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China threatens the West’s primacy, not its democratic systems

China, unlike the Soviet Union in its heyday, does not expect the world to adopt its communist model (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)
China, unlike the Soviet Union in its heyday, does not expect the world to adopt its communist model (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 2 Aug 2021 06:00   7 Comments

Some Western leaders, including Scott Morrison, have begun to describe the contest with China in starkly ideological terms, as a defence of democracy against authoritarianism. They say China threatens to replace the democratically-based “liberal international order” with a new order founded on the principles and practices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which would endanger democratic societies everywhere. It is all very reminiscent of the old Cold War.

This narrative has obvious appeal to leaders seeking support at home for their hard line on China, but does it work abroad? Here on The Interpreter, there has been a live debate about framing the contest with China this way, with some arguing that it risks alienating many countries with shaky democratic credentials whose support we seek against China.

I think this is a problem, but the debate misses a more important issue. It is not just a question of whether the ideological Cold War framing is good tactics, but whether it is true. Does China really pose the kind of threat that the Soviet Union posed? I don’t think it does, for two reasons.

Even if Beijing does seek to undermine democracy around the world, is there any reason to think it might succeed?

The first relates to China’s intentions. As former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese among others has argued, there is no evidence that Beijing seeks to remodel the world in its image. China is not like the Soviet Union in its heyday, which really did aim to make the world communist. The CCP will do whatever it can to protect its own system from being undermined from without, but unlike the Soviet Union – and many in the West – it does not seem to believe that this requires the rest of the world to adopt its model.

But intentions can change, so the stronger reason to doubt the Cold War view of our contest with China relates to its capabilities. Even if Beijing does seek to undermine democracy around the world, is there any reason to think it might succeed? Here again, the contrast with the Soviet Union is instructive.

Take the contest of ideas. It is hard now to remember that during the early post-war decades, the Soviet Union offered a fully-developed and comprehensive vision of global order, national organisation and human life that many people, both in the West and in the decolonising “third world”, found compelling. Moscow-affiliated communist parties were significant players in the domestic politics of many countries, including key US allies such as France, Italy and Japan. It is now clear that the challenge this posed to liberal democracy was weaker than it seemed, but the challenge was nonetheless real.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent keynote address at the Perth USAsia Centre, ahead of the G7 Summit, included a call for liberal democracies to be “stepping up with coordinated action” (Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

There is no analogy with China today. In no western country does anyone advocate the adoption of China’s political system or the acceptance of a Chinese-led global order, and while many leaders in the developing world may long to copy the CCP’s political and economic achievements, few if any acknowledge it as an ideological model or would welcome its hegemony. Even countries that share China’s ideology – such as Vietnam – resist its influence. So even if China were trying to impose its brand of politics on others by persuasion, it has no evidence that it has the capacity to do so.

The second reason China doesn’t pose the threat it appears to, relates to material power. At first glance, it may seem that China is much better placed materially than the Soviets were to “rule the world”. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union had the world’s second-biggest economy, but it was never more than half the size of America’s. China’s GDP has already overtaken America’s in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms and is poised to do so in market exchange rate terms before long, and will most likely outstrip it in the decades ahead. Beijing might therefore seem to have the material basis for global hegemony that the Soviet Union lacked.

But the comparison with America isn’t what really counts anymore. In the Cold War, especially in its early stages, wealth and power were very unevenly distributed around the world, and America and the Soviet Union were overwhelmingly preponderant. They were the only two countries that counted strategically, which is why they were called superpowers.

Some people may think that it doesn’t matter much to exaggerate China’s threat if that helps mobilise support against it.

To see what this meant, consider the position of the Soviet Union across Eurasia 70 years ago in 1951, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had been recently founded. Eastern Europe was already under its control. Western Europe and Japan were still in ruins. India was only just independent, desperately poor and happy to lean Moscow’s way. China was a communist satellite, and Southeast Asia seemed set to follow. And the Soviets were the only Eurasian power with nuclear weapons. There was no serious barrier to Soviet hegemony over the whole of Eurasia, except America.

Compare China’s position today, when power is much more evenly distributed around the world. Russia, India and Europe are all substantial powers, and China has no chance of subjugating Eurasia by dominating them. And if China cannot dominate them, it certainly can’t challenge America in the Western hemisphere, or “rule the world”.

