Four “Middle Power” Pivots to Asia

In this cluster of four articles on pivots to Asia, we expand the range covered in the Special Forum on pivots to Asia posted in the final issue of 2014. There, we included the United States, China, India, Russia, and Japan, concentrating on great powers. We now turn our attention to middle powers, adding Europe as a force that falls short of a great power, given its lack of cohesion and the hesitation of its principal states in becoming deeply involved in Asian security. At the heart of East Asia is South Korea. Located at some distance from it are Australia and Kazakhstan. Three of the four cases involve forces recognized to be allied with the United States. For these three, excluding Kazakhstan, the focus is on finding the right mix of policies toward the United States and China. In contrast, for the leading power in Central Asia, the real challenge is in balancing Russia and China. Pivoting toward an emergent regional architecture centered on East Asia puts great powers in the spotlight, but it also challenges middle powers—none of which prioritizes China as a security partner—eager to capitalize on ever-growing economic ties with China, while countering its desired regional centrality through ties to other great powers. The coverage begins with the European Union and Australia, turns next to Kazakhstan, and concludes with South Korea, which has made a point of calling its approach “middle power diplomacy” as it keeps struggling to calibrate its position between two, demanding great powers.

One approach would be to compare degrees of hedging in the four middle powers between China and the United States. While this would be a worthy endeavor, it is not the task at hand. The concept of “pivot” is less focused on the degree of leaning to one side or the other than on the overall determination to find a niche in the emergent regional framework. This involves trial and error that can be contested at home on making a pivot and also orienting that pivot in one direction or another. While offering some background historical and political perspective, the following articles concentrate on the most recent debates in each country and their choices regarding economic institutions, such as the AIIB, security arrangements, such as missile defense and arms purchases, and cultural identities, as Asia looms as an alternative to familiar identities within the West or separate from the West. The challenge of comparing the pivots of middle powers will be with us for a long time.

Daniel Twining recognizes what the European countries have done as a “partial pivot to Asia.” He makes an appeal, “for Europe to develop a full-spectrum Asia policy to shape the emergence of the world’s future center of wealth and power in a way that reinforces peace, pluralism, and prosperity.” As of now, he finds policies that consist of little more than a trade-promotion agenda with China, above all, and some other Asian economies too. The fact that the EU is Asia’s largest trading partner, Twining argues, should give it leverage that it is not using. Also, its deep experience forging a multilateral security and economic order and championing institutions of global governance should give it considerable credibility as Asia gropes for regional institutions within a global context. Indeed, Twining also argues that Europe’s advanced defense industries and military cooperation programs are capable of influencing the balance of power in the broad Asia-Pacific region, helping to extend its range beyond the narrower belt China might see and the disruption of the transatlantic security order that it threatens. When EU member states scramble with each other for mercantile advantage and fail to coordinate in matters such as joining the AIIB, Europe loses some of its leverage. When they are open to a Chinese propaganda blitz linking memories of WWII in Europe to charges of resurgent Japanese militarism or refrain from advocacy of human rights as they abide by Chinese warnings against meeting those deemed dissidents, their collective voice also is muted. Thus, Twining calls on Europe and the United States to pivot together, aligned in promoting basic standards and norms in the region, countering China, and in prioritizing inclusion of India in the new order. Along with the United States, it should strive to link the Atlantic and Pacific security networks, he argues. Twining concludes, “The EU should adopt a whole-of-Asia approach that gives it more negotiating power with China through strengthened relations with its many neighbors. European unity is a potent force for influence in Asia, and national strategies alone will not succeed in dealing with China, whose economic, military, and population weights are multiples of those of even the biggest European states. Europe needs to be in the Asian arena to defend its strong interests in peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, freedom of the sea lanes that carry the world’s commerce, an open economic order, and democratic development.” The US rebalance to Asia should not be seen as a harmful diversion, but as in Europe’s interest.

Andrew O’Neil recounts Australia’s slow realization that it needed to pivot to Asia, but he recognizes that this process is already far along, observing that “Leverage by successive governments of Australia’s increasing clout as an influential middle power underpinned the country’s approach to Asia-Pacific engagement throughout the 1980s and 1990s.” This did not come at the expense of the security alliance with the United States, he is quick to note, as he recounts that in the first decades it was centered on Japan with the understanding that economic growth in Asia has fueled demand for exports and openings for investments. The Howard government, O’Neil notes, capitalized on rising awareness that Australia had become engaged in Asia to deepen economic, political, and security ties. He identifies Japan, China, and Indonesia as the “Big Three” countries in Asia engaged by Australia, while observing that for now economic and security ties to India are too limited to justify the occasional references one reads to the “Indo-Pacific” region. Hopes for ASEAN to be the centerpiece of Australia’s push for multilateralism stumble before the realization that its appetite for driving either security or economic reform in the region has dissipated, we are told, and by the way Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 proposal for an Asia-Pacific security cooperation mechanism floundered. O’Neil describes relations with Indonesia as mutually wary at the grass roots level, bordering on distrust, but improved by President Yudhoyono through greater intelligence cooperation, closer defense ties, and even a statement of shared values. Even so, the recent effort to link ODA to the treatment of two convicted drug traffickers angered Indonesians. Of late, there has been much talk about the balance between China and Japan, given Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tilt toward Japan—an “ally” and the “closest friend” in Asia—followed by a scramble in 2014 to improve ties with China despite the bolstered security alliance with the United States. O’Neil concludes that Australia needs to guard against exaggerating its influence. If Abbott has had success in security ties with the United States and Japan and new FTAs with most of its largest trade partners, his tone and assertiveness have been problematic and his clout left in doubt by internal politics.

