Leadership in 2019 - An Address by Gareth Evans AC, QC
This address by former Australian foreign minister The Hon Gareth Evans was presented to the 2019 Asialink Leaders Program, encompassing foreign policy in a 'post truth' era, China, North Korea, the United States and more.
The Hon Gareth Evans AC, QC addresses Australian next-gen leaders in Melbourne
Thank you to Penny Burtt and Asialink for inviting me to address this opening session of the 2019 Asialink Leaders Program. There may be some things as important, but there is nothing more important, for Australia’s future than getting right our engagement with Asia. And there is no better, more sharply focused or more influential training program to advance that objective than this one, from which 800 mid-career professionals have already benefited over the last 23 years, and which cohort of alumni you are about to join over the course of this year. I hope and expect that you will make the most of the opportunity, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to help start you on your way, by describing – as I have been asked to – the evolution of Australian foreign policy toward more Asia-consciousness, and the main regional challenges confronting the current generation of decision-makers.
History v Geography
The story of Australia’s international relations, at least since World War II, has been above all that of contest between our history – the perception of ourselves as a transplanted European outpost – and our Asian-hemisphere geography, with geography gradually winning out, albeit not without some periodic backsliding. One familiar way of characterizing that story has been the ‘Fear of Abandonment’, the central theme and title of Allan Gyngell’s recent book: our protracted yearning for the protection of a great and powerful Western friend. But I see that as also being just a variation on the basic theme of our history – our reliance on first Britain and then the United States – having to come to terms with the reality of our Asian geography.
I think it’s fair to say that it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that, under Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, Australian policymakers really started, seriously and systematically, to redefine our identity, and have that fundamentally influence our policymaking. That was certainly at the heart of the approach I adopted right from the outset as Foreign Minister from 1988-96, saying for example in one of my earliest speeches in that role that in relation to the Asia Pacific, we should not:
believe that we are cultural misfits trapped by geography. Australia and Australians should see the region not as something external which needs to be assuaged, but as a common neighbourhood of extraordinary diversity and significant economic potential. The region is primary for Australia because it is where we live, and must learn the business of normal neighbourhood civility. It is where we must find a place and a role if we are to develop our full potential as a nation.
I don't need to document for you the extent to which our economy (certainly for trade, if not investment) is now dependant on our relations with Asia, and China in particular. Nor do I need to emphasize the longstanding reality that any threat to Australia’s physical security is one that must of necessity come from, or through, our Asian neighbours. These themes, and their policy implications, will no doubt be treated exhaustively in subsequent sessions of this leadership program. But I do think it is important to emphasise from the outset the demographic issue – the extent to which we already now are, as George Megalogenis describes it, no longer a European society but a Eurasian one.
It is now the case that 28 per cent of our people were born overseas – more than Canada with 21 per cent, and double the percentage in the United States – and that more than 50 per cent of our population either were born overseas or have at least one parent born there. And the 2016 Census shows that for the first time in our history, the majority of residents – 2 ½ million of them – who were born overseas, come from Asia, with China, India and the Philippines now the main countries of origin, dislodging Europe as the dominant source. We have 620,000 residents of Indian ancestry, and fully 1.2 million (5.6 per cent of the overall population) of Chinese, whether from the mainland PRC, or from forebears living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia or elsewhere in South East Asia or the wider world – with more than 900,000 Chinese Australians speaking Mandarin, Cantonese or some other dialect, a fantastic linguistic resource.
Coming to terms with the reality of our Asian geography has been a long and bumpy ride: not least when one remembers that the very first enactment of the Parliament after Federation in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act, entrenching the White Australia policy. And it’s a journey by no means complete. To understand where we are now, it’s necessary to understand where we have come from, so let me give you a quick summary – necessarily opinionated, but I hope objectively defensible – of how our international relations have evolved over the last 75 years.
