Preparing for the ‘Asia Pacific Century’: Australia and the Balancing Act between Avoiding Conflict and Maximizing Potential Opportunities


by Luke Guy


Executive Summary

  • Australia already has a strong interest in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • The Asia Pacific Century is not a new contribution to international political theory.
  • While it is debatable whether the ‘Asia-Pacific Century’ is actually happening, our politicians should give it due consideration in any decision making.
  • China is set to reassume its historic position as the world’s dominant economic power.
  • The nature of the centralization of power in the Pacific will largely depend upon the character of Sino-American relations.
  • The greatest threat to peace in the coming years will be the potential for fear-mongering about the United States’ supposed decline and China’s rise.
  • Australia does not need to ‘choose’ between the United States and China.
  • China’s ascent to the status of a great power will be peaceful, as both Washington and Beijing have far more to lose than to gain for them to allow things to descend into conflict.


Australia is uniquely positioned, both geographically and economically, to appreciate the potential of the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years. For decades, Australian politicians have sought to promote the idea that the rapidly developing nations within the region potentially could be the source of much opportunity in the years ahead, if approached in the right way. Indeed, looking back to 1971, Gough Whitlam often is credited with beginning the discourse that would reopen relations between the People’s Republic of China and the west when the future prime minister visited Beijing a year before US President Richard Nixon’s celebrated visit. China is now both the United States’ and Australia’s largest trading partner. China has been the focus of much speculation in recent years, with its incredible growth and position as the world’s second largest economy something of a marvel; but it is not the only source of wonder for those on the outside looking in at the Asia Pacific. India, Taiwan, and South Korea to name a few also have followed in the footsteps of Japan as these late-to-industrialise nations demonstrate an unrelenting drive towards the prosperity enjoyed by already-developed nations.

Another former Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, was instrumental in the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that first met in 1989, representing the collective acknowledgement of the increasingly interconnected nature of economies within the region now and what is expected to be the case in the future. Incidentally, it was around the 1980s that political and economic discourse began in earnest to refer to the ‘Asia-Pacific Century’. (That is, the twenty-first century as opposed to the twentieth which often is referred to as the ‘American Century’, pointing to the fact that, for the last one hundred and thirty years or so, the United States has been the world’s dominant economic and military power.) There has been much speculation about what the rise of Asia or more specifically the rise of China will mean for the distribution of global power. Obviously it will dramatically affect the focus of the world’s attention as it shifts from the historic focal point of the transatlantic to our own region in that of the transpacific.

What this means for the West often is a subject of considerable apprehension. The ‘slow decline of America’ has occupied much rhetoric of political commentary since the 2008 financial crisis shocked the world, not to mention the impact on our economies. But whether this is actually happening is a topic of considerable debate, let alone how the rest of the world should position itself in response to this supposed new world order. The Pacific Century is far from being a new contribution to the dialogue of global politics: ‘The term arguably had its genesis in the expansion of the European spice trade in the Asia-Pacific around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’. Perhaps what is particularly telling, in more recent years, is just how nebulous the term has become. The incredible success story of Japan meant that for the majority of last century the ‘Pacific Century’ was firmly associated with the rise of ‘the land of the rising sun’, that is, until the Asian financial crisis rocked the region in 1997. Since then, this association has largely shifted to China, whose rise is now largely heralded as the surest sign that a shift in global power is occurring. In a 2007 speech at the Brookings Institution, former prime minister and foreign affairs minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged that the narrative of Asia’s rise largely has been dominated by China, stating:

According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the Chinese economy will have grown twenty five fold over the twenty five years to 2015. To put this into context, Australia and China had economies of comparable size back in 1990. By 2016, China’s economy is likely to be seven times the size of Australia’s.

Conservative estimates suggest that China will have reached economic parity with the United States by around 2050; less conservative projections indicate that China may become the world’s largest economy by as soon as 2030.

