Asia 2017: strategic transformation accelerates
11 Jan 2017|

In a recent podcast for Foreign Policy, editor David Rothkopf interviewed Thomas Friedman about his latest book—essentially an argument for why, in 2017, we should feel optimistic about the future. Friedman’s core argument is that we’re living in an age of ‘three non-linear accelerations’, which include: Moore’s law (growth in IT capabilities), the market (growth in digital globalisation) and Mother Nature (dramatic changes in biodiversity, climate and population). I have to say that I find Friedman’s argument suggestive but not compelling. Indeed, it’s reminiscent of an argument I recall from the early 1990s—namely that Chinese authoritarianism couldn’t endure because Madonna and the internet were on our side.

But Rothkopf and Friedman have made me think more specifically about what the Asian strategic environment looks like in 2017 and, in particular, to confront the question of whether that environment is more worrying now than it was in earlier years. Depressingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Long-running trends (like the growth of Asian economies and militaries, power diffusion, and—because of technological change—increasing uncertainties about comparative power balances) are being exacerbated by a geographical and positional competition between Asian great powers, doubts over the future US role in the region, and a heightened risk profile at the key flash-points (Korean peninsula, Taiwan and South Asia). Those flash-points aren’t new, but regional strategists have long understood that if major conflict broke out at any of them the casualties would number in the millions.

On the other side of the ledger, forces driving cohesion, cooperation and liberalism—we might think of them in terms of the Kantian tripod of economic interdependence, international institutions and democracy—seem to be weakening, as opposition to globalisation rises, the TPP collapses, nationalism surges, China’s economic growth slows, and regional democracies struggle. Both President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies in the Philippines, and political life in Bangkok after the military coup and the death of the king suggest a higher regional tolerance for authoritarianism, even if sometimes of a populist hue. Meanwhile, the political scandal in Seoul (over influence-peddling) is complicating US relations with a third Asian ally.

True, none of those factors constitutes an automatic pathway to war. But, put together, they’re valid reasons for at least some degree of unease about what the forthcoming year might hold. At a minimum, they suggest a need for a heightened vigilance in relation to small crises which could spiral quickly in Asia this year. But I’d venture to say they actually signal something more ominous—namely, a long-term shift in regional geopolitics. The tempo of strategic transformation in Asia may be quickening.

It probably doesn’t need to be spelt out, but the likely shifts won’t play to Australia’s strategic advantage. For Australia to feel comfortable within those shifting geopolitical relationships, it has to source new inputs in favour of a liberal, stable, prosperous regional order. And the problem, of course, isn’t that no such inputs are available—there are, after all, regular and supportive contacts between Australia, Japan, India and Indonesia, for example. But the inputs available so far are too thin to assure regional policy-makers that the order can survive. The latest bout of tension between Australia and Indonesia—like the coolness in the Australia–Japan strategic relationship in the wake of the submarine tender decision—is a reminder of the brittleness of those contacts. Putting it in the language of the current ‘hub-and-spokes’ order, ‘spoke-to-spoke’ and ‘spoke-to-nonspoke’ bridges, while promising, can’t bear much traffic at the moment.

And that’s not merely going to be Australia’s conclusion. Other regional states who sit down to do the assessment are likely to arrive at the same answer. That leaves us with three options, none a perfect solution for a more difficult region.

First, we work to nurture a closer relationship with the US even while its relative strategic position slips and its priorities shift towards an agenda of ‘America First’—because even a superpower in relative decline makes a good ally, and because Washington has a proven record of being a liberal order-builder in Asia. Problem? How many eggs can we put in one basket?

Second, we work harder at building bridges in Asia—both to other US allies (Japan and South Korea) and to other key players (India, Indonesia and Singapore). Problem? The bridges need heavy-duty engineering in terms of shared commitments—not merely in terms of others’ commitment to us, but vice versa.

Third, we push the notion of defence self-reliance more seriously than we have in the past. Problem? We’re currently building capacity too slowly—the multi-decade timetable for the Collins replacement a case in point—and, perhaps, too conservatively. In a changing Asia, we should be looking for gamechangers—not least because others will be.