To Australian foreign policy expert Allan Gyngell, the world order as we knew it isn’t just changing - it’s over. Gyngell spoke to Sam Sachdeva about what China’s rise and America’s decline means for Australia and New Zealand, and what we can learn from the two countries’ diverging approaches to the Asia-Pacific.
Allan Gyngell isn’t one for mincing words.
The national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and former advisor to Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating says we should be under no illusion about the new geopolitical landscape in which we now live.
“The Asian order as we’ve known it since the end of the Second World War, the order in which both Australian and New Zealand’s foreign policy has existed...that world that we’ve been in is ending - I don’t think it’s challenged or changing, it’s over.”
The primary reason for that? China’s growth, most notably on the economic front.
In 2004, Gyngell says, the country’s GDP was about half that of the United States; now, it is equal in purchasing power parity (PPP) and within 15 years will be larger than the US “by almost any serious measure”.
“That’s given China the capacity, and in some cases the reason, to assert a position against US primacy in the region.”
China broadens the playing field
He says China’s rise has begun to change the way in which we think about Asia and the Pacific, moving beyond traditional labels.
“Australia and New Zealand since the Second World War have been dealing with a vertical Asia: we’ve looked up through East Asia and our economies and security issues were all confined in that sort of vertical space.”
Through strategies like the Belt and Road Initiative, China has become increasingly influential across the Eurasian landmass, broadening the playing field and forcing others to adjust.
“You can see in the Indo-Pacific framing that Australia, Japan, India and latterly the United States have adopted a maritime response...the Asia-Pacific is becoming horizontal rather than vertical.”
The assumptions about how China would adapt as it grew have also had to be adjusted, Gyngell says.
“Until the early part of this century...it was possible for us - Australia, New Zealand, our friends - to operate under the comfortable assumption that as China grows, it would become more like us: more politically open, more comfortable in an international system within which it had flourished.”
“We’re seeing, quite interestingly, Chinese writers and philosophers talking about an international system that comes from Confucius rather than Kant."
While he says that was never likely to be true, it’s now clear that Western countries will have to adjust their thinking.
“We’re seeing, quite interestingly, Chinese writers and philosophers talking about an international system that comes from Confucius rather than Kant.
“We haven’t seen that before - they’ve been hiding and biding like Deng Xiaoping’s formulation...[but] you can’t hide and bide when you’ve got one of the largest economies in the world.”
That doesn’t mean China is a threat to the traditional multilateral system, but Gyngell says it will provide some serious tests - not without merit.
“We know that the Bretton Woods institutions are badly out of date in terms of shifting global economic weight, we know that the UN Security Council is ridiculous really, the victors of World War II but leaving out Japan, India, and other large powers...
“The Chinese don’t want to dismantle the international system, I think they want a greater say in it.”
China advances, the US retreats
Of course, the changing tides are not just about China’s advance, but America’s retreat.
While some argue the current approach under US President Donald Trump is an anomaly, Gyngell believes we are at the high water mark in terms of American leadership.
“The United States does not have the resources it had after the Second World War when setting in place that strategy that it then followed. The resources aren't there, and Americans are thinking...why should we paying for other people to do things?”
Interestingly, he argues that future historians will draw far more parallels between Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama than currently seems plausible.
“Both were trying to craft a response to an American position in a world in which it is no longer so dominant: with Obama it was ‘Don’t do stupid things’, with Trump it’s ‘America First’.”
New Zealand and Australia have been taking notably different stances to the new world order, with our big brother far more muscular in its approach to issues of Chinese influence.
Gyngell says New Zealand’s reticence may in part be due to its emphasis on economic issues over security, as well as a pragmatism about its ability to change world affairs.
“There’s probably a sense of, ‘What can you do about it’ in New Zealand, hunker down and just work with what we can work in.”
He is also critical of Australia’s approach, saying some claims of foreign interference have been overblown and others demonstrably false, while diverse Chinese communities have been portrayed as “potential tools of the Chinese Communist Party”.
While there are valid concerns, they are being “lumped in” with valid attempts to operate within the political system.
“The protection of the institutions of our democracy is central to our community, but we have the capacity to do that ourselves, and if we’re not doing that then we’re falling down on the job.”
Indo-Pacific vs Asia-Pacific
Australia has also taken a different strategic approach, speaking of the Indo-Pacific while New Zealand sticks with the Asia-Pacific.
Gyngell says it’s logical for Australia to look at things differently, given it borders both the Indian and Pacific oceans, but less so for New Zealand.
“You have much greater interests looking east than you do looking west - or at least further west than Australia.”
He sees the Indo-Pacific as a symbol of the two countries’ differing approaches to the world.
But while some have cast the trans-Tasman relationship as being more strained than ever before, Gyngell says “robust differences of view” are far from new.
“There have traditionally been as many barneys between us as there have been periods of close harmony.”
Taking different views of the world isn’t a fatal blow to the relationship, he says, simply a complexity that will need to be untangled.
“The bottom line is we’re going to have to work harder, as both governments are doing, to keep close alignment which, in my view anyway, for Australia as been critical to any success we’ve had in the South Pacific.”