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A contested Asia: What comes after US strategic predominance? (Part 1)

Posted By on September 8, 2017 @ 12:30

Those who indulge in the phoney debate about the need for an independent Australian foreign policy should pay more attention to the history of Australia’s Asia policy. There’s nothing derivative about Australia’s approach to Asia. The images of Asia in our historical imagination: Asia as alien, Asia as a security threat, Asia as an economic opportunity, Asia as the fulcrum of our core strategic and economic interests, all came from a distinctively Australian imagination. You can query its correctness but not its authenticity.

Those who insist Australia has no independent foreign policy usually mean we have the wrong foreign policy. That Australia could make an independent, much less an informed, judgement that our national interests are served by a close alliance with the United States is dismissed as sycophancy and a stubborn refusal to stand on our own two feet.

It’s true that many Australian governments have struggled with whether and how to disagree with the US. We’ve yet to fully learn when we can say ‘no’ and when we must say ‘yes’ to our ally. Too often we’ve seen the alliance as an insurance policy to which we need to make regular payments of acquiescence.

We should not fret about how compatible the alliance is with our interests in Asia.

The US has been a central player in the unfolding Asian growth story of the last seven decades, as a large market for Asian exports, through the stability which the US strategic commitment in Asia underpinned, and the shaping role that the US has played in a rules-based international order, including a global trading system from which Asia has been a major beneficiary. There would simply have been no Asian growth story without the US and it makes no sense to see the alliance as a barrier to the priority we must rightly give to Asia in our foreign policy.

Today, however, the central role of the US is under pressure and we cannot assume that the patterns of the past in Asia will continue. This goes much deeper than the dysfunction of the Trump presidency. As Asia’s tectonic plates shift and the economic weight is rearranged, it would be naive to believe the strategic map will stay the same.

Economic space is infinitely flexible. Strategic space tends to be much less so. The challenge of statecraft and leadership is to ensure that one does not derail the other. Nowhere is that challenge greater than in the management of the US–China relationship.

What does Australia do in a world where US strategic predominance is no longer the lynchpin of regional security?

China will likely eclipse the US as the world’s largest economy. This means that in the long term the security of the region cannot rely on the maintenance of US strategic predominance. The US will likely remain the world’s strongest power for decades to come. But this does not mean that it will also remain the most influential power in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s view appears to be that it should replace the US as the predominant power in Asia. That’s not an ambition you will find in any official Chinese government statement, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it is the long-term objective of Chinese policy.

It’s also a realisable objective. The global US focus dilutes the attention it can pay to particular regions. China too has global interests, but its geopolitical priority is squarely in Asia. Its geography—as a resident Asian power—and the intensity of its economic links to the countries of Asia give it an advantage over the US in Asia.

China is a country and a civilisation which understands power, and its sense of place has been shaped by the many centuries in which it was the Middle Kingdom. That pull of history is likely to play an important role in the way in which China relates to regional states.

China will ultimately define its own strategic settling point and it won’t be forced into someone else’s view of what it should do or become. Nor is it realistic to expect that the US and China can negotiate some grand bargain formally to share power in Asia, although share they must. The process of adjusting to shifting power balances in a multipolar Asia will be incremental and organic.

China will be a responsible stakeholder where its interests are served. It will not be a classic revisionist power because it’s been too much a beneficiary of the existing system to want to completely overturn it. But there are elements of the system that China will want to see replaced.

China’s aspiration to strategic predominance does not make it an enemy and it would be unwise to treat it as one. Nor does it negate the importance of engaging with China and working with it wherever we can. It is very much in Australia’s interests to have a close relationship with China in as many areas and at as many levels as possible

There’s no sensible alternative to engaging China. Containing China, in the way the West sought to contain the Soviet Union, is a policy dead end. China is too enmeshed in the international system and too important to our region to be contained.

Nor is China an expansionist power, although it has an expansive view of what is historical Chinese territory. It is not in search of an empire. For China, strategic predominance means a return to the Middle Kingdom where regional states paid due respect to China’s interests and were careful not to act in any way which displeased China.

If China were a liberal democracy, that would certainly remove the unease we would otherwise feel if an authoritarian state were to displace a liberal democracy as the major shaper of our strategic environment. But China shows no interest in becoming a liberal democracy. Indeed the Chinese leadership is absolutely determined that the monopoly of the party should prevail.

So if the alternative to US strategic predominance is Chinese strategic predominance then it is not an attractive one for Australia for as long as China remains an authoritarian state.

A third option is for the region to shape a balance of power which finds room for China but which also favours the region’s democracies. This, I would argue, is a better option for Australia, not least because it brings our strategic interests and our values into closer alignment.



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