The US and China have imposed tariffs on more than US$100 billion worth of goods in an escalation of their ongoing trade dispute. There is a real risk that the ongoing Sino-American economic tension will exacerbate their growing geopolitical rivalry.
The sheer scale of the US and China and the looming shadow of the rivalry means that there is a tendency to assume that Asia’s future lies entirely in the hands of Washington and Beijing. The rest of us just have to hope that they can manage their increasingly contested relationship.
While there is an understandable temptation to reduce the complexity of Asia’s international relations to a two-player game, the reality is that the region’s international order is created and sustained by a much wider array of actors.
The region’s international order is created and sustained by a much wider array of actors than just the US and China.
As the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index showed, states have multifaceted means at their disposal to shape the international environment. It demonstrates that the second tier of players – regional powers such as South Korea and Singapore – can have more influence in shaping and making the regional order than their raw capabilities might suggest. And a central reason for this is their ability and willingness to work collaboratively and in broader networks to define and pursue their interests.
Australia and Japan are two states in the region that have the right mix of wealth, technological sophistication and effective multi-dimensional diplomatic capacities to shape aspects of the regional environment. During a time when the order is in a state of flux, the challenge for Canberra and Tokyo is how they can best work together and with other partners to protect and preserve those elements of the system that serve their interests. This, while also adapting to and trying to shape a regional structure that reflects the significant changes that have occurred in recent years.
Unilaterally, second-tier powers have little capacity to shape international systems, but in concert they are much more powerful, particularly if they work together on niche issues. According to the Asia Power Index, the combined GDP (PPP) of Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Australia is $26,087 trillion, compared with China’s $21,780 trillion and America’s $18,624 trillion.
The challenge is to strike a balance between the range of complex and conflicting domestic and international interests of these “like-minded” and yet incredibly diverse states, and finding enough strategic alignment, policy coherence and common ground to make second-tier coalitions substantial and influential in specific areas.
Australia and Japan’s normally strong bilateral relationship was undermined by the Australian government’s decision under then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to award a $50 billion tender for building submarines to France instead of Japan. This froze what had otherwise been a security relationship that was getting steadily closer and more collaborative. Canberra in particular needs to prioritise its bilateral relationship with Tokyo if it is to form the sorts of second-tier coalitions that can contribute to the shape of regional order.
In terms of their broader regional engagements, Japan and Australia’s collaborative institutional entrepreneurship should focus on making co-operation work more effectively within existing institutions. One way to do this is to propose a blueprint for new regional economic development that provides greater possibilities for coordination and enhancing connectivity with China’s Belt and Road Initiative while mitigating its risks. Here Japan and Australia could also play important roles in providing alternative options for states that may be at risk of debt entrapment.
Additionally, Australia and Japan can also contribute to shaping order through building new multilateral coalitions with other “like-minded” second-tier powers that share common interests.
The “Quad” is an important example, although it relies upon the presence of the United States. Although still in its infancy, the Quad could provide a foundation for Japan and Australia to foster strategic interests and harness collective political will among “like-minded” regional states, particularly if a more inclusive format is adopted that can bring other important powers together such as Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand.
Regional powers, such as Australia and Japan, are clearly working to diversify their international policy approaches to avoid dependence upon China and the US. These diversification strategies are evident in their efforts to increase engagements with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India in particular. These states should work towards co-ordinating their diversification strategies with compatible second-tier powers.
Ultimately, orders are not only established through great power bargains and balance of power configurations, but also through the collective consent or acceptance of regional, middle and even small powers. To overlook the interests and activities of non-great powers in favour of focusing on Sino-US competition neglects important dynamics in the ways in which orders are shaped, changed and maintained.
Ultimately, countries such as Australia and Japan must find new ways to work in concert amongst themselves and with other like-minded partners if they are to harness and exploit their order-shaping capacities.
This article draws on a new policy brief published by La Trobe Asia “Cooperation in Contested Asia”.