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Wednesday, 16 May 2018 18:21
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The small country-big country relationship in the world nowadays

(LLCT) - The world history shows that big countries and their interactions control and decide the development tendency of the world politics and shaping of the international order. For small countries, their relations with big countries and are always considered as important issues. Nowadays, the small country-big country relationship has become different in nature, condition and defined context. The article focuses on analysing: 1) criteria of identifying a big country in the current world; 2) the nature of the small country-big country relationship; 3) Vietnam’s experiences in behaving towards big countries.

Keywords: International relations, the world nowadays.

1. Identification of big countries

Big country (or great power) is a concept used to denote countries having vast area, large population and overwhelmingly developed resources in comparison with other countries. They have predominant potential, strength and influence in politics, military, diplomacy, economy and culture, having capability to exert influence on and rule the shaping of policies and behaviours of other countries in the world as well as control the operation of the international relation system, international trends and handling of global issues.

Currently, there is no agreed perception or common definition about big countries. The differentiation of big countries and small countries depends on the angle of view from each nation based on the correlative comparison between one nation’s strength, position and influence and those of other nations. Accordingly, a nation can be small in this relationship but can be considered a big one in a relationship with other countries and vice versa(1). For example, Canada, Brasil and Australia are big countries in the world in terms of territorial area and natural resources; India, Indonesia and Pakistan are powers of population in the world. However, the aggregated strength of these countries has not reached the status of a world power. In reality, when differentiating and evaluating if a country is big or small, the element of aggregated strength is dominated by military, economic and scientific and technological strength which play an extremely important role. The Netherlands is a small nation in Europe but during the 15th and 16th centuries, with its predominant strength, it became a “hegemony” of the whole world with the name “Driver in the sea”. The United Kingdom has the area of only more than 200 thousand km2 but during the 19th century it was called “a country where the sun never sets”. Currently, although France, Germany and Japan are medium countries in the world in terms of area and population but with their aggregated strength particularly in economic, scientific and technological and military fields as well as their international status, they are considered big countries of the world. Also under these criteria, despite small countries like South Korea or Israel, even extremely small ones in terms of area and population size such as Singapore and Qatar, they possess admirable strength in economy, science and technology, military and international influence.

However, based on the collection of identified criteria as mentioned above and as it is now popularly understood, the five permanent member countries of the United Nation Security Council and also the five countries possessing nuclear weapons, including the United States, Russia, the Republic of China, the United Kingdom and the French Republic, are considered big countries or big powers. In addition, Germany and Japan are also regarded as powers because of their economic strength and international influence. Among which, the United States is the unique global power after the Cold War, China and Russia rank the second level following the United States. These two powers are thought to fully possess criteria and capabilities to rise up as the world powers counterbalancing the United States. As for the area, population and development potential, the United Kingdom, the French Republic, Germany and Japan can only be recognized as outstanding powers in the region or continent. But as for other aspects of economy, military, science and technology, and international influence, these four nations can also recognized as powers of the world. Besides, some big countries are regarded as regional powers or medium powers including Brasil and Canada in America, India and Australia in Asia-Pacific. Among which, India is considered to potentially emerge as a world power.

2. Nature of the big country-small country relationship nowadays

International relations are increasingly democratized and regulated by the Charter of the UN and international law but strength-based politics is the core nature of international politics and diplomacy. Accordingly, big countries always have governing influence on small countries as well as play a ruling role or even decisive role in the movement and development of international tendencies and international complexion. The origin defining the nature of the big country-small country relationship includes: 1) clear asymmetric nature of aggregated strength; 2) big country-small country psychology and behaviours formed from two sides, which originates from the asymmetric nature of strength; 3) difficult historic experiences of the big country-small country relationship.

Starting from predominant disparities in stature and strength, big countries often carry the psychology of “great country” and hence, display behaviors of depreciation, encroachment and intimidation of “minor countries”(2). Vice versa, small countries often have to restrain, endure and respect status of big countries, and sometimes they are forced to “obey” big countries to be peaceful. The growing asymmetry together with geological closeness and historic collisions will increase the big country-small country psychology and behaviours(3). In the relationship between big countries and small countries, big countries often govern and have ruling influence on small countries. Through various levers, big countries can constraint and impact the shaping of policies and behaviours, forcing small countries to pay attention to their viewpoints, opinions and interests. In interest relations, big countries often ignore or underrate small countries’ interests. When contradictions, conflicts or disputes occur, big countries often press or force small countries to follow them regardless of international law and small countries’ legitimate and lawful interests. Originating from tendencies in attitude, big country-small country psychology and behaviours, the two sides often doubt each other and lack strategic trust.

