In “How America Can Shore up Asian Order”, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi draw on Henry Kissinger’s study of nineteenth-century European diplomatic history to argue that the Indo-Pacific order lacks legitimacy and a balance of power. They say China’s economic and military rise as well as President Trump’s policies have undermined an Indo-Pacific “operating system” tied together by key principles like freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes and others.
To restore military balance, Campbell and Doshi call on the United States to invest in capabilities to deter China and help regional states do the same, while encouraging new military and intelligence partnerships. To build legitimacy, they encourage Washington to stop skipping summits, but also to eschew grand coalitions in favour of “bespoke or ad hoc” bodies focused on individual problems. The United States should also reassure regional states of alternatives to Chinese supply chains.
These cogent arguments are a refreshing change from the incoherent bluster of the Trump era. But their diagnosis is partly based on outdated Eurocentric assumptions and their focus on the US-China vortex overlooks the local drivers of regional order-making. Their policy prescriptions will likely please some regional states, but alienate others.
We should not assume that a European-style balance of power is achievable, or that regional states could coalesce to prevent Chinese dominance. In Asia, hierarchy, rather than power balance, has historically been the structure of regional order. A European-style power arrangement is only likely to arise after the region is effectively polarised and China is excluded from all regional policy arenas. The cost of getting there might be too high. In the meantime, why should we expect individual countries to seriously engage in toe-to-toe balancing against China?
Regional states are, of course, more likely to buy in to a regional order they deem legitimate. But there is no evidence that all Indo-Pacific states have ever perceived a single unifying source of regional legitimacy. There is no single actor with a preponderant legitimacy, let alone a full-blown Pax Americana or Pax Sinica*. *The absence of a universally accepted “operating system” is a feature, not a bug, of regional order.
Regional states are accustomed to living without a grand legitimate order and to working through different organising principles for different policy ends. Their strategic histories attest to the selective enforcement and uneven implementation of what the authors imply are universal principles of the regional “operating system”. They must also manage daily the reality that these varying orders have varying significance for their domestic legitimacy.
Regional order begins and ends with domestic legitimacy. Beating the drum of the “rules-based order” or sounding the alarm on military and economic coercion has less resonance among post-colonial regional elites than the West thinks. Asking regional countries to “decouple” from China is a tall order, for both practical and political reasons. One should not expect a government whose domestic legitimacy is tied deeply to public goods and private benefits provided by one great power to favour a regional order excluding that power. Regional countries are increasingly and painfully aware of their supply chain vulnerabilities, but simply cutting off ties with China without a viable alternative would be strategic malpractice.
China’s behaviour is certainly detrimental to the region. But the United States must reckon with its own responsibility for the fraying of regional order. Campbell and Doshi depict the strain placed on it by the Trump administration as if his term were somehow an anomaly. But blaming Trump alone, as if US foreign policy under Bush and Obama paid greater attention to, or was all-around beneficial for, the Indo-Pacific order, is misleading. Many regional elites still remember how the United States trampled on the order in the name of the Global War on Terror.
The more difficult question is, if not the United States or China, then who? Middle powers like Japan, India and Australia are already taking sides in the US-China strategic competition. Indonesia and ASEAN are unlikely to offer a concrete alternative that workably accommodates all powers.
So we may have to be content with managing different functional orders with different actors offering different structures and rules. ASEAN might, for example, form a normative multilateral diplomatic order, while the United States sustains the region’s military-security order, and China buttresses the economic order. Minilateral groupings like the Quad and AUKUS will likely further fracture this picture.
Regional countries will continue circumnavigating regional hierarchies rather than allow themselves to be pushed into some European-style balancing coalition. They won’t accept Chinese hegemony willy-nilly, although some seem to be behaving like vassal states. Rather, they will continue engaging both sides and hedging their bets. They will choose the options that enhance their domestic legitimacy and strategic autonomy.
