The Indo-Pacific: what kind of peace?
21 Jun 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user James Lee.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s keynote address to the recent Shangri-La Dialogue turned upon one critical question: what kind of peace does Australia hope to see in the 21st century Indo-Pacific? That’s not a small question. Turnbull’s answer—born, he noted, ‘from ambition not anxiety’—made the case for an enduring, liberal, rules-based regional order. That’s Australian strategic policy in its upbeat mode. In that mode, Australia has a grand strategic ‘vision’; it’s an order-builder; and an optimist. The keynote was an invitation to other regional states to join Australia on a quest for closer cooperation and a renewal of the regional order-building project.

The difficulty, of course, as Turnbull’s address readily acknowledges, is that a successful, rules-based liberal order requires ‘the disciplining of power’. ‘This is a world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small’. That was easier to do when the dominant power was the US, because the whole concept of the disciplining of power is central to American political culture. But in a region awash with power transition, sustaining that discipline is about to become considerably more difficult. Rising powers, such as China and India, seek greater strategic influence—‘a return to the natural order of things’, as Turnbull puts it. For such powers, the temptation runs more towards the flexing of newly-built muscles than towards discipline and restraint. Still, Turnbull has to argue the case. Continuing power discipline is more than just sound logic; it’s the long pole in the tent of regional stability as multipolarity emerges and unipolarity wanes.

The prime minister’s address is somewhat thinner on what regional security might look like without that discipline—or even on the extent to which discipline is itself a product of power-balancing—although he does allude to the option that regional states might ally and partner more fully with each other as well as with the US. True, they might. But the spoke-to-spoke relationships that have emerged in Asia over recent years provide only weak testimony to the speed and ease with which such deeply important strategic cooperation might develop. So far, at least, spoke-to-spoke cooperation has been marked by rhetorical boldness but strategic trivialism.

So, to whom is Turnbull’s message about discipline directed? The obvious—but incomplete—answer is ‘China’. China’s depicted as the country most needing to build a ‘reservoir of trust and cooperation’ with its neighbours. Curbing North Korea’s recklessness is even spelt out as an immediate contribution that China could make to enhance regional security. And Turnbull implicitly suggests that, until it builds that reservoir, it won’t be seen as a regional leader because ‘the burden of collective leadership’ is best shared with ‘trusted partners and friends’. At various points in the speech, too, there are specific phrases—such as the importance of unchallenged freedom of navigation in Australia’s vision of the ideal world—which seem clearly directed at Beijing.

But Turnbull’s main theme is actually about the arrival of a multipolar Asia. Other power centres in Asia are also identified, specifically, Japan, India and Indonesia. A sensible reading of Turnbull’s keynote would suggest that the point about the disciplining of power also applies to them. So the speech can be seen as a reminder—sotto voce—to Tokyo that Japan’s re-emergence as a strategic power will be watched closely by regional countries. Similarly, it sounds a note of caution to New Delhi, that—beyond its immediate neighbourhood—India’s role as a regional leader is largely untested. And it underlines a concern—albeit one with deep resonances in Canberra—over the future trajectory of a more powerful Indonesia.

In Australia’s most optimistic vision, all the emerging Asian great powers find within themselves the capacity for disciplined leadership. That’s possible, of course. But Asian culture is typically hierarchical, not egalitarian. None of those powers enjoys a domestic political culture which takes it as a self-evident truth ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Any way we slice it, the regional strategic environment’s becoming more complex. Alongside the emergence of a multipolar Asia, ASEAN—‘the region’s strategic convenor’—faces its own challenges. The growth of power in the immediate vicinity of the organisation’s Southeast Asian hub seems likely to test even the current levels of inclusiveness and integration between the ten members, let alone ASEAN’s capacity to take on a bigger agenda. So the prime minister’s putting his shoulder to the wheel of a ‘strong, unified ASEAN’, which supports and maintains the rule of law, and champions liberal economic values, sets the organisation a daunting task.

Anyone reading between the lines of Turnbull’s address must come away from it with a greater sense of the enormity of the task that now lies before the region. Can we sustain the liberal, rules-based order in Asia? Every hegemon aspires to create a regime which outlives its own influence, and in principle that aspiration is achievable—if new inputs to the existing order can be found at a rate which exceeds the hegemon’s loss of relative power and influence. America’s inheritance of the Western ‘project’ from Britain provides proof of concept. But it will be a neat trick if we can pull that off in Asia.