Roles Of Small States In International Security: Philippine Experiences Amidst US-China Big Power Rivalry – Analysis


Small states constitute the vast majority of sovereign states in the international system. There are 42 small states in the world, according to the World Bank definition. (1) Others are considered medium-sized states while only a few are considered to be large states.  In the existing academic literature, medium-sized states are also classified as small states in comparison with the size and capabilities of major powers.  (2)

Though viewed as small in size and capabilities, theories of international relations contend that small states matter in international politics as they also engage in risky behaviors like major powers. (3) During the cold war, most of the interstate-armed conflicts occurred between and among small states, especially in Asia. (4) Interstate conflicts involving small states intensified in the aftermath of the cold war as numbers of small states also increased, particularly after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. (5) At present, risks of armed conflicts among small states are getting higher as they are being divided arising from the growing major power rivalry between the United States, as an established superpower, and China, as a rising superpower. (6) If these two major powers succumb to the Thucydides Trap, small states are doomed to suffer the collateral damages.  Thus, studying small states diplomacies with major powers is essential in grappling with the current trends and future directions of international peace and security.

In the past, small states were  “treated as objects, not as subjects of international relations”. (7) Things have changed recently as “legal norms of sovereign equality give small states a voice in many international organizations.” (8) At present, small states can most successfully pursue their national interests through their inherent political powers in international security relations.  (9)

Small states, like major powers, can now shape the direction of international security as they did during the cold war with the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and in the post-cold war with the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and other regional institutions where most of the participants are small states.  The persistence of ASEAN in the 21st century with its view of centrality in addressing regional security concerns reflects the resilience of small states in international security.

Strictly speaking, the Philippines, which is a founding member of ASEAN,  is not a small state in terms of population, land area, and maritime zones.   In 2020, the Philippine population of  119,328,728 is considered the 13th in the whole world.  (10)  In terms of land area of 300,000 square kilometers, the Philippines is the 5th largest island country in the world.  (11) In terms of maritime zone, the Philippine is the world’s second largest archipelago next to Indonesia. But in international politics, the Philippines is classified as a small state if compared militarily and geographically with major powers of the world like the United States, China and Russia.

Despite being a small state, the Philippines has inherent ability to attract major powers because of its economic importance and strategic potential.  Though a small state, the United States and China regard the Philippines as an important and strategic country. Even the Geopolitical Futures (GPF), an international consultancy firm, admits that the Philippines is a very strategic country in the context of US-China geopolitical rivalry. (12) Thus, the Philippines magnets both the United States and China to forge cooperation because of its inherent power as a small state.  (13)

Under the Duterte Administration, the Philippines, as a small state, is pursuing the hedging approach in order to deal with the US and China, particularly on the South China Sea (SCS) issue.  As part of his hedging approach in the SCS, Duterte pursues friendly ties and comprehensive strategic cooperation with China while reinventing security alliance with the US in order to advance two fundamental Philippine national interests:  economic development and national security.

By pursuing friendly relations with China, President Duterte reached a mutual personal and official understanding with President Xi Jingping to pursue development cooperation and deliberately avoid violent conflicts in the SCS.  While strengthening friendship with China, Duterte is also maintaining Philippines’ security alliance with the US to benefit from its security umbrella in Indo-Pacific.   Despite his anti-American rhetoric, Duterte continues to enjoy “rock solid” security relations with the US.  Duterte’s cautious hedging with China and with the US intends to get the best of both worlds while avoiding to be torn between two major powers.

It is still premature to assess the long-term repercussion of the Philippines’ hedging approach with the US and China under Duterte.   So far, Duterte is arguably getting short-term concessions from two competing major powers in terms of economic and development support from China and security and military assistance from the US.    

There are indications of Duterte sustaining this option until the end of his term in May 2022, as his administration seems to be enjoying some economic and political returns from the US and China, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where the Philippines enjoys benefits from the two major powers. Whether the next Philippine administration will pursue this balancing diplomacy with the two major powers remains to be seen.  But as a small state, the Philippines matters to the US and China because of small states’ inherent charm to get the attention of big powers.

The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC).  He is a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College, and an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). This piece was based on the speech delivered at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum Webinar 2021 held on 26 October 2021.


This piece is also culled from the author’s forthcoming article, “Philippines-China Counterterrorism Cooperation under the Duterte Administration: Small State Diplomacy with Major Power.” In Carmelea Ang See, Teresita Ang See, Rommel C. Banlaoi, Richard T. Chu, eds.,  The State of Scholarship on the Chinese in the Philippines (Manila: Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran, Inc., 2021), pp. 144-164.. Part of this speech is also culled from the author’s chapter, “The Philippines and the South China Sea Under Duterte Administration”  in Gordon Huolden, Scott Rumaniuk and Nong Hong, eds., Security, Strategy and Military Dynamics in the South China Sea: Cross-National Perspectives (London:  Bristol University Press, 2021), Chapter 7.

  1.  World Bank, “The World Bank in Small States” at <accessed on 13 October 2020>.
  2.  Josef Batora, “Public Diplomacy in Small and Medium-Sized States: Norway and Canada”, Discussion Papers in Diplomacy (Amsterdam:  The Netherlands Institute for International Relations, 2005).
  3.  Jeanne A. K. Hey, ed., Small States in World Politics: Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior (Boulder, Colorado:  Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2003).
  4.  Steve Phillips, The Cold War: Conflict in Europe  and Asia (London:  Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2001).
  5.  Michael Cox, The Post-Cold War World: Turbulence and Change in World Politics Since the Fall (New York and London: Routledge, 2018).
  6. Feng Zhang and Richard Ned Lebow, Taming Sino-American Rivalry (London: Oxford University Press, 2020). Also see Andrew T.H. Tan, ed, Handbook of US-China Relations (London and New York:  Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016) and Jean Marc A. Blanchard and Simon Shen, eds., Conflict and Cooperation in Sino-US Relations: Change and Continuity, Causes and Cure (New York and London:  Routledge, 2015).
  7.  Iver Neumann, and Sieglinde Gstöhl, “Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World?” in Christine Ingebritsen, Iver Neumann, Sieglinde Gstöhl and Jessica Beyer,  eds., Small States in International Relations ( Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), pp. 3-36.
  8.  Tom Long,  “Small States, Great Power? Gaining Influence through Intrinsic, Derivative, and Collective Power,” International Studies Review, Volume 19, Number 2 (2017), pp. 185-205.
  9. Ibid
  10. “Top 20 Most Populous Countries in the World in 2020”, at <accessed on 15 October 2020>.
  11.  See the Philippines,  “Island Countries Of The World” at <accessed on 15 October 2020>.
  12.  GPF: Geopolitical Futures, “Why the Philippines Matters?” (24 February 2017) at  <accessed on 15 October 2020>.
  13.  Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Strategy of a Small State with Great Powers: The Philippines Amidst US-China Rivalry in the South China Sea”, The ICAS Bulletin, Institute for China-American Studies (31 July 2020).

Rommel C. Banlaoi

Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), President of the Philippine Society for International Security Studies (PSISS) and Convenor of the Network for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Philippines (NPVEP). He is the President of Philippines-China Friendship Society and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC). He has served as the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS).

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