All of this, of course, relies on the notion that the unprecedented economic growth the world has witnessed in the last fifty years or so in the Asia-Pacific region will continue unabated. Some commentators suggest that these trajectories are unsustainable in a changing economic dichotomy.  In the Journal of Contemporary Asia (Vol. 40, No. 1) Vincent H. Shie and Craig D. Meer argue that  Asia’s expected rise is overstated and the ‘Asian Century’ is far from being upon us. Their theory relies upon the notion that the world economy is evolving into a knowledge-based economy and developing Asian nations are ill-equipped to take advantage of this in comparison to their more advanced counterparts in the West. In a knowledge-based economy, as the name suggests, knowledge itself is the most precious commodity. What this means is that the acquisition of patents and intellectual property rights is of primary importance if one desires to accumulate any sort of advantage in the global market. In this regard, education is of primary importance. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, not one of the major developing Asian nations has a higher education institution ranked within the top one hundred universities in the world. This means that these countries are at a fundamental disadvantage when it comes to research and development and the subsequent application and successful filing for patents. Given their appraisal of the global economy, Shie and Meer conclude that ‘Late industrializing countries are short of the assets they need to participate in the knowledge based economy’. This self-acclaimed pessimistic view denounces that an ‘Asian Century’ is actually happening or even going to happen as other projections have indicated. Of course, to some extent, all of this — be it informed speculation — simply is an exercise in soothsaying. History has taught us that the course of events can be anything but predictable. That said, it would be remiss of already-developed nations to assume that the status quo is going to remain unchallenged ad infinitum. If it does turn out that the Asia-Pacific Century is indeed upon us, as speculated countless times before, it would be best to be prepared so as to take advantage of potential opportunities and, more importantly, to avoid any potential sources of conflict. Remember, the region already has exceeded expectations within the last century alone; resting on our laurels would be foolish in the extreme.

The way in which developed western nations choose to respond to the transition of power from one part of the world to another is potentially vital to determining the temperament of international relations in the coming years. A worst-case scenario would involve conflict ensuing from an obstinate Anglosphere unwilling to concede ground to a new superpower, China. For the majority of recorded history, Chinese civilization actually has constituted the world’s dominant economic power house. The so called ‘one hundred years of humiliation’ that preceded the first opium war in the mid 1800s characterises the sentiment that a once great and powerful country was reduced to a shadow of its former glory amid political upheaval under oppressive British colonialism. China’s rise, then, perhaps is better articulated as China’s recovery: the correction of an aberration endured throughout the better part of the twentieth century. It is only natural, then, that a recovered China should seek to wield some authority as the most obvious threat to the United States’ hegemony.

This, however, does not automatically constitute a conflict. A.F.K. Organski’s ‘power transition theory’ describes the circumstances when a ‘great power’ reaches the stage where it may be described as a legitimate challenger to a dominant ‘superpower’. This is broadly defined as when a nation assumes approximately 80 percent of the influence enjoyed by the globe’s most dominant state. Jack S. Levy articulates the implications of this, stating that ‘the threat posed by a challenger is a function of the extent of its dissatisfaction with the existing international system’. In this regard, war is most likely to occur in a scenario where a dissatisfied challenger is able to progress to the level where it is in a position to overtake the existing dominant power. This begs the question, as the most obvious challenger to the United States’ position as the world’s pre-eminent superpower, is China satisfied with the current dichotomy of international politics? The answer probably lies somewhere between yes and no, but on the whole, the present circumstances that avails world politics is to some extent what allowed for the sustained period of growth China has experienced in the first place. In this regard, China has a strong self interest in ensuring that its rise will be a peaceful one.

