Geopolitics for Breakfast
Last week I was in Australia to share some thoughts about the growing rivalry between great powers in Asia. The Down Under denizens I met were fearful – though largely about losing the Ashes to the Pommies. But there is a reason why Oz Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been speechifying about “Asian regional architecture” – because countries like Australia and Singapore worry that the big boys are getting too belligerent.
I couldn’t think of a place or group of people with less reason to be concerned about Asian geopolitics than the resort town of Coolum and the genial company invited there for Greg Lindsay’s Centre for Independent Studies annual conference. But two score of hardies showed up to hear me at seven in the morning.
My thesis was pretty basic. In the past, Asian geopolitics was about a US-led band of brothers running from Japan to Australia, with China providing some backup from the 1970s onwards, aligned to check the Soviets. When the latter disappeared, everyone began setting up multilateral organizations built on the premise “it’s a small continent after all” and “all we need is trade.” The Southeast Asian nations led the way in this and an alphabet soup of organizations sprung up, most of them beginning with the letter A.
But this hasn’t been hacking it. Why? Because of the rise of China. When a player of this size enters the scene, no multilateral cage is really big enough. The cage just becomes another area of Chinese domination.
China, I argued, wasn’t directly replacing the US. What it was doing was pushing out Japan. But because Tokyo has been such an enormous, if quiet, source of strength for the US this was slowly eroding Washington’s position in Asia.
So the US, India and – the new show in town – Indonesia were moving to hedge their bets against China. It’s not that they believe China is an evil empire. It’s just that its future is so uncertain. As the former US State Department number three once told me, “Fifty years from now, India will still be a democracy because you’ve made a decision about your political system. Not even the Chinese know what their system will be like fifty years from now.” They could be Tahiti with a billion people or Nazi Germany with a 500-million strong army.
So everyone hedges. Thus the wooing of India by the US, Indonesia’s impatience with ASEAN and Japan’s push to strategically invest in India.
I ended with an optimistic note, so no one’s croissant would curdle inside them. Asia won’t follow the path of 19th century Europe I argued. One, the big Asian powers were simply too big to be pushed around – they were huge in size and nuclear weapons capable. Two, political legitimacy in Asia was now tied up with economic development in a way that wasn’t the case in old Europe. And full-scale war would cause havoc in any Asian country.
Anyway, watch this space. As I left the breakfast room, a kookaburra laughed raucously.