The Evolution of Australia’s Foreign Policy
Australian political leaders were not entirely absent from the world’s stages in our first decades – most obviously (though not very helpfully for our reputation), with Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s rabidly anti-Japanese performance at Versailles after World War I. But Australian foreign policy, in the sense of a desire to pursue our interests combined with some independent capacity to do so, really only dates from the early 1940s. Before then, our foreign policy was essentially that of the United Kingdom.
The creation of any kind of systematic Australian foreign policy really came only with H.V. Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism. The part Labor’s External Affairs Minister played in the founding of the United Nations in 1945 is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights.
But there were of course aspects of Evatt’s worldview, very much shared by the Labor Party of the time, which were not remotely broad-minded. Right up until Gough Whitlam became Party leader in the late 1960s, White Australia and the prejudices which nourished it, and the perception of the world (and particularly our own region) as a dangerous place from which Australia needed to be protected, were very strong strands in the party’s thinking.
The closest we came to understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly, came with the early support from Evatt and Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch, which is periodically recalled with some fondness by Indonesian leaders, but not by the present generation to the extent I would hope. This anti-colonial support never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.
There wasn’t much left of Evatt’s cooperative internationalism by the end of this long reign of Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his successors. It is true that with the Cold War rendering the UN more and more impotent, and multilateral processes generally more and more sterile, there wasn’t much of that to pursue – other than as a regional extension of alliance relationships. On the other hand, in Asia, it is true that we developed, particularly under Richard Casey, cordial diplomatic relations with the emerging new nations of the region; that Percy Spender’s Colombo Plan made a very useful contribution to our long-term relations with Asia; that John McEwen deserves credit for the 1957 treaty with Japan and the optimism and foresight that went with it; and that men like Paul Hasluck, and particularly John Gorton and Harold Holt, had a quite open-minded international outlook.
But against all this there has to be weighed Menzies’s excruciating Anglophilia; the maintenance until the late 1960s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy; the stridency of our support for Verwoerd’s South Africa; the totality of our dependence upon the US; the intensity of our antagonism toward China; and the ultimate comprehensive misjudgement of our intervention in Vietnam. All this combined to reinforce the image, and the reality, of an Australia largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region.
The Whitlam Government, elected in 1972, well and truly broke this mould, undaunted by Cold War constraints and showing a great capacity, as Evatt had done, to match Australian foreign policy to the mood and needs of the time. Recognising China; bringing home our last troops from Vietnam; finally burying the White Australia policy; taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific; and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence, were just some of the decisions in that tumultuously active 1972-75 period which set Australia on a new, confidently optimistic internationalist path.
While the Fraser Government which followed from 1975-83 was more than happy to re-embrace Cold War verities, and all the East-West division of friends and enemies that went with it, it is to the credit of Malcolm Fraser himself that on the issues which mattered most for Australia’s long-term capacity to advance its interests, especially in the region, Whitlam’s policies were not only continued, but reinforced. Certainly both Fraser and his Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock both understood, as many in the Coalition for a very long time did not, the critical importance of abandoning government-legitimised racism in any form whatsoever, at home and abroad, not least in his embrace of Vietnamese refugees, in fact less reluctantly than Whitlam.
The Hawke and Keating Governments that took us through the next thirteen years, from 1983-96, renewed that spirit of activist, optimistic adventure, which had so characterized the Whitlam period, but – at least as I remember it! – in a rather more focused and systematic fashion. And we were able to achieve a great deal, including, in Asia, helping create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture, and crafting the peace plan for Cambodia. Further afield, we secured the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advanced some major nuclear weapons objectives; played a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; built, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and were a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa.
Throughout John Howard’s long term, to 2007, foreign policy was dominated by the Prime Minister himself, and I believe that was not to Australia’s advantage. He was over-focused on hard rather than soft power, deeply comfortable in following the US alliance lead wherever it took us, unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation, and generally inward-looking. In his relationships with our Asian regional neighbours, and especially China, the wheel did turn back in his latter years, and his government did make major contributions to regional stability with Australia’s role in leading the East Timor and Solomon Islands peacekeeping operations. But Howard remained manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships needing to be in our own region, and quite unaccepting of the notion that our geography now mattered more than our history.
