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Great Power Competition and the Evolving Regional Order

Keynote Presentation to Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) 13th General Conference, CSIS, Jakarta, 8 December 2022

The global and regional geopolitical environment today is obviously dramatically different from that in the early 1990s, when CSCAP was founded, when I was Australia’s Foreign Minister, and when it was possible for all of us to believe that cooperative security had a future.

  • Cooperative security being that approach which focuses on finding security with others, not against them; on confidence-building strategies; on seeing security as multidimensional, with many economic and social as well as military and other hard-edged traditional components; and above all on building habits of dialogue, consultation and cooperation between nations.

Is it possible now to recreate any of that confidence, energy and sense of security of the early post Cold Wars, or are we condemned to a much less happy geopolitical future than then seemed possible?

The task is certainly a formidably difficult one. In the early 1990s:

  • the Cold War was over – Soviet Union was down, China was not yet up, US had unrivalled primacy but was generally exercising power responsibly and constructively (as with its conduct of the First Gulf War following Iraq’s indefensible invasion of Kuwait);
  • There was much well-founded optimism as to what could be achieved cooperatively – including through multilateral institutions – including globally through the UN (as with the Cambodian peace plan), what became the WTO (the Uruguay Round), and regionally, e.g. through the creation, with ASEAN playing a crucial role, of APEC and the ARF economic and security dialogue forums;
  • There was a sense that the future was not just the plaything of the great powers, but that the middle powers – if they showed creativity and energy – could be profoundly influential (as in the multilateral initiatives just mentioned);
  • Existential risks were seen as manageable: we were very conscious of the need to address nuclear and other WMD risks, and there were major achievements in nuclear and chemical weapons arms control (with middle powers again playing a key role here); but hardly focused at all on the catastrophic risk potential of climate change and pandemics.

Compare and contrast that with the present global and regional environment, where we have seen:

  • The rise of China and - comparative - decline of the US, leading to massive strategic competition, and growing fear of outright conflict, especially over Taiwan;
  • In the case of China, Xi Jinping – with his power now consolidated by the 20th Party Congress – unquestionably more ideological and assertive than recent predecessors, making it clear that China wants its own strategic space in East Asia, no longer prepared to play second fiddle to US; wants to push its influence to the limits in South East Asia and the South Pacific; and that, globally, is no longer prepared to be just a rule-taker or bystander, but determined to be a major player;
  • The US for its part, showing no signs, on either side of politics, of accommodating China’s aspirations, by relinquishing any of its traditional primacy both globally and in the region: reinforced by recently-released National Security Strategy. Washington seeing every arena as zero-sum struggle for dominance, with latest economic decoupling move, to ban sales of chip-making technology, significantly upping the ante. And American democracy is not a thing of beauty, with ever-present fears of a Trump, or Trump-like reincarnation;
  • The region responding to these developments nervously, but not very decisively, with nobody – including US’s long-standing allies and partners – really wanting to choose between their biggest economic partner and traditional major security guarantor. Torn between two competing instincts:
    • fear of abandonment – manifested particularly in emergence of Quad and AUKUS
    • fear of entrapment - that US muscle-flexing (especially of kind we are seeing over Taiwan, with ‘strategic ambiguity’ becoming less ambiguous ) will increase tensions to the point of possible major conflict, which everyone desperately wants to avoid;
  • Our regional economic and security dialogue forums –APEC, ARF and the EAS – losing much of whatever salience they might have had;
  • ASEAN struggling to maintain its coherence and effectiveness, both internally (Myanmar) and externally (maintaining a united front against Chinese overreach in South China Sea);
  • Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion of Ukraine, tearing up the most fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international law, particularly shocking given Russia’s status as a foundation member of the UN Security Council;
  • The UN Security Council being reduced to impotence, with less confidence generally in multilateral processes and institutions;
  • The renewed salience of nuclear weapons in security discourse, with Putin’s threat of use in Ukraine; North Korea consolidating its position as a nuclear armed state; hopes of reinstating the Iran nuclear deal vanishing; and every nuclear weapon-state in the Indo-Pacific, especially China, now modernizing and in most cases expanding their arsenals; and
  • An acute consciousness now of all three major existential risks – not just nuclear weapons, but climate and pandemics as well – but real anxiety as to the world’s capacity to cooperatively respond to them.

Given all that, what possible grounds could there be for optimism about our global and regional security future? I think there are in fact several, worth at least debating:

US-China strategic competition may be manageable

Nothing inevitable about ‘Thucydides trap’: cooler heads can prevail. Both sides now seem willing to at least explore the three-dimensional approach most clearly articulated by Kevin Rudd:

  • Agreeing on principles and procedures for avoiding crossing each other’s strategic redlines (for example, Taiwan)
  • Mutually identifying the areas where full-blown strategic competition is accepted as the new normal.
  • Defining those areas where continued strategic cooperation (for example, climate change) is both recognized and encouraged.

