How can America shore up the regional order?


Ben Scott

The prosperity, security and freedom of the Indo-Pacific hinges on the nature of its regional order.

At least four decades of relative peace have enabled rapid economic growth. But strategic competition is growing, and although the Indo-Pacific region is at the centre of escalating US-China rivalry, the great powers are not the only protagonists in this multipolar region.

Military budgets are growing throughout the region, yet the contest is not purely military. States are making more use of economic tools for strategic ends. And competition in the murky “grey zone”, which exists between states of peace and war, is intensifying.

Even the region’s name is contested. Although the concept of the Indo-Pacific is gaining currency, different states define it differently. Still, Southeast Asia is at the centre of most conceptions of the region. It is also at the centre of the US-China competition for regional influence. The ten states that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are home to more than 650 million people with a combined annual GDP that – at over $US 3 trillion – is roughly between that of the United Kingdom and Germany.

ASEAN is also the foundation for much of the regional architecture that exists to manage tensions, maintain order and promote prosperity. But the development of regional institutions has not kept pace with the challenges. Deference to “ASEAN centrality” is sounding increasingly rhetorical as new formations such as the Quad (United States, India, Japan and Australia) and AUKUS gain momentum.

Beijing, which rejects the term Indo-Pacific, is promoting a China-centred order. It is both developing new institutions — partly under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative — and integrating into existing economic architecture. China has signed up to the world’s largest trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and now seeks membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). President Obama once described that agreement’s predecessor (the TPP) as necessary to prevent China from writing “the rules of the global economy”, but Washington is not seeking to join either the CPTPP or RCEP.

The future US approach to the Indo-Pacific remains a major variable. The Biden administration is still developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. That process is overseen by Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator, as well as Rush Doshi, National Security Council Director for China. Because both have published widely, many of their views are known.

Shortly before they entered the White House, Campbell and Doshi co-authored an essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “How America Can Shore up Asian Order”. They contrast the Indo-Pacific’s current order with the prevailing order in pre-war Europe:

Another distinctive element of the Indo-Pacific is that its evolved “operating system,” unlike the order forged in prewar Europe, is as much about promoting commerce as preventing conflict. Constructed in the aftermath of World War II, the region’s system is a combination of legal, security, and economic arrangements that liberated hundreds of millions from poverty, promoted countless commercial advances, and led to a remarkable accumulation of wealth. At its heart are time-tested principles: freedom of navigation, sovereign equality, transparency, peaceful dispute resolution, the sanctity of contracts, cross-border trade, and cooperation on transnational challenges. The United States’ long-standing commitment to forward-deployed military forces, moreover, has helped underscore these principles.

The authors argue that the United States should meet China’s challenge by promoting an order characterised by “twenty-first-century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence”. This requires more effort to both balance China’s military power and bolster the order’s legitimacy.

On 1 December 2021, Kurt Campbell will deliver the opening address to the Lowy Institute Digital Conference on “The Indo-Pacific Operating System”. As part of this event, I asked five experts from, or based in, Southeast Asia to write responses to the Campbell-Doshi essay. Then I asked each expert to go deeper by answering a set of questions. Their ideas provide a sense of the region’s complexity and the nuance with which any effort to shore up – or rebuild – regional order must grapple.

Ben Scott directs the Lowy Institute’s Rules-Based Order Project.


Five essays from experts from, or based in, Southeast Asia provide a sense of the region’s complexity and the nuance with which any effort to shore up – or rebuild – regional order must grapple.