When the Labor Government was returned in 2007, with Kevin Rudd the dominant foreign policy player – as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister under Julia Gillard, and then as Prime Minister again – I think it is fair to say that those with a less insular worldview were back on centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in Rudd’s very strong commitment to multilateralism: on climate change (for all the domestic horror that issue generated for him); in playing a brilliant role in getting Australia into the G20, forging a response there to the global financial crisis, and building its role in global economic management and potentially on a wider front; in trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament; in moving to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council, and supporting moves toward recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly.
In Asia, Rudd played an important role (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) in bringing the United States and Russia into an expanded East Asian Summit, the most potentially significant of all the pieces of new regional policymaking architecture to have evolved over the last three decades. He was and remains, as a fluent Mandarin speaker, the most China-literate leader Australia has ever had – and although that didn’t always make for an easy relationship with Beijing (not least with his ‘zhengyou’ speech at PKU in 2008 when he made the unwelcome observation that a true friend is a critical friend) – it certainly made for one in which Australia was respected.
The two year Abbott administration, from 2013 to 2015, reverted to the early Howard days, with the US alliance relationship front and centre, little regional focus, and multilateral diplomacy seen as of second or third order importance (except insofar as it involved the ‘Anglosphere’). Things improved for a time under Malcolm Turnbull, not least with Australia playing a much more constructive role on the Security Council in 2013-14 than might have been expected from his party’s earlier opposition to our candidature, but the overall record of the present Coalition government has been at best limp, and at worst very damaging for Australia’s interests.
I say that with as much objectivity as I can muster, based among other things on:
- the series of thoughtless and unnecessarily provocative statements by Turnbull himself and a number of his ministers in 2017-18 which ushered in a period of ‘doghouse diplomacy’ from China from which we have not yet fully recovered;
- the alarming insensitivity of Australia’s eavesdropping operations in Indonesia and Timor Leste, both in the initial operations (in Timor’s case going back to 2004) and the handling of the fall out of their revelation;
- Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, generally professionally competent though she was (and with her commitment to the Asian education of next generation Australians through the new Colombo Plan very much to her credit), maintaining an essentially transactional rather than any kind of creative or adventurous policy-focused approach, and failing to stop the unconscionable slashing of our aid budget; and
- Scott Morrison now showing himself to be out of his depth on foreign policy (never more so than in his announced intention during the Wentworth by-election to shift the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, outraging our Muslim Asian neighbours and underwhelming everyone else), with Marise Payne as his Foreign Minister, however decent her instincts might be, being an almost invisible bit-player.
The Challenges Ahead
The foreign challenges ahead, for whoever is elected as our new government in the next few months, are not straightforward, with both the global and our regional geopolitical environment changing rapidly and dramatically and, on the face of it, not for the better. In this post-truth, post-rationality, post-decency, Trumpian world we now seem to inhabit, I’m not finding it easy to maintain my normal incorrigible optimism.
But at the same time I’m not sure that we need to be quite as apocalyptically pessimistic as some policymakers, analysts and commentators, particularly in the Western defence community, have tended to be about developments in our own Asia Pacific region. Let me test that by exploring with you the five big geopolitical shifts in this region that I think most compel our attention, all of them occurring in the context of a very well documented shift in the global centre of economic gravity from the Euro-Atlantic to here.
China. First, and most obviously, there has been the rise of China. Economically, that rise has been breathtaking in its speed and magnitude. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms China is already the world’s largest economy, and destined to become much bigger still. And now the geopolitics is following the economics.
Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiaoping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ internationally has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial institutions: exhibit one being the creation, against intense US opposition, of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds through the Belt and Road Initiative.
