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Southeast Asia schools Australia on its search for strategic equilibrium

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Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai hold a joint press conference, Bangkok, Thailand, 1 November 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Chalinee Thirasupa).

In Brief

In her travels over the past 10 months, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has referred repeatedly to Australia’s search for ‘a strategic equilibrium’. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in mid-2022, Wong described Canberra’s desire for a regional order as ‘framed by a strategic equilibrium where countries are not forced to choose but can make their own sovereign choices’ when explaining Australia’s Quad and AUKUS partnerships.


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Wong’s National Press Club speech on 17 April 2023 more explicitly connected this search for equilibrium to the waning of US hegemony. The United States remains the indispensable power in the Asia Pacific region — but ‘the nature of that indispensability has changed’. The Asia Pacific is now a multipolar region and ‘we cannot just leave it to the US’, Wong warned. All countries of the region must use diplomatic, economic and other means ‘to maintain the region’s balance’.

Southeast Asian observers might be forgiven for thinking that Australia has finally caught up to the conundrum which the region has been struggling with for over three decades.

Since the Cold War ended, this sub-region of disparate small states and distinctly small powers has been constantly exercising the type of agency Wong is now promoting. Southeast Asian strategists’ post-Cold War choice sets have been based on three strategic truths — US power and attention is not guaranteed, China is resurgent as an indigenous Asian power and that the centre of global economic power is shifting East and is no longer concentrated in Western developed countries.

While Australian views on each of these factors have shifted over recent years, there remains grave resistance to the idea of these as inevitable structural conditions. But the current search for agency and strategic equilibrium are signs of the gap narrowing.

To bridge this gap, Australian audiences need a better way to understand the ongoing strategic transition in the Asia Pacific. The key is to recognise that the region is moving away from a security order based on the single pillar of US primacy centred on its hub-and-spokes alliance relationships. This does not mean that the United States disappears from the landscape. But it does mean that the United States is no longer the region’s only pillar.

The upshot of this ongoing transition is accentuated pluralism. It is not just about whether it is bipolar or multipolar. Important as they are, focusing solely on great powers misses a major characteristic of today’s hyperconnected yet fragmented world.

Today’s strategists face complex problems. Rather than fixating on the immediate manifestation of the issue, they need to think more broadly — pick out key nodes and vital relationships, identify different entry-points for significant leverage and consider how to shape the system to build optimal resilience. A wider range of states and transnational actors can influence great power behaviour and affect the regional equilibrium. Security must be understood more comprehensively, to include environmental degradation and pandemics for example.

In this context, self-help is always necessary and non-great powers — including Australia and Southeast Asia — have agency that must be creatively leveraged.

As Australia joins other regional states in taking on more responsibility and employing different instruments of national power to provide regional security, it must ensure that all this activity amounts to something meaningful and in favour of the national interest.

While Australia makes a medium-term pivot towards heavy investment in alliance partnerships and defence capabilities and technologies, Canberra will need to look towards others in the region to exercise agency in ways that support and amplify its goals in this order transition. Here, Southeast Asia’s strengths include 30 years of experimenting with multiple non-military channels including strategic diplomacy, institution- and rule-building and pursuing comprehensive security, including optimising economic security.

In the process, Southeast Asian countries have elevated their importance as supporter states that great power rivals need to compete to win over. The region includes players that can help others, be it in terms of negotiating and leading international organisations, supplying critical minerals or innovating strategic concepts. Working with these neighbours, Australia may have better opportunities to communicate with China and to facilitate US–Chinese dialogue.

Australia will need to foster a division of labour with a wider range of partners in the region. But to optimise the chances of positive gains, Canberra also needs to know enough about the different imperatives of these regional partners.

When it comes to Southeast Asia, challenges remain. The region does not necessarily share Australian understandings about some key concepts. For example, regional ideals of strategic equilibrium contain an assured leadership role for China, even as many Southeast Asians continue to hope for continued US dominance. Many Southeast Asian countries do not share similar room for manoeuvre as Australia when it comes to coping with potential US–China decoupling. Population size, developmental needs and economic trajectories narrow their choices.

But this does not mean that Australia and Southeast Asia cannot identify shared priorities in creating or helping to erect appropriate safeguards and mechanisms to avoid the whole region from falling off the rails.

To understand these conundrums and their effects on what different Southeast Asian states are willing to do, Australia needs to start with good knowledge about regional perceptions and debates on their own terms, rather than being biased by asking the wrong questions or filtered through others’ lenses. The challenge for Canberra is how to get to grips quickly with Southeast Asia strategic thinking now, when the need is urgent.

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies and the Director of the Southeast Asia Institute, The Australian National University. On 1 May 2023, she is convening The Australian National University’s inaugural Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update (registrations still open for online and in-person attendees).

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