Introduction: Defining “multipolarity”

Defining “polarity” in international relations is, effectively, a matter of assigning relative power to states in the system — either globally or regionally. This is an essential task for a realist approach to strategy, but one that can prove elusive because scholars and policy practitioners may not agree on what instruments of power matter the most. Even when they do agree on the nature of power in peacetime, that calculation can change dramatically in wartime. States may also assert that certain polarities exist in order to advance their own strategic influence, alignment or wedge strategies against adversaries. Likewise, states will sometimes misread the distribution of power and make assumptions about polarity to their strategic detriment.

As a matter of strategy, therefore, it is important to assess both the trends in power distribution and how other states in the system are interpreting those trends. This requires net assessments of material factors such as economic output, military capability, technological development, demography, and natural resources. It also requires more historically informed, qualitative judgments about the threat assessment, national identity, alignment preferences, political cohesion and strategic culture of individual states in the system. How states act on assumptions about polarity is no less important than the objective reality.

By most objective measurements of national power, the Indo-Pacific today increasingly exhibits attributes of multipolarity. Table 1 uses several key indicators of national power, such as GDP, defence spending and research outputs, to illustrate that there is a measurable pattern of multipolar power distribution in the Indo-Pacific. Granted, material measures alone may suggest that the Indo-Pacific is not entering an era of pure multipolarity. For instance, defence spending and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures could indicate that this remains, at least in part, an era of US unipolarity, as prominent scholars have begun to argue.1

Table 1. National power of Indo-Pacific countries

  GDP 2022 (USD)2 Projected GDP growth by 2028 (%)3 Defence budgets (USD)4 R&D budget (USD)5 # of universities in global top 506
United States 25.46 trillion 2.1 813.3 billion 204.9 billion 16
China 17.96 trillion 3.4 700 billion 434.7 billion 4
Japan 4.23 trillion 0.4 51.4 billion 30.1 billion 2
India 3.39 trillion 6.3 72.6 billion 15.3 billion 0
South Korea 1.67 trillion 2.1 44.2 billion 3.8 billion 1
Indonesia 1.32 trillion 5.0 20.8 billion 34.4 million7 0
Australia 1.68 trillion 2.3 35 billion 8 billion 6

At the same time, the narrower distance between measurements of US and Chinese material power could also be seen as evidence of Sino-American bipolarity on a regional, if not global, basis. Indeed, Beijing has asserted in foreign policy doctrine, including the 2013 proposal for a “New Model of Great Power Relations,” that geopolitics in Asia are fundamentally bipolar and therefore a condominium between the United States and China is the best framework to achieve peace.8 Simultaneously, however, Beijing also asserts that global geopolitics are multipolar, an attempt to marginalise Japan, India, Australia and Korea for advantage in the Indo-Pacific while elevating Russia and the BRICS to try to discredit American influence globally.9 Indeed, during meetings with Vladimir Putin at the October 2023 Belt and Road Summit in Beijing, Xi Jinping went out of his way to emphasise the multipolarity of the global system and the alternative model provided by China and Russia to the US-led order.10

Beijing’s contention that Asian regional dynamics are bipolar and that the global system is multipolar has had many adherents. Surveys by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Pew Research Center, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) and ISEAS-Yousof Ishak Institute indicate that publics and elites in much of the Indo-Pacific believe that China is as powerful or more powerful than the United States.11 The two South Korean governments that preceded the incumbent Yoon Suk-yeol government premised their foreign policy on “strategic ambiguity”, seen by many in Seoul as an appropriate position to take in a bipolar system characterised by US-China competition where Korea had to avoid entrapment while simultaneously maintaining US security guarantees on the Korean peninsula.12 Until recently, Germany and other European states also tended to view the Indo-Pacific as a region that would be dominated by China, with some leaders embracing that global multipolarity vision as a hedge against what the French Foreign Minister once called American “hyperpuisance.”13 Even in the United States, polls by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2014 indicated that almost as many Americans preferred a diplomatic posture in the region centred on China as those who wanted to stay tethered to Japan and other traditional allies.14 This again reflected the assumption that Chinese power was matching, if not surpassing, the United States, and that a bipolar condominium with China was inevitable. In Australia, Lowy Institute polls in the same period showed similar sentiments among the Australian public.15 To this day, critics of AUKUS or the US alliance posit a structure of US-China bipolar competition, ignoring multipolarity and the agency of countries like Japan, India or even Australia itself to shape regional strategic dynamics. Japan alone stood against this trend of embracing bipolarity when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in 2012 and began articulating a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy based on strong alignment with the United States, Australia and India.16

That governments in Washington, Canberra, Seoul, Delhi, Manila and across Europe have now adopted similar perspectives and see strategic opportunities in regional multipolarity reflects a more nuanced appreciation of the distribution of power in Asia, as well as the search for external balancing opportunities in the face of growing Chinese coercion.