China wants strategic space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catch-up globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. Most disconcertingly, some expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys. China’s emergence as a global power began in fact 40 years ago. But as Kevin Rudd has recently written: ‘what has changed under Xi Jinping has been the clarity of articulation of China’s strategic intentions…If the three pillars of strategic analysis are capabilities, intentions and actions, it is clear from all three that China is no longer a status-quo power.’
United States. The second shift, and challenge for us is that as China’s authority has been rising that of the United States has been manifestly waning, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain, and the enormous weight of the soft power – the capacity to influence through attraction – that it has accumulated over so many decades. The Trump administration has squandered US credibility, not just in Asia but worldwide, at multiple levels, including:
- by tearing up the painstakingly negotiated, and so far totally successful, nuclear deal with an Iran that remains nuclear weapon-less, and potentially triggering a new nuclear arms race by walking away from the INF treaty with Russia and not committing to an extension of the New START treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapon deployments;
- by insulting and alienating his NATO partners, and making clear in multiple ways that he regards allies as expensive encumbrances rather than assets;
- by walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, trying to destroy the WTO, and showing less understanding than a junior high-school student of the economic benefits of international trade; and
- by walking away from the Paris Climate Accords and all the other assaults on multilateral institutions in which the US has engaged.
As to the Trump administration’s response to China’s rise, the most charitable analysis until very recently has been that it has no real idea what it is doing here, any more than anywhere else, with the President himself making very clear that he was about postures not policies – impulse and instinct unhampered by anything resembling knowledge, mature judgment or intelligent strategic calculation.
But we now seem to have a US strategy that may be even worse than incoherence and indiscipline. When you link together a series of developments over the last eighteen months – the National Security and Defense Strategy documents, with their declaration that ‘strategic competition’, not terrorism, was the primary US national security concern; the initiation of a trade war with China from which it will be very hard now for each side to back down; and Vice-President Pence’s very toxic anti-China speech to the Hudson Institute last October – we do seem to be looking at the birth, if not as some commentators have described it ‘a new Cold War’, at least a much Hotter Peace.
While all this is very troubling I don’t believe the situation is irretrievable. Much of China’s external behaviour is no more than can and should be expected of a rapidly economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower wanting to flap its wings and reassert some of its historical greatness after two centuries or more of wounded pride – certainly wanting to buy some strategic space for itself, certainly wanting the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and wanting an influence in global policy-making consonant with its strength. The ‘Thucydides Trap’ storyline is overdrawn. Thucydides did not say that war was inevitable between the rising Athens and established Sparta; it was a risk, not an inexorable trap.
What is absolutely crucial, if things are not to end in tears, is that there be a return to the mindset on both sides of the Pacific – and particularly right now on the US side – that there is infinitely more to be achieved through cooperative power-sharing, within the framework of a rules based international order, than through confrontation. Just about the wisest words I have ever heard on this subject came from Bill Clinton at a private gathering at which I was present in 2002 (in Hollywood, but that’s another story…) shortly after he had left the presidency, remarks that unfortunately seem never to have been repeated by him publicly with anything like this clarity: America has two choices about how to use the unrivalled economic and military power we now have. One is to use it to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. But the other is to use that power to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.
It is not only Trumpian ‘America Firsters’ who have been slow to appreciate the attractions of Clinton’s second choice. Even President Obama, admirable as he was in so many ways, was completely cloth-eared in saying in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership ‘we make the rules’: not China, us. But cooler heads in Washington, and there are still some on both sides, are now recognizing that talk of preserving US dominance, predominance or primacy in the world is counterproductive, and the storyline has to return to one of cooperative engagement.
North Korea. The third big regional challenge relates to North Korea. The rise of China and relative decline of America are not, of course, the only big power shifts which have been generating alarm. The most dramatic single geopolitical development in our region, and maybe anywhere in the world, in recent times has been the emergence of North Korea, resisting all non-proliferation efforts, as a more or less fully capable nuclear armed state.
