home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Asian Geopolitics in transition

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University and Former Australian Foreign Minister to Asia Society Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit, Melbourne, 29 November 2017

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and I have recently been publishing our memoirs. His title for the first volume of his autobiography – Not for the Faint-Hearted – is certainly an apt way of describing the very challenging geopolitical environment in which we now find ourselves in Asia. Whether the title of my political memoir – Incorrigible Optimist – aptly describes how confident we should be about managing that environment in the years ahead, without too many tears along the way, is something about which many of you will be more sceptical.

I’m not entirely immune from scepticism myself. Big and often disconcerting geopolitical shifts have been occurring in the region, most of them happening faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago. But as I review with you the most significant of them, and discuss how we should be responding to them, I hope I can persuade you that it’s not quite necessary yet for us to be slashing our collective wrists.

Five Geopolitical Shifts

The five big geopolitical shifts that most compel our attention, all of them occurring in the context of a very well documented shift in the global centre of economic gravity from the Euro-Atlantic to Asia, are China’s rapid rise, America’s rapid comparative decline, India’s long awaited emergence as a major player, North Korea’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability, and ASEAN’s loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed.

China’s economic rise has been startling in its speed and magnitude. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms China is already the world’s largest economy, and destined to become even more so: Australian Treasury estimates in the Foreign Policy White Paper 2017 released last week are that by 2030 China’s GDP will be over $US42 trillion – way ahead of America’s anticipated $24 trillion! Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiao Ping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ internationally has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial institutions: exhibit one being the creation, against intense US opposition, of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the continent through the Belt and Road Initiative.

China wants strategic space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catchup globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. There has also been some increase in its nuclear capability: although China’s position here has long been moderate and minimalist, a continuation of that posture cannot be assumed in the future.

Much of all this is no more than can and should be expected of a rapidly economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower, wanting to flap its wings and reassert some of its historical greatness after two centuries or more of wounded pride. But more disconcertingly, expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably of course in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.

Beijing is still overwhelmingly preoccupied with internal stability, and has shown no sign of wanting to precipitate violent conflict anywhere. But it has become very clear that it will push the envelope of regional hegemony just as far as it can comfortably go, and would certainly like to recreate the kind of tributary state relationships that it enjoyed in earlier centuries with so much of South East Asia.

United States. Even more startling than China’s ascent has been the speed and extent of the recent decline in American influence, both regionally and globally, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain, and the enormous weight of the soft power – the capacity to influence through attraction – it has accumulated over so many decades.

If a more modest American posture had been a product of a deliberate choice by US policymakers, conscious of overreach in the past and wanting to move toward a more cooperative power-sharing role in the future, there might be much to admire in it. It could be seen as implementing what I continue to think of as the pitch-perfect statement I heard Bill Clinton make at a private gathering in 2002, shortly after he had left the presidency (unfortunately never repeated by him publicly with anything like this clarity):

America has two choices about how to use the unrivalled economic and military power we now have. One is to use it to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. But the other is to use that power to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

But there is little evidence that US policymakers in recent years, whatever some of them might have privately preferred, have been genuinely moving towards that second choice. President Obama, admirable as he was in so many ways, was completely cloth-eared in saying in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership ‘we make the rules’. And in the case of the Trump administration, the most charitable analysis is that it has no real idea what it is doing internationally, here or anywhere else. The President himself has made it abundantly clear that he is about postures not policies – impulse and instinct unhampered by anything resembling knowledge or mature judgment.

The Trump administration has been nothing short of catastrophic for US credibility at multiple levels. As to the international economic order, ANU’s Peter Drysdale has been one of those arguing forcefully that Trump has simply abandoned the rules-based system – including commitment to abiding by the WTO and NAFTA– on which we have depended to bring global order. Trump has shown no interest in the multilateral pursuit of global public goods more generally, with the low point being his walking away from the Paris Climate Accord. Historians may well regard the conjunction of events on 1 and 2 June 2017 – with the White House announcement being followed immediately by the joint statement by China and the EU effectively taking up the leadership mantle, and every other significant global player immediately renewing their commitment to the Paris targets – as marking, in its abdication of American leadership, a turning point in world history.

