That small and middle powers in the Asia-Pacific region have been striving for a balanced position in the Sino-US great power rivalry is not a new phenomenon. But ever since the election of US President Donald Trump, the middle powers in the region, be them established or aspiring, are having a tough time bracing for the changes that are associated with the new US administration.
While smaller countries in the region are prone to nervousness related to the policy shifts of the big players, the middle powers are no less anxious. Take South Korea and Australia for example: being established middle powers and allies of the United States, both are facing the challenge of the changing nature of the cordial relationship with the Washington. However, they — unlike most of the smaller players in the region like the Southeast Asian nations — are in the position to take a more active role in shaping the future regional and even world order. However, the question that remains, is not “how”, but rather: “Do they want to?”
The Era of Hyper-Uncertainty
Trump’s agenda of making “America First” was the first signal for the US’ Pacific allies and partners that Washington’s attention to regional matters will likely subside. That would not necessarily be an unwelcome approach in a time of relative stability. But the region is arguably at a high uncertainty due to China’s increasing power aspirations and North Korea’s nuclear activism.
China’s quest for power is apparent. While most countries in the region enjoy the economic opportunities from Chinese investments and infrastructure projects, many share long-term concerns. China’s trade and loan networks are expanding full speed and are an integral component of Beijing’s economic statecraft. Yet, how exactly China envisions the positions of its partners in the long run of this statecraft process, remains unclear for most of these countries. Security issues related to Beijing’s determination to turn the South China Sea into its own stretch beyond the claimant states also affect those non-claimant states who have economic interests in the maritime trade passing through the disputed waters.
And there is of course the uncertainty of nuclear (hyper-) activity in Pyongyang. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests. Under Kim Jong Un, there have already been three tests. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are palpable across the region. It is also thought that both China and North Korea are bound to challenge the US administration and test its commitment to the region. As such, the Asia-Pacific region can expect crises and tensions on multiple frontiers.
Too Comfortable Being a “Spoke”?
Having enjoyed American “attention” and having been reassured by Obama’s Rebalance, the US allies in the Asian region have grown comfortable with the “big brother” watching out for troubles and protecting them when needed. With the security arrangement of the “hub-and-spokes” system in place, the development of such a mindset was expected. The identity of being a “middle power” that supports Washington guaranteed some ease on the political-security frontline and created room to focus on economic development.
Australia and South Korea should seize the opportunity and revise their identity. “Leaving it” to the great powers to decide in this time of great uncertainty and potential unrest is a bad option.
However, over the past few months, the continuity of many arrangements has been questioned. Donald Trump’s “signature” unpredictability invites the question whether the “hub’s commitment” can be taken for granted. Emerging voices in domestic debates in Canberra have raised the issue about re-visiting the reliance mindset. The domestic political crisis in Seoul has put global issues at lower priority; nonetheless, bilateral relations with the US remains central to the country’s security and well-being. Should Washington be pre-occupied with domestic polarization and the fight against terrorism, among other priorities, the region is likely to feel a deficiency of attention, just like under the George W. Bush administration, where the perception that America had “left” Asia was a prevalent one.
Middle Powers’ Soul-Searching
For many very different reasons, the middle powers have, however, developed a fairly similar mindset of relying on the hub. Individually, each focuses more on a particular security “hot spot” in the region due to sheer proximity and urgency; e.g. Seoul obviously is more anxious about North Korea’s nuclear tests than the South China Sea arbitration. In Australian domestic debate, the refugee deal with the US is of more interest than the regional security “hot spots.” Reluctant involvement in existing disputes beyond the direct neighborhood limits the middle powers’ role in the global arena.
Yet, in the wake of the potential leadership vacuum, should middle powers take more “ownership” of the regional security issues in order to better adapt to the changing world order? Trump’s policies as well as ethics might be against what the middle powers are used to, and hence induce a certain level of frustration. Australia and South Korea, among many other players in the region, should seize the opportunity and revise their identity. “Leaving it” to the great powers to decide in this time of great uncertainty and potential unrest is a bad option. Canberra and Seoul should think about how to be active middle powers, rather than passive ones, if not re-framing the term. The very concept of middle powers is self-determining, and both nations should re-think these self-imposed limitations on their outlooks on regional and global politics.
The Spokes Need Self-Help
One way of strengthening their positions is to work with other “spokes” more, rather than just with the “hub”. The “hub-and-spoke” system needs an update. There is a room for a mini-lateralism among American allies that can take place without the constant presence of the “hub.”
Another way to increase their importance in the region is to engage more with smaller and aspiring middle powers both bilaterally and multilaterally. Southeast Asian nations are in similar need of a point of reference, and are arguably in an even more vulnerable state of mind. Australia and South Korea, with strong investment and education records, are welcome partners. Neither Canberra nor Seoul are involved in the ongoing territorial disputes with the Southeast Asian nations, but both are contributors to the region’s development through various forms of funds, grants, and aid. Their support for regional multilateralism has also been long-going. Their existing status as “dialogue partners” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should not be overlooked. Injecting much-needed enthusiasm to self-doubting ASEAN can be mutually beneficial. A more unified and self-confident ASEAN will work for the betterment of Southeast Asia but also the wider Asia-Pacific. A stronger engagement and voice in regional matters will reinforce Australia’s and South Korea’s status as powers in their own right, not just as US allies.