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A contested Asia: What comes after US strategic predominance? (Part 2)

Posted By on September 9, 2017 @ 06:00

The concept of a balance of power has lost its appeal to many scholars and practitioners of international relations. But in my view it still matters. I take comfort that the late Lee Kwan Yew, a shrewd observer of our strategic environment, understood both the importance of a balance in Asia and the need to view it as more than just a military balance. Lee observed: ‘In the old concept, balance of power meant largely military power. In today’s terms, it is a combination of economic and military, and I think the economic outweighs the military.’

Already such a de facto balance is in the making through the shared desire of the US, India, Japan and others to balance China. Each has its own geopolitical and historical reasons, of which the non-democratic character of China is by no means the primary driver. This is not a classic balance-of-power grouping. It’s an organic, not an orchestrated arrangement.

Where Korea eventually lines up is an open question. The ROK is an ally of the US. But what would be the disposition of a united Korea? Would it lean towards China or the US? Or, more likely, would it seek an independent path with or without nuclear weapons? A united Korea is likely to be a democracy, which suggests it will at least lean towards balancing China. But no one knows which options will eventuate, which is one reason China doesn’t want to push the North Korean regime to the point of collapse.

China’s not comfortable with a nuclear-armed North Korea. But it wants even less to lose a buffer state or to see a collapsed regime on its doorstep. It probably judges that North Korea can be deterred from first use of nuclear weapons. After all, the driver of its nuclear program is the preservation of its dynastic regime and nothing would more clearly guarantee its end than a nuclear first strike at its neighbours or the US.

North Korea may be peculiar but it is not irrational. A regime preoccupied with survival is capable of being deterred.

ASEAN may remain on the sidelines of the strategic balance, but more and more of its members are being pulled into China’s orbit: not with enthusiasm or conviction but because they see that the economic cost of opposing China’s agenda is too high. Even Vietnam, which has a long and fraught history with China, will be constrained in how far it can support balancing China.

So the long-held hope that a non-aligned ASEAN would still lean towards the US and the West is looking less likely. The US is doing little to change this and its TPP withdrawal makes the problem worse. Japan and India understand the stakes but their efforts to balance Chinese influence may not be enough.

Indonesia is ASEAN’s strategic pacesetter. Its current leadership sees the world through an economic prism that favours China more than the US. This may not be permanent but nor is it likely to change soon. So where to position Indonesia in the evolving strategic balance is an open question. That has large consequences for Australia because Southeast Asia is at the epicentre of our strategic interests.

The two Asian powers committed to balancing China are Japan and India. Geography and history pull them to the other side of the China balance, which creates common strategic ground both are quickly building on.

Japan is no longer willing to contract out its strategic positioning to the US. It’s determined to use its economic heft to leverage its strategic interests and more willing to push out the boundaries of its constitutional limits on the projection of power.

India’s starting point is different to Japan’s, but both end up with similar conclusions about the perils of Chinese strategic predominance. Autonomy is the fundamental axis around which India’s strategic policy turns. It’s not about to become an ally of the US or anyone else. But India does see much more space to expand its strategic relationships with the West while hanging onto its freedom of manoeuvre.

The India–China relationship will have elements of both economic and strategic competition, not unlike the way in which those two elements thread their way through China’s relationships with the US and Japan.

India will want to maximise its economic relationship with China, but it will oppose any move by China to become the Indo-Pacific’s predominant power. And it will want to ensure that China’s expanding interest in the Indian Ocean is not given free rein.

Australia, Japan and India approach China from both different and common perspectives. We share an unease at the prospect of Chinese predominance. But the dynamics of our relationships with China are different. Australia and Japan are allies of the US. Unlike Japan and India, China is by far our largest trading partner, and we have a large Chinese diaspora. Australia has no territorial dispute with China and nor have we ever gone to war with China, unless you count the participation of Australians in putting down the Boxer Rebellion.

The key player in the organic balancing of China is the US, without which there can be no effective balance. The Trump presidency has complicated the situation but doesn’t fundamentally change it. Just as Australians draw a mature distinction between the persona of Trump and the alliance with the US, so also are US alliances in Asia likely to outlive the dysfunction of the Trump administration. I say ‘likely’ because no one can be certain about anything relating to President Trump’s policy positions. We can only hope that the strength of interests which underpin the US commitment to the region outlives the president’s character weaknesses.

It’s important that we present this emerging balance of power as a means of ensuring a measure of stability at a time of strategic churn. China will probably see it as a form of containment which it is not and should never become.

Australia can contribute by strengthening its strategic engagement with the Asian democracies, with priority given to Japan, India and Indonesia. We should do this bilaterally and through stronger trilateral arrangements such as Australia–US–Japan; Australia–Japan–India; Australia–Indonesia–Japan; and Australia–US–Indonesia.

Australia should also persevere with the hard slog of building inclusive regional institutions, of which the East Asia Summit is the most important. This signals that while we have close strategic relations with the democracies, we also want to work with China wherever we can to build institutions which can buttress strategic stability. And that these institutions should promote fundamental principles such as respect for sovereignty, the peaceful resolution of disputes and abiding by international law, the foundation stones on which the Indo-Pacific’s strategic culture should rest.

China tends to see some of these principles as aimed at it, but they also serve its long-term interests. China has benefited from the rule of trade law through the WTO. It has benefited from the UN charter through its permanent seat on the Security Council. China should see international law and international norms as an important part of the international system in which it has every right to seek greater influence to match its economic and strategic weight.

Our strategic environment is more uncertain than at any time since the start of the Cold War. We cannot be certain of either the strategic or economic trajectory of our region and beyond.

Navigating this terrain will require a clear-eyed view of our national interests, a forensic revisiting of the assumptions framing our foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, a recognition that the US strategic predominance is drawing to a close, and the imagination and diplomatic skills and resources to help shape a new balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

We should not be daunted by these challenges because we bring to them many assets as a nation and a community.

History and our geography have instilled in Australia a global perspective. Ours is a society shaped by the values and institutions of the West, intimately connected to Asia, with economic interests across all regions and a community united in the principles of a multicultural liberal democracy.

Australia does not have the power to bully or buy its way. We have to deal with the world as it is. It’s not in our interest to see a Manichean world split between the US and China. But neither can we ignore the fact that, for all the benefits it brings to Australia, the economic rise of China also shifts the strategic currents.

We don’t have to choose between the US and China, at least not unless one insists that we must. But we do need a sophisticated strategy for dealing honestly with the strategic uncertainties we face. At its heart must be a stable balance in our region which protects our interests and our values.

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