We are Going to Need a Few New Friends on the Block
Let’s make room for China, but in regional arrangements that favour democracies
The Trump era has begun but we will need to wait to see what it brings. Donald Trump’s will be a presidency evaluated in reaction, not anticipation. Over him hangs a cloud of uncertainty.
Who sits in the Oval Office matters greatly. But however powerful that position, it rarely bends the arc of history. And with or without Trump in the White House, we will have to come to grips with deep structural changes in our strategic environment.
Perhaps the deepest of those changes is the narrowing of US strategic predominance in the Indo-Pacific region. What does Australia do when American strategic predominance is no longer the linchpin of regional security?
One option would be to hope for the best. This is not as delusional as it may sound. The US has not yet lost strategic predominance and who can say for certain that it is inevitable? After all, it still has a huge lead in the industries of the future, from aerospace to biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
And who knows what will happen in China, which poses the biggest challenge to US predominance? The next 30 years may look very different for China than the past 30, so why not take a punt on the US reversing its slipping margin of predominance?
In any case, multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific is going to get stronger - the region cannot rely on continued US strategic predominance. China’s answer appears to be that it should replace the US as the predominant power in Asia.
This does not make it an enemy and it would be unwise to treat it as one. China is not an expansionist power in search of an empire. For China, strategic predominance means a return to the Middle Kingdom where regional states paid due respect to China’s interests and were careful not to act in any way that displeased China.
If China were a liberal democracy, Australia could live with such an outcome. It would certainly remove the unease we would otherwise feel if an authoritarian state were to displace a liberal democracy as the main force shaping our strategic environment. But China shows no interest in becoming a liberal democracy. Indeed, the Chinese leadership is absolutely determined that the Communist Party’s monopoly should prevail.
So if the alternative to US strategic predominance is Chinese strategic predominance, then it is not an attractive one.
A third option is for the region to shape a balance of power that finds room for China but also favours the region’s democracies. This is the best option for Australia, not least because it brings our strategic interests and our values into alignment.
In some respects a de facto balance along these lines is already in the making through the shared desire of the US, India, Japan and others to balance China becoming the predominant power in Asia. Each has its own geopolitical reasons for doing so, among which the non-democratic character of China is by no means the primary driver. Moreover, this is not a classic balance-of-power grouping. It is organic, not an orchestrated coalition. Who knows, Indonesia too may join this group.
Some have suggested the best way for the US to deal with the declining margin of its strategic predominance is to move towards being an offshore balancer. Under this arrangement the US would not be a resident power in Asia but rather one that would intervene only to protect its interests, or if the balance in the region were to cut across US interests.
That would be the second best outcome for Australia. It is very much in our interests for the US, as an ally, a liberal democracy and as the most powerful strategic player, to be a resident shaper of the Indo-Pacific strategic environment, not just a balancer of last resort.
It is also important that a balance of power that favours democracies is not seen as containing China. China is too enmeshed in the global system to be contained. We should be doing all we can to deepen that enmeshment.
That is why a capital-A alliance of democracies would be a bad idea. It would create a structural fault line in Asia and harden China’s position. Besides, countries such as India and Indonesia do not wish to be allies of the US or any other power.
Australia can contribute to this by strengthening its strategic engagement with each of the Asian democracies, with priority given to Japan, India and Indonesia. We should do this bilaterally as well as through stronger trilateral arrangements such as Australia-Japan-India, Australia-Indonesia-Japan or Australia-US-Indonesia.
We also should revive the quadrilateral arrangement involving the US, Japan, India and Australia. This was abandoned by the Rudd government because of Chinese concerns. But it need not need be “aimed” at China. Its revival would send a signal to China about the strategic congruence among these four nations.
Australia also should 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 region’s democracies, we also want to work with China to build institutions that can buttress stability — and that these institutions should promote fundamental principles such as respect for sovereignty, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and abiding by international law.
China tends to see these principles as aimed at it but ultimately they also serve its long-term interests. After all, China has been a beneficiary of the rules of trade law through its membership of the World Trade Organisation. It has been a beneficiary of the UN charter through its permanent Security Council seat. As a major power, it should see international law and international norms as an important part of the international system, in which it has every right to seek influence to match its weight.
Australia does not have the power to bully or buy its way in the world. We have to deal with the world as it is, and the US alliance has a central place in that strategy.
It is not, however, 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 us, the economic rise of China also shifts the currents of the region. We do not have to make a binary choice between the US and China but we do need a sophisticated strategy for dealing honestly with the strategic uncertainties that lie ahead.
Peter Varghese is a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.