The region’s diplomats and leaders have been earning their money over the last few weeks. Or they have, at least, if their preferred key performance indicators are meetings attended, photos posed for, and hands shaken. Even Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe managed a tepid clasp, albeit one accompanied by gritted teeth.
Despite the cost and doubts about the significance and lasting impact of the various ‘deliverables’ such meetings generate, they do matter – even if there’s an excess of such get-togethers and institutional initiatives at present. That the leaders of Japan and China met at all was potentially the most important thing that’s happened in the region on which Australia’s strategic and economic welfare depends for quite a while.
What is most significant about the emerging regional order, perhaps, is that everything of significance that has happened of late is either being directly driven by China, or occurring in response to something China has done. When China shortly becomes the world’s biggest economy it will unambiguously confirm its material importance to the region and enhance its own growing diplomatic and strategic influence.
There is still much that could go wrong in China – the most obvious being a real estate bubble that looks overdue to pop – but if we extrapolate even a little from here, it is clear that whatever form the future takes in this part of the world, for better or worse, China’s economy is going to be its principal driver.
This is why some of the most significant moves of recent days have been about trade rather than security. Welcome as this may be, we should not forget that trade and security issues are more deeply interconnected than many recognise. Ironically, this is something the Abbott government does seem to realise, even if it invariably draws the wrong policy conclusions – the recent failure to join China’s proposed investment bank being a key case in point.
Some other nations have even less room for manoeuvre in such matters. The Philippines has been hung out to dry by its ASEAN colleagues as it confronts China’s territorial ambitions virtually single-handed: something that demonstrates, once again, the compromised and ineffective nature of the region’s most venerable institution.
ASEAN’s shortcomings are one reason why there is such a surprising surfeit of regional initiatives of one sort or another. Trade policy may be somewhat eye-glazing at times, but even the causal observer of the region cannot help but notice that the US and China are on opposite sides of a struggle to define its trade architecture.
It is not clear if either America’s much-anticipated but still unrealised Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) or China’s alternative Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) will ultimately triumph. More importantly, it is not obvious that they will actually influence trade outcomes even if there is agreement.
What is clear, however, is that first, many of China’s neighbours feel compelled to at least look as if they’re taking the FTAAP seriously. And second, many in China still see the TPP as a form of neo-containment.
In reality, bilateral deals of the sort that Australia has been successfully pursuing look likely to be more significant than their more ambitious regional alternatives. That’s not to say that they will necessarily be unambiguously beneficial, of course. Australian policymakers have a habit of signing up to duff bilateral deals for strategic rather than economic reasons. The US free trade deal was a noteworthy example of the genre. The deal with China could be another.
While the devil, as they say, is in the detail, Australia may have little choice. Not only has much political capital already been invested in doing a deal, but China is also adroitly putting pressure on trade partners to sign up to such agreements. The recently concluded deal with South Korea is arguably even more important symbolically than materially. A key American ally has signed up to a deal that highlights China’s growing economic importance and bargaining power.
It’s not necessary to be an unreconstructed ‘declinist’ to recognise that America’s influence in the region is unambiguously shrinking as China’s expands. In this regard, at least, realists have a point: power and influence are zero sum commodities. The US is still important and powerful, but the direction of travel is already clear. It is hard to imagine that what looks like an emerging trend today, won’t have become a commonplace reality in ten or twenty years.
At least Barack Obama has turned up for the region’s diplomatic shindigs on this occasion. His much anticipated speech on American leadership in the Asia-Pacific will undoubtedly seek to strike a reassuring tone – and will undoubtedly be well-delivered. Whether it actually produces any more of substance than the famous pivot/rebalance did remains to be seen.
In contrast to America’s lofty rhetoric, China is actually using its growing material power to redefine the region before our eyes. Australian policymakers may not like it much, but they may have little choice other than to adjust to a regional order in which China rather than the US is increasingly the key player.
Mark Beeson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.