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Choice questions about Asia's power

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COMMENTS

2 June 2010 08:50

The questions posed by politicians and diplomats can be more revealing than the answers they give. Australia's top diplomat last night laid out a set of excellent questions. They came as the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was launching the Lowy Asia Security Project report, 'Power and Choice: Asian Security Futures'.

The head of DFAT said his number one task is to think about the changing relationships and shifting power relativities between the US, China, Japan and India. It is the same principle task he described when heading off to be Australia's ambassador in Washington five years ago.

With that starting point, he picked out one quote from the conclusion of the Lowy report:

All too often, commentary on international affairs makes much of the immediate deeds or pronouncements of governments with scant heed to underlying strategic trends. The opposite risk is that scholarly analysis focused on seismic changes – on gradual economic or demographic shifts – leaves the impression of a future preordained, entirely driven by structural forces impervious to human agency.

The Richardson moral: big forces are shifting the Asia Pacific but choices can still be made. When a football match is decided by just one point, Richardson said, then the result owes much to the unforeseen, to luck and the bounce of the ball. The Asian game is turning into just such a close contest, and there is no preordained outcome.

The Lowy report outlines four regional security futures:

  1. Continuing US primacy.
  2. An Asian balance of power.
  3. An Asian concert of powers.
  4. Chinese primacy.

Richardson said this is a useful framework for policy advisers to ask basic questions, and here's his list:

  • What is in our national interest?
  • What do we want?
  • What might we do to shape future directions and events?
  • Are there any red lines?
  • Are there choices we'd like to avoid and leave to one side?
  • How do we adapt to change? What is acceptable adaptation and what is not?

Dennis Richardson didn't attempt any answers to the questions he posed. Partly, he joked, this is because of the growing contestability of ideas within and beyond government: 'Canberra is where choices are made. I was going to say where power resides, but I think there might be a lot of debate about that.'

Obviously, a security future where the US maintains its security dominance would be the easiest for Australia. No big change demands no big choices. But as you step through the other three security futures, from an Asian balance of power to an Asian concert and finally China primacy, the areas for negotiation grow ever wider. To rephrase the Secretary's final question in more pointed terms: what changes would Australia be prepared to make to secure a place in a region that has adapted to Chinese primacy?

As Dennis Richardson noted, the attempt to peer into the future is an activity where think tanks and governments can connect.

Governments think about the future but governments have to work today. Governments by their decisions today are helping to shape the future. But governments don’t always have the opportunity to sit back to think; without the time and opportunity to do things over a long length of time, they very often don’t have any choice and must make quick decisions.

Photo by Flickr user trdoza, used under a Creative Commons license.

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