In the region, as the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove has described it, ‘Donald Trump’s instincts run counter to the traditional US approach to Asia. He is allergic to alliances, hostile to free trade and enamoured of strongmen’. Militarily, he has played recklessly to his domestic political base with his threats against North Korea, but shown no taste anywhere else for the actual exercise of military power in the absence of a direct attack on the United States– any more than did Barack Obama before him – and no interest whatever in giving new content to the so-called ‘pivot’, initiated by Obama but never delivered, of major military resources to this region.

One of Australia’s most prominent strategic analysts, ANU’s Hugh White, argues in his just published Quarterly Essay that there are now no foreseeable circumstances – even in a post-Trump era – in which the US would be willing go to war with China, or convince others that it is willing to go to war, in order to preserve its regional leadership or primacy. He concludes from all of this, very provocatively but I think quite accurately, ‘So we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.

India. If the US is a declining presence in the region, India is a growing one. In the last twenty years there has been a dramatic surge in India’s economic development, to the point where it is now has the potential – provided a sustained program of structural reform continues – to surpass the US economy for size, by mid-century if not 2030, in purchasing power terms, and to become, after China, the world’s second largest economy. With India now making its own major contribution to the shift of global wealth – and eventually power – eastward from the Euro-Atlantic, and with trade volumes between East Asia and South and West Asia growing much faster than, and now far outweighing, those across the Pacific the concept of the ‘Asia Pacific’ as the new centre of world gravity, which has been central to most of our thinking in recent years, is losing its resonance in favour of ‘Indo-Pacific’.

Diplomatically, while long under-resourced and punching at less than its weight, India has been recently been more effective, including in defusing the potentially very combustible territorial dispute with China in the Bhutan border area. Militarily it has always had plenty of capability, with the potential to develop an immense amount more, and has shown a growing interest in maritime security cooperation in the context of the long-dormant Indian Ocean Rim Association, and sub-groups like the recently held trilateral dialogue with Australia and Indonesia. It is likely to be more cautious about giving any new content to the idea of a quadrilateral grouping with the US, Japan and Australia in a way that could be seen too overtly as a China-containment enterprise. And it may well, as Hugh White argues, be more interested in developing a separate sphere of influence of its own in South Asia and the Indian Ocean than intruding on Chinese dominance of East Asia and the Western Pacific. But there are clearly a number of ways in which a growing India it will have the power to impose some limits on Beijing’s expanding influence in the broader region.

North Korea. The most dramatic single geopolitical development in the region in recent times has been the emergence of the DPRK as a more or less fully capable nuclear armed state, resisting all non-proliferation efforts to join the five original nuclear weapons states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (US, UK, France, Russia and China) and the three outliers (India, Pakistan and Israel), albeit with an arsenal still much smaller, and missile delivery capability still significantly less developed, than the others.

The crucial issues we all have to wrestle with are just how serious and urgent a threat this poses to South Korea, Japan, the United States itself and perhaps other US allies and partners in the wider region; whether the situation can best be addressed by a strategy of containment, deterrence and keeping the door open for negotiation, as I for one have long argued, or whether the risk of DPRK aggression is so great that a pre-emptive military strike, with all its potentially horrendous escalation consequences, would be justified; whether any negotiated solution could achieve anything more than a freeze on further capability; and whether the continued possession of any nuclear weapons by North Korea, particularly in the context of a declining commitment to the region by the US, would be enough to tip South Korea and Japan, and perhaps others as well, into acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. There is no consensus in the region as to how any of these questions should be answered.

ASEAN. A much less dramatic geopolitical development in the region, but one which is still quite troubling, is the deteriorating coherence and credibility of ASEAN. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, ASEAN has been one of the world’s great conflict prevention success stories, transforming a region of extraordinary cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, with a very long history of discord and deadly conflict, into a genuine community where, as now with the European Union, not only is war between any of its member states effectively unthinkable, but what might once have been very drawn out and acrimonious non-lethal disputes are now for the most part resolved without any tears at all.

