The US should not only leave Asia alone, but also learn from Asia
Published: Jun 01, 2024 11:49 AM

Editor's Note:

The greatest challenge to Indo-Pacific regional stability and peace is the US' desire to pursue a strategy aimed at either resurrecting or maintaining US primacy, Warwick Powell (Powell), adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology and former policy advisor to Kevin Rudd, told Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin in an exclusive interview. During the annual defense and security forum Shangri-La Dialogue from May 31 to June 2, some Western countries have attempted to maliciously portray China as a "bully" in the region, and Powell said the fact is that regional countries and their people have coexisted with China for centuries, and they better understand how to interact with their neighbors - both big and small - than the Americans, who have been involved in the region for only the past 200 years.

GT: What do you think is the greatest security challenge currently facing the Indo-Pacific region?    

The greatest challenge to Indo-Pacific regional stability and peace is the US' desire to pursue a strategy aimed at either resurrecting or maintaining US primacy. It's either resurrecting US primacy if you believe it is already gone, or seeking to hold on to primacy if you believe it still exists. The more the US seeks to pursue primacy, the more likely it is to destabilize the region and disrupt the ability of the regional countries and peoples to pursue their own style of regional peace and economic development.

We are seeing the formation of many small groups - AUKUS, Quad, or the new Squad, which will include the Philippines, Japan, Australia and the US. The creation of micro-institutions is destabilizing. Many scholars in international relations and security discourse argue that creating such blocs during times of peace is antithetical to the pursuit of peace. This is because such blocs need a rationale, a reason for existence, which presupposes conflict. These blocs need conflict to remain relevant. That is one of the main dangers of the approach that the US has taken within this region.

GT: The Taiwan question is often one of the top topics at the Shangri-La Dialogue. It is brought up every year, often with the tone of China being a "threat." Is it reasonable that the issue of territorial sovereignty and core interests of China is always sensationalized at international security forums? 

There are two issues at stake here. The first one concerns the legal or de jure status of Taiwan, both globally within the United Nations framework and from the perspective of the warring parties in the Chinese civil war. That's the first thing. The second thing is that despite the de jure recognition of a single China, which the island of Taiwan is a part of, there are clearly political forces in the world seeking to portray the situation quite differently.

The idea of two Chinas will not happen. I don't think anybody on either side of the Taiwan Straits wants to have a war. In practical terms, the options are maintaining the status quo or finding a pathway to peaceful reunification. Leaders and residents of the island of Taiwan must carefully consider these choices, as should countries in the region. A peaceful resolution to the civil war is actually in the interests of everybody in the region.

I hope both the Americans and Beijing can understand that Lai Ching-te has acted with a high degree of naivety. With time, he will realize that leadership doesn't permit reckless actions endangering people's security, for which he is responsible. A leader's primary duty is ensuring the safety and well-being of those they're responsible for. If one cannot do that he failed the first test. In flagging the idea of "two Chinas," Lai was also undermining the provisions of the "constitution" that he claims he swears allegiance to. 

The real question for American political leadership is, do they want a war? This needs clarification. If they don't want a war, they have to give up the idea of a war for reunification and the idea that there can ever be "two Chinas." It means that Americans need to work toward a peaceful resolution of the cross-Straits question, a commitment made four decades ago, and actually play a constructive role in achieving that outcome, as opposed to constantly stymying the pathway toward peaceful reunification.

GT: Do you think that the turmoil in Ukraine and the Middle East could occur in Asia?

The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are clearly impacting the resources that the collective West is able to mobilize. It also indicates that, from a systemic perspective, the collective West no longer prevails in terms of personnel, doctrine, equipment or the supply chains necessary for equipment replacement and repair. The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East have revealed severe limitations within the West.

What's important to consider regarding the Asian region? The real message from the Ukraine experience is for the people of the Asian region in general. The collective West, particularly the neoconservatives within its political setup, mainly originating from the US, pursued a strategy in Ukraine that they are now applying in Asia. This strategy has several key components. It targets an adversary with the aim of breaking it up, disrupting it, and if possible, effecting regime change. The neoconservatives have tried that in relation to Russia by expanding NATO eastward, instigating color revolutions, destabilizing Russia's periphery, and interfering in its domestic politics by supporting opposition forces.

