By Paige Taylor
An optimistic view of our region is that the chase for prosperity will overcome the risk of adverse security outcomes, according to former defence minister and director of the Perth USAsia Centre Stephen Smith. Mr Smith told a plenary session on security and trade flows at the In the Zone conference that a theme of the gathering last week was the shift of power and influence to our part of the world — economic, strategic, political and military power. With that came tensions.
“But the optimists in the room, and everyone is a self-confessed optimist, believe that in the end the drive and the search and the clamour for all prosperity will overcome any of the tensions that are caused by a changing strategic environment,” he said.
Joining Mr Smith in the discussion was Kim Tae Hyo, former senior secretary for National Security in South Korea, Linda Jakobson, who is a visiting professor from the US Studies Centre, and Yoichi Kato, national security correspondent for The Asahi Shimbun.
When moderator Bates Gill, chief executive of the USSC, asked about immediate security concerns in the region, all the speakers nominated miscalculations and unintended incidents that could flare maritime and territorial disputes.
Professor Jakobson said the current maritime tensions between The Philippines and China were at the front of her mind.
“These tensions are playing out around the disputed islands and shoals — I think both parties have been very provocative in their measures at sea,” she said.
She said what seemed like a battle between David and Goliath had the potential to create a serious security challenge in the region if the situation escalated to the point where shots were fired.
Mr Smith also nominated North Korea’s nuclearisation program. He said a lesser risk, and under-appreciated, was Iran’s nuclear program.
Dr Gill said the framework in the region over the past four decades had been largely successful; rapid economic progress, deepening trade and investment and the role of the US as a kind of security guarantor.
“On the back of that framework we’ve had a great ride over the last 40 years … Are we seeing that unravelling?” he said.
Professor Jakobson said in many ways the question about the future framework of the region boiled down to whether or not China wanted to “kick the US out” and take over the role of security guarantor in one way or another.
“If China could wish for anything and get it, I am sure China would like to see over the years the US depart from Asia,” she said.
But Professor Jakobson said the Chinese were pragmatic about the complex geo-strategic landscape and had not set as their goal getting the US out of the region.
Rather, she believed they would like to find a way to push the US further from its shores.
“There is a possibility that the two big countries will learn to live with each other,” she said.
Professor Kim said he did not think US-China relations would repeat Soviet-US relations of the past because it was not an alliance competition, and there were international security pushes on China to show more transparency.
Mr Kato said there were unanswered questions about the future power structure in the region. The US had shifted from uncontested to contested leader and he saw the US allowing China to shape its choices.
This article originally appeared in The Australian.