Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have expressed concern about the recent Aukus nuclear submarine deal between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. They fear a cold war with China will destabilise their region.
That matters. The principle of “Asean centrality” has been a cornerstone of peace in the region for decades. The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) vary greatly in their levels of economic development, political orientations and exposure to maritime risks. But they share a commitment to regional multilateralism, postcolonial state sovereignty, consensual diplomacy and pragmatic dealings with outside powers – including the US and China.
The centrality principle arises from their commitment to a system of non-nuclear comprehensive security, rejection of alliances and insistence that Asean remains at the heart of the various economic and political networks that link Asian states together, and with outside powers. The principle has served the region well, but it is now challenged by the US-China confrontation.
The long debate on whether it is more at home in an Asia where China looms larger, or in the Anglosphere dominated by the US and the UK, seems to have taken a decisive turn
That has been developing since 2017 as the regional nomenclature changed from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific under the influence of the quadrilateral security dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia (the Quad), and lately with Aukus. At stake is the US effort to contain China as an emergent superpower by its pivot to Asia, now being rapidly consolidated as a core priority by the Biden administration.
The pivot comes in response to China’s remarkable economic development, joined to a much greater political and strategic assertiveness as a large power, in Asia and throughout the world.
These two developments also reinforce interdependence, given the huge international investment and trading stakes the rest of the world has with China. It brings fresh risks of penetration and forces political choices in Asia – just as in Europe.
So this is a time of geopolitical shift and strategic decision – not least in Australia. The long debate on whether it is more at home in an Asia where China looms larger, or in the Anglosphere dominated by the US and the UK, seems to have taken a decisive turn.
Paul Keating, former Labor prime minister and champion of Australian republicanism, is a fierce critic of Liberal leader Scott Morrison’s role in Aukus, saying it cuts Australia off from its natural geographical and increasingly multicultural position in an Asia wherein it sends 40 per cent of exports to China. Along with another former Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, he says this mistakenly prioritises politics over economics, and will make the country weaker as a middle power and more dependent on a distant and outdated strategic culture.
Commitments to joint action and shared values with Asean, and to a more inclusive approach to China, are now tested by China’s greater assertiveness
Australian academic experts on Asia, such as Mark Beeson, agree, arguing the country will lose room to be a political actor in the region.
Defenders of the decision underline Chinese aggression and growing regional awareness of it, which they say will converge with Australia’s.
Seeing these issues through a western lens fashioned by the Cold War with the Soviet Union is deeply misleading, according to Kerry Brown, a London-based Chinese expert, writing on the well-informed, Australian-based East Asia Forum website. Asian powers, including India, keep their options open on China; he stresses how much their interests vary. Economic interdependence with its huge market explains that and, consequently, they should take the lead on it.
That means such a putative US-led strategic alliance will fail because “it risks non-Asian powers trying to impose themselves among a set of relationships and a reality where they simply no longer have the economic, diplomatic and security resources to have the impact they might wish”.
Similar points are made by a range of Asian and European authors (this one included), who examine these issues in a new book entitled Asia and Europe in the 21st Century. It is informed by Asian and other non-western approaches to international relations made necessary in a more multipolar world, as well as by distinctly European perspectives.
The European Union’s debate on Asia is brought up to date and sharpened by the latest developments, by its recent position paper on the Indo-Pacific and its joint statement with Asean last December.
Commitments to joint action and shared values with Asean, and to a more inclusive approach to China, are now tested by China’s greater assertiveness and determination to chart its own path. EU policy (including Ireland’s) is pushed fast towards a greater geopolitical awareness of that central fact about today’s world. It should include much greater EU understanding of their Asian partners.