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Resisting Fatalism about Asia’s Future Order

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Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong was on the money in her recent address to the National Press Club when she observed that the key goal of foreign policy was to build a regional order in which ‘no country dominates, and no country is dominated’.

It’s an interest Australia shares with the other middle and smaller powers in the Asia-Pacific, as the geopolitical picture most of the region was accustomed to slips out of the frame. Neither the bifurcation of Asia into geopolitical blocs, nor the wholesale retrenchment of the United States and the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence, are acceptable outcomes for the region.

But without renewed intellectual and political force behind a new vision of Asian regionalism, the winner-takes-all logic of great power competition is emerging as a fundamental geopolitical dynamic in the region.

Missing from Wong’s address — and indeed, from the regional conversation more broadly — is a concrete strategy which acknowledges the futility of preserving the status quo and avoids the fatalism that would see the emergence of a hierarchical economic and political order emphasising countering or centering China.

The challenge for regional middle powers is to co-opt the great powers into writing a new rulebook for the region that preserves the prosperity, autonomy and resilience of all in a region where China is the economic centre of gravity and its dominant military power. This will require a new strategy and political leadership emerging collectively from the small and middle powers of the region, inevitably centred on Southeast Asia.

Policymakers and politicians in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, have made abundantly clear the hunger for a new modus vivendi.

The reassertion of great power rivalry threatens the survival of our open, pluralistic and cooperative regional order. Upgrading and strengthening the existing ASEAN-based regional architecture and establishing new arrangements for emerging areas is essential for regional political stability and economic prosperity.

The region is not short of potential platforms through which this could be achieved, from the as yet fledgling economic cooperation function embedded within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to longstanding dialogue mechanisms like the East Asia Summit.

The reassertion of great power rivalry threatens the survival of our open, pluralistic and cooperative regional order. Upgrading and strengthening the existing ASEAN-based regional architecture and establishing new arrangements for emerging areas is essential for regional political stability and economic prosperity.

The region is not short of potential platforms through which this could be achieved, from the as yet fledgling economic cooperation function embedded within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to longstanding dialogue mechanisms like the East Asia Summit.

These bodies, in their current form, are inadequately empowered and insufficiently comprehensive to anchor a new regional security order. Whatever institutional arrangement ultimately becomes the vehicle for writing a new regional rulebook, the concept of regional security that underpins that effort needs to be a comprehensive one, in which economic, military and human security are seen as mutually reinforcing — not counterposed — goals. The logic of security needs to be a positive-sum one, in which one country’s sense of security is seen to enhance that of others.

While it need not solve all Asia’s problems, more credible regional cooperation institutions will act as a diplomatic force multiplier. They will put new political momentum behind not only the intra-regional economic integration agenda but also the preservation and reform of the global rules-based order.

With ASEAN immured at the centre of geopolitical tensions, its leadership and true centrality will ultimately define the forward trajectory of the region and its claims to agency in the international order. Simple lip service commitments to ASEAN centrality from its dialogue partners are no longer sufficient. Australia should consider whether it is content being beholden to the dominant great power of the day or whether it should embrace the possibilities of its immediate region.

The crisis of relevance that faces ASEAN is familiar to most Southeast Asians — but there is now a gathering political will to do something about it. As the political momentum for action grows, Canberra needs to be ready to back in its regional partners and latch onto the opportunity to make an invigorated ASEAN the keystone of an open and pluralistic regional order.

In Canberra this week, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reflected the widespread view in the region that Southeast Asia does not want ‘to be captured and to be caught in the extremes or to be forced to make binary choices’. Instead Balakrishnan says ASEAN centrality means accepting ‘the great diversity within ASEAN’ and standing firm anew for its inclusive and multilateral principles.

In this week’s lead article, two voices from Vietnam state the region’s preference for both Beijing and Washington to backpedal. Hoang and Ngo remind us that ‘US–Soviet relations quickly thawed in the 1980s when top leaders on both sides agreed that détente was in their interests. If the United States and the Soviet Union could do it, there is no reason why China and the United States cannot work towards an agreement that allows for peaceful coexistence and responsible competition’.

‘While US and Chinese leaders may find it difficult to instantly negotiate an all-encompassing modus vivendi, they could begin to initiate such efforts in Southeast Asia’.

A stabilisation in US–China relations would allow the breathing room for that collective agency to be exercised and encourage both great powers to engage with it in good faith. Southeast Asia has called for stabilisation and rejected the need for binary choices for years, but its voice must now resonate across and outside the region.

Tribute

Finally, it would be remiss of us not to mention one other aspect of Wong’s address to the Australian National Press Club on 17 April — her recognition of Allan Gyngell as the finest mind in Australian foreign policy. Having had the great honour to work closely with Allan over many years and to treasure his commitment to this Forum and its work, we could not agree more strongly. His death this week is a great loss to Australia and to the international community. Perhaps the ultimate goal for Australian foreign policy, as it strives to reach the ambitions he set out for it, should be to foster more minds like that of Allan


Source: East Asia Forum