The Asian security architecture has long been defined by two sets of arrangements: a US-centered set of alliance arrangements, and an ASEAN-centered set of institutions. The conundrum of the modern Asian security environment is that both sets of arrangements—devised during an era of relatively weak Asian powers—are struggling for leverage in an era of stronger Asian powers.
China’s rise lies at the heart of the problem. While scholars debate the extent to which Beijing even has a deliberate grand strategy, I think China currently pursues two distinct objectives. It seeks a culture of deference towards China’s interests among its neighbors, and a Great Wall at Sea to hold US naval power away from the Asian mainland. Those objectives are of course related: it’s easier for China to create a deferential regional hierarchy if a maritime buffer zone makes a US naval presence in the western Pacific less assured. The Great Wall at Sea pursues that goal of a weakened US presence in the maritime domain, and President Xi Jinping’s advocacy last week of a region free from US alliances is intended to pursue it on the land.
The problem for China, of course, and Brad Glosserman depicted it well in his recent National Interest article, is that its pursuit of those objectives has generated a new wave of anxiety along the Asian rimlands. Countries large enough to respond to the Chinese challenge—like Japan—have begun to do so. Smaller countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have indulged in some balancing behavior. But Southeast Asia more generally is haunted by the concern that its classic preference in favor of rule-and-norm-generating institutions no longer seems an effective counter to growing Chinese power. For most ASEAN members, that haunted feeling hasn’t yet translated into harder-edged strategic options. Nor has it translated into greater accommodation of Beijing.
In both Northeast and Southeast Asia, demands for assurance from the US are climbing steeply—more steeply, indeed, than Washington could hope to satisfy. US relations with its allies and partners are starting to be dominated by two questions: how much assurance is required, and how best might it be delivered? Such questions aren’t easily answered at the best of times, since assurance is a much more difficult task than deterrence. The US alliance system seems unlikely to grow more spokes—even if the administration were to offer new alliances, the US Senate might struggle to ratify them. And not all of the answer lies within Washington’s gift. After all, exactly how close a relationship does a country like, say, Indonesia want with the US? We might well be looking at some form of more robust strategic partnership between the US and Indonesia. But how robust? How would that partnership mesh with ANZUS? Does ANZUS empower such a partnership, or distract from it?
In today’s circumstances of rapidly shifting strategic relativities in Asia coupled with shrinking US defense budgets and President Obama’s reluctance to become involved in new potential conflicts, the assurance task is daunting.
That leaves Asian countries with a range of supplementary strategies. The easiest—though probably the least effective—might be an attempted revival of institutionalism. Harder options include modernizing their own defense forces—effectively a self-help strategy—or cooperating more closely with each other on practical defense tasks. The self-help option is likely to pull some states down the game changer route, in the search for asymmetric solutions to the problems of a fluid strategic environment. Greater defense cooperation is also a difficult choice. There’s a good reason that US alliances in Asia tend to be bilateral: regional countries have only weak traditions of security cooperation. That’s why we find it so hard to answer the questions above in relation to Indonesia.
Australia isn’t a front-line state in the shifting regional security environment. It has the luxury of standing back from the key friction points. But we have deep interests in how the regional future unfolds. At the recent Nikkei Conference in Tokyo, the Singaporean Prime Minister sketched two possible scenarios of that future: a cooperative, prosperous, status quo future and a riven, competitive one, teetering on the brink of conflict or falling into it. His speech is an indicator that the region’s senior statesmen are starting to focus on the possibility of more unpalatable futures.
Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of ASPI’s The Strategist, where this article originally appeared here.