In 2001, John Mearsheimer published The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which compared great-power dynamics to a Greek tragedy wherein the protagonists fall prey to some fatal error or misjudgment of their own doing. For Mearsheimer, great powers behave aggressively in their endless pursuit of power, all too often with tragic consequences. One does not have to buy into Mearsheimer’s determinism and pessimism to appreciate his insights on great-power rivalry. Where the global and the regional intersect, such rivalries tend to draw in smaller regional states, compelling them to take sides in those power struggles, despite their natural inclination to hedge. As Sheldon Simon, writing on the impact of great-power games on Southeast Asia, observed over three decades ago, great powers seek to enhance their global positions relative to those of their peer competitors, which leads them to view small states as potential partners in local balances against rival great powers.
For much of the post–Cold War period, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has acted both as a buffer between the great powers and as a bridge linking them through a region-wide security architecture centered on ASEAN. In recent years, however, growing tensions between the great powers have driven a wedge between these Southeast Asian countries and rendered it difficult for ASEAN to hold the ring. All of this suggests that Asia could be heading toward a challenging time of insecurity and possibly even conflict. That said, this essay argues that the projected tragedy of the great powers that the notion of the Thucydides trap seems to suggest need not be Asia’s future.
Last updated on 19/09/2019