But sustaining these achievements and building further upon them, ASEAN faces several big challenges. It has found it extraordinarily difficult to maintain cohesion in the face of a newly confident and assertive China only too happy to create, or re-create – if it can do so without violent conflict – some kind of hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours. In particular, with at least two of its members now acting effectively as wholly owned subsidiaries of Beijing, it has proved impossible to reach consensus on any kind of substantive, collective pushback on the South China Sea issue.

It is also necessary to acknowledge, unhappily, another challenge, internal in character, but with serious external implications – and that is the evident deterioration in the quality of member state commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It has always been something of a tightrope act balancing ASEAN’s traditional, and understandable, desire to continue to give primacy to state sovereignty and non-interference against the need to address unacceptable violations of universally recognised civil and political rights. But ASEAN members cannot be blind to the extent to which in recent times internal developments in so many states have really been putting at risk the ASEAN brand. The ongoing retreat from democracy in Thailand, the resistance to accountable governance in Malaysia, the growing impact of intolerant Islamism in Indonesia, the failure by contrast to protect Muslims in Myanmar, and the extraordinary tearing up of the rule of law in the crusade against drug offenders in the Philippines have all raised international alarm bells.

There are some larger regional consequences in all of this. ASEAN has tenaciously fought for its place as the geopolitical hinge between East and South Asia, playing an important ‘strategic convenor’ role for the whole Asia-Pacific region, and indeed now whole Indo-Pacific, in the operation of the key regional economic and security dialogue and policymaking structures. In doing so, it has had to over the years repeatedly finessed – and done so with reasonable success – issues like Cambodia’s authoritarian leadership, Myanmar's struggle with democratic transition, Vietnam's stubbornly anachronistic one-party state, and even impeccably incorruptible Singapore's regular misuse of defamation laws to neutralize political opponents.

But the question that ASEAN leaders must now ask themselves is just how much more tarnishing of the South East Asian brand, by how many of its members simultaneously, the region can afford while still fully realizing its aspirations for economic growth and political influence. It is always tempting to claim that what happens behind sovereign borders is nobody else's business. But that is no longer true in today's interconnected world. Some states may be big and powerful enough to get away with behaving otherwise, but winning respect for behaving well is a much stronger foundation for economic and political success.

Responding to the New Geopolitical Environment

Every country in the region will have ideas of its own as to how best to respond to the challenges posed by the geopolitical shifts I have been describing. While I can only speak from an Australian perspective, what I have to say may also have some resonance for those others in the neighbourhood who identify – as I think Australia should – as a ‘middle power’. ‘Middle powers’ are best described as those states which, whatever the size of their population or GDP, are not economically or militarily big or strong enough, either in their own regions or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else – but are nonetheless sufficiently diplomatically capable, credible and motivated to be able to make an impact on international relations.

In our own region that description would certainly apply not only to Australia but South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and probably also Japan even though it would no doubt prefer to be thought of as a ‘major’ power. It could also reasonably be applied to a quite small state like Singapore – just as a state like Norway, with a population of just over 5 million, is widely thought of, like the other Scandinavians, as a middle power. What matters more than size is the kind of diplomacy practised, often focused on achieving global or regional public goods, and doing so by cooperative coalition building.

From an Australian perspective, I have been arguing for some time that the appropriate policy response to the big regional challenges we are all facing is ‘Less United States. More self-reliance. More Asia.’ The Coalition Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper released last week does not, of course, articulate its preferred response options in nearly such stark or robust terms – that is a luxury to be enjoyed only by those, like me, no longer in public office. But, intriguingly, it in fact goes very close to embracing those prescriptions.

Less United States. The White Paper has plenty of approving references to the ‘global leadership’ of the United States and makes clear Australia’s willingness to ‘continue to strongly support’ that, albeit acknowledging that such US leadership is currently under strain: the paper says, with masterly diplomatic understatement, that ‘The Government recognises there is greater debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of its leadership in parts of the international system’.

But what I find interesting is that the paper does not use the ‘l’ word – ‘leadership’ – at all in describing America’s regional role in the Indo-Pacific: the word that is used, multiple times, is ‘engagement’. As in, for example. ‘Without strong US political, economic and security engagement, power is likely to shift more quickly in the region’ or ‘Australia tangibly supports the deep engagement of the United States in the economic and security affairs of the region’.

