There is a general level of optimism about relationships in the Indo-Pacific Asia zone over the next two decades, despite potential for inter-country competiveness, issues around resource access and changes in countries' military strength, the annual In The Zone conference has been told.
In a session moderated by Professor Stephen Walt, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, delegates at today's session at The University of Western Australia heard high-level discussion about the relationship between economic powerhouses the United States and China in the region.
The Director General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Peter Varghese, said it was inevitable there would be elements of strategic competition by China and the US in the region, and there was potential for ‘strategic fault lines' to emerge.
However, Mr Varghese said fault lines might not occur due, in part, to the increasing power of several strong players in the region. Further, China's pre-occupation with domestic issues such as domestic growth and reform could dominate much of China's focus.
Professor Brahma Chellaney, from the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, described the US and Chinese strategic visions for the region as diagonally opposite.
He said that while the two nations were ‘fairly respectful' of each other, looking ahead the US-China relationship in the region would remain uneasy and competitive.
Professor Chellaney said there was potential for the emergence of independent military powers in Asian countries that would remain close friends with the US.
Japan's former Deputy Foreign Minister, Hitoshi Tanaka, argued that it was wrong to focus on the competitiveness of China and the US, and discussion instead should be centred on how the region was responding to challenges as a whole.
The panel was divided on the importance of Japanese re-armament. Professor Chellaney said re-armament would happen sooner than expected, and would help to boost Japan's military and non-military exports and increase the profitability of American defence companies. Mr Varghese said current moves were not designed to position Japan in the ‘militarianist style' of the 1930s.
"Japan is seeking to play a more active role in regional security," he said. "They are seeking to resume the right of active self-defence."
Mr Tanaka said Japan was spending only 0.9 per cent of GDP on its armament capability and was a nation with restricted military capacity.
Competitive access to resources, coupled with environmental degradation in certain areas of
Asia, were important emerging issues.
Professor Chellaney said exploitation of natural resources would be linked to environmental crises and, more widely, to planet change.
"There is a need to establish rules for resource competition and take a long-term, holistic approach to things like water and food," he said. "Asia needs to build a more sustainable and peaceful future for itself."
He said current trends in the region included that political integration was falling far behind economic integration throughout Asia.
"There is a widening gap between the economy and politics, with politics becoming more and more divided."
Mr Varghese said a core challenge in the region was to maximise economic opportunity while minimising strategic risk, and political leadership would be tested by profound structural economic growth challenges.
Leaders agreed that the future of relationships in the region was not pre-determined, but would be dependent on the quality of engagement and the far-sightedness of leaders.
Editor's Note: About the In the Zone Conference Series
Perth shares a time zone with 60 per cent of the world's population, and the nations that promise the greatest economic growth of the twenty-first century. The In the Zone Conference Series has highlighted our shared time zone and the growing geo-strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific.
In the Zone 2014: A New Narrative of Prosperity and Power marks five years of regional dialogue between leaders and influential thinkers facilitated by the University of Western Australia's In the Zone conference series. Held at the University Club of Western Australia on May 1, this CEO-level event explores a new regional narrative to leverage global prosperity and influence, while all are in flux.
Over the last five years, In the Zone has brought together a number of leaders from countries including Japan, China, Korea, India, Singapore, Myanmar, and Indonesia, representing governments, industry and the community. Together with many of Australia's most strategic thinkers, policy makers, scientists and business leaders, the In the Zone conference series has facilitated a wide-ranging international dialogue.