This doesn’t mean that China poses no threat to the post-Cold War vision of a US-led global order. It challenges America as the primary power in East Asia, and claims an equal – or even first-among-equals – role in regulating the global order. But that is not the same as imposing a Chinese-led global order, let alone one that inflicts China’s political system or values on other countries. 

Nor does it mean that our democratic systems face no serious threats. They clearly do, but those threats come from within – and not just in America. 

Some people may think that it doesn’t matter much to exaggerate China’s threat if that helps mobilise support against it. But that’s wrong, because it makes it harder to manage the contest by seeking a new modus vivendi, and easier to mismanage it by sliding into war.


US-China rivalries: What matters for ASEAN

ASEAN member countries do not see US-China rivalry as a debate between “democratic” states versus “authoritarian” states (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
ASEAN member countries do not see US-China rivalry as a debate between “democratic” states versus “authoritarian” states (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 Jul 2021 10:00   0 Comments

An interesting discussion about how Australia should respond to US President Joe Biden’s call for closer alignment and cooperation among democratic states has featured in a recent series of articles on The Interpreter. Between them, Susannah Patton and Ashley Townshend,  Michael Green, Ben Scott and Daniel Flitton have debated whether a stronger alliance of democracies would help rebalance the rise of authoritarianism and China’s influence, or merely serve to further divide the Indo-Pacific region.

It is certainly relevant to discuss what international players should do to address the concerns of stability and security in the Indo-Pacific, and each article presents valid points. However, when it comes to diplomacy with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Patton and Townshend are right to argue that an overemphasis on values is not the most effective approach.

For many in Southeast Asia it would sound a false note to argue that democracy is far more successful than socialism of the type China has instigated. The global community appears to be retreating from democratic values. It is also clear that distrust between major powers is at an all-time high.

Surviving and recovering from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic will be the focus for Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future, a need met more effectively by careful cooperation rather than wasteful competition.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to argue that authoritarianism is the opposite of democracy. After all, countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines have demonstrated that even with healthy institutionalised mechanisms of democracy, rulers can still be authoritarian. Whereas countries such as Singapore show that authoritarian states can operate with low corruption and high transparency.

The belief that democratic countries are inherently more trustworthy defies experience. Oppression and conflict are not exclusive features of “non-democratic” nations. Leaders with authoritarian tendencies such as Donald Trump could win again – including in the United States.

ASEAN member countries do not see US-China rivalry as a debate between “democratic” states versus “authoritarian” states – rather, for them, it is a matter of ensuring survival. Because in any conflict between these two major powers, the losers, inevitably, will always be the small, weaker countries caught in the middle, especially with territories that comprise the likely conflict zone. In Malaysia there is a saying, when the elephants fight, it is the mouse-deer trapped in the middle that dies. This is the reality that ASEAN member countries confront.

It is a lesson reinforced by bitter experience, from hundreds of years of colonial rule by Western powers to the proxy wars during the Cold War. Southeast Asian countries are wary of big powers offering promises of security in return for alliance and loyalty.

Launching from the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in the South China Sea in June (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

ASEAN, as an institution, embodies this approach. It will not likely discard its position of neutrality or policy of non-interference in its members’ internal affairs. It remains sceptical about an emphasis on ideological values, because that is not the defining factor when it comes to the international relations of member countries. This is clear, for example, when considering socialist Vietnam’s continued tension with China and increasing cooperation with democratic Japan. Similarly, it can be seen in the manner that the Philippines continue to seesaw in its relations with the United States, despite long-standing historical ties.

Green is correct to point out that there is a shifting mindset in the region towards having more accountable leadership. It is also necessary to recognise that citizens within ASEAN members are more often concerned about a government’s capacity and effectiveness to deliver development and social well-being. In that, a shift in emphasis away from state-based power politics to human-centred security and development concern is more likely to appeal to the populace in the game of influence.

Overall, what ASEAN as a region requires is help from all the major powers. Surviving and recovering from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic will be the focus for Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future, a need that will be met more effectively by careful cooperation rather than wasteful competition. Immediate challenges, such as addressing the shortage of vaccines and oxygen supplies as well as efforts to mediate the economic fallout of prolonged lockdowns, will be the dominant concern of local politics.

Fixing these problems is the key to further expansion of influence. If the major powers seem set on competition, the ASEAN member countries will continue to hedge and make foreign policy decisions based on their interests and immediate perceived benefits. Goodwill comes from consistency between rhetoric and action. But in the regional experience, such consistency has rarely been demonstrated.


