Monday, June 1, 2009
Aussie PM still has a great deal to learn about Asia
Rudd Still Needing Strategy Lessons from Asian Allies
Over the weekend, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was given
the honour of delivering the keynote at the annual Shangri-La
Dialogue meeting in Singapore. Maybe it was a peace offering of
sorts since PM Rudd had ruffled a few feathers in the region
last year by putting forward a European Union style
Asian-Pacific Community (APC) as the way forward – something
enthusiastically praised in Beijing but comprehensively rejected
by other key Asian states, as well as the American superpower.
This time, showing that he is a quick learner, Rudd backed away
from any ‘utopian’ blueprint and instead spoke the language of
the region by simply calling for more comprehensive and
structured dialogue on a range of security and economic matters.
But in one important respect, the Australian PM is proving that
he is still out of sync with the region. PM Rudd believes that
the current lack of strong multilateral institutions in the
region means that Asia is sitting “idly by while the region
simply evolves without any sense of strategic purpose.” The
region is stuck in a mentality characterised by “strategic
In fact, it is the Australian PM, not Asian states in the
region, who is way behind the times. Asia has been executing a
very clever strategic plan for the best part of two decades. The
plan is subtle – perhaps too subtle for Rudd to recognise - and
the existence of weak rather than strong multilateral
institutions have been deliberate policy. As the Australian PM
correctly noted, the region is fluid and dynamic, and the
dangers of conflict are real. Elegant, top-down regional
architecture - a seeming obsession of Rudd’s– is unsuitable in
such an environment. Now that the Australian PM is learning to
talk the language of the region, he would do well to observe
conscientiously and learn from it.
Where is PM Rudd coming from? Current 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); and second, Asia is
unprepared for this situation.
In fact, both these assumptions are incorrect.
First of all, Asia is not rushing headlong towards a state of
multipolarity. Asia is hierarchical, not multipolar.
True, American power is in relative decline but America will
remain the dominant power for decades by any measurement even as
China and India rises. Moreover, America has never been a
genuine hegemon in the sense that it relies on the cooperation
of other states to remain predominant. For example, without
cooperation from allies such as Japan, Singapore and the
Philippines, the US could not retain its forward military
positions in the West Pacific. The US guardian is not so
powerful that the US can ignore the wishes of its current
partners. In other words, the hierarchy is consensual. 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 America. Indeed, Asia since World War Two is
characterised by an ‘under-balancing’ vis-à-vis the US which
some commentators find curious.
Second, this hierarchical structure is enormously effective in
accommodating the rise of reemerging 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.
This has always been the plan: to ‘socialise’ China. It is a
creative alternative to the traditional options of crude
‘balancing’ or ‘bandwagoning’. Enmeshing China in 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 toward 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 amongst 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 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.
These weak multilateral institutions and processes, in a region
underpinned by American preeminence, have created a remarkably
peaceful environment for decades and is coping well with the
ascent of China and India. Despite good intentions, Australian
PM Rudd needs to finally get on board.
John Lee Cheong Seong