The crucial issues we all have to wrestle with are just how serious and urgent a threat this poses to South Korea, Japan, the United States itself and perhaps other US allies and partners in the wider region; whether any negotiated solution of the kind now being pursued can achieve anything more than a freeze on further capability; whether if the present process breaks down the situation can best be addressed by a strategy of containment, deterrence and keeping the door open for further negotiation; or whether the risk of DPRK aggression is so great that a pre-emptive military strike, with all its potentially horrendous escalation consequences, would be justified. There is no consensus in the region as to how any of these questions should be answered.
As a close observer of previous nuclear negotiations – as Australia’s foreign minister and in other roles – I do not believe that all the blame for their breakdown belongs with Pyongyang. And I have long believed that seriously committed, step-by-step trust-building negotiations, giving the DPRK real confidence that its national security and regime survival will be protected – negotiations of the kind now effectively being advocated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in – will bear real fruit.
But how the US plays its role in all of this will obviously be crucial. President Trump, whatever his motivation, did the right thing with his circuit-breaking Singapore summit last year with Kim Jong-un, and hopefully negotiations will get back on track with the second summit scheduled later this month in Vietnam. But the trouble is that with Trump’s manifestly superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, fragility of temperament, track record of total inconsistency, and being surrounded with advisers like John Bolton, it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome will be one of triumph or disaster.
The fourth regional shift relates to India. If the US is a declining presence, India is a growing one. In the last twenty years there has been a dramatic surge in its economic development, to the point where it is now has the potential – provided a sustained program of structural reform continues – to surpass the US economy for size, by mid-century if not 2030, in purchasing power terms, and to become, after China, the world’s second largest economy. With India now making its own major contribution to the shift of global wealth – and eventually power – eastward from the Euro-Atlantic, and with trade volumes between East Asia and South and West Asia growing much faster than, and now far outweighing, those across the Pacific, the concept of the ‘Asia Pacific’ as the new centre of world gravity, which has been central to most of our thinking in recent years, is losing its resonance in favour of ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Diplomatically, India has long been under-resourced and has punched at less than its weight, and has often been seen as more obstructive than constructive in its contribution to multilateral negotiations. On economic and trade issues the jury is still out on whether India really is prepared to become a seriously committed partner in trade and investment liberalization. But geopolitically it has been in recent times more effective, including in defusing the potentially very combustible territorial dispute with China in the Bhutan border area. One hopes that it will be equally capable of defusing recurring tensions with its nuclear neighbour Pakistan, a relationship now under acute strain again after the murderous attack this week on Indian soldiers by Kashmiri militants.
Militarily it has always had plenty of capability, with the potential to develop an immense amount more, and has shown a growing interest in maritime security cooperation in the context of the long-dormant Indian Ocean Rim Association, and sub-groups like the trilateral dialogue with Australia and Indonesia. It is likely to continue to be more cautious about giving any new content to the idea of a quadrilateral grouping with the US, Japan and Australia in a way that could be seen too overtly as a China-containment enterprise. And it may well be more interested in developing a separate sphere of influence of its own in South Asia and the Indian Ocean than intruding on Chinese dominance of East Asia and the Western Pacific. But there are clearly a number of ways in which a growing India will have the power to impose some limits on Beijing’s expanding influence in the broader region.
The trick for Australia in all of this is to give some real substantive bilateral content to a relationship which, despite enormous efforts from a great many of us over many decades now, has never really possessed it. Hopefully we now at least have, with Peter Varghese’s report and recommendations last year for a ten-states, ten-sectors prioritisation approach, a more sophisticated blueprint than we have ever had before, at least on the economic side.