Personality in foreign policy

The G20 Special Committee in 2018, Hamburg, Germany (Christian Charisius via Getty Images)
The G20 Special Committee in 2018, Hamburg, Germany (Christian Charisius via Getty Images)
Published 7 Jul 2021 06:00   1 Comments

Readers with long memories might recall the fleeting controversy about the time that a then freshly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stopped, propped and saluted a deeply unpopular US President George W. Bush during a grand global summit.

It was a NATO meeting, April 2008, one of the early trips that earned Rudd the media moniker “Kevin 747” for his busy shuttle-style diplomacy. Bush, at the time, ranked as a factor causing 69 per cent of Australians “to have an unfavourable opinion of the United States”, according to the Lowy Institute Poll – a figure that even Donald Trump failed to top on becoming president in 2017.

The storm over the salute likely stemmed from a public expectation that the “deputy sheriff” days had passed with the Howard years. Rudd had promised to get Australian troops out of Iraq (the NATO meeting in Bucharest was to talk about Afghanistan) and the Australian public mood was decisively in favour of the statement, again asked in the Lowy Institute Poll, that “the US is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be”.

But the awkward salute across the crowd was all a hammy joke, said Rudd – an example of the kind of dorky humour that would become increasingly familiar to Australians in the years to follow.

Besides, the two leaders were apparently mates no more barely a few months later, amid claimed leaks of Rudd disparaging the US president for asking “what’s the G20?” as the world grappled with the growing global financial crisis.

Why recall this little remembered history? Partly because escaping the present to an episode now in the rear-view mirror helps to underscore a point, that the personality traits of leaders matter in the presentation of a country’s foreign policy, often as much as the great strategic contours and power politics that can shape decisions. The regard held for a leader can matter to the perception from other nations, too.

It’s not just Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, or even whether Australians evidently place more confidence in New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern than they do in Scott Morrison (Lowy Institute Poll, again). The intangibles that each leader brings – and how leaders interact with one another – are a crucial consideration to determine the direction a country adopts.  

Recognising this influence of leaders seems to be a missing element in the fascinating debate in The Interpreter over what might be described as a “values” versus “interests” approach to foreign policy. Labels such as this can be overly simplistic, so better to read for yourself the exchange kicked off by Susannah Patton and Ashley Townshend warning Australia to steer clear of any Biden administration drive to frame its Asia strategy as a contest for democracy, while Michael Green and Ben Scott have separately argued for a strategy in support of democracy and rules upholding freedom.

The influence of leaders is often overlooked, in analysis but also by the public.

My point to add to this mix is that the person in charge matters. Would China pose the same challenge today had Xi Jinping not taken control? Perhaps China’s rising power made contest inevitable, but would the moment be now? It’s unknowable, of course, but as American diplomats privately wondered back in 2009, having been told “Xi was not very well cultivated”, it was far from certain he would become the leader.

Yet the influence of leaders is often overlooked, in analysis but also by the public. In 2015, around two-thirds of Australians either didn’t know or didn’t have a view when asked if they admired Xi, India’s Narendra Modi, Papua New Guinea’s Peter O’Neill or Japan’s Shinzo Abe, while Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Germany’s Angela Merkel fared little better.

Think, too, on Trump’s interactions with Malcolm Turnbull and how this influenced Australian perceptions of America, not only the infamous phone call, but the moment Turnbull describes of the two tucked in an air-tight secured container to protect from prying ears, talking steel tariffs. Or Trump himself, as the manifestation of US attitudes, and the shift in priorities his presidency came to represent.

Or even remember Bob Carr, as Australia’s foreign minister filling in for Rudd at the G20 Summit in Russia in 2013, sitting at an assembled table of presidents and plenipotentiaries, including America’s Barack Obama, Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other great influencers of the time.

“It’s not that hard to get here, to this table,” Carr wrote in his memoir of that St Petersburg meeting. “A bit of application, a bit of luck, some patience. Every election that’s ever been held, someone loses. But someone wins. There’s always a vacancy and it’s got to be filled. With competence you can keep on rising. None of this warrants deference.”

Perhaps not. But it does benefit to know the personalities involved. Because what a leader chooses to do, or not to do, can have a lasting influence on a country’s international relations.