Regional order depends firstly on how regional elites define and defend their domestic legitimacy. A regional order that excludes one great power over the other may make sense geostrategically, but be unpalatable politically. It’s time to stop taking lessons from European history to make sense of the Indo-Pacific and spend more time figuring out the local drivers of regional order.
Challenge the expert
Ben Scott, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Rules-Based Order Project, challenges Evan Laksmana’s key arguments.
If the absence of a universally accepted “operating system” is a feature, not a bug, should the Unite States abandon all talk of the “rules-based order” in the region?
The short answer is “yes”. Even if some regional countries may view “rules based order” talk as a necessary diplomatic veneer for defending shared principles, many others tend to see the chatter as hollow. Others privately point out that it is a snipe against China. As Hoang Thi Ha argues, regional countries do not want to subscribe to an exclusionary vision of regional order, regardless of whether it is from Washington or Beijing.
At best, the “rules-based order” narrative is under-defined and unappealing to many key regional constituencies. At a time of economic flux, how many regional policymakers would make decisions based on an abstract and broken “rules-based order” rather than on concrete interests such as economic recovery and “collective welfare”, as Wing Woo argues in his essay? Or on the basis of their need to modernise the armed forces of regional states, as Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby notes? In short, invoking the “rules-based order” narrative may subtly “name and shame” China and appeal to Western audiences, but it will not have significant staying power in the minds of Southeast Asian policymakers.
Foreign policy realists assume that when a powerful state rises, others will band together to balance it. Why do you think that this is only likely to happen in Southeast Asia “after the region is effectively polarised and China is excluded from all regional policy arenas”?
For one thing, not all Southeast Asian states agree that China is the primary threat — militarily or otherwise. As Elina Noor argues, there is no regional concurrence over a “China challenge”, nor that any one power is ideologically or morally superior. Bearing that in mind, most states balance against threats, not power, while non-great powers tend to bandwagon for profit. China would have to be significantly more threatening to every single Southeast Asian state than it currently is for a true balancing coalition to emerge in the region. But why would China become so threatening? Probably only if it feels its core interests (eg. Taiwan) are being threatened — likely by the United States and its allies, rather than Southeast Asian states — or if it feels excluded from the region via Western encouragements. Either way, the cost of “getting China angry” so that a balancing coalition emerges would be too costly for everyone involved. More importantly, the domestic legitimacy of many regional elites in Southeast Asia now significantly depends on the private benefits and public goods China provides. Indeed, as Hoang Thi Ha argues, many leaders choose China for infrastructure projects because the Chinese way of doing business fits with their vested interests and political objectives. In short, there are hardly any critical incentives for Southeast Asian states to collectively push China to the brink.
What practical changes to US policy towards the region would you expect if Washington paid more attention to local drivers, especially Southeast Asian governments’ concerns about domestic legitimacy?
First, Washington could speak more about and invest in issues that underpin the domestic legitimacy of regional governments, such as pandemic recovery, economic development, or the digital economy and financial technology, as Elina Noor suggests. Or, as Wing Woo notes, the United States could focus on regional institutions that maximise collective welfare, guided by the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Second, rather than reinventing the wheel on new policy initiatives, the United States could work with and support regional powers such as Japan and multilateral institutions under ASEAN. Genuinely cooperating with these actors might take the wind out of China’s narrative that the West is still stuck in a colonial mindset.
Third, the United States could de-couple its engagement with Southeast Asia from its own problems with China, whether over trade or emerging technology. Southeast Asians dread the spill-over effects of the US-China competition. Improving Washington’s strategic communication with regional states—talking about shared interests without sniping at China—would be a good first step to alleviate some of those concerns.
Finally, the United States could de-emphasise values-based approaches to strategic engagement, whether over human rights or democracy. Again, regional states are already familiar with the selective enforcement of those values by the United States. As Hoang Thi Ha argues in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, touting values-based infrastructure and calling out China’s debt-trap diplomacy is self-gratifying, but ineffective. The United States should avoid singing values-based tunes that amplify the inherent differences between the United States and the region.
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.