The Myth of the Asian Swing State

Great-Power Competition No Longer Dominates the Region’s Politics

Paul Staniland | 03 May 2024
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The competition over Asia’s so-called swing states is heating up. China’s growing economic and political reach has impelled Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to try to gain influence in the countries not yet tightly aligned with either bloc. U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly characterized Asia as a battleground between autocracy and democracy. Observers who worry about such a contest point to recent pro-China turns in the Solomon Islands, which in 2019 severed its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and then signed a security pact with China, and the Maldives, which in 2023 elected a president who criticized his predecessor’s ties to India and vowed to draw closer to China.

Numerous leaders and analysts, including Matt Pottinger and Mike Gallagher writing in Foreign Affairs, now frame the U.S.-Chinese competition as a new cold war. Yet it is important that the United States and its partners not overemphasize the analogy to the original Cold War or misunderstand the challenges China poses in the competition over Asia’s swing states. There is immense political pressure from Washington to view the whole region through the prism of the United States’ competition with China. But this does not speak to the political interests of many Asian countries—and an approach based on this framing risks undermining America’s strategic and economic appeals to them.

Chinese influence presents a real challenge in this competition, but it is crucial to be clear about its nature. Asia today is radically different from Asia during the Cold War, an era when many of the region’s newly independent states were wracked by violent and destabilizing coups, insurgencies, and wars that made them exceptionally vulnerable to outside influence.

Although China is undoubtedly more influential than it was three decades ago, the bulk of Asia’s states are not at risk of falling under China’s sway. Asian countries now boast complex and autonomous domestic politics that do not align neatly with either Chinese or U.S. priorities. At times, these countries are indeed gripped by internal debates about whether to align with China or the U.S. and its partners. But just as often, that debate is secondary or even irrelevant compared with these countries’ more pressing internal challenges and foreign policy goals.

Asian countries’ politics and interests also do not map seamlessly onto the Biden administration’s autocracy-versus-democracy framing. Neither the Marxist-Leninist party-state model nor liberal democracy is clearly on the march in the region. Indeed, many regional states believe they can successfully balance ties with both sides as they forge their own forms of domestic politics.

China’s growing influence in swing states requires a thoughtful, sustained response from the United States and its partners in Asia. But the struggle for influence is not playing out uniformly across the region. The Biden administration has shown some sensitivity to the region’s contemporary realities, reassuring Indo-Pacific states in May 2023 that they can have “breathing space” to engage with China. Policymakers should take care to continue to resist the temptation to flatten Asia’s complex political landscape. An effective U.S. strategy in Asia requires understanding crucial differences among countries, taking them seriously, and carefully adapting policy initiatives to very specific local contexts.


There are important limits to what a Cold War analogy illuminates about Asia’s present. Most Asian countries today are vastly more stable than they were during the Cold War; as a result, they are far less susceptible to becoming flash points for proxy conflict. Data compiled by the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Uppsala Conflict Data Program show that conflict-related deaths in Asia declined dramatically after the Cold War ended. Asian countries’ domestic political foundations are sturdier and more resistant to outside influence.

In part because of this greater stability, Asian states’ domestic politics now often have little to do with the grand themes undergirding the major powers’ rivalries. The issues at the heart of the U.S.-Chinese competition, for instance—such as 5G and the Taiwan Strait—do not overlap with the core political cleavages within many of Asia’s swing states. Neither the American nor the Chinese political model is especially attractive, or even relevant, to many other Asian states. The Biden administration’s vision of Asia as a contest between autocracy and democracy is not a framing that captures the region’s domestic politics well. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, for example, are unlikely to become either rigidly institutionalized Marxist-Leninist party-states or liberal democracies. Adopting the Chinese political model would be politically disastrous for most elites in Asia’s swing states, requiring ruthless centralization and ending the most profitable forms of electoral competition and patronage.

At the same time, democracies in the region are not rushing to embrace the liberal values heralded by Biden’s version of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which the administration unveiled in early 2022. That strategy called for emphasizing the promotion of “democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society” in the U.S. approach to Asia, but these values are not always the ones that either leaders or citizens in key Asian swing states prioritize. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are electoral democracies, but their domestic preferences are often at odds with liberalism: the separation of church and state, the equal application of the rule of law, and strong free speech protections are not necessarily these political systems’ highest priorities. Singapore’s ruling party boasts close links to the United States and is concerned about China’s influence in Asia. But it is in no hurry to dismantle its tight controls over politics and society.


Asia’s combination of political stability, reduced ideological polarization, and varying domestic contexts means that great-power competition is refracted through the lens of incredibly complicated internal political competitions. A striking example can be found in Nepal, where both China and India are vying for influence. When anti-Indian sentiment surged there between 2015 and 2021, China worked to maintain a unified Nepali Communist Party. Those efforts raised alarms that China intended to reshape Nepali politics in an enduringly pro-China direction. (“Is Nepal Under China’s Thumb?” a Foreign Policy essay wondered in 2022.)