Australia right to back Biden on democracy

The global retreat of democracy and the advance of autocracy matter to Australia (Matthew/Flickr)
The global retreat of democracy and the advance of autocracy matter to Australia (Matthew/Flickr)
Published 6 Jul 2021 06:00   1 Comments

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent speech, “A world order that favours freedom”, has some foreign policy commentators worried that Australia is signing up to more misguided US democracy evangelism. Australian suspicion of American liberal internationalism has a long history. And it’s backed by recent experience. Washington’s post-9/11 efforts to reshape the Middle East now look like textbook counterproductive overreach.

Australian sceptics seem to fall into two camps. Former intelligence chief Allan Gyngell appears to worry about being drawn into an overly ideological competition with China. He calls the speech “a final definitive shift from the Australian foreign policy of the past 30 years or so”. On the other side, analysts Susannah Patton and Ashley Townshend argue for a more hard-headed effort to balance China, which would be weakened by taking too much account of values.  

Both sides seem to be missing the bigger picture. Just as Australia’s prosperity depends on the global economy, the health of our democracy depends on the system’s international health. So the global retreat of democracy and advance of autocracy matter to us.

The fact that liberal democracy is a better system than the rest should be a natural advantage for the United States and its democratic partners.

China’s autocratic turn is a major part of this global trend. No one claims anymore that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) foments communist revolutions abroad. But even those who downplay Beijing’s global ambitions agree that it seeks a world that is safe for autocracy. While Xi Jinping is more actively advocating the China model, China is meddling in Australia’s democracy and – regardless of intent – supporting autocracies through actions such as the export of technologies that support authoritarianism.

The United States is clearly bent on competing with China and autocracy more broadly. To that end, President Joe Biden has committed to convening a summit of democracies before the end of the year.

Even if this approach didn’t match Australian interests, attempting to dissuade the Biden administration from a core objective would be simply unrealistic. It would be equally unfeasible for Canberra to pursue a foreign policy that didn’t take account of voters’ values. In the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll 60 per cent of respondents said Australia should chose democratic values over economic interests in dealing with international problems. That’s down from 74 per cent when the question was last asked in 2007, but still a strong majority for an abstract proposition.

The question is not whether US and Australian foreign policy should support democracy, but how. America’s liberal democracy has long been the heart of its “soft power”. The fact that liberal democracy is a better system than the rest should be a natural advantage for the United States and its democratic partners. But that truth is no longer self-evident.

The challenge therefore is for liberal democracies to maintain a domestic focus. In Biden’s words:

We are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward … We must prove that our model isn’t a relic of history.

Morrison makes the point more sharply, declaring “liberal democracies will always be, in our view, most persuasive based on the power of our example, not our pitch or our preaching”. Canberra has an additional reason for encouraging the United States to maintain this domestic focus. With Trumpism alive and well, the health of America’s democracy is now an issue of primary strategic importance to Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison gives the keynote address at Perth USAsia Centre, 9 June 2021 (Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

Liberal democracies can strengthen their respective systems by cooperating more on shared challenges, including those posed by populist nationalism and right-wing extremism as well as authoritarian regimes. Biden’s summit of democracies sounds like a new idea, but it has a long history. During the Cold War, liberal democracies similarly stepped-up cooperation, forming security alliances and organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Still, Biden’s democracy agenda will inevitably have an external dimension. Washington will criticise the illiberal and anti-democratic behaviour of its competitors, especially Russia and China. And it won’t always turn a blind eye when its partners and allies engage in similar behaviour.

Indeed, some in Washington maintain that on issues of democracy the United States must deal consistently with friends and foes. Some even argue that this is the best way to compete with China because democracies are inherently more resistant to Chinese influence than autocrats who can more easily be co-opted and corrupted.

Rather than attempting to define the pathway to a rules-based order that favours freedom, that strategy should define and prioritise subsidiary objectives.

This simple theory doesn’t stand up in Southeast Asia where communist Vietnam is among the readiest to resist China, while the Philippines’ democratically elected President Rodrigo Duterte has done almost everything that he can to accommodate Beijing. The leaders of Myanmar’s coup and the elected government they ousted don’t line up neatly on either side of US–China rivalry.

Although the strategic goal described by Morrison – a world order that favours freedom – remains sound, the effort to balance China in the Indo-Pacific and compete for influence in Southeast Asia will clearly require more cooperation with non-democracies and tactical flexibility. But such accommodations need to be seen as just that – tactical.

Foreign policy trade-offs are never easy. But they can be made easier if they are undertaken in cooperation with allies and partners, and framed by a thought-through strategy. Rather than attempting to define the pathway to a rules-based order that favours freedom, that strategy should define and prioritise subsidiary objectives. Australia and its fellow democracies should be preparing it.