In the cooperative and competitive relationship among big countries, they tend to use their various tools and resources as well as explore contradictions of the relationship between small countries and their rival big countries to attract and gather other small countries to stand on their side via policies of division, buying off, involvement, constraint, pressing and even threatening. On the other hand, small countries are easy to become “hostages” or “cards” for being bartered, bargained or traded by big countries in their power game.

Afterall, power politics is a law possessing the nature of international politics although relations among countries nowadays have become quite different. The comtemporary world context has created premises and conditions for small countries to overcome and pass the perception of “tributary-emperor” in the relationship with big countries so as to be capable of asserting themselves as independent and equal subjects in the community of nations in the world. Firstly, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, equality among nations regardless of bigness or smallness, rich or poor are clearly noted in the Charter of the UN and international laws. The nowadays civilized human kind does not accept the “great nation-minor nation” relationship in international politics. The current world order and rule of games do not quite obey the rule of “big fish eating small fish”. Therefore, despite big countries’ playing important role, they are not able to decide the destiny of small countries as they did in the past. With the establishment of the UN and other international organizations, small countries have more international strength to protect their independence and sovereignty. In international relations nowadays, the relationship between nations irrespective of bigness or smallness, rich or poor, strength or weakness, completely relies on fundamental principles of equality, mutual interest in conformity with international law. Accordingly, small countries play increasingly bigger role and voice in handling common issues of human kind as well as in shaping of international order. Secondly, small countries nowadays have more conditions and levers to overcome and minimize the asymmetric nature as well as increase their strength and position in the relationship with big countries. Small countries’ diplomatic relations and handling asymmetric relations with big countries today are not limited and confined to bilaterial relations or narrow regional space but expanded on a global scale. Accordingly, small countries are not alone to face big countries and they can build up bilaterial and multilaterial relations, alliances, regional and international linkages of variety and closeness in order to increase their strength and position. Thirdly, in the current world of globalization, all nations have close and complex intermixture of interests and increasingly deep inter-dependence. As a result, there are flexible, various and overlapping constraints and connections of interests in the very complicated relationship of both cooperation and struggle. This also contributes to minimizing the risk of big countries implementing adventurous policies towards small countries. Moreover, the globalizing world also offers small countries, even very small ones, many opportunities to quickly become rich and prosperous, and from that point, getting worthy position in the world and gaining respect and high appreciation from big countries.

In handling relations with big countries, small countries tend to pursue such policies as: 1) “bandwagoning” is a policy adopted by many small countries in the relationship with big countries. As a result, small countries choose to “owe their allegiance” to big countries and accept their inferior status to have security and economic interests as well as relatively stable relationship with big countries(4). Neutralist policy is also a variant bearing a lot of similarities with “bandwagoning”. An example of neutrist policy is the Netherlands’s policy in the relationship with Russia(5). 2) Power balancing is another option with which, small countries seek to counterbalance or confront big countries through policies in order to enhance their internal strength as well as build international alliances with the aim of counterbalancing threats recognizably caused by a big country(6). This option often leads to conflicts or war, and then small countries suffer many damages. 3) “Hedging” is to pursue simultaneously many different policies, even opposite policies including both cooperating and struggling, both compromising and taking precaution or warning, in order to maintain sustainable relationship with big countries and explore interests and positive aspects in the relationship in the prevention of strategic risks from big countries(7). In some cases, these countries can combine the three above-mentioned strategies together with other elements of liberalism and institutional neo-liberalism.

Whichever option is taken, in the relationshiop with big countries, “enduring” and “containing” or maintaining “harmony” is selected by most of small countries. However, it is not easy for them in reality to define how to forbear and contain to a proper extent or within limits, especially when there are contradictions and conflicts of national basic interests between big countries and small countries. In the relationship with big countries, sometimes only a little lack of containment from small countries can result in disastrous consequences. However, any forbearing or concession as a rule and a certain limit. In reality, the boundary between forbearing, containment and digesting an insult, bowing, asking for a draw or fear is extremely slim and difficult to identify. It depends on vision, spirit, experiences, sensitiveness and art of the leaders. Moreover, history also proves that in face of big countries, if small countries lack spirit or strategic standpoint, even forbearing or making concessions without principle, big countries will continue encroaching and small countries will continue making concessions and facing the risk of being compelled by big countries.

