Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 13:06 | SYDNEY
Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 13:06 | SYDNEY

A 'Brisbane Commission' on Asia strategic order


Hugh White

12 December 2007 08:52

FROM: Hugh White, Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University

TO: Hon. Kevin Rudd,  Prime Minister

At your campaign launch you listed the rise of China and India among the biggest challenges Australia faces over coming years.  Of course you were right. The biggest foreign policy challenge Australia faces today is how we define and protect our interests in the transformation of the Asian international order being driven by the rise of China and India, and the concurrent (and in some ways consequent) historic shift in Japan’s strategic personality. For thirty-five years since Nixon went to China, Northeast Asia has prospered under a stable strategic order based on the willing acceptance by both Japan and China of US primacy in return for the protection it offered each from the other. That has in turn been the foundation of peace and stability throughout the rest of the Western Pacific, including Australia.

But now that stable order is under challenge from its own success.  Stability has brought growth, and growth has undermined the foundations of the understandings that have kept the peace for so long. Such understandings must always reflect the relative power of the key parties, and as the power relativities shift, the arrangements must adapt, or collapse. When Nixon went to China, its economy was markedly smaller than Australia’s, and only a few percent of America’s. Today China rivals America economically on some measures, and may overtake it on any measure within a few decades. So the old order, based on US primacy, cannot last.

The challenge for Asia is to transition smoothly to a new order which preserves the peace of past decades, but reflects the new distribution of power over coming decades. Everyone wants the peace to be preserved, but they have different ideas of how that can best be done. So far there is little serious discussion to bridge those differences. But that is what urgently needs to be done.  Different ideas about Asia’s future order need to be aired and shared and debated as actively and openly as possible by countries throughout the Asia-Pacific. The subject is too sensitive and complex for formal government-to-government discussion, and too important to be left to the usual academic and second-track talkfests.  So how to get the conversation about Asia’s future going?

What we need is a very open, uninhibited but responsible dialogue undertaken at high level by individuals who carry real weight in their own countries, but who are not constrained by being national representatives. We have a compelling precedent for this kind of process in the Keating government’s Canberra Commission on nuclear weapons. With Australia’s political imprimatur and practical support, a really eminent group assembled to discuss a very important topic. Might the Canberra Commission not serve as a model for the way Australia could initiate a conversation about Asia’s strategic future? 

The idea is simple enough. A group of really eminent people from countries throughout the Asia Pacific would meet to discuss how Asia can best transition to a stable new order, and what roles the key players should adopt. The aim would be to help define the kinds of ideas that have a chance of working, and help everyone to take better account of how others see the problems. And who better to convene such a gathering than Australia? In honour of your home town, you might call it the ‘Brisbane Commission’.