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Wednesday, 16 May 2018 18:26
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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 confer