In the big country-small country relationship, President Ho Chi Minh is the master in the art of behaviour. He cleverly built and maintained the good relationship with almost every big country, even when there were critical conflicts among big countries. From then on, he made use of international support for the nation’s revolution cause. He even gained respect of big countries which were the nation’s enemies. Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew is also a typical character of good behaviour towards big countries. He has led this minor nation from a small, poor and resourceless fishing village which stayed in the middle of big countries’ hostile encirclement to become one of the prosperous countries in the world within nearly 3 decades. Singapore has been continuously respected by all countries and considered a model of development for many other countries including big countries. In response to powers, he always displays as status of equality, making evaluations and assessments in a straightforward and fair manner. Lee Kuan Yew is willing to protect ideals and values that Singapore is pursuing, even daring to challenge big countries to defend Singapore’s national interests as well as to preserve the rule of regional and international law and order. However, he is also willing to compromise non-fundamental national interests and flexibly introduce modifications in order to make policy effective in reality(8).

Therefore, the big country - small country relationship is a subjective reality and it always exists in international politics. With unity, vision, wisdom, will and determination, small countries are able to overcome and make changes of their own destinies.

3. Vietnam and big countries

Due to its geo-political position, Vietnam always has to be confronted with the handling of relations with big countries. From the past to the present, big countries tend to have influence over security and prosperity of Vietnam. Living next to a giant neighbour for quite a long time has made the psychology of a small country deeply stick to the Vietnamese people’s thinking. Despite proclaiming themselves emperors, our ancestors outwardly expressed their allegiance to big countries, accepting the emperor-minor nation relationship. As a matter of fact, in spite of defeating the enemies, they kept asking for a draw and conferral of king and paid regular tribute to them with the aim of preserving the nation’s peace and self-control. Our ancestors’ historical lessons in dealing with the North together with Ho Chi Minh’s diplomatic thought are invaluable legacies for Vietnamese diplomacy nowadays. However, the present international relationship is no longer of great nation and minor nation relationship but built on the foundation of national independence and sovereignty, equality and mutual interest. Therefore, in the relationship with big countries, we need to remove the psychology of small country naturally stick to our thinking; put ourselves in the position of an independent, sovereign and equal nation in international relations; do not hold inferiority complex and fear or bow down. On the other hand, we should not be arrogant or self-deceptive about our strength. History proves that being too proud of our strength and resting on our laurels in front of powers, we had to pay a heavy price for security, development and foreign relations. In behaving towards big countries, we should be modest, precautious and self-restrained but should not forebear, bow down or compromise without principle. What is important in foreign relations is to know about ourselves and know about others. It is necessary to clearly recognize Vietnam’s position and strength in the contemporary world, particularly in the cooperative and competitive relationship among big countries, in the movements of regional and international geo-politics and order, from which we are aware of capability and limitations of our actions to be taken. Especially, we shouldn’t let us be rolled into the spinning wheel of the competitive power game among big countries, or challenge big countries, or follow this power in opposition to other powers, or follow factions to counterbalance each other. We should explore positive aspects in relations with big countries and balance their influences and interests in their relationship with Vietnam. At the same time, we should build bilaterial and multilaterial relations of diversity, strength, connectivity, trust and mutual interest with other nations; make use of support from the international community and big countries with shared interests; rely on regional and international multilaterial mechanisms while maintaining justice in accordance with international law and universal principles of internationally-recognized relations between nations to cope with risks from big countries.

