Coexistence or War in the Indo-Pacific

March 09, 2020
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‘A path can be charted between conflict and capitulation. The future is not solely in the hands of an authoritarian China or an unpredictable, self-centred America. In the end, the Indo-Pacific is both a region and an idea: a metaphor for collective action, self-help combined with mutual help. If things go badly awry, it could be the place of the first general and catastrophic war since 1945. But if its future can be secured, it can flourish as a shared space at the heart of a reconnected world, in ways its early voyagers could have scarcely imagined.’

— Rory Medcalf, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: why China won’t map the future

The Australian National University’s Rory Medcalf ends his impressive book on the Indo-Pacific with an upbeat flourish, yet he paints with dark colours.

‘Pride, blowback and rebalancing’ seem to accompany every empire that tries to rule the Indo-Pacific, he writes, because the super-region is too vast and complex for any country to succeed alone.

An Indo-Pacific that avoids the cataclysm of war, Medcalf argues, will be constructed on ‘multipolarity, solidarity and a confident kind of strategic patience’.

The future need not be defined by the hubris of China’s leader Xi Jinping or the arrogance of US President Donald Trump.

As the previous column noted, the Indo-Pacific is pushback aimed at achieving balance. The joining of two oceans is loaded with ambition and driven by power.

Australia doesn’t get too many masterworks on foreign policy, but we’re in a fertile period, as tough times bring forth books to define the era.

Medcalf’s opus sits beside Allan Gyngell’s Fear of abandonment: Australia in the world since 1942 on the fearfully pragmatic heart of Oz diplomacy, both offering magisterial views that highlight and explain.

Also on this literary peak is Hugh White’s How to defend Australia, calling for a massive remaking of the Australian Defence Force and an equally dramatic rethink of Oz strategy.

White presents Australia with a binary choice, while Medcalf sees a multipolar solution. White thinks without the US we’re on our own. Medcalf says there’s a whole region to partner with.

Three such important books in three years—each distinctly different—respond to an age that ponders US resolve, China’s purpose and the possible paths of the Indo-Pacific.

Medcalf sets out what the newly imagined region must achieve by describing the dangers it faces.

China is joining a race to establish military bases to do dual-use duty with its networks of trade, investment and infrastructure. The bases are ‘less mighty bastions of territorial dominance and more lightly fortified lily pads’, yet the race feeds the fears of a region ‘under the nuclear shadow of mutually assured destruction, and the cyber cloud of mutually assured disruption’.

Medcalf judges that this is not yet a region gripped by the prospect of total war, but neither is it business as usual in the military balance.

The Indo-Pacific, he writes, has become ‘the vast ground zero for nuclear deterrence and risk: it is the epicentre of a “second nuclear age”.’

A plausible security future for the region is ‘a state of permanent coercion’, where the shadow of nuclear war doesn’t discourage conflict but exacerbates it at a lower but still dangerous level.

As Medcalf pronounces: ‘If nuclear weapons become the lone pillar for deterring China in the ocean of ambiguity between peace and Armageddon, then the contest is lost.’

Nukes won’t deliver peace in a shifting system, prey to leadership ego and frightened nations, ‘especially when the new geopolitical motorway is being built faster than drivers can learn the rules of the road’.

The potential crash points proliferate. What’s crucial, and far more contestable, is Medcalf’s contention that in this giant contest, time isn’t automatically on Beijing’s side.

Widen the equation beyond the relative decline of the US and China’s rise.

Judged against the dynamic Indo-Pacific, Medcalf says, there’s good reason to think Chinese power ‘has already peaked’. He offers four factors limiting China’s ability to dominate or map the future.

First, China’s Indo-Pacific and Eurasian ambitions as expressed through the Belt and Road Initiative have a perilous momentum for Beijing. ‘Pushback is happening and more is inevitable’, Medcalf says.

Second, the rest of the Indo-Pacific is becoming wealthier and stronger too: ‘China’s power relative to its region may never be so great again.’

Third, America may be down, but it’s far from out. Rather than having to dominate, the US can work with others to balance China’s power.

And finally, China’s internal problems of debt, demographics, environmental stress, discontent and now the coronavirus crisis could well worsen, compounding the external challenges to China’s ‘imperial over-stretch’.

If fully fledged cooperation with China is unrealistic for the foreseeable future, Medcalf writes, we need to try to discourage confrontation and move the dial towards ‘competitive coexistence’.

Medcalf’s tools for constructing an Indo-Pacific to balance China will be development, deterrence and diplomacy. The qualities underpinning the instruments will be solidarity and resilience.

A US role in the region is vital—for investment, trade, alliances, technology and security—even if the US can’t or won’t lead. As important will be the ambition and action of ‘the middle’.

Medcalf prescribes a greater role for Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia:

[B]y the 2040s, the combination of Japan, India and Indonesia is projected to outweigh China in GDP, military spending and population. Add just one or two more nations and this would be a hefty coalition, especially given the natural advantages of geography, namely its combined oversight of much of the strategic waterways of the Indo-Pacific.

China will require a fresh, if fraught, regional order. The task will be to stop China ruling or writing all the rules.

The new Indo-Pacific Medcalf describes will be built by pushback against China, the rise and strength of the rest, and American endurance.

The recipe is for what he calls ‘a kind of full-spectrum staring contest’.

The vision is of a multipolar Indo-Pacific where lots of the poles line up together. The great staring contest will have myriad players. Protect the wealth, avoid the war. Lots of staring mediated by lots of sharing.

Hang together or hang separately. Hang tough or go hang.


This article appeared orginally at The Strategist (ASPI).



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