NATO recognises global power shift to the Indo-Pacific
11 Jul 2022|

The central balance of international power this century will be set in the Indo-Pacific.

So ends a 500-year stretch of history when the central balance was made in Europe and decided by the West. The United States played the decisive role in the last century as an Atlantic power; this century it’ll be as a Pacific power.

Systemic changes don’t come any bigger.

The shift to the Indo-Pacific is an international strategy version of the way the world is turning to new sources of power to deal with climate change. This is to be a century of decarbonisation and lots of de-Westernisation.

Even a world stepping back from peak globalisation won’t slow an Indo-Pacific reality that’s turned from long-term trend to today’s fact. The power balance will be set in the place where most of the world’s people live and where most of the world’s wealth will be created.

The West will matter greatly in determining the central balance that’ll be defined in the Indo-Pacific. But as in much else, no longer will the West dominate.

The message of last month’s NATO summit was that the security of Europe and the security of Asia are joined; that’s why the leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea attended. As the first Japanese prime minister to attend a NATO summit, Fumio Kishida, observed:

[T]he security of Europe and of the Indo-Pacific is inseparable. Russian aggression against Ukraine is not a problem for Europe alone, but instead an outrageous act that undermines the very foundation of the international order …

Russian aggression against Ukraine clearly announced the end of the post–Cold War period. Attempts to unilaterally change the status quo with force in the background are ongoing in the East China Sea and South China Sea. I feel a strong sense of crisis that Ukraine may be East Asia tomorrow.

The invasion of Ukraine is the galvanising event dramatising the strategic version of tectonic change. Well before Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered war, the end of the old order had shaken everyone’s grand strategy, including Australia’s.

The international rules-based order is under attack by Russia, backed by China. And China is the state that shifts the system. When the rules are broken, the response turns to power. And in the system of states, that’s all about seeking a balance of power. Europe must join the Indo-Pacific in achieving that central balance.

NATO’s Madrid communiqué picked up the description of China as a systemic challenge that has been adopted by key European powers along with the US:

We are confronted by cyber, space, and hybrid and other asymmetric threats, and by the malicious use of emerging and disruptive technologies. We face systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.

The heads of Britain’s MI5 and the US’s FBI chime in predicting ‘a strategic contest across decades’ with China.

The reality of global power shifting to Asia has been an economic megatrend for many decades, as Japan lifted off in the 1960s and ’70s and Deng Xiaoping lit China’s rocket in 1978.

Offering more precision than history usually grants for megatrends, here’s the moment when the central balance started to shift from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific (or, as it was called at the time, the Asia–Pacific).

Date that transfer moment to midnight on 30 June 1997. On that night of monsoonal storms and choreographed drama, colonial rule came to an end in Hong Kong. Chinese troops standing like statues in the lashing rain rode across the border in the backs of open trucks as Hong Kong’s last governor sailed out of the harbour on the final voyage of Britain’s royal yacht.

Use June 1997 as a final-curtain moment for the European/Western ascendancy in Asia that lasted precisely 500 years. The half a millennium started in July 1497, when Vasco da Gama left Portugal to become the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and reach India.

The Western power that da Gama presaged was part of the geopolitical zeitgeist on that stormy night in Hong Kong as China proclaimed the end of a humiliation. I used that thought in a book on Australian foreign policy a few years later: ‘Asia was at the end of the Vasco da Gama era. The symbolism was exquisitely encapsulated—Asia had suffered five centuries of Western intrusion and command, and Hong Kong’s handover marked the final page.’

A far deeper and still relevant discussion of the end of the da Gama era was offered by one of Australia’s great strategists, Coral Bell, in 2007.

Bell described ‘a landscape with giants: six obvious great powers (the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia and Japan), but also several formidable emerging powers that are important enough, strategically or economically, to affect the relationships among the great powers’.

Noting the end of ‘the moment of unchallenged US paramountcy’—the unipolar moment she dated from 1991 to September 2001—Bell considered ‘the historically more familiar shape of a multipolar world, a world moreover in which power is more widely distributed than it has been for the past two centuries’. The most important change was ‘the end of Western ascendancy over the non-Western world’.

If the world got lucky, Bell mused, it might achieve a new concert of power for the 21st century based on the basic building blocks of rules (‘deals must be kept’) and sovereignty (‘the ruler gets to make the rules in their own domain’).

If luck soured, Bell wrote, the world faced ‘an inescapable clash of norms, which may for the foreseeable future always limit the level of consensus among governments’.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is a monumental trashing of norms. And China’s support for Russia kills the chances of concert or consensus, even though Beijing’s ‘no limits’ pact with Putin is shifting towards a ‘limited liability’ partnership because Russia becomes such a liability.

Instead of norms, we must seek power balance. And the central balance must be in the Indo-Pacific because that is the centre of the system.

In a vivid Washingtonian turn of phrase, Russia is ‘the hurricane’ coming fast and hard, while China is ‘climate change: long, slow, pervasive’.

In the Indo-Pacific, the great game is in full swing and NATO must come to play.