Key policy challenges for Indo-Pacific states

Kai He, Huiyun Feng and Gabriele Abbondanza

The flags of the US and Australia are projected onto the sails of Sydney Opera House
The flags of the US and Australia are projected onto the sails of Sydney Opera House to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty. Photo taken in Sydney on September 1, 2021 by DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images.

In this symposium we bring together authors from the March 2022 issue of International Affairs to discuss some of the strategic challenges facing Indo-Pacific states. From the future of ASEAN as a leader in the regional community to Indo-Pacific states’ diverging responses to growing superpower competition, this blogpost outlines some of the key questions facing regional policy-makers.

How has ASEAN’s role evolved and can it continue in light of increasing superpower competition? (Kai He and Huiyun Feng)

The uncertain security environment in the post-Cold War era provided an opportunity for ASEAN to contribute to regional security and economic affairs through leading multilateral institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit. In this context, ASEAN has insisted on ‘sitting in the driver’s seat’ in the regional community building process. Other great powers, such as the United States, China and Japan all support ASEAN’s ‘centrality’ role in regional affairs. However, whether ASEAN can continue this role is increasingly uncertain in light of great power rivalry between the United States and China. On the one hand, ASEAN faces the strategic challenge of keeping its neutrality and independence between the United States and China. On the other hand, the internal cohesion and relevance of ASEAN faces a significant test given the current Myanmar situation. Therefore, ASEAN’s hard-earned role as the leading regional organization driving community building in the post-Cold War era is now at stake.

Why is analysing the roles of states and regional organizations important for understanding the politics of the contemporary Indo-Pacific? (Kai He and Huiyun Feng)

All states desire respect from others in the social hierarchy of the international system. Great powers have more material resources than middle and small powers to gain status, as a result of their power alone through so-called ‘trait status’. It is why ‘role status’ — established through competent diplomatic action and practice — is more important for the ASEAN states. However, great powers should also pay close attention to the importance of ‘role status’ in world politics. This means paying due respect to what other states do — their behaviour and policy, not just what others have — their material power — or what others are — their identity and ideology. Encouraging ‘do-goodism’ and accommodating the pursuit of ‘role status’ by different actors, including nation-states and regional organizations like ASEAN, will be a new way to construct peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Kai He is a Professor of International Relations and the Director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

Huiyun Feng is an Associate Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University, Australia.

Their article ‘Role status and status-saving behaviour in world politics: the ASEAN case’ was published in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

How have Indo-Pacific middle powers responded to increased strategic competition between the US and China? (Gabriele Abbondanza)

Since they cannot ‘make or break’ superpowers’ strategies, they have coped in different ways. Australia has abandoned any pretence of geopolitical ambiguity and is now cementing strategic alignment with the US not only through its ANZUS alliance with the US and New Zealand, but also through minilaterals and security partnerships such as the Quad (Plus) security dialogue with India, the US and Japan, and the AUKUS security pact with the US and the UK. South Korea faces a more strained strategic landscape, and therefore behaves more cautiously to protract the benefits of its old policy of strategic ambiguity, that is the intentional ambiguity on select key aspects of a country’s foreign policy. With that said, it has recently increased non-military cooperation with Washington, its ongoing military modernisation is pursued with US interoperability in mind, and the recent election of Yoon Suk-yeol is likely to support a stronger engagement with the US Indo-Pacific strategy. So Seoul seems to be preparing a gradual foreign policy shift. Finally, Indonesia is pursuing strategic autonomy for itself and ASEAN, with the ambitious but precarious goal of creating a ‘third way’ for the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, the region’s great powers — Japan, India and Russia — are also adopting comparable strategies to adjust to Sino-American rivalry.

What does this mean for future attempts to offset, limit or transcend strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific? (Gabriele Abbondanza)

It means that middle powers emerge as significant but limited actors, and that their attempts to offset superpower rivalry are emblematic of the sheer difficulty of this task. They are significant because they are more numerous than great and superpowers, their diplomacy is pragmatic and often successful, and they support regional and extra-regional cooperation. But they are also limited, chiefly because they do not coordinate enough among themselves, which curbs the influence they could hypothetically exert if acting together. This does not mean that larger powers can easily do as they please: indeed, the fact that the US and China seek their support disproves approaches that view regional politics through the prism of narrow bipolarity. Yet the overall strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific appears substantially complicated by different sets of goals and means, with which equally different powers seek to advance national interests. This makes the future of the Indo-Pacific less predictable and, consequently, more volatile.

Gabriele Abbondanza is Sessional Lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney, Australia; and Associate Fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs (IAI), Italy.

His article ‘Whither the Indo-Pacific? Middle power strategies from Australia, South Korea and Indonesia’ was published in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

This article was commissioned by Joseph Hills, the Digital Content Editor at International Affairs.

You can read their articles in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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