At the centre of Australian strategic policy lies a puzzle: how do we grow a responsibility-sharing order in an Asia of rapidly shifting power relativities? The traditional answer has been to nurture new forms of regional security architecture that would embrace the full range of key players, strengthen the concept of a regional community, and articulate ‘rules of the road’ to codify regional strategic behaviour.
We’ve pursued that strategy over a number of years as a complement to other strands of our policy, including maintaining our alliance with the US (hoping thereby to ensure continued US regional primacy), strengthening the self-reliant capabilities of the ADF, and attempting to grow what might be called ‘critical mass’ in Southeast Asia. We were ASEAN’s first dialogue partner, we played a role in the design of APEC, we were a keen supporter of the emergence of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and we campaigned for an expansion of the East Asia Summit and its prioritisation within the range of regional architectures.
In a region characterised by nationalism and bilateralism we’ve championed multilateralism as the principal vehicle not just to harness responsibility but to grow it. As Bob Carr wrote back in July 2012:
The expansion of the EAS … creates an institution with the membership and mandate to help manage an increasingly crowded strategic landscape, ensure outward-looking regionalism continues as the bedrock of Asia-Pacific integration and foster habits of cooperation.
That positive picture of regional institutions—with all their managing, ensuring and fostering—has typically been complemented by a negative one of the capacity of individual nations to be part of the solution. As Carr put it:
The strategic rationale for the expanded EAS remains as it was when the idea of such an Asia Pacific community was first promoted by the Australian Government. No national responses—no matter how well crafted—will be enough to resolve the range of challenges confronting us…
But that way of thinking about the problem is changing. Policy hardheads have long argued that multilateral institutions can’t do much of the heavy lifting. Yes, having an ARF and an EAS has value. But even with expanded memberships and greater diplomatic buy-in from key players, the structures meet too infrequently, and chase the low-hanging fruit too determinedly, to provide real confidence that they’ll be effective shapers of the emerging Asia. So increasingly we’re seeing Australian—and regional—policymakers fit another string to the bow.
In short, policymakers are increasingly trying to grow a responsible order in Asia by working more closely with those individual actors that they judge to be already responsible. How do we separate regional actors, though, into those we think make ‘responsible’ contributions to the order and those who don’t? All states do some things that make them look responsible. And some we think of as responsible do things we don’t like—they hunt whales, for example. So a lot turns upon a state’s specific level of commitment to a stable, liberal, prosperous order.
Growing responsibility at the regional level, then, doesn’t just mean showing up for multilateral meetings, and devising new rules of the road. It includes empowering responsible actors vis-à-vis others and working with them, individually, to strengthen what we think are the principal features of the emerging regional order. Some of that work will risk being seen as strategic balancing because some of it is: we can’t build a regional order that has rules on one side of the fulcrum and power on the other. Even responsible orders require defenders. But a commitment to building an order by bilateral spade-work frees us from our earlier mythology of believing that everyone has to belong to the same club. In a deep sense, that doesn’t matter—what matters is their willingness to row in time towards a common objective.
India and the NPT is a classic case. It can’t join the NPT as a nuclear-weapon state, but it can behave in ways that mimic P5 behavioural traits, including by accepting a world of few nuclear states, the need for strict controls on nuclear materials, and the obligation of being a responsible, self-deterred great power. What’s true for India and the NPT is also true for other countries and other regional order-building institutions: what matters isn’t membership, but support for the principle of order-building. If the region’s filled with responsible actors, it won’t much matter what the architecture looks like.
If we’re entering an age when more regional players head down that bilateral order-building route, we should expect to see a partial eclipse of the importance of regional institutions. In their place, we’ll see larger roles played by strong-willed, extroverted national leaders prepared to push an order-building agenda. Over recent decades we’ve become used to strong-willed national leaders in Asia—but introverted ones. Extroverted leaders will be a new phenomenon. The order-building prizes will go the leaders who can do most both to enhance responsibility-sharing and to strengthen responsible partners in that environment.