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Australia in an age of geopolitical transition

Published in East Asia Forum, 11 December 2017

As the global centre of economic gravity shifts from the Euro-Atlantic to Asia, five accompanying geopolitical shifts demand particular attention: China’s rise, the United States’ comparative decline, India’s emergence as a major player, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and ASEAN’s substantial loss of coherence.

China wants strategic space in East Asia and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States, either there or as a global rule-maker. It is parlaying its economic strength into geopolitical influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, modernising and expanding its military capability and pursuing expansionist territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Even more startling than China’s ascent has been the speed and extent of the decline in US influence. President Trump has shown no interest in the multilateral pursuit of global public goods, the low point of which was his decision to walk away from the Paris Climate Accord, and much less commitment to the region than his predecessors.

Meanwhile, India has been matching its growing economic strength with increasing military capability and diplomatic effectiveness. While it is likely to be cautious about any quadrilateral grouping with the United States, Japan and Australia which could be seen as too overtly a China-containment enterprise, its increasing capability is not going unnoticed by Beijing.

The most dramatic geopolitical development in the region has been the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. Important US voices are urging a pre-emptive military strike, with potentially horrendous escalation consequences, and there is not yet sufficient consensus elsewhere that conflict can be averted (as I certainly believe possible) by a strategy of containment, deterrence and negotiation.

A less dramatic but still troubling development is the deteriorating coherence of ASEAN. Recent human rights and democracy failings among many of ASEAN’s members have diminished both its internal harmony and external credibility. And with at least two ASEAN members now acting as wholly-owned subsidiaries of Beijing, it has proved impossible to reach a consensus on any kind of substantive, collective pushback on the South China Seaissue.

I have argued for some time that an appropriate Australian policy response to the unfolding regional challenges might be characterised as ‘less United States; more self-reliance; more Asia’. While the Australian government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, understandably, does not articulate its preferred response in nearly such stark terms, it gets intriguingly close to embracing those prescriptions.

The White Paper argues for continued US ‘engagement’ in the region, but not ‘leadership’, and that is the right call. Australia benefits too much from the alliance to justify walking away from it. But that does not mean reflexively following Washington down every by-way. Periodically saying ‘no’ is good foreign policy for a country that values its independence and international respect.

We should be under no illusion that the United States will offer military support in any circumstance where it does not see its own immediate interests under threat. While that was the case under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach. Australia, like the rest of the region, must prepare itself to live in Asia without the United States.

Part of that preparation must be more self-reliance, as Prime Minister Turnbull acknowledges in his introduction to the White Paper. Militarily, that must mean spending more on protecting our shores and maritime environment from potentially hostile intrusion. It must also mean being more of a diplomatic free agent, unconstrained by the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington.

The White Paper is strong and sensible on the need to strengthen Australia’s partnerships with regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. But in this context it overdoes the focus on ‘democracies’, and gives less attention than it should to building a closer relationship with ASEAN.

Working more closely with countries like Australia, ASEAN could be a more effective regional security player than it now is. It should not underestimate its collective military capability — in particular that of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. If regular, combined freedom of navigation operations were mounted in contested waters in the South China Sea, China would need to think long and hard about any show of retaliatory violence.

If ASEAN is to act as a collective counterweight to China, it will likely have to modify its consensus-based decision-making style — perhaps to the extent of becoming a two-or-more speed organisation as the European Union now is. It is hard to believe that in the next few years business as usual will be an option for anyone.

So far as China is concerned, Australia should not become Beijing’s patsy any more than Washington’s. But as the White Paper seems to acknowledge, we should build connections at multiple levels, rather than view China as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for Australian prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on security issues. There is particular opportunity to work with Beijing on those many global and regional public goods issues which the White Paper elsewhere properly emphasises (unusually for a Coalition government) as important areas for Australian international activity.

For all the current tensions and uncertainties in the region, there is still good reason to be optimistic about the future. There is every reason to believe, not just hope, that China will not seek to usurp America in the global order but take its place alongside it, and that it could live quite comfortably in a global and regional environment characterised by cooperative security, in which states primarily find their security with others rather than against them.

Getting there without tears will require a little more leadership than is currently on offer from the relevant powers. But the popular market for leaders who can deliver security without bellicosity remains strong across the whole region. There is not nearly as much taste anywhere for going to war this century as there was in the last.

This article was originally published in East Asia Forum on 11 December 2017. This article is an abridged version of Professor Gareth Evans Keynote Address at the Asia Society Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit in Melbourne, November 2017.