CANBERRA – For grand strategy buffs, this has been quite a month, with several events looking like the kind of turning points that will consume future historians. Capturing the most media attention has been Europe’s eroding credibility, with its paralyzed institutional response to the ongoing financial crisis making ever more fanciful the notion of a “G-3” world, in which the European Union could compete as a political and economic equal with the United States and China.
But the most interesting new chapters in the story – in economic, political, and security terms – have been written in Asia and the Pacific. With the subtext in most cases being recurring nervousness about China’s rise, recent weeks have witnessed some very significant institutional and policy changes, as well as fundamental strategic repositioning, by the region’s major players.
First, at mid-November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, hosted by US President Barack Obama in Hawaii, Japan announced its intention to join the US and eight other countries, including Australia, Chile, and Singapore, in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP would create a free-trade area 40% larger than the European Union – and much bigger still if it ultimately embraces all APEC members, further consolidating Asia’s global economic primacy. (While some have been attracted to the idea of confining a new trade partnership to America’s closer friends and allies, thereby excluding China, it is difficult to see how this would serve any constructive purpose.)
Second, the leaders of every major country in the region – including for the first time the US and Russia – met later in November at the East Asia Summit, hosted by Indonesia in Bali, to discuss security and economic issues. This reportedly resulted in some lively exchanges on the issue of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. With India also a key member, this newly consolidated grouping – the only meeting that brings together the region’s most senior government officials with an open-ended agenda – is set to become by far the most effective of the alphabet soup of Asia’s regional and sub-regional organizations.
Third, in the run-up to the East Asia Summit, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she would move to relax her country’s long-standing prohibition on uranium sales to India while it remained outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Given international acceptance of the 2010 US-India bilateral nuclear deal – unfortunately, without concessions from India (like accession to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty or a cap on nuclear weapons) – Australia simply had no remaining policy leverage.
Whatever the reasons behind it, the policy change will remove a major irritant from bilateral relations and facilitate much closer political and strategic cooperation in the Indian Ocean. That is a point that will not be lost on China’s rulers.
Fourth, and most significant, was Obama’s Canberra speech en route to the East Asia Summit. More wide-ranging and substantial than the usual bilateral bromides, Obama announced his “deliberate and strategic decision” to have the US play a “larger and longer-term role” in shaping the Asia-Pacific region as it draws down its forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He called US presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific region a “top priority,” to be insulated from any defense spending cuts.
Adding substance – and striking symbolism – to the rhetoric, Obama and Gillard announced the creation of a training base in northern Australia for 2,500 US Marines, a significant new capability within easy reach of both South East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Obama’s Canberra speech was careful to emphasize that the US wants a cooperative, communicative relationship with China. But he was equally clear in stating that the US would “preserve our unique ability to project power,” and issued some sharp messages to China about upholding international norms and respecting human rights.
All of this has already generated some predictably acerbic reactions from China’s state-owned media. Clearly, Australia and other US allies face some interesting times ahead as we juggle our long-standing alliance with economic imperatives.
It is important that Australia and others in the region do push back against the kind of hard Chinese nationalist sentiment that has rightly jangled nerves in the South China Sea and, in their defense policy and alliance relationships, hedge against worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they may appear now. China knows perfectly well where Australia, the US, and others stand; its leaders understand these countries’ alliance relationships, even as they rail against them, and have their own compelling reasons to continue to trade with us.
It is equally important, however, not to overdo the confrontation. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently put it, doing so will only “provoke reaction and counter-reaction….a vicious cycle of tension and mistrust.”
Moreover, while maintaining absolute solidarity on existential issues, America’s Asian allies need to demonstrate that they have minds and interests of their own on international policymaking – not least to ensure that the US does not take them for granted. Hard as it is to resist the seductive charm of a Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, allies should not be acolytes.