These are the kinds of strategies that have been replicated in Asia. The efforts of the US and the CIA, in particular, to create disruptions in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, and across the Taiwan Straits, echo the strategies used in Georgia, Ukraine, and other parts of Europe, going all the way back to Yugoslavia. 

The aim of the neoconservatives is not to facilitate peace within regions but to stir up divisions for their own benefit. This has been the case in Ukraine since 2014, where the collective West has supplied Ukraine with new munitions and training to strengthen its army against Russia. Similarly, in our region here in Asia, the US has breached agreements with China by continuing to supply arms to the island of Taiwan. Additionally, it has recently established militarized, unilateral arrangements that could trigger a new arms race in the region, marked by the deployment of mid-range missiles.

What's been happening in Europe is not so much about sending signals regarding whether Ukraine wins or loses. It's more about understanding the game plan and what's at stake. What's occurred in Europe is a game plan focused on dividing and conquering to create instability and militarize regions, allowing the Americans to step in and exploit divisions for their own interests. And they are repeating the same strategy in Asia.

GT: Now, the West is portraying China as a "bully" in the region. In your opinion, is China a bully or a force for peace? 

The most obvious example is China's role in resolving deep-seated conflicts in the Middle East, notably by facilitating a historic détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The Chinese approach, as exemplified in the Saudi Arabia-Iran situation, is to build or facilitate détente by encouraging the parties to reach consensus and have ownership of the solution. This contrasts with the collective West's approach, which is imposing a solution and enforcing it with arms.

GT: What about in the Asia-Pacific region? 

Some Western perspectives underestimate the capacity of all the countries in the region. The fact is that these countries and their people have coexisted with China for centuries, and they better understand how to interact with their neighbors - both big and small - than the Americans, who have been involved in the region for only the past 200 years.

China has land borders with several countries and shared maritime interests with many others. For millennia, their interactions have largely avoided deep long wars. While some conflicts are inevitable, entrenched warfare has not been typical in the interactions between China and its neighbors. 

The Americans are doing a great disservice to the peoples, cultures and communities of Asia when they suggest that these countries are too small and don't know how to deal with China. That's nonsense. They have known for centuries how to manage their relationships. One of the ways used today is through institutions like ASEAN and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world's largest free trade agreement, involving 15 countries including the 10 ASEAN members, and China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia. 

It is a feat of diplomacy that the Americans can only marvel at and scratch their heads over. They don't know how to pull together consensus-driven programs like this because they haven't had to do it for decades.

Asian countries, through multipolar institutions like ASEAN, have demonstrated their ability to address regional issues effectively. These approaches work for the region because they respect the histories involved and draw on the lessons of those histories to find new solutions going forward.

GT: To provide regional security, should the US leave the region alone?

Leaving it alone is one thing, there's more - the US could learn something from Asia. The US can watch, observe and take on board the lessons of centuries of pragmatic statecraft in Asia and realize there is another way.

This alternative approach is necessary when dealing with an emerging multipolar world. In a multipolar environment, unless we want conflicts everywhere all the time, it is imperative that states rediscover or amplify their abilities in statecraft to find common solutions and build win-win outcomes that mesh each other's security and prosperity interests.

The US could learn something from that.

GT: The voices of the Global South are increasingly prominent on the global stage. However, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Western voices still overwhelmingly dominate. Do you think this situation will change in the future? 

From the point of view of the global majority or the Global South, we need to be patient and empathetic. Ironically, we must recognize that the global hegemon is undergoing a deep process of grief. But China has, for many decades now, shown that it knows the value of patience. 

The Shangri-La Dialogue is a creature of history. It emerged in a time when the countries of the Global South were voiceless. Questions of security, even in the Asia region and the Asia-Pacific more broadly, bore the marks of centuries of colonialism. Security in Asia was a question for colonial powers to come and talk about how they would maintain security in a region far from their own homes and how they would teach the locals about security.

However, the world has changed, and I hope the Shangri-La Dialogue will respond to these changes and evolve accordingly. There needs to be a place at the table for the countries of the global majority, a rightful seat at the table to contribute to the dialogue.