But Nepal’s politics did not permanently polarize along clear pro-Chinese and pro-Indian lines. Instead, coalitional maneuvering, personal rivalries, and debates over federalism, secularism, and the allocation of resources took primacy. Beijing was unable to stop the unified Communist Party from collapsing into factions driven by preexisting rivalries. India has also found it difficult to reliably sway political outcomes in Nepal, and in recent years, it has chosen to restrain its efforts to influence the country’s politics. Coalition governments have come and gone, leaders have found ways to work with both China and India, and great-power competition remains an uneven and sporadic driver of political mobilization.

Nepal is far from unique. In Indonesia’s February election, U.S.-Chinese competition did not prominently figure into politicians’ campaigns. In Pakistan over the past year, the country’s influential military, which is increasingly in conflict with Afghanistan’s government and faced with the expansion of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency along the Afghan border, has made overtures to the United States instead of steadfastly aligning with fellow autocrats in Beijing.

Economics may be the biggest arena in which Asian swing states reject pressure to firmly choose sides in a U.S.-Chinese competition. Asian states are heavily focused on economic growth, and they will seize opportunities to take advantage of the U.S.-Chinese competition—for instance by working with the United States to relocate supply chains out of China into their own markets. But such efforts can run alongside working with China on other economic issues. Many Asian states have a “yes, and” approach to building a diversified set of political and economic relationships. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Evan Feigenbaum argued in 2020, in the economic realm, “efforts by Beijing and Washington to define a zero-sum future for the region have thus far failed.”

Great-power competition does not always drive even China’s and India’s interactions with other Asian states. These two major powers are often at odds, but local, pressing challenges can also push them toward policy alignment. In Myanmar, for example, China and India have pursued similar goals rather than seek advantages against each other. To protect joint infrastructure projects and maintain stable borders, both countries initially sought to maintain good terms with Myanmar’s junta on the assumption that it would defeat the fragmented insurgency it faced. 

Yet over the last year, as that insurgency expanded and the military faltered, both China and India began reaching out to the insurgents. China encouraged a major rebel offensive against pro-junta militias engaging in human trafficking and online scams that hurt Chinese citizens. India has also cooperated with anti-junta armed groups along its borders with Myanmar, hoping to prevent the resurgence of an anti-India insurgency in the country’s northeast and to build stable ties with emerging power brokers. Neither aim relates to a grand struggle for power in Asia, and Myanmar has not become a proxy conflict.


Over the last decade, a number of Asian countries—especially those that have land and maritime disputes with China—have been pursuing greater alignment with the United States. This trend is likely to continue, and Washington should encourage it. The question, however, is how the United States and its partners can build and maintain strong ties with states that are less directly threatened by China.

The good news is that Asian countries’ stability and autonomy limit China’s ability to turn them into proxy states. When observers point with concern to the growing Chinese influence throughout Asia, they often emphasize the Maldives and the Solomon Islands. These countries are geographically strategic, and China’s influence over them is worth sustained scrutiny. But the United States and its partners should not overreact to these Chinese advances by assuming they are harbingers of a much broader regional shift. These are tiny states compared with Malaysia and Nepal, much less behemoths such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Moreover, China itself offers a cautionary tale of the risks a country incurs by not carefully adapting its foreign policy to other countries’ local politics. In recent years, Beijing has tried to lump various projects and relationships into the top-down aegis of its Belt and Road Initiative, an approach that has sometimes led to backlash and tension. In Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, in particular, the influx of Chinese resources has not led to the kind of enduring political influence and power that many feared.

In part thanks to China’s own challenges navigating Asia’s diverse political landscape, the United States has plenty of opportunities to complement or outcompete Beijing’s efforts. Doing so successfully, however, will require case-by-case approaches. The Indo-Pacific Strategy provides a valuable framework by which to coordinate U.S. government outreach to Asia and build cooperation among key Asian allies. But it can also be a lightning rod that pushes swing states away from the United States.

In 2018, for instance, Nepali leaders were not pleased when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that U.S. policy toward Nepal fell under the aegis of the IPS. That assertion triggered an enduring suspicion that any future U.S. initiatives toward the country would be intended principally to draw it into an anti-China coalition. Washington’s overwhelming focus on great-power competition has left diplomats working in Asian countries torn between trying to meet the IPS’s mandate and reassuring local leaders that the strategy is not all about China. Policymakers need to face—and creatively manage—the potential trade-offs between consolidating their core partners’ support and appealing to swing states.

American strategy in Asia is best served by focusing on adapting to specific local contexts. Washington should resist the urge to search for stable pro-American factions with which to partner and pro-China ones to denounce or oppose. While such factions sometimes exist, more often these alignments are fluid and shifting. U.S. policymakers must become more comfortable with ambiguity, focusing on what the United States and its partners can best offer in a particular setting, regardless of China’s influence.

Washington will be most effective when it approaches Asia’s swing states as they are: complicated and autonomous countries, not pieces on a chessboard maneuvered by Beijing and Washington. Most Asian countries have many needs. Even if they choose to engage with China in one arena, the United States and its partners can advance their strategic goals in others.

PAUL STANILAND is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

This article was originally published on Foreign Affairs.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.