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Getting close to China: How different states pivot to Asia

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In Brief

Pivots to Asia today are primarily China-driven. On any reasonable analytic account, therefore, the Asian century refers mainly to everything concerned with the economic and strategic rise of China over the past three decades.

While most non-Asian countries currently seem broadly aware of the need for some species of Asia — or China — driven pivot, the character and intensity of the pivot among countries around the world varies greatly,


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depending on at least four factors: geography (or borders); the history of relations with China and Asia; whether the state has a unitary or federal structure; and the talent of the state’s political and strategic leaders. (Note that a China-driven pivot may also in some cases mean a pivot ‘away’ from China. The key analytic point is that the pivot is in reaction to China’s rise.)

The geography factor turns largely on relative proximity (and flying times) to China and to other major economic and strategic theatres (the United States, Russia, Europe). The history factor turns on the degree of economic or strategic interdependence (and psychic familiarity or intimacy) formed in past relations between a state and China and the region.

As for the federalism versus unitary state binary, this is perhaps the least appreciated among all factors affecting pivots to Asia. Given that the credibility of a state’s China pivot often requires considerable educational investments, such a pivot is more difficult in federal than in unitary countries, given that federations are typically faced with the ‘strategic paradox of federalism’: to wit, foreign policy is a federal constitutional competence while education lies with states or provinces. This means that the national or federal government may declare a disposition or intention to pivot but that the efficacy of that pivot will, in practice, turn on the degree to which the ‘upstream’ machinery of state- or province-run education systems operates in support of this ‘downstream’ national goal. What if the states are unwilling or unable to deliver? What if, as in the case of Canada or the United States, this strategic paradox of federalism is hardly recognised in policy decision-making? In 2007, Canada declared a major pivot to the Americas, without countenancing any supporting Spanish or Portuguese languages strategy (on which, of course, the provinces would have had to lead).

Finally, the question of talent or competence concerns the capacity of political and strategic leaders in specific governments, especially given complex geography and/or histories vis-à-vis China and Asia (and perhaps given complex internal structures of governance), to effectuate or negotiate the pivot.

The Asian game of the post-Soviet states is among the most involved and most interesting. Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Armenia are all famously ‘dancing’, as it were, between the Russian and European poles or gravities. The China pivot is plain to all of them conceptually but not at all easy to negotiate, given the geopolitical theatres in which they operate, and the fact that China is far less a part of the imaginations of these societies than are Russia and Europe. This means that, even though these are all highly centralised polities, their pivots — as between Russia, Europe and China—will still ultimately turn on the talent and industry of particular state leaderships. As a result, while Kiev, Tbilisi and Yerevan struggle to incorporate a serious Asia game beyond perfunctory state visits, their geopolitical reality remains conditioned by the Europe–Russia binary. Meantime, countries like Kazakhstan and, to a lesser degree, Belarus, both of which have joined a customs union with Russia (and are out of favour politically with Brussels), are increasingly privileging a Russia-Asia axis of orientation, principally at the expense of a rich European game.

The Latin American–Asian game is peculiar in that it is as much Asian countries that struggle to incorporate Latin America into their geopolitical briefs (in short, Asian strategists in key capitals do not quite know what to do with Latin America, apart from Beijing’s resource plays) as it is Latin American countries that have to date not been overly exercised by Asia. Geography — the tyranny of distance and, in particular, the absence of direct flights to Asia — and relatively thin bilateral histories with China have together conspired for immature pivots and relationships between the two continents. There is currently not sufficient strategic talent in even the leading capitals of Latin America to materially change this state of affairs in the near future.

Finally, the pivots or attempted pivots of the world’s major federations in North America, Europe and Australia are worthy of study. Australia’s pivot, while attracting some scepticism from Asian and Australian strategists alike, is arguably the most promising, strategically coherent and serious. A considerable tradition of Asian ‘pivotry’ preceded the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century Gillard government white paper. A part of this tradition was former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s twofold premise that, first, political and strategic elites could not be effective in Asia in the absence of linguistic competence in the continent’s principal languages; and second, given that Australia’s states ran the education file, constitutionally speaking, an Asian pivot could only work if the federal and state governments worked hand in hand — upstream and downstream of the Asian strategy, as it were.

By contrast, the larger, more strategically capacious federations like Canada, the United States and Germany, all of which are actively pivoting to Asia — albeit with ‘partial’ pivots, given that their geographies and histories dictate more global games than those of Australia — have not yet come close to exploring the connections between state or provincial responsibilities. They have instead been preoccupied exclusively with classical federal responsibilities relating to the military, diplomatic and international trade instruments of statecraft: move some military assets here, increase or shift diplomatic efforts there, and negotiate free trade agreements everywhere. For now, no conspicuous Sinophilic leaders have come to the fore in the political and strategic communities of these federations to make these pivots more credible to Asian observers and Beijing in particular.

Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief magazine, and MPP Program Director and Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Coming to terms with Asia’.

One response to “Getting close to China: How different states pivot to Asia”

  1. While I admire former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, it would have been more appropriate to use a photo of the current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is very familiar with Beijing, is an avowed friend of China and who speaks fluent Mandarin.

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