The United States is the East Asian hegemon. Since the close of World War II, this hegemony has bestowed the region with general security, explosive economic expansion, and membership in the international liberal order that integrated the region globally. Washington has positive relations with many states in the Western Pacific. Its military remains regionally dominant. The United States is the best responder to humanitarian crises in the region.
China is looking to challenge this reality by usurping American soft power in the region because it cannot dispute American hard power. Chinese investment programs in the region are growing while trade is exploding. To combat U.S. hard power, Beijing is expanding anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD). The People’s Liberation Army cannot defeat the U.S. military, so Beijing is working to deter it. These developments are increasing the concerns about Finlandization in the region. This is something the United States should ardently prevent, otherwise its position in the region will rapidly deteriorate.
Finlandization is the process whereby smaller states are obliged to cooperate with the interests of a larger state. After the close of WWII, the Finnish government sought a way to avoid the Soviet Union’s tightening grip on Eastern Europe. The result of these efforts culminated in the 1948 Soviet-Finnish Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. The agreement permitted Finland to maintain its self-governance at the expense of refusing Western allegiance or support. Due to ill-fated geographic proximity, size, and strength, however, Finland remained firmly driven by Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War. On the other hand, Finland successfully avoided the coercive and destructive fate many Eastern European states suffered during the 1950s and 60s by successfully appeasing their neighboring hegemon.
A similar prospect is growing in Southeast Asia. The shadow of Finlandization is an inevitable byproduct of China’s explosive economic, militaristic, and influential growth in the region. Peripheral states are suffering from an incapacity to ward off such a potent foe due to the breakneck expansionism of China’s PLA Navy (PLAN). Gunboat diplomacy is an efficient tool of forcing Finlandization. The One Belt, One Road initiative is beneficial for infrastructure development in peripheral states but is an obvious maneuver to subvert efforts to resist Finlandization. Efforts to keep ASEAN states disconnected guarantees the impossibility of a unified, multilateral front against Chinese influence.
Vietnam fears imminent Finlandization. Trade, security, and proximity underscore the threat. 29 percent of Vietnamese imports come from China compared to 4.4 percent from the United States. Yulin naval base houses 20 Chinese nuclear submarines 100 miles away from much of Vietnam’s northern coastline. Sharing hundreds of square miles of disputed South China Sea territory exasperates hostility. China has abused international water laws and Vietnamese exclusive economic zones while searching for oil and other natural resources over the past decade. Hanoi’s active military personnel stands at roughly 485,000. Beijing’s active military personnel stands near 2,300,000. The PLA also outstrips the People’s Army of Vietnam in training, technology, and equipment. Although China did not attain victory in its most recent war with Vietnam in 1979, such results should not be anticipated again. Similar situations are developing in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, and other Southeast Asian nations.
Not all peripheral Chinese states share the same Finlandization concerns. Cambodia has benefited from an inordinate amount of Chinese investment when compared against aggregate Chinese trade. Phnom Penh regularly receives defense windfalls from Beijing. Cambodia regularly hedges Chinese strength against its neighboring rivals in Vietnam and Thailand. In return for the bounty China bestows to Cambodia, Phnom Penh regularly frustrates the management of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and ASEAN debates to form a military coalition to counterbalance China.
If the ASEAN states could operate together, their combined maritime assets could exclude the PLAN from the South China Sea. This is not possible due to obstructionism. Therefore, many Southeast Asian states have turned to the United States for security support to avoid the threat of Finlandization and Chinese dominance. Vietnam has invested $200 million in refurbishing Cam Ranh Bay. Although unspoken, once complete, the bay will be able to dock multiple major U.S. warships. The United States continues to partner closely with Malaysia on counterterror strategy and operation in Southeast Asia. Changi Naval Base in Singapore continues to prioritize U.S. navy ships when determining which nations can port. The Philippines continues to expand U.S. military presence across the country due to the 2014 Enhanced Defense Co-operation Agreement despite President Duterte’s bellicosity. These invitations to increase U.S. presence and force in the region stands as a bulwark against Finlandization.
One of the greatest threats to U.S. hegemony in the region is the growth of Chinese A2/AD. A2/AD in China’s littoral region combines naval, missile, and intelligence capabilities to prevent opponents from operating in specific regions. Chinese A2/AD exerts influence 200-300 miles from China’s coast. This umbrella does not reach far, but it can deter movement in the Taiwan Strait and portions of the East and South China Seas. As Beijing develops its A2/AD technology, this umbrella will extend further, preventing U.S. movement in times of conflict and deterring U.S. flexibility in times of peace. A2/AD capabilities guarantee Finlandization. If a nation cannot depend on sufficient domestic capabilities to deter Chinese influence and cannot depend on foreign intervention, the result is Finlandization. Additionally, a Chinese hegemonic upset in the area would alter the system that has propelled the region on an upward trajectory of economic growth and opportunity.
To prevent a future of Finlandization, Southeast Asian states can implement several strategies. First, deepening trade ties with the United States will ease the economic coercion powers China holds. Second, expanding joint military exercises with willing ASEAN nations will boost regional military readiness and posture. Third, ASEAN states interested in pursuing a collective defense solution should begin negotiations to do so. Finally, states should continue to publicize Chinese aggression and failure to respect international maritime law. China and Southeast Asian states can coexist, but a balance of power and the prevention of Finlandization are necessary to peace in the region.
David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.