as its response (or lack thereof) to the 2021 coup in Malaysia. However, as Parks argues, ASEAN serves different purposes than Western onlookers expect. Unlike the UN, whose mission is often norms and values promotion and inserting itself in nations’ internal affairs, the ASEAN Way emphasizes consensus-building and national sovereignty.[5] Furthermore, ASEAN enables greater economic interconnectedness between member-states through the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and gives the middle powers of Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia greater influence in the region and therefore ability to push back against great powers.

Parks proceeds to examine external powers operating in Southeast Asia, devoting whole chapters to Japan, Australia, India, Europe, and their respective roles in the asymmetric multipolar order. According to Parks’s model, Japan is best positioned to act as a regional pole given factors such as economic attraction, development cooperation, and soft power attraction. Though China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gets much of the attention of the West, Japan is Southeast Asia’s leading bilateral source of infrastructure investment, as well as official development assistance (ODA) and foreign direct investment (FDI). So too does Japan’s style of diplomacy have appeal in the region, “which focuses on informal consultation and consensus-building, and avoidance of confrontation and posturing.”[6]

On the other hand, Australia, India and Europe each have one or multiple liabilities that hinder their influence in the region. In the case of Australia, it has historically relied upon the United States for protection, an alliance that has strengthened in recent years, and one that stands against the Southeast Asian preference of non-alignment. Their defense cooperation reached new highs in September 2021, when the two nations along with the United Kingdom signed the AUKUS security pact. The pact frustrated Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia that were not consulted prior to its agreement and because of its contradiction of ASEAN Centrality, the principle that ASEAN should be at the center of any regional security dialogue. India is making greater outreach efforts in the region, but it makes little provision of ODA and FDI and, according to Parks, has little soft power appeal. On the other hand, the European Union is a substantial source of ODA and FDI (larger than Japan if taken as a single entity). The EU also exerts soft power appeal and is committed to maritime openness. For ASEAN though, there are liabilities working against the European Union. Its commitment to democracy and human rights is seen as contrary to the ASEAN Way, and distance, especially with European resources committed to countering Russia on its Eastern flank, is a substantial obstacle.

Mark Twain is believed to have said, “history does not repeat, but it often rhymes.” While history does not occur in predictably precise patterns, there are historical commonalities that make its study worthwhile. However, the quote is more insightful if stated in the reverse. While there are patterns in history, an overreliance on their detection to predict behavior opens space for bias projection, leading to self-fulfilling and avoidable negative outcomes. Employing the Thucydides Trap lens in Southeast Asia, it is tempting to view its nations in the vein of the city-state of Melos, whose insistence on non-alignment was not tolerated by Athens. As Thomas Parks invokes in his introduction, given the choice of surrender to Athens or face conquest, the latter fell to Melos.

In addition to arguing that multipolarity is Southeast Asia’s destiny, Thomas Parks offers several suggestions for U.S. policymakers in the region, such as pursuing less values-promotion and greater recognition of ASEAN legitimacy. However, the book’s most valuable takeaway is that using a strict bipolar lens to guide policy not only ignores reality on the ground, but will likely work against U.S. interests and push fence-sitting nations closer to China. Those crafting U.S. policy in Southeast Asia would do well to heed Parks’s call.

Thomas Parks has led research and managed aid programs across Southeast Asia with The Asia Foundation, and the Australian Government (DFAT) on geopolitics, security cooperation, ASEAN, economic development, conflict, and governance. He is a graduate of Harvard and Johns Hopkins SAIS.

Staff Writer: Zachary Krivine is pursuing a Master of International Affairs degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in International Financial and Economic Policy. Zachary previously worked in sales and trading for several European investment banks.

[1] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, September 14, 2015.

[2] Niall Ferguson, “Cold War II” National Review, December 17, 2020.

[3] David Shambaugh, Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[4] Thomas Parks, Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future: Averting a New Cold War (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023), 32.

[5] Harsh Mahaseth, “The Use of The ASEAN Way In Resolving Disputes.” Modern Diplomacy (blog),  June 22, 2022.


[6] Parks, Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future, 123.