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Region Doesn't Need the PM's Architecture

John Lee

Kevin Rudd has consistently lectured the region that some big-picture strategic thinking is needed in Asia. His keynote speech at the May Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in Singapore warned that Asia is sitting idly by while the region simply evolves without any sense of strategic purpose.

According to the Prime Minister, the region is unappreciative of changes taking place in Asia and is stuck in a dangerous mentality characterised by “strategic drift”. The forward-looking answer, he continually says, is to build a set of new and comprehensive multilateral institutions to facilitate future peace and prosperity in Asia.

Building new things is always exciting. However, the PM must not only learn to talk the language of the region. He also needs to closely observe its strategic thinking and learn the lessons this teaches about the best way to achieve regional engagement.

Contrary to what Rudd and many Australian strategists believe, Asia has been executing a clever and subtle strategic plan for the best part of two decades. The evolution of weak rather than strong multilateral institutions has been a deliberate policy designed to reflect the reality that security relations between states in the region are complex and messy.

The PM correctly notes that the region is fluid and dynamic and the dangers of conflict are real. Yet the elegant, top-down comprehensive regional architecture he is proposing is inappropriate in this unstable and uncertain environment.

The basis behind present Australian thinking assumes two things. First, Asia is rushing headlong into a state of multipolarity (a configuration characterised by the rise of several states of roughly equal power balancing against each other). And, second, Asia is unprepared for this situation.

But both these assumptions are wrong. Asia is not rushing headlong towards a state of multipolarity. Asia is and will remain hierarchical, not multipolar.

It is true that US power is in relative decline, although the pace of this is frequently exaggerated. The US will remain the dominant power for decades by any measurement even as China and India rise.
Moreover, the US has never maintained a genuine hegemony in the sense that it relies on the co-operation of other states to remain predominant. For example, the US has almost 70,000 military personnel deployed mainly in Japan and South Korea in addition to the US territory of Guam. The commander of the US Seventh Fleet, which oversees the west Pacific, is headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan. Without co-operation from allies and partners such as Japan and South Korea, as well as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines, the US could not retain its forward military positions in the West Pacific. Base rights are always conditional and the US guardian is not so powerful that it can ignore the wishes of its regional partners.

In other words, the hierarchy is consensual and interdependent. As long as the US performs the role of ultimate protector and provider of public goods, there will be no reason for regional states to balance against it. Indeed, Asia since World War II is characterised by an under-balancing vis-a-vis the US that some commentators find curious. The reality is that this hierarchical structure is enormously effective in accommodating the rise of re-emerging powers such as China. China is now seen as a legitimate power because it has chosen, albeit reluctantly, to rise within this hierarchical structure.

China, Japan and possibly India will be the second-tier powers in Asia. These three great Asian powers rising within the hierarchical structure that Asian states have constructed impose a structural constraint on each other. Critically, as China rises, it needs to do so within the existing regime of restrained competition, regional norms and other processes.

The plan has always been to socialise China and manage its rise. It is a creative alternative to the traditional options of crude balancing or bandwagoning. Enmeshing China in a US-led Asia, which a hierarchy implies, means that the cost of outright rebellion is too high. This grand strategy of bringing China in by using a hierarchical framework has the advantage of constraining Beijing’s ambitions without trying to contain China or keep it down. Doing so would cause Beijing to become resentful and deny the region the economic benefits of a rising China.

This form of hedging within the informal hierarchical system in Asia is far preferable to carving out spheres of influence for Asian powers (which is impossible since these would clash) or formalising a decisive move towards recognition of an explicit multipolar configuration, which would be premature.

This is where the virtue of weak multilateral institutions comes in. Behind talk about the rules of engagement, there needs to be a big stick and serious consequences for non-compliance. Existing multilateral forums are strong enough to encourage processes that build confidence among members but are not so rigid that they get in the way of members seeking parallel agreements in underpinning their own security: alliances that have so far been critical for restraining Chinese actions if not ambitions. It is no wonder that almost all Asian states reject persistent appeals by leaders such as Rudd to build more comprehensive and binding multilateral security architecture that might weaken the present set-up. It is also no surprise that Beijing is the most enthusiastic backer of the Rudd plan in Asia.

Diluting this hierarchical structure makes little sense. These weak multilateral institutions and processes, in a region underpinned by US pre-eminence, have created a remarkably peaceful environment for decades and are coping well with the ascent of China and India. Despite his good intentions, the Prime Minister needs to finally get on board.

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