Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Personalized Foreign Policy Decision-Making and Economic Dependence: A Comparative Study of Thailand and the Philippines' China Policies

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Personalized Foreign Policy Decision-Making and Economic Dependence: A Comparative Study of Thailand and the Philippines' China Policies

Article excerpt

Neorealists disagree on how small states respond to rising powers. Kenneth Waltz argues that secondary states "flock to the weaker side" and balance against the rising power. (1) In contrast, Stephen Walt maintains that "the weaker the state, the more likely it is to bandwagon rather than balance". (2) A similar divergence exists in studies on Southeast Asian states and their responses to China's rising power. Some observers, using different terms, contend that China's rise has raised Southeast Asian states' concerns and pushed them to strengthen their strategic ties with the United States. (3) Conversely, other analysts suggest that Southeast Asian states accommodate, rather than balance against, China. (4) Despite this divergence, Neorealists are united in the belief that factors at the systemic level--more specifically shifts in the distribution of material capabilities--determine the foreign policy behaviour of small states.

The mainstream Neorealist tradition, however, is increasingly challenged by students of International Relations, such as Neoclassical Realists (5) and Liberals. (6) Scholars who study small powers also have pointed out that in small states with weak democratic institutions, individual leaders often exert disproportionate influence on foreign policy decision-making. In his seminal work Pre-Theories and Theories of Foreign Policy, James Rosenau ranks the individual-level variables as the most important in determining small and underdeveloped countries' foreign policy behaviour. (7) Jeanne Hey concurs, arguing that "individual leaders, or a small group of foreign policy elites ... are particularly powerful in postcolonial situations that can enhance the leaders' ability to implement their foreign policy preferences". (8) Robert Rothstein proposes the concept of "personalization of foreign policy". (9) He demonstrates that many less-developed countries (LDC) do not possess strong foreign policy bureaucracies. Leaders who are "usually not locked in by public or bureaucratic pressures" manipulate foreign policy-making to serve their own interests: "Foreign policy tends to be the unfettered preserve of the leader and his friends." (10) Rothstein further contends that personalized foreign policy is more likely to suffer from discontinuities when regime change or power transition occurs. This is simply because policies favoured by a particular leader may not be favoured by his or her successors. (11) In Rothstein's words," [f]or an LDC, personalization diminishes continuities between regimes, lowers predictability". (12)

The reality, however, does not dovetail perfectly with Rothstein's theory. The foreign policies of politically unstable states exhibit remarkable variation in terms of constancy. Illustratively, in both Thailand and the Philippines, individual leaders exert personal influence on foreign policy decision-making, and both countries are fragile democracies. Thailand, however, has maintained a stable and cordial relationship with China despite domestic political turmoil over the past decade. In contrast, in the last few years of the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippines' China policy underwent significant changes. Tensions between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea continued to rise after President Benigno Aquino assumed office in 2010. What explains the continuity in Thailand's China policy and the changes exhibited in the Philippines' China policy? The existing literature does not provide an adequate answer.

Building on Rothstein's theory, this article outlines further possible mechanisms through which personalization of foreign policy may result in discontinuities. Yet, in a departure from the existing literature, this article contends that the effects of foreign policy personalization are contingent upon an intervening variable --the small state's economic dependence on the major power. When economic cooperation with the major power generates more benefits for and creates more vested interests in the small state, their leaders are less likely to politicize the country's foreign policy towards the major power. …

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