In a Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) presentation he delivered, political scientist, historian, and diplomat Joseph Nye observed that much has been said about supposed American decline in light of China’s ascension, and this was only exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis that crippled world economies. Nye notes that this is nothing new, historically espousals about American decline have been consistent over the years, but none of them have proven to be true. He says, ‘All these narratives about rise and fall and decline, tell us a lot more about psychology than they do about reality’. In this regard one of the greatest obstacles facing a peaceful transition of power across to the Asia-Pacific region is irrational, uninformed fear-mongering, resulting in conflict. China’s return as a global powerhouse does not necessarily preclude the decline of the West. Nye affirms, ‘We don’t have to fear the “rise of China”, or the “return of Asia” and if we have policies in which we take it from that larger historical perspective, we’re going to be able to manage this process’. In the Australian context, debate was sparked about whether the nation’s fortunes were too demonstrably tied to that of the United States, after a deployment of US marines were set up in Darwin. The traditional ‘great and powerful friends’ doctrine of which Australian political theorists often subscribe led to discussions on whether Australia should consider aligning itself more closely to players in our own region, particularly China.

Of course, much of this debate was purely hypothetical in nature. When prompted by journalists on the topic, however, Asia policy official for the US State Department Kurt Campbell was reported as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald that it would be ‘foolhardy’ to assume that Australia would be put into a position where it has to choose between Washington — its most important and longest running ally — and Beijing. Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Car, echoed former prime minister John Howard’s sentiment in a ‘Lateline’ interview when he told Tony Jones that ‘I think the Chinese have a yearning for predictability in international relations. And the predictability in Australian policy is very real’. It is true that there are probably few things in international relations that are as constant and predictable as Australia’s alliance (and reliance) with the United States. Ultimately, the most likely outcome of the centralisation of power in the Asia-Pacific will be an era characterised by the shared influence of two great powers. Both the United States and China have far too much to gain and lose in not pursuing the coming years in the spirit of co-operation. Economically, the countries are inextricably linked, dependent upon one another. Ideologically, there are obvious points of contention, but these can be overcome through diplomacy. Zhu Feng, a professor of International Relations at Peking University, writes that it is in China’s best interests to participate in the ‘American strategic order’. Furthermore, ‘Beijing can also widen its influence by developing shared values with other states operating within American “benign unipolar dominance”’. These things should satisfy the ‘middle kingdom’ that room is being made for them on the international stage, while the international community expects that peaceful co-operation throughout the region will allow for immense opportunities and prosperity. The ‘Asia Pacific Century’ is not an omen that announces the fall of western civilization. Indeed, the modernisation of nations that suffered greatly in the period of terrible conflict that characterised the last century is not something that should be begrudged or feared out of hand. Although we can only make an educated guess of what will actually happen in the future, one thing seems demonstrably clear: to borrow from the Chinese proverb, we are indeed living in interesting times!


Selected further reading:

Ross, RS & Feng, Z, China’s Assent – Power, Security and the Future of International Politics, Cornell University Press, New York, 2008.

Shie, VH & Meer, CD, ‘Is this the Asian Century? China, India, South Korea and Taiwan in the Age of Intellectual Capitalism’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2010.

Wilkins, T, ‘The New ‘Pacific Century’ and the Rise of China: an International Relations Perspective’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 64, No. 4, 2010.

Joseph Nye on Global Power Shifts, video recording, TED, 2010 <http://www.ted.com/talks/joseph_nye_on_global_power_shifts.html>

Kevin Rudd – The Asia Pacific Century, video recording, The Asia Society, New York, 2012 <http://asiasociety.org/video/policy/kevin-rudd-asia-pacific-century-complete>

Smith, S, Australia and the Asia-Pacific Century, Australian Minster for Foreign Affairs, <http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/2010/100412_asia_pacific_century.html>

Rudd, K, Australian Foreign Policy and the Asian Pacific Century, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, <http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/2011/kr_sp_110503.html>

Jones Comment Indecent, video recording, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2012 <http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3603332.htm>

M Connors, R Davison & Jorn Dosch, The New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific,2nd edn, Routledge, New York, 2012.

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Luke Guy, Preparing for the ‘Asia Pacific Century’: Australia and the Balancing Act between Avoiding Conflict and Maximizing Potential Opportunities. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/preparing-for-the-asia-pacific

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