Research Themes

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Re-imagining Asia

A clothing store in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China, caters to the wishes of the growing business community from the Middle East
Flickr/2 dogs
A clothing store in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China, caters to the wishes of the growing business community from the Middle East

Re-imagining Asia explores the changes taking place within Asia and in the ways Asia influences the world, forcing us to re-examine old assumptions about how we define, interact with and respond to Asia.

The telecommunications revolution, globalisation, and the rise of China and India have not merely transformed the way people live, communicate with each other and perceive one another in the Indo-Pacific region. They have brought about fundamental changes in the way governments function and interact, and how they perceive the intentions and actions of other governments in defining the country’s national interests. Geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic calculations in every Asian capital from Tokyo to Seoul to Hanoi and Jakarta are in a state of increasing flux. National interests are still to a certain degree determined according to traditionally used measures such as GDP and military strength, but they also need to take into account trans-national threats, starting from terrorism, natural disasters, epidemics, and dwindling supplies of energy, water and other natural resources, as well as transitions occurring within any other given country in the region, be they the result of responses to world market fluctuations, measured policy decisions, democratic change in government, or political upheaval.

Many long-held perceptions are becoming obsolete. Two such examples are the notions that the larger Asian countries are poor and that in strategic terms the Asia-Pacific is at the core of Asia, based on the predominant position of the United States both as a recipient of goods manufactured in Asia and US naval power. The rise of China and India as major powers in both economic and strategic terms could result in a strategic redefining of Asia based on continental Asian powers and their vital interests, which stretch all the way across the Middle East to the Mediterranean Sea. The growing energy needs of China and India, coupled with the imperative to establish new export and labour markets, are rapidly deepening both China’s and India’s engagement in the Middle East and Central Asia. Literally thousands of kilometres of new roads, railways and pipelines are being built or planned across continental Asia, reflecting the strategic importance of an emerging horizontal Asia.[i]

Meanwhile, numerous traditional perceptions are being challenged or at a minimum re-examined. China, an authoritarian one-party state, could conceivably be the predominant Asian power within the next few decades. The economic well-being of hundreds of millions of Asians depends on the ability of leaders of China’s Communist Party to maintain economic growth. This, in turn, will hinge on their success in reforming China’s banking and financial sector. It will also depend on their ability to keep in check the ultra-nationalist sentiments among the population, which in part are the result of their own politics. Will they have the political will to put into place the rule of law to avoid a popular uprising because of citizens’ disgust with injustice and corruption? Decisions made in Beijing, and the way in which other governments respond to these decisions, will profoundly shape the region.

The need to re-imagine Asia is not only driven by the rise of China and India. As Asia changes, so too do the national interests and ambitions of other countries in the region. From Canberra’s viewpoint, Indonesia’s role as an emerging and stronger foreign policy actor is noteworthy. For Australia, the challenges of reimagining Asia are as numerous as the opportunities which reimagining Asia offer are manifold.

The Lowy Institute will continue to delve into the challenge of ‘Reimagining Asia’ by conducting in-depth research, organising seminars and roundtable discussions, and initiating blog debates on The Interpreter on the following key sub-themes:

  • Asia’s evolving security dynamics: how the United States and other countries in Asia respond to the growing military power of China and India, in particular in the maritime domain, as well as non-traditional security threats.
  • Asian responses to the rise of China and India: the ways in which different countries in Asia, from the Persian Gulf and Central Asia to East Asia and the Pacific are adapting diplomatically, politically and economically to China and India’s expanding influence, including the ways in which China and India are responding to each other.
  • Political, social and economic transitions taking place in the region: how societal changes in China, India and other key countries in Asia are reshaping perceptions and roles of these countries.
  • Australia and Asia: how the shifting economic and power structures of Asia are forcing Australia to re-think the way in which it interacts with Asia.
  • New geo-economics of Asia: the way in which China and India’s economic ascendancy is creating new economic relationships across the Asian continent and at its Indo-Pacific littoral.

[i] Anthony Bubalo and Dr Malcolm Cook coined the term Horizontal Asia in their article, 'Horizontal Asia', The American Interest, May/June 2010.