Michael Clarke centers his analysis on Kazakhstan, noting that great powers have been constructing their pivots to make themselves central to the reordering of strategic and economic power in Asia, especially responding to the common denominator of China’s rise, and lesser powers are striving to ensure their independence and sovereignty while also seeking some centrality. In place of “Asia-Pacific,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev seeks to broaden the regional framework with the notion of a Eurasian nation straddling East and West, making his country a bridge between Europe and Asia. This term is used in Russia too with more emphasis on its centrality than its bridging role, complicating the task of Kazakhstan as offsetting Russia’s quest for hegemony with roles for the EU and the United States. Clarke warns that Nazarbayev’s strategy is facing diminishing returns in the context of the US pivot, which signifies reduced interest in Central Asia in favor of the Asia-Pacific; the Russian pivot, which strives to reintegrate much of the “post-Soviet space”; and China’s pivot, which proposes a sinocentric “Silk Road Economic Belt.” Thus, he warns that Kazakhstan’s “’multi-vectorism’ is in danger of becoming irrelevant in a strategic environment of only two realistic vectors—alignment with Moscow or with Beijing. Such concerns are linked to the political legitimacy of the ruling regime, which has, to a significant extent, rested on international recognition of Kazakhstan as a respected actor in international affairs.” Compared to the other middle powers, this state’s perception of its pivot are shaped not only by a distinct geopolitical position (landlocked), but also by its natural resource endowment (reliance on oil and natural gas exports), and its ethnic and religious composition (Islamic majority and large Russian minority), and regime type (dictatorship). Clarke observes, “Central to Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy has been the elite’s desire to balance through activist diplomacy the perceived need for political and economic integration with the former Soviet space with the desire to prevent a return of Russian predominance.” Although crediting its policies until recently with success—managing relations with Russia, developing relations with China, and also developing a positive relationship with the United States—, Clarke thinks that different dynamics are at work now. The possible vectors for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy are becoming limited to “a choice between a declining yet assertive Russia and a rising and increasingly confident China.” Despite claims that their interests coincide, China’s desire for freer economic interaction throughout Central Asia are at odds with the reintegration and protectionist goals Russia is propounding within its new Eurasian Union.

The Chung Min Lee article draws our attention back to the more familiar situation of a middle power focused on China and the United States rather than on China and Russia. He observes, “From a South Korean perspective, the US rebalance is an important symbolic manifestation of America’s commitment to Asian security and defense, particularly as Seoul’s overriding security concern continues to be focused on jointly responding to a growing array of military threats from North Korea, including its increasing nuclear arsenal.” He adds, “How adroitly it traverses between the United States and China given its all-important military alliance with the former, commensurate with its growing economic and political ties with the latter.” Just as Astana closely watches Moscow’s pivot, Seoul is focused on Washington’s pivot. In the former case, there is a danger that weakness will disrupt what appeared to be a successful balancing strategy until recently. In the latter case, there is also concern that a reduction in resources will undercut US promises to maintain its military presence in Asia. Lee explains, “Though a majority of the South Korean public supports the ROK-US alliance, there remains a deep strand of strategic independence and an abiding need to pursue a more equidistant policy between the United States and China.” Just as Kazakhstan is where the Sino-Russian relationship is most obviously tested, the Korean Peninsula is where Sino-US relations face their greatest test, and South Korea is at the epicenter of this relationship. Lee also sees the period ahead as more demanding. “Notwithstanding the benefits from the rebalance, such as a reaffirmation of the US defense commitment to the ROK and even grudging bipartisan support for the alliance in South Korea, balancing Seoul’s core interests between the United States and China is going to require much greater diplomatic finesse, political acumen, and strategic clarity.” This does not just depend on the great powers or on the acuity of South Korea’s strategic thinking, but also on the outbreak of a major contingency in North Korea, Lee explains. Both in Central Asia and in Northeast Asia states are facing an increasingly complex array of security and political challenges.

The dilemma for middle powers has intensified since the beginning of this decade. While Japan considers itself a great power now growing more active, and India is viewed as a rising great power that will some day have clout, they are actually minor factors in the pivots now in progress, although for Australia, Japan’s appeal lies in its reinforcement of the US pivot. Russia seeks to influence the choices of various middle powers, including India and Japan, but its impact mainly is felt in Kazakhstan, as South Korea stays cautious due to Russia’s ties to North Korea. Signs of polarization between China and the United States are increasing across maritime Asia, while in continental Asia, Russia is deferring more to China without dispelling the sense that the two continue to compete.

Of the four middle powers, Australia has tilted furthest away from China on security in longstanding ties with the United States and in new diplomacy with Japan. Kazakhstan is most solicitous of China in line with Russia’s willingness for now to treat the Eurasian Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt as complementary as well as its own restricted geographical range and market outlets. South Korea resembles Australia in continuing to be steadfast in its alliance relationship with the United States, but it is even more cautious economically and politically, given concerns about Sino-North Korean relations. Finally, the European states share with all of the others a desire to boost economic ties—as in the decisions to join the AIIB—, while also keeping some distance strategically. As a group, the middle powers are clearly not bandwagoning with China in their pivots to Asia and are looking for support from at least one other great power to deny a sinocentric outcome.