In this context the paper of course supports the continuation of Australia’s alliance with the US, and adds that it will in fact ‘broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives’. No more detail is offered as to what this might involve, which could be anything from token gestures to full-throated embrace of the Pentagon’s most ambitious wish list.

My own view is that continued US engagement in the region is certainly desirable, and that Australia should certainly not walk away from the alliance, from which we do greatly benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. But less reflexive support for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. As I have often said, ‘Whither thou goest, there I goest’ might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect. My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying ‘no’ to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence.

Neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. Again, I think the reality is, as Hugh White put it, that ‘we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.

More self-reliance. Part of that preparation, for Australia, must be more self-reliance. Again, intriguingly and rather unexpectedly, that is a message that emerges clearly from the White Paper, most clearly of all in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s introduction to it, when he says ‘More than ever, Australia must be sovereign, not reliant. We must take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognising that we are stronger when sharing the burden of leadership with trusted partners and friends’.

The Prime Minister did not spell out what he meant by taking such responsibility, but what I think it entails is this. In military terms, it means building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizen) reason for doing so. I believe that more self-reliance also means being more of a diplomatic free agent – adding to reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by constant urge to look over shoulder to Washington.

More Asia. The White Paper is strong and sensible on the need to significantly further strengthen our partnerships with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Japan and the ROK. It could also have mentioned countries like Vietnam and Thailand: while the government’s manifest preference for partnering with ‘democracies’ is understandable enough, it is unnecessarily narrowing in the kind of regional environment we now inhabit.

In this context the paper gives less attention than I think it should to building a closer Australian relationship with ASEAN. While it is no doubt premature to be talking about actual Australian membership of that grouping, perhaps in the context of next year’s scheduled ASEAN-Australia Summit we can at least start exploring the possibility of some form of associate membership. If ASEAN could better harness its own collective middle-power energy and capacity, and work more closely with countries like Australia, it could be a more influential and effective regional security player than it now is, in particular pushing back in the South China Sea against China’s increasingly assertive encroachment: a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying on the United States. ASEAN should not underestimate its individual and collective military capability, in particular that of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and would send a very important message to China if it were prepared to mount regular combined FONOPs in contested waters: China would need to think long and hard about any show of retaliatory violence in this context.

There may also be less potentially confrontational ways of giving clear messages to China that the region is not prepared to lapse into tributary-state mode. For example there would seem to be considerable scope for maritime cooperation on search and rescue (MSAR) and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations – including involving the US, Australia, India, Japan alongside ASEAN members – which would promote greater interaction between armed forces without triggering so many political sensitivities.

Fully realizing ASEAN’s collective middle power potential, whatever form it takes, in responding to external pressures of course depends on having essentially a united political front, and in this respect ASEAN does continue to face real challenges, as already described. Part of the problem is so many members going their own way in recent times on democracy and human rights issues, which may make it harder to build and project a common external front. But there has also been an obvious issue with the existing consensus rule making it possible for China to sow divisions through exercising its influence over members like Cambodia and Laos. It may be that if ASEAN is to act as a collective counterweight to China – and at the same time not become increasingly dependent on an increasingly disengaged United States – it will have to modify that consensus rule, even perhaps to the extent of becoming a two-or-more speed organization as the EU now effectively is. It is obviously hard to contemplate changing in any way the quiet, consensual, cautious culture that has characterized ASEAN, and overall served it very well, in its first fifty years. But in the world and region as it is, and is becoming, nothing is static and nothing is certain, and it hard to believe that in the next few years business as usual will be an option for any of us.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see the Australian White Paper spelling this out quite clearly – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multidimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front.

None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea. But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of China’s claims to be a global rule-maker and not just rule-taker, and to have some strategic space of its own. And it means getting close enough to the Chinese leadership to be seen, as Stephen Fitzgerald puts it, as a genuine ‘friend at court’, influencing positively their bilateral and multilateral behaviour.

One of the most productive ways of building content into our relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on which China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been noted. The White Paper is good on Australia’s role and responsibilities on these transnational issues (in a way which would have been unthinkable under Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott) – albeit unambitious to the point of outright obstruction on the crucial one, dear to my own heart, of nuclear disarmament. But it insufficiently emphasises the utility of this agenda in building confident and cooperative relationships between China and its neighbours.