Volatility of regional flashpoints may be overstated

  • Taiwan: Both US and China acutely conscious of risk of failure in kinetic conflict (Beijing’s mind no doubt concentrated by Russia’s Ukraine experience); risk of Taiwan independence declaration, always low, now minimal following DPP rout in recent municipal elections; 2049 a long way off, and China long record of strategic patience
  • South China Sea: Chinese militarization/breaches of international law/determination to exert regional hegemony clear, and always risk of small incidents escalating – but no sign of aggressive exclusionary intent, and acutely conscious of dangers of major war
  • Korean Peninsula: While situation volatile, and US denuclearization strategy needs rethinking, DPRK position still defensive/regime survival-focused – knows that to be homicidal is to be suicidal
  • South Asia: China/India border tensions haven’t gone away, but unlikely to be full-scale contest for supremacy in Indo-Pacific: India’s focus is its own South Asian/Indian Ocean sub-region and has no inclination to become a major military player in East Asia and the Pacific; and China’s interest in Indian Ocean seems confined to protecting its supply lines, and access to Africa. India-Pakistan rivalry more troubling: underlying issues as far away from resolution as ever.

Nuclear taboo still holding

  • If Russia does use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, all bets on 77-year taboo holding are off – but so far, so good: Putin wants world to think on table, but no evidence of any preparation. (Still anybody’s guess as to how war ends - but on so far reasonable assumption that Western resolve will hold, and on more questionable assumption that Putin will remain in power for foreseeable future, most likely outcome seems an exhaustion-driven ceasefire, with no territorial concessions on either side, and a new frozen-conflict…)
  • Reducing nuclear risk – from non-deliberate even more than deliberate use – still huge and urgent task. Too many still drinking nuclear deterrence kool-aid – when real constraint is horror/misery of conventional war with today’s technology.

Authoritarian populism not so popular

  • Signs that moderate public opinion reasserting itself, esp in US with mid-term results, and growing evidence (reinforced by this week’s Senate result in Georgia) that the Trump bubble may be bursting.
  • Elsewhere authoritarians beginning to find that there are limits to public tolerance – including Putin with his conscription and ever more obvious overreach in Ukraine, Xi Jinping with the growing defiance of his Covid lockdown policy, Iran with the massive pushback of women against the hijab morality police
  • Always a risk that authoritarians will resort to diversionary externally-focused chest-beating nationalism, but hard to fool – or suppress – all of the people all of the time.

Multilateralism not a complete lost cause

  • Jury is still out on whether the ultimate impact of the Covid pandemic will be to reinforce go-it-alone inward-looking nationalism, or reinforce the critical need for effective regional and global cooperation – few intergovernmental organisations covered themselves with much glory in the pandemic response, and the WHO is still struggling to restore credibility
  • But some recent developments, globally and regionally, have given some solace to those of us hoping that cooperative multilateralism – in addressing security issues, and public goods delivery problems – is not completely dead
  • The WTO Ministerial in June achieved agreement on a number of issues – including vaccine licenses and an organizational reform process – which surprised almost everyone; as did the G20 Leaders Summit in Bali last month, under Indonesia’s very active and engaged leadership, not only as the occasion for productive side meetings, but in the long agreed-text communique covering multiple economic and social policy issues, and a censure of Russia
  • That said, at the regional level this year’s East Asian Summit – potentially the most important of all our dialogue forums because of its full-spectrum economic and security policy remit - was an invisible non-event, and the ASEAN Summit, held back to back with it last month in Phnom Penh, failed to do anything at all to move the dial on Myanmar
    • hopefully things will change when Indonesia takes ASEAN Chair in 2023
  • One thing that is clear is that multilateral processes depend very much on actively engaged middle powers for their effectiveness, and there are hopeful signs that players like Australia – which have largely gone missing in recent years – are back in that game.

If we are to recapture that spirit of cooperative security, which was so evident back in the 1990s, it is clear that much of the drive and momentum is going to have to come from the middle powers – like most of the countries represented here – those of us who, while not being big and strong enough economically or militarily to impose our preferences on others, are still capable and motivated enough – and independent enough of the big elephants – to have a policy impact through the power of persuasion, and the energy and commitment to build coalitions of the like-minded.

For all the glimmers of optimism we can muster, it is clear that there are still multiple enormous challenges ahead of us if we are to have a region, and wider world, that is safer, saner, more prosperous and just than is the case now. I believe that CSCAP can continue to contribute to meeting those challenges, through the quality of its analysis and the professionalism of its advocacy to our respective governments.

What is important is that we don’t become disheartened by the scale of these challenges. In international relations, like everything else, optimism is self-reinforcing in the same way that pessimism is self-defeating. Achieving anything of lasting value in public life is difficult enough, but it is almost impossible to do so without believing that what seems to be out of reach really is achievable. So go on believing!