An alliance of democracies is essential

Joe Biden, during a 2016 visit to Australia as Vice President (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Joe Biden, during a 2016 visit to Australia as Vice President (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Published 16 Jun 2021 12:30   0 Comments

Susannah Patton and Ashley Townshend argued in The Interpreter last week that the Morrison government should steer the Biden administration away from a coalition of world democracies since that would narrow Australian and American influence in the Indo-Pacific.

An inflexible insistence that Western democracies determine the region’s agenda would likely have that negative consequence, but I see no evidence that the Biden administration is quite so messianic or that the recent emphasis on democratic values in the G7 and other US summits has somehow driven away “hedging” countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam or the Philippines. The fact is that there is a growing ideational dimension to strategic competition because of Chinese interference and coercion.

The choice Canberra and Washington must make is therefore not between values and influence, but rather how best to defend and advance the democratic values that underpin such influence.

This is not about dividing the region into democracies and non-democracies, demanding that every state adopt the Westminster system of government, or insisting that democracies not have economic and diplomatic interests with China. 

The most important line of common defence will be our own open societies. Beijing’s economic embargo and 14 demands for Australian acquiescence to China’s official position on Xinjiang and Covid-19 are the most egregious but not the only examples of aggressive interference in the domestic politics of advanced democracies. Beijing has held Canadian, Japanese and American citizens on trumped-up charges as leverage and has sanctioned European Union scholars and political figures for criticising Chinese human rights violations. These developments alone would be sufficient reason for democracies to stand in solidarity at this moment in history.

Defending democratic values is also essential for the multipolar influence game in the Indo-Pacific. This is not about dividing the region into democracies and non-democracies, demanding that every state adopt the Westminster system of government, or insisting that democracies not have economic and diplomatic interests with China. That would be a game of division. Instead this is a game of multiplication.

For years surveys have shown that thought-leaders across the Indo-Pacific greatly prefer democracy to authoritarianism. While the world’s leading democracies have rightly imposed sanctions in the cases of Xinjiang or Myanmar, the main theme of the recent Cornwall G7 Summit was about making the investments needed to demonstrate that democracy works. Thus, rather than pressuring countries to reject China’s Belt and Road projects, the United States, Australia and Japan (now joined by the other G7 countries) are offering high quality infrastructure financing alternatives.

But for that strategy to work, recipient countries will need to make borrowing decisions based on accountability, transparency and anti-corruption. A game of geopolitical influence absent efforts to strengthen democratic governance – even one backed by more lending – would end in failure as Beijing bribes its way across the region. It is only logical that the leading democracies should be coordinating strategies on this front. American and Australian taxpayers should demand no less.

Finally, solidarity among democracies matters to deterrence and regional stability. If Beijing or Moscow think that US alliances in Europe and Asia can be divided against each other, then the cost of aggression goes down. It does not require an explicit security guarantee for like-minded democracies to signal that there will be global consequences for coercion or aggression against vulnerable states even outside their own regions – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, is one such example. In that regard the Cornwall G7 summit’s first ever mention of Taiwan also had real significance.

USS McCampbell during exercises in the Taiwan Strait, March 2020 (US Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr)

Beijing and Moscow would prefer a multipolar world that allows them to isolate Europe or Australia or Japan in a crisis. We should not hand them that world. By demonstrating the common bonds among democracies and a shared opposition to coercion and aggression, we reinforce stability in ways that matters to the security of all, despite the wide variance in security capabilities and commitments across regions and alliances.

This seems like a winning strategy for Australia. The exact approach will matter, of course. In the upcoming “Summit of Democracies”, for example, the Biden administration would do well to let countries such as Indonesia or Korea take a lead role in defining democratic practices since a multipolar influence strategy should reflect multiple paths to democracy. As Patton and Townshend point-out, the United States must also get back in the game of economic rule-making in the Indo-Pacific. The politics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as the cross-regional economic deal was initially known, remain complicated in Washington. But a near-term sectoral agreement on digital trade would advance democratic norms shared by the United States and Australia and attract participation from countries such as Vietnam that are worried about technological competition with China.

These are questions of tactics, though. Close allies such as Canberra will have an important influence on how Washington addresses them going forward – but not if the going-in premise is to reject the importance of democracies working together at a time of heightened peril.