Grounds for Optimism about the Future

Let me finish on a positive note by saying that, for all the current tensions and uncertainties in the Indo-Pacific region, and all the things that could obviously go badly wrong, I am on balance my normally incorrigibly optimistic self about the future.

In the case of the United States, while there is much to be concerned about with the Trump Presidency, all the judicial and legislative checks and balances to executive power of the American constitution which have so often frustrated policymakers both at home and abroad are starting to cut in and show their worth. Senior military figures, initially inclined – understandably enough – to express support for complete military subservience to civilian power, are now beginning to make clear that if faced with an order to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike they would be looking long and hard at their personal liability under international criminal law, and that implementation would not be reflexive at all. And while Trump’s core electoral support base is still holding reasonably firm, there are encouraging early signs that a substantial majority of Americans are going to prove much less tolerant of ignorance, narcissism, lack of judgement and ethical waywardness than Mr Trump might have hoped.

I don’t believe that in a post-Trump era there is much prospect of recreating the unquestioned pre-eminence of the US both globally and regionally: too many other wheels have been turning too fast. What I do think likely is that Americans, while it will be hard for many of them to accept anything other than top dog status, will ultimately come to terms with and accept Bill Clinton’s second choice: to see American power not being used to assert primacy anywhere and everywhere, but to create a world in which Americans are comfortable living when they are no longer top dog on the global block.

In that context, I don’t think that we should be nearly as cynical as some realists are about the inevitability of a major military clash between China as a rising great power and the United States determined to resist its rise. Thucydides did not say that war was inevitable been Sparta and Athens; it was a risk, not an inexorable trap. There is every reason to believe that China will not seek to usurp America in the global order, only to take its place alongside it, and that could live quite comfortably in a global environment characterised by cooperative security -- in which states primarily find their security with others, rather than against them. Yes, China does want, as Hugh White puts it, ‘to protect their own ideology and political system from outside interference, and to guarantee their own territorial security. And they want to reassert China’s status as a great power, and as the leading power in East Asia.’ If those needs are accommodated there is no reason to fear what White describes as a ‘harsh hegemony on their neighbours’. A soft hegemony maybe, but not one achieved by military force.

Similarly, for all the volatility of the situation on the Korean peninsula – and the risk of inadvertent use of nuclear weapons through human or system error so long as any are retained by anybody -- I don’t think we need to fear any deliberate attack by Pyongyang any time soon, with nuclear weapons or anything else. It wants regime and leadership survival above all else, and knows very well that to be homicidal would be suicidal. And so long as that dynamic holds I think that, even if US security guarantees are seen as more problematic, there is no great risk of either the ROK or Japan going down the nuclear proliferation path: the gains are largely illusory, and the reputational risks very real.

What makes me more optimistic than many realists about the prospects of avoiding deadly conflict between the major powers, in our own region as elsewhere, is that I genuinely believe that the mindsets of leading policymakers have finally adjusted to reality. A very credible argument can be made that we have at last seen the disappearance – after many centuries of flourishing life – of what the French call bellicisme, the ideology seeing virtue and nobility in war, and its replacement by the perception that, with today’s technology, the damage inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweighing, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.

Of course, for all the underlying dynamics, interests and values at work, individual leaders do still matter, and history has shown us over and again that things can go catastrophically wrong, within and between countries, when the wrong people come to power. And we know all too well that when it comes to this crucial ingredient of leadership, there is an awful lot of pure chance in play. So much does seem to depend just on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition a country finds itself – to take some non-Asian examples - with a Mandela or a Milosevic or a Mugabe; an Ataturk or an Arafat; a Rabin who can see and seize the moment, and change course, or someone like a Netanyahu who never will. Despite all our best efforts, that has always been so, and I suspect it always will be. Looking around the world at those individuals who currently matter most, we just have to express the fervent hope that even if leaders are not always born, and only on very rare occasions are elected, they can at least on occasion be made.

One of our hopes of course, with this Asia Society Asia 21 Young Leaders program, is that this will contribute importantly to creating a next generation of leaders in this region of which we can be confident and proud. I feel honoured and privileged to have this opportunity of addressing you today.