The Asia-Pacific: strategic equilibrium, not primacy

Apr 21, 2023
Globalised world

When there has been so much loose talk about what would be a catastrophic war between the world’s two major powers, it is both significant and welcome that Foreign Minister Penny Wong has authoritatively stated her position that the Asia-Pacific is a multipolar region, and that this is Australia’s national policy at this time.

In a major speech to the National Press Club on 17 April Foreign Minister Penny Wong made clear that our national interest is in bringing about a region “where no country dominates, and no country is dominated… and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.”.

In saying that she indicated clearly that we are not participants in any struggle for regional primacy going on between the US and China, nor committed to either of the two competitors succeeding. Rather, she said, our national interest lies in helping create “a region that operates by rules, standards and norms, where a larger country does not determine the fate of a smaller country, where each country can pursue its own aspirations, its own prosperity”. It’s “about how we contribute to the regional balance of power that keeps the peace by shaping the region we want.”

Having said that, she describes activities commonly ascribed to China, such as coercive trade and unsustainable lending, as encroaching on the ability of countries to decide their own destinies, and talks about China’s military modernisation and shows of force around Taiwan and in the South China Sea as comprising “the most confronting circumstances in decades”.

In regard to Taiwan, she says, “we do not want to see any unilateral change to the status quo”. Our job is “to lower the heat on any potential conflict, while increasing pressure on others to do the same”. This is presumably a message to hawks in the US as well as in China – and domestically!

Wong says that China “is going to keep being China”, will continue to be our largest trading partner, and will also continue to use its great and growing strength and international influence to advance its national interests. But we should “not waste energy with shock or outrage” at this. With China we “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, manage our differences wisely, and above all else, engage in and vigorously pursue our own national interest.”

Her tone in talking about the United States, later in her address, is warmer; America is “our closest ally and principal strategic partner”, and “the whole region benefits from US engagement”; America remains “the indispensable power”.

“But, the nature of that indispensability has changed. As we seek a strategic equilibrium, with all countries (seeking) to achieve peace and prosperity, America is central to balancing a multipolar region.”

The Asia-Pacific as a multipolar region isn’t a new idea for Wong: she said the same thing in speeches going back to 2018 and ’19, for example. But it is certainly significant, and welcome, to have it authoritatively re-stated as our national policy at this time, when there has been so much loose talk about what would be a catastrophic war between the world’s two major powers.

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