Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 September 2017
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd says the Asia-Pacific can no longer take for granted fast economic growth and ongoing peace, as uncertainty about US President Donald Trump’s commitment to the region and an international backlash against globalisation take their toll.
Mr Rudd argues in a new 50-page report that until recently it seemed certain that the region could maintain another generation of strong economic growth without a major military conflict.
But in the era of President Trump, Asia “faces fresh strategic uncertainty”, Mr Rudd says in a personal forward to the Asia Society Policy Institute’s report, Preserving the Long Peace in Asia: the Institutional Building Blocks of Long-Term Regional Security.
“Conventional wisdom suggested that the forces of economic globalisation were drawing the region together and would, in time, overcome the political, security and territorial tensions left over from history,” notes Mr Rudd, now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.
“Underlying this view was the corresponding assumption that a robust US security presence would continue to provide much-needed stability, allowing nations to focus more on their common economic interests than perceived security threats. “Neither of these assumptions can now be taken for granted.”
The fortunes of the Asia Pacific are widely considered pivotal to Australia’s economic and security success.
Four out of five of Australia’s top trading partners are located there; China, Japan, the United States and South Korea, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australia is a large exporter of natural resources, agriculture and education services to China .
Mr Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking diplomat before he entered politics, chaired the report by the Independent Commission on Regional Security Architecture, whose seven other members were former foreign ministers, national security advisers and international experts from the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and China.
The report notes risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, unresolved questions on the Chinese-Indian border and “ballooning” regional military spending, which has exceeded that of Europe for the first time in 2015.
It warns that rising US-China tensions are generating “schisms” in the region for countries such as Australia.
“While many nations view the United States as their security partner of choice, there is also a widespread feeling of dependence on the Chinese economy,” the report says.
“The growing concern for many Asian nations is that in a world in which their economic and security interests diverge, partners will be forced to choose between the two in uncomfortable ways.”
To avoid a “stumble into conflict” the Rudd-led recommendations include strengthening regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, confidence-building measures by enhancing cooperation on cyber and maritime security and better dispute resolution and risk management mechanisms to avoid crises.
Amid jitters among US allies in Asia about the US’s commitment amid North Korea’s repeated weapon tests, Mr Trump is expected to visit Asia for the first time as President in November, to attend the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
Mr Trump has threatened a trade war against Beijing and is considering imposing tariffs on Chinese steel and retaliating against China’s intellectual property theft against American businesses.
In January he abandoned the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the centrepoint of predecessor Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia designed to increase economic integration and reduce the risk of military conflict.
Mr Trump recently threatened to abandon the five-year US-South Korea trade agreement because of misgivings over the American bilateral trade deficit. President Trump has also criticised Seoul for appeasing North Korea.