The Jakarta Geopolitical Forum 2019 (Photo: Medcom.id/Christopher Harindra)
At the third Geopolitical Forum held in Jakarta recently, Professor Stephen Smith presented on geopolitics as it relates to the rise of the Indo-Pacific.
Highlighting the important, challenging and diverse issues which tend to dominate the daily landscape, including the relationship between the Trump led United States and Xi Jinping led China, Professor Smith indicated these issues are a constant and daily distraction from the geo-economic and geopolitical change that is inexorably continuing unabated to the mid-point of this century, namely the emergence of the Indo-Pacific.
Despite the disruption, Professor Smith declared the Indo-Pacific will be the new normal.
He provided the audience with a history of the geopolitical landscape between the United States and Asia, and the emergence of ASEAN, including the pivotal role Australia played in the region’s emergence.
He indicated that in the past, with a desire to shed the ‘Oceania’ label, Australia was keen to integrate its economic and multicultural future, not just with the US, in the Pacific, but Asia – in the first instance, North East and South East Asia.
Some of Australia’s achievements have included a trade agreement with Japan, which led to the creation of new Australian export industries, Australian minerals and petroleum resources exports to North East Asia Iron Ore, Coal and LNG to Japan, South Korea and China.
In addition to being ASEAN’s first Dialogue partner in 1974, the nation has played a significant role in the independence of Indonesia, and assisted what is now Malaysia and Singapore during Konfrontasi.
Professor Smith’s presentation expanded to Australia’s influence over the United States when it came to working with Asia. This included enhancing APEC’s impact, transforming it from a Trade and Foreign Ministers Forum to the Leaders Forum it is today, establishing itself as the driving force of Asia Pacific trade and investment.
Australia’s persuasion over the United States continued decades later, under President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, paving the way for the USA to join ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Ultimately this affiliation would lead to membership of the East Asia Summit, joining Australia, China, India, Japan and Korea.
Professor Smith spoke of the so called ‘China Century’, representing the early 2000’s, that with considerable international encouragement and support, the country lifted itself out of poverty to grow its economy, further raising the impact and influence of the Asia Pacific globally.
He also indicated that projections suggest that despite the recent dip in GDP, India is fast becoming the second largest economy in the world by 2050, with predictions that in just over a decade (2030), it will rival China in size, and exceed the current population of the United States.
Professor Smith went on to explain that recent predictions of emerging global powers has seen Australia think much more about its need to substantially enhance its bilateral relationships with India and Indonesia, and to focus on the ‘Indo’ side of the Indo-Pacific, not just the Pacific which faces its major population centres.
With the ongoing economic strength of the current two great powers, US and China, the continuing rise of India and Indonesia, and the ASEAN economic community, the Indo-Pacific is a strategic concept whose time has come.
Professor Smith’s presentation included an explainer of the strategic concept that is Indo-Pacific, a term Australia has used since a 2013 Defence White Paper, and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper respectively.
He also provided examples of Indo-Pacific acknowledgements across the region. These included strategies from United States to Japan, India, and Singapore, highlighting that each country had a different detailed or forensic notion of what they mean by ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Professor Smith highlighted that the adoption of an Indo-Pacific strategic framework would have seen nation states with the time and opportunity to adjust to a changing world over the first half of this century, if not for a disruption in the form of a much more assertive China and US policy uncertainty and unilateralism.
The inextricably interwoven economic relationship between the US and China has seen impact to the Indo-Pacific, with China representing much of the region’s main trading partner. Professor Smith said perceptions of China’s involvement globally has swung from ‘responsible stakeholder’ where China entered the international market as a democracy which respected international institutions, to strong support from the US business community, referred to as the ‘Deng Xiaoping consensus’, involving President Xi Jinping negotiations with President Obama.
Professor Smith outlined some of the tribulations between China and their global partners, which has led to a more analytical approach globally to China’s involvement and motives, with partners seeking to discern strategic intentions. Perceived power plays from China has seen the rise of strategic competition between the US and China.
Trump’s election brought with it US policy uncertainty for allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, with the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership suggesting they could not necessarily be relied upon in the region as an economic and strategic partner.
Professor Smith pointed to US policy uncertainty and unilateralism, as well as a much more assertive China as disruptors to an ordinary course of events, which would have seen an incremental shift to a multi polar Indo-Pacific world.
He indicated that the patience of the United States running out over intellectual property and China cyber activity, and Trump’s desire to reduce the US trade deficit with China, as the start of a trade war, which is underpinned by strategic competition. At this year’s Shangri La Dialogue, the tone became one of neither power wishing to take a backward step, with the trade war becoming a cold war with economic characteristics.
Professor Smith concluded by stating that the Indo-Pacific is on the rise. India, Indonesia and the ASEAN economic community is on the rise as a global influence. The Indo-Pacific will indeed become the new normal.