The final challenge I want to address involves a less dramatic regional geopolitical development than the others I have mentioned, but one that is still quite troubling, and that is the deteriorating coherence and credibility of ASEAN. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017, ASEAN has been one of the world’s great conflict prevention success stories, transforming a region of extraordinary cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, with a very long history of discord and deadly conflict, into a genuine economic and political community where, as has been the case with the European Union, not only is war between any of its member states effectively unthinkable, but what might once have been very drawn out and acrimonious non-lethal disputes are now for the most part resolved without tears. But in sustaining these achievements and building further upon them, ASEAN faces at least three big challenges.
The first is ASEAN living up to the standards of democratic and human rights governance to which it is formally committed. It has always been something of a tightrope act balancing ASEAN’s traditional, and understandable, desire to continue to give primacy to state sovereignty and non-interference against the need to address unacceptable violations of universally recognised civil and political rights, and a number of its member states have always had authoritarian governing structures. But ASEAN cannot be blind to the extent to which in recent times internal developments in so many states have really been putting at risk the ASEAN brand.
There really has been an evident deterioration in the quality of member state commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere, and above all in the shocking treatment by Myanmar of its Muslim Rohingya people, where ASEAN’s impotence has been most apparent. All these violations seriously limit any soft power ASEAN may otherwise be able to exercise, and negatively impact on the third challenge (to which I will come in a moment): ASEAN’s claim to continued ‘centrality’ in the operation of those regional organisations which are so crucial to the whole region’s future.
The second challenge is whether ASEAN is capable of providing any kind of effective collective response to external security threats. It has found it extraordinarily difficult to maintain cohesion in the face of a newly confident and assertive China which has been only too happy to create, or re-create – if it can do so without violent conflict – some kind of hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours. In particular, with at least two of ASEAN’s members, Cambodia and Laos, now being effectively wholly owned subsidiaries of Beijing, it has proved impossible to reach consensus on any kind of sustained, substantive, collective reaction on the South China Sea issue. If there is to be push back against some of the more unacceptable dimensions of Chinese assertiveness, it’s not likely to come from ASEAN collectively with a strong negotiated Code of Conduct or anything else: its two most powerful players – Indonesia and Vietnam – are going to have to play a more active and assertive role.
The third big challenge is whether ASEAN can continue to credibly maintain its claim to ‘centrality’ in the continuing evolution of Asia-Pacific, and now Indo-Pacific, economic and security architecture. It can reasonably claim that role in relation to the current development of RCEP (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), initiated by Indonesia in 2011, which is widely seen as an attractive partial alternative to the originally US-driven TPP, although negotiations remain some distance from conclusion.
And it is true that APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and now the East Asian Summit (EAS) have all been built up around a core of ASEAN members, utilising ASEAN + dialogue processes to get them started. ASEAN has played an acknowledged ‘strategic convenor’ role. But it is not clear that in recent years it has been contributing much, if anything at all, to initiating or implementing substantive agendas in any of these bodies. As former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa puts it in his recent book, Does ASEAN Matter?:
ASEAN cannot rest on its laurels…it must instead actively earn its centrality and leadership in the region’s architecture building. Should ASEAN stand still, then at best its claimed centrality will increasingly ring hollow and ASEAN will be rendered redundant; or worse, it will be swept aside by dynamics beyond its control.
The bottom line in all of this is not whether ASEAN will survive – which it surely will, and must in all our interests – but whether it will fully realise its potential. And on that the jury remains very much out.
Responding to the new geopolitical environment
Every country in the region will have ideas of its own as to how best to respond to the challenges posed by the geopolitical shifts I have been describing. Speaking from an Australian perspective, I have long argued – and I’m finding it interesting how much this approach is gaining traction even with very conservative analysts and policymakers, and also some resonance in the wider region – that the appropriate policy response to the big regional challenges we are all facing is ‘Less United States. More Asia. More Self Reliance. More Multilateral Engagement.’ But I have already occupied far too much of your time, and how much sense that approach makes is something we can explore in the discussion to follow.
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