The reality shows that small countries should combine political realism, priciples of idealism carrying the nature of nationalism and elements of liberalism in a flexible, lissom and clever manner in the globalization age. In which, “putting national interests above all” should be a starting principle, a basis and target for foreign policy making and implementation, and also a measurer to evaluate foreign policy. We should overcome the barrier of ideology which used to constrain Vietnam’s diplomacy during the Cold War to approach the principle of “partner-subject” and principle of “national interest” in dealing with international relations, which are considered breakthroughs in Vietnam’s diplomatic thinking. These principles help us gain flexibility and lissomness in dealing with challenges and risks, promoting positive and favourable aspects in the international relations in order to maintain independence, sovereignty and strategic stability as well as the nation’s development. For the national interest, it is necessary to maintain our principle and standpoint, not to compromise without principle. In which, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity are the most fundamental core national interest to be resolutely struggled for, preserved and protected. Besides, development is the driving force to which the most attention should be paid in every national policy. This is also the most important element to ensure sustainable security and prosperity as well as win international respect. The protection of national interest’s immutability should be made via the consistency in long-term goal and vision with flexibility and softness in tactics. For that, it is necessary to distinguish direct and short-term interests with indirect and strategic interests. This requires an art of diplomacy and strategic sensitiveness towards changes of the regional and global context, tendencies of the age and international order, correlative strength between regional forces and global forces, tendencies of cooperative and competitive cooperation among big countries as well as national potential, aggregated strength and international position. Accordingly, we can properly recognize challenges and precisely grasp opportunities to promptly adjust policies in accordance with reality.

For an equal relation with respect and high appreciation from big countries, we should maintain independence, self-reliance and have internal strength. The country’s potential and aggregated strength is one of the core elements to create the status of “bigness” or “smallness” of a nation and the most significant platform for diplomacy. For this, President Ho Chi Minh clearly noted: “if we are strong, they will take us into consideration. If we are not, no one will take us into account”. He also stated: “Diplomacy will triumph if our real ability is trong. Real ability is the gong while diplomacy is the voice. The bigger the gong is, the greater the voice becomes”(9).

The world shows many countries and territories with small areas, poor population and limited development potential are not small but full of hard and soft strength as well as international influence beyond their stature. In the context of current globalization and integration, Vietnam should consolidate internal solidarity and stability, actively promoteing international integration, focusing on loosing development knots, effectively exploring strong points and resources of the country, making use of its significant geo-political position and comparative advantages in international cooperation and labour division to develop the country and quickly bring the country to strength and prosperity.



(1) See Buzan, Barry, People, States, and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

(2), (5) See Nguyen Vu Tung: “Living together with bigger neighbouring countris: practice and policy”, International Study issue No. 81, 2010, p.169, 169-183, 173-174.

(3) See Nguyen Vu Tung: op.cit., p.169-183; Womack, B: China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2006); Womack, B., “Asymmetry and systemic misperception: China, Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s”, Journal of Strategic Studies, 26, 2010, p.92-119.

(4) See Kang, D. C: “Getting Asia wrong: The need for new analytical frameworks”, International Security, 27(4-2003), 57-85; Roy, D. (2005), “Southeast Asia and China: Balancing or Bandwagoning?”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 27(2), 305-322; Schweller, R. L. (1994), “Bandwagoning for profit: Bringing the revisionist state back in”, International Security, 19(1), 72-107; and Walt, S. M. (1987), The origins of alliances, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

(6) See Waltz, K.N. (1979), Theory of international politics, New York: McGraw-Hill; Walt, S. M. (1987), The origins of alliances, Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Pape, R. A. (2005), Soft balancing against the United States, International Security, 30, 7-45; Paul, T. V., Wirtz, J. J. & Fortmann, M. (2004), Balance of power: theory and practice in the 21st century, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

(7) See Medeiros, E. (2005), “Strategic hedging and the future of Asia-pacific stability”, The Washington Quarterly, 29(1), 145-167; Goh, E. (2006), Understanding ‘Hedging’ in Asia-Pacific Security, Honolulu: Pacific Forum CSIS, PacNet 43, 31 August; and Hiep, L. H. (2013), “Vietnam’s hedging strategy against China since normalization”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 35(3), 333-368.

(8) See Paul Englert, “Lest We forget: 5 key lessons in leadership from Lee Kuan Yew”, Linked in, on March 30, 2016. https://www.linkedin.com; Ang Cheng Guan, “Singapore and the Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew”, The Diplomat, on March 04, 2015. http://thediplomat.com.


(9) Ho Chi Minh: Complete Works, Vol. 4, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2000, p.126.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Nguyen Viet Thao

Vice President

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

Dr. Ngo Chi Nguyen

Institute of International Relations,

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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