Australia should steer the US off a values-based Indo-Pacific strategy

Scott Morrison should urge Joe Biden to spend as much time as possible on deepening ties with smaller countries in the region (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Scott Morrison should urge Joe Biden to spend as much time as possible on deepening ties with smaller countries in the region (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Published 11 Jun 2021 13:30   1 Comments

En route to his first in-person meeting with President Joe Biden this weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for coordinated action among liberal democracies to compete with China in the Indo-Pacific. His speech to the Perth USAsia Centre on Wednesday will be well-received by the US administration.

But rallying the world’s democracies should not be the organising principle of American or Australian strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Morrison should use his meeting with Biden to press for an Indo-Pacific strategy that can generate buy-in from small- and medium-size countries across the region who want a strong US presence, but who won’t be persuaded by a strategic narrative based on democratic values.

Morrison’s speech implicitly endorsed Biden’s ideological worldview that rivalry with China is a high-stakes competition between democratic and autocratic political systems. This marks a departure from Australia’s pragmatic foreign policy tradition. Canberra has generally defined its partners in open-ended terms, seeking cooperation with any country that shares Australia’s interests in an Indo-Pacific that is stable, open and free from coercion.

Rather than focusing on these shared goals, Morrison’s regional vision rests on a different logic. His speech recalled the active cooperation among ideologically like-minded countries that characterised the Cold War struggle in Europe. Echoing the Biden administration’s rhetoric on the need to show that “democracy delivers”, Morrison argued that liberal democracies must convince the Indo-Pacific region that their system “works” in order to successfully compete with China.

Defining strategic competition in ideological terms is likely to create distance between the world’s democracies and the regional countries that Washington wants to assist.

It’s a refashioning of the strategic playbook that underpinned 20th century competition with the Soviet Union. And it entails a similarly sweeping goal “to reinforce, renovate and buttress a world order that favours freedom”.

But it’s the wrong approach for the Indo-Pacific today.

Despite the intuitive appeal of rallying the world’s democracies to check China’s power, this agenda can only unite a narrow coalition in the region. Unlike Western Europe in the 1950s, Indo-Pacific political systems are diverse, with few liberal democracies in the mix. Indeed, many of the US and Australia’s most important regional partners when it comes to competing with China – such as the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and even India – fall outside the liberal democratic club.

Most of the region is sceptical about endorsing Biden’s values-based strategy, even as they share deep concerns about the nature and purpose of Chinese power. They are largely agnostic to the language of human rights and democracy promotion, and allergic to Cold War allusions that forebode the emergence of permanent ideological or economic divisions between blocs.

Explicitly defining strategic competition in ideological terms is likely to create distance between the world’s democracies and the regional countries that Washington wants to assist.

Nor is America in a position to lead an Indo-Pacific coalition the way it once could. When Washington stitched together the “free world” alliance in the early Cold War years, its unparalleled military and economic weight allowed it to define the terms of strategic competition for the Western bloc largely by itself. Today, this is no longer the case. With its share of global economic output falling from 40% to less than 25% since the 1960s, and with a military that is globally overstretched, America must now navigate a multipolar world.

This requires a more flexible approach than an emphasis on the language of liberal democracy allows.

Fighters from the USS Ronald Reagan this month during excercises in the Philippine Sea (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

To succeed in a multipolar Indo-Pacific, the US must shift its mindset from competition between systems to competition for influence, regardless of the system. It must persuade regional countries it understands and shares their interests. After all, China has expanded its own influence precisely because its partners have seen its assistance as supporting their national development agendas.

Morrison should urge Biden to spend as much time as possible on deepening ties with smaller Indo-Pacific countries. Key “hedging” countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines should be accorded the same importance as established alliances. Morrison this week described the East Asia Summit as one of the key meetings in his annual calendar – he should now urge Biden to make a similar commitment. 

The most effective message that the Biden administration can send is that it remains committed to the security of the Indo-Pacific, and that it will cooperate with all countries – including China and other non-democracies – in pursuit of this goal. Four years after withdrawing from what was then known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership”, the US must also signal that it plans to contribute to and benefit from the region’s economic growth. 

This would not preclude the US from cooperating with liberal democracies or advocating human rights principles. But it would enable regional countries to support discrete aspects of the US agenda, for example on maritime security or infrastructure standards, even if they remain unwilling to wholly align themselves with Washington’s regional priorities.

Australian security depends on the sustainability of America’s presence in the Indo-Pacific. Rather than echoing Washington’s thinking, Morrison should urge Biden to adopt a strategy for regional influence that can succeed.