Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Image: Wikipedia page about the Abbott Government.

Australia-US Cooperation in the "Asian Century"

Australia China

The Australian Government’s 2012 White Paper Australia in the Asian Century highlights Asia’s dynamic growth, codifies the priority that Canberra has long assigned to Asia, and lists the steps that Australia needs to take to remain competitive.

Washington’s more recent ‘re-balancing’ strategy signals a similar locus of strategic attention. As Asia surges ahead, each government sees great opportunities.

What is less clear is whether Australians and Americans have thought through the full range of emerging threats and challenges in Asia and devised coordinated responses. As longstanding allies, they are well prepared for various military contingencies. But leading analysts from both countries see at least four different challenges as developments unfold in the region.

First, secure access to water, energy and food is a high priority for Asia, especially China. The precipitous drop in the water table in the north China plain is already prompting drastic measures. China’s hunger for energy is well known, but others will soon face shortages. Another slow disaster is the burgeoning growth of Asian cities, where supplies of water and energy cannot meet the demand. As Asians become wealthier and more urbanised, the demand for food, especially meat and fish, increases and prices soar.

Blessed with an abundance of food, energy and raw materials, and endowed (albeit unevenly) with adequate water supplies, Australians and Americans may not realise how potentially destabilising such non-traditional security challenges are. Americans tend to equate "security" with military security. But for the recipient, secure access to water, food and energy means adequate supplies at affordable prices, transported safely and reliably. Being a secure supplier requires predictability, regulatory transparency and political conditions that inspire market confidence.

Asia’s legitimate security needs for water, food and energy deserve attention from all Asia Pacific powers. If market-based responses to these challenges prove inadequate, can Australians and Americans contemplate altering their own policies and practices for the sake of regional security? They are beginning to do so in response to climate change, but only after a long public debate. Similarly, can they countenance region-wide, non-market, regulatory approaches to complement free-market measures? One example might be an Asia-wide emergency-sharing scheme for food or energy, patterned loosely on the International Energy Agency’s Coordinated Emergency Response Measures for oil. Agreement on such a scheme, suitably adapted to Asia, is impossible now but may not be in the future.

Second, regional governance and leadership remain patchy at best. Neither China nor Japan seems equipped to be a truly global leader. Institutions are either weak or in need of overhaul. At China’s insistence, the ASEAN Regional Forum avoids discussion of the most serious sources of regional tension. The G7 has not done much to help solve global economic problems. The G20, which Australia will chair in 2014, does not yet possess sufficient credibility. The international monetary system needs reform, with a larger share of voting rights for Asians and probably a greater role for Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).

As Colin Bradford observes, middle powers like Australia can help fill this leadership gap because they "represent more than their narrow self-interest." They care about multilateralism, adopt a pragmatic approach to problems, and help cushion conflicts between larger powers.

Third, China’s transition into the regional and global order must be managed carefully. Talk of a "G2" between China and the United States is mostly nonsense. Xi Jinping’s goal of a "new great-power relationship" is not about ruling the world; it is about managing US–China relations and rebutting the theory that a rising great power will inevitably wage war against an established one. But China’s goals for the region are unclear, and memories of historical humiliation still fester. On newer issues like cyber security, oceans management, climate change and space, where there are no Western-dominated institutions, the Chinese feel more comfortable, but they are unlikely to abandon their fixation on growth.

Fourth, the regional order stemming from World War II and the Korean War may change in unexpected ways. The North Korean government may collapse, resulting in a unified Korean peninsula armed with nuclear weapons. Japan could succeed while China falters. The possible success of "Abenomics" would boost Japanese power, while China could experience sharply lower growth, hyperinflation and large-scale local rebellions. A dynamic new Southeast Asian leader could emerge who would seek to transform the existing order. Australians and Americans should discuss such scenarios and compare notes on early warning and response.

Finally, Australians should be aware that rhetoric about the "Asian century" will be received coolly in Washington. The Australian perspective is nuanced and sophisticated, but others associate the term with straight-line economic projections and the political impact of a large aggregate GDP (as opposed to GDP per capita, social indicators, "soft power" and other indicators). Such language could revive the idea that "Asian values" are different from and superior to "Western" ones. The phrase could also inspire false pride and subsequent disillusionment among Asia’s youth.

But rhetoric aside, Canberra and Washington should work together to take advantage of Asia’s rise in ways that benefit the entire region. Australia is particularly well positioned in Southeast Asia, and the United States has comparable strengths in Northeast Asia. The United States will remain a staunch Pacific power, but extricating itself from costly conflicts in the Middle East will take time. Australia now has a clear opportunity to make a difference in Asia, backed by the United States. This is not US ‘leadership from behind’; this is active support, bolstered by in-depth strategic and tactical coordination.

Ellen L. Frost is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University in Washington DC. She can be reached at

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the polices of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States government.

This article was first published in East Asia Forum.