Flags of the United States and China on the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. Photo: iStock
Flags of the United States and China on the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. Photo: iStock

Are the US and China serving up another Cold War? Or is there room for alternative blocs to stake their claims in a multipolar world order?

Whether they like it or no, the liberal middle powers in the Asia-Pacific region such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia are pivotal actors in this global struggle and are in dire need of facing tough questions on their geopolitical futures.

Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States set in motion a further departure from the unipolar world order created in the early post-Cold War years. This was when the US provided military and economic dominance through defence alliances with the major trading partners in the aligned regions in the absence of any serious competitor.

In essence, this ephemeral global order was based on the US-led exchange of security for free trade. However, with the relentless rise of China’s market economy and industrial power, the Asia-Pacific strategic space is now in a critically evolutionary phase.

Security or economic gains, Which is it to be?

Now the geopolitical hierarchy is splitting between the military order, still dominated by the US, and the economic order, whose dominance is being overtaken by China. In the middle of this split competition between the US and China, most of the Asia-Pacific countries are striving to deal with China for economic gains without giving away the American security umbrella.

For the past two decades, the stability of the emerging dual order between the US and China depended first and foremost on the US ability and willingness to provide its liberal allies with a security bulwark against destabilizing actors at their geographical and moral borders, chiefly Islamist terrorism, and the various nationalistic and totalitarian forces.

But now President Trump’s isolationist and transactional foreign policy may put an abrupt end to this somewhat balanced dynamic. On the other hand, China is gradually using its trade and investment might to push weaker trading partners away from their strong bilateral security ties with the US, in exchange for tighter economic cooperation.

This emerging condition requires a geopolitical paradigm shift under political, security, economic and legal perspectives. To this avail, it is about time for the liberal middle powers in the Asia-Pacific region to address the hard questions about the impact of the US-China dual hierarchy on the regional order and beyond.

A hard choice between the two super powers

First and foremost, it is crucial to understand whether the liberal Asia-Pacific order can thrive and depend over the long term on a dual yet competitive Sino-American hegemony. In particular, it remains to be seen whether the various Asia-Pacific middle powers will have the nerve and strength to hold consistent preferences and design long-standing strategies for the regional order in the ebb and flow of the US-China relationship.

These middle powers also need to devise alternative strategies should the US fail to remain a credible provider of security in the region, especially under conditions of economic decline, lest they end up like helpless children watching in dismay as their parents fight over who is going to look after them.

In such a contingency, as China grows more prosperous and militarily buoyant, it becomes key to wonder how long it will take the Asian superpower openly to push the middle powers into loosening their security ties with the US and giving up features of democratic governance.

Moreover, if push comes to shove, will these countries side with their security patron or with their leading economic partner?

Moreover, if push comes to shove, will these countries side with their security patron or with their leading economic partner?

To prepare for this eventuality, liberal middle powers are more than ever urged to question how Russia and India can actively operate in the Asia-Pacific strategic space. At any rate, the key problem is whether Russia and India can either be balancing or aggravating forces against the destabilizing actors poised to unleash as a byproduct of possible US-China proxy conflicts between regional minnows.

An ancillary yet momentous issue thus arises as to what kind of trade and security legal frameworks the liberal Asia-Pacific countries could and should develop to harness the US-China competitive relationship, as well as Russian and Indian disruptions.

As the existing spaghetti bowl of their economic partnerships levitate under increasing geopolitical strain, the liberal Asia-Pacific middle powers had better draw up possible synergies with European trade partners looking for an alternative to China’s new Silk Roads, as well as with those Latin American countries with an appetite for new geopolitical routes outside of the US influence across the Pacific Ocean.

Ultimately, the overarching question is whether liberal blocs of Eurasian and Pacific middle powers can emerge or fall through the cracks of the US-China dual order as a peaceful and productive way to nurture more balanced geopolitical postures in a multipolar world.

Giovanni Di Lieto

Dr Giovanni Di Lieto teaches international trade law in the International Business program at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and engages in expert analysis on the geopolitics of trade and investment for media, industry and government outlets. His professional career developed as a commercial law practitioner in Italy, and then as a global value chain specialist across the US, Europe and China.

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