The 2020 Asia–Pacific outlook

Render the strategic outlook for 2020 into a core conundrum: How goes the new era of great-power competition? Is it to be security confrontation and economic decoupling?

The crystal ball is clouded by rivalry. China and the US are simultaneously close and apart, enmeshed and divided, locked together in contest while musing about trade and technology cleavage.

The region—using either the Indo-Pacific or Asia–Pacific label—slides towards what Peter Jennings calls ‘a riskier, more dangerous reality’. Australia has ruefully accepted that managing great-power competition is now its ‘first priority’.

Tackling the conundrum is the purpose of the annual survey from the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). With 20 country committees, plus the EU and Pacific Islands Forum, CSCAP ruminates from many angles in its 2020 regional security outlook.

The outlook’s editor, Ron Huisken, writes that rivalry between the two mega-states is deepening international division and antagonism:

The present clash between the US and China is arrestingly sharp and deep not only because the stakes are so high and the parties so profoundly different—most critically, perhaps, in terms of philosophies on governance—but also because it has been brewing over several decades of increasingly intimate and complex interaction.

A fundamental question, Huisken writes, is the tools and mindsets states can legitimately bring to the competition. The answer will determine if interdependence can be maintained or if there will be a significant degree of disengagement.

So, contest for sure, cleavage perhaps.

Reporting from the US, Siddharth Mohandas writes that the Trump administration has ‘fundamentally shifted the US–China relationship in a more competitive and even confrontational direction’. The US policy focus on China extends far beyond trade to encompass economic, security, technology and ideological issues that ‘are now increasingly at the centre of American foreign policy’.

In Canberra, Australia’s top diplomat foresees an era of enduring differences with China, calling it the ‘new normal’. The same phrase is used by Mohandas in his final sentence: ‘The evidence of the past year is that instability is not a passing phenomenon but the new normal against which all regional capitals must plan.’

From China, Wu Xinbo writes that Beijing senses Washington’s determination to reorient its ‘policy towards a more competitive and confrontational stance’, pushing China’s ‘trust towards the US to a historical low’. Wu judges that the relationship has gone from cool to freezing:

The Asia–Pacific has entered a period of profound changes set off by shifts in the power balance as well by adjustments of strategy and policy settings by regional players. Managing major power competition and dealing with hot spot issues top the regional security agenda, while Sino-US interactions hold the key.

Wu says Beijing and Washington must delineate the boundary of their intensifying competition:

  • Robust economic ties benefiting both countries should ‘not be decoupled or seriously downgraded’. Economic interdependence doesn’t prevent contention (‘actually close economic ties tend to be a major source of frictions’) but can be a buffer by raising the cost of conflict.
  • Both parties need to exercise strategic self-restraint. They should ‘avoid drawing lines and encouraging members of the region to split into rival camps, otherwise the economically most dynamic region will gradually lose its momentum for growth and integration’.
  • The most urgent issue for China–US security relations is crisis avoidance and management. For that, ‘good communication at the strategic level and effective management at the tactical level are indispensable’.

From Japan, Yoshihide Soeya writes that one benefit of the Trump presidency has been to allow Japan and China to sweep ‘contentious and awkward’ issues under the carpet:

This is because they have bigger tensions and issues with the United States, mostly related to economic and trade negotiations. Since these frictions are not likely to be eased anytime soon, the momentum of improvement in relations between Japan and China is also likely to be sustained for some time to come.

Southeast Asia offers variations on the familiar themes of ASEAN centrality and not having to choose sides in the battle of the giants.

Singapore’s William Choong gives a nuanced account of ‘the blessedness of (not) making a choice’. ASEAN members, he writes, want to be equidistant between China and the US, to ‘avoid stark choices’ in the geopolitical joust. Pressure builds, however, as that equidistant space shrinks. Singapore finds itself walking a ‘narrowing plank’ or ‘narrowing tightrope’.

The readout from Laos, from Sulathin Thiladej, is that the decline of the US and the rise of China are eroding or undermining ASEAN’s centrality and coherence:

ASEAN, as a driver for cooperation in the Asia Pacific, is losing momentum as the region’s centre of gravity shifts from Southeast Asia to China. China’s rise has unsettling consequences for ASEAN centrality, creating new tensions and uncertainties that threaten to break ASEAN’s solidarity and coherence.

Vietnam’s Le Dinh Tinh says the US–China relationship has five levels, running from cooperation to adversary. The expanding competition between the world’s two greatest economies has reached level-four intensity (rivalry):

The notion that these great powers are on a collision course has been circulated in the policy communities of both countries. Rather than greater caution, however, we have seen the two sides toughen their positions and resort to measures hitherto unthinkable.

The view from Australia, from the Australian National University’s Brendan Taylor, says Canberra’s recent bout of ‘strategic anxiety’ awakens old arguments about whether Australia can find its security with Asia rather than from Asia. His chapter begins with the title of a book written 40 years ago by the Oz diplomat, Alan Renouf, The frightened country, describing an anxious nation that saw more dangers than opportunities in Asia.

Donald Trump’s alliance antipathy ‘feeds a deep Australian fear of abandonment’, Taylor writes, and Australia’s security outlook is becoming ‘much darker and apprehensive’.

The sense of apprehension is one outlook shared by the whole region. Great-power contest is here, hauling into view the scenario of economic and technological decoupling.