The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen has declared that “Asia needs a new order for the post-American era, and it cannot be a liberal one”. In light of this startling revelation, why shouldn’t Australia position itself and its desires for the Indo-Pacific at the front and centre of its long-term policy and diplomatic efforts.
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Australia – like many other liberal, capitalist democracies – rejoiced at the victory of the post Second World War, US-led world order and the promised "end of history".
However, the collapse of the bi-polar world and the tenuous, yet somewhat consistent balance of power between the Soviet Union and the US gave way to a world of increased uncertainty, driven by both traditional and asymmetric threats to national economic, political and strategic security.
Closer to home, Australia was confronted with humanitarian challenges in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, while juggling concurrent coalition operations in the Middle East as part of supporting the nation's post-Second World War alliance structure upon which Australia has depended.
Australia's post-war relationships with both the Indo-Pacific and the broader world have always been viewed through the prism of 'predator' and 'prey', which has dictated the nation's pursuit of "great and powerful friends" to ensure that our interests, albeit often shared interests, are heard on the international stage.
These relationships served to shape the nation into a middle power, one firmly entrenched in the maintenance of the global order and its key economic, political and strategic relationships.
This can be best seen in the nation's actions over recent decades, including Australia's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq at the behest of the US and the nation's delicate balancing act between the US as its strategic benefactor and China as its key economic partner.
However, this underlying culture of 'predator' and 'prey' has long defined the nation's view of itself and – in light of the rapidly evolving and as many would say, deteriorating regional paradigm – feeds directly into the policy-making, politicking and strategic approach of Australia toward the Indo-Pacific.
For Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program and visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) at the Australian National University (ANU), the post-US Indo-Pacific order will be dominated and led by the likes of China, Japan, India, Indonesia, a unified Korea and resurgent Russia.
Roggeveen articulates this multi-polar regional balance of power, stating: "China is unlikely ever to become the dominant power in the region, despite its size. Rather, it is more likely to be first among great-power equals such as India, Japan, Russia, and in future perhaps a unified Korea as well as Indonesia."
This leaves an important question: why shouldn't Australia make the effort position itself to not only play a leadership role in the new regional paradigm, but also take advantage of the opportunities presented by the economic, political and strategic rise of the Indo-Pacific?
The trouble with a 'liberal' regional order
For Roggeveen, the holistic attractiveness of the US-led post-Second World War order in the Indo-Pacific is not abundantly clear in this new period of great power competition, despite its success at the end of the Cold War, and this translates to the very visible great power competition between the Washington and Beijing.
"If the post-war US-led order remains as attractive to Asian states we wouldn’t need to be debating whether China’s rise poses a threat to that order. Yet clearly there is a leadership contest afoot," Roggeveen explains.
Despite this, it is clear throughout the Indo-Pacific and indeed the broader world, that the US-led order is under direct assault by the likes of Russia and China, which serve as benefactors to smaller, emerging nations that don't wish to be pontificated to by what they consider to be a "moralising" US-led West.
Roggeveen explains this, saying, "Preparing Australia for the era of great power competition and political warfare countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines can’t be counted in that company – they are already moving into Beijing’s orbit. Why? It may be because they have less affinity for the kind of liberalism America represents, and because they have benefited less from the rules-based order the US established."
Roggeveen adds that China's rising economic power and willingness to buy friends through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and similar throughout the region, with stand out examples like the Pakistani port of Gwadar and the Karakoram Highway, similar port infrastructure in Kyaukphyu, Burma, and a range of high-speed transport infrastructure throughout the Asian continent.
"But economic leverage is surely a more decisive factor – they cannot afford to exclude themselves from the opportunities offered by the Chinese economy. US-allied powers are also finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile their strategic affinity with the US and their economic ties with China ... Sheer economic weight will be more important in deciding the question."
China's dominance isn't a forgone conclusion
While many believe that China's ascendency is all but assured and its influence on the Indo-Pacific and global balance of power is similarly guaranteed – this is further compounded by a belief that the decline of the US is equally assured – Roggeveen in some ways believes something slightly different, stating:
"For most analysts, it goes without saying that the US will be part of this group, but to my mind it is an open question, though probably one for another debate.
"For the purposes of this discussion, it is enough to say that even if the US remains an Asia-Pacific power, it will be relatively diminished, simply because it won’t be able to match the growth rates of the others. In the first instance, by 'others' I mean of course 'China', but over the first half of the 21st century, India may well enter the contest for regional leadership."
Building on this, Roggeveen believes that any such order will require closer collaboration and agreement by all the rising and resurgent Indo-Pacific powers to ensure that the region and the globe is dragged kicking and screaming into another destructive conflict, like the Second World War, which served as a catalyst for the collapse of the previous balance of world power.
"My answer is that the overarching task of this order must be something that all the major-power participants can agree on. That basically precludes the idea that the rules-based order can be 'liberal', because China will reject this for as long as Western powers insist on it (in fact, it’s not even clear that India could be brought on board with such a project)," he states.
"But one thing all these great powers will continue to have in common is a desire to avoid war between them, so that’s where the focus ought to be.
"Some might say that is a modest ambition, but that’s a criticism reflecting a period of post-Cold War US hegemony in which there were no competing great powers, and more ambitious purposes could be pursued and occasionally imposed on weak states such as Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
"But those days are over, and nothing could be more urgent and important today than ensuring that Asia’s major powers never fight a potentially catastrophic war between them."
What about the land down under?
Australia as a nation and continent that straddles the confluence of both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the very epicentre of the 21st century's great game and great power competition, yet both the public and Australia's leaders seem to be convinced it is a case of "business as usual".
However, even for a lay person it is easy to see that both the regional and the global balance of power is changing, and Australia accordingly must evolve and adapt to a new paradigm, one where we will have to play an increasing role in advocating and protecting our own interests.
This may come as a shock to many, but Hugh White is in some way correct, we cannot simply rely on the US to always be there to defend and promote our interests, because even the US has a limit to its power, despite the proselytising and 'reassurances' by Australia's political and strategic leaders.
Put simply, Australia cannot depend on other nations to want and pursue what is best for us, neither the US or UK, nor Japan, India or Korea, can be expected to actively and assertively advocate for Australia's interests, we have to be willing and able to do so on our own.
Now is the perfect time for Australia to chart a course forward, to set an end goal for the next 10 and 20 years to ensure that the nation is capable of standing among what Roggeveen describes as 'equals' to guarantee its interests.
To do so, Australia also needs shake off the binary and reductionist view of itself, its position and the capabilities required to assure its sovereignty and resilience in a contested era – this means establishing a capacity and willingness to fight alone, both economically, politically and strategically in the emerging world order.
This means getting over the concept of "punching above our weight", because all that does is limit the nation and its potential at a precarious time in the nation's history by reinforcing the aforementioned culture of 'predator' v 'prey'.
Australia has in many ways has a great deal of economic, political and strategic capital with its regional partners and while its position as what former US president George W Bush described as a 'loyal-deputy' serves to diminish this capital, the foundation is there for Australia to emulate the 20th century rise of America, with a markedly Australian flavour.
Doing so serves to ensure that Australia's voice is heard and taken seriously at a time when these great powers seek to carve up the Indo-Pacific for their own benefit, with little thought for our interests.
So lets hold our leaders to account. There is a growing appetite from within the Australian public to do more and to position the nation to do and be more, both globally and in the Indo-Pacific, so lets have some ideas, let's open the debate and get the ball rolling, because time is running out, rapidly.
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying:
"If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.