That governments in Washington, Canberra, Seoul, Delhi, Manila and across Europe have now adopted similar perspectives and see strategic opportunities in regional multipolarity reflects a more nuanced appreciation of the distribution of power in Asia, as well as the search for external balancing opportunities in the face of growing Chinese coercion.17 Uncertainty about American staying power is one major motivating factor, but there is far more evidence of alignment with and among US allies than there is of hedging against possible US withdrawal. Australia, for example, has embarked on the AUKUS enterprise and reaffirmed the importance of the US alliance in its 2023 Defence Strategic Review. Japanese governments have invested significant political capital in reinterpreting Constitutional authorities to allow greater coalition operations with the United States.18 Korea has put forward an Indo-Pacific Strategy that aligns with the US, Japanese and Australian emphasis on preserving the rules-based order in the region — and articulates an expanded role for Seoul in those efforts.19 Put differently, harnessing multipolarity is more about modernising the traditional US alliance system than it is replacing it.

In addition, it is Chinese behaviour, rather than Chinese power per se, that accounts for the growing recognition among Japan, India and other middle powers that multipolar alignments provide them with greater agency. After all, America’s first response to China becoming the second largest economy in the world in 2010 was to seek stability through a bipolar condominium.20 Washington’s focus on multipolarity emerged later in response to Chinese behaviour — principally Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea in 2015 and economic embargoes against Korea in 2017 and Australia in 2020.21 The future of multipolarity will therefore hinge on China’s intentions as much as any measurements of China’s power (and perhaps secondarily on American intentions, which will be addressed below). Indeed, fluctuations in power — whether economic growth or defence capabilities — may prove less determinative on a year-to-year basis than collective interpretation of Chinese intentions over the same period of time. There are few indications that China under Xi Jinping will reverse course in terms of asserting military and political control over contested areas from the South China Sea to the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, or Himalayas. Nor is Beijing’s statist economic strategy with its focus on dual circulation, political control of the corporate sector, and intellectual property rights theft showing any signs of abatement. The fact that the United States, Japan, Europe and Korea are all strengthening technology export controls, investment screening, supply chain de-risking and “friendshoring” confirms that governments and markets have begun institutionalising these longer-term assumptions about Chinese intentions.22 In short, there is still uncertainty about how adversarial relations with Beijing might become, but not about the general trajectory of Chinese state behaviour.

However, controlling for sudden discontinuity in economic performance, military risk-taking, or national politics – and even allowing for such scenarios — it is likely that multipolarity will become an increasing rather than decreasing feature of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific towards 2030.

In material terms, there is similarly little to indicate that the Chinese economy will return to higher growth rates given these trends. The International Monetary Fund projects that China’s economy will grow 4.16 per cent in 2024,23 while experienced analysts of China’s macroeconomy like Dan Rosen have demonstrated in detail that growth is probably far below the official Chinese figures.24 Few mainstream economists outside of China predict that China’s nominal GDP will surpass the United States by 2030, as many once did. Exogenous shocks to the Chinese, US and global economies are still possible and could change these trajectories, of course, as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and 2020 COVID-19 pandemic have illustrated. Endogenous shocks could hit the US or Chinese economies as well, including mounting levels of national debt that are well understood in the United States, but largely hidden and potentially more volatile in China.25 However, controlling for sudden discontinuity in economic performance, military risk-taking, or national politics — and even allowing for such scenarios — it is likely that multipolarity will become an increasing rather than decreasing feature of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific towards 2030.

DownloadMultipolarity in the Indo-Pacific: Lessons for Australia from the past and present

Historical models of multipolarity

What might a future multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific look like? History provides several models of multipolar systems that are instructive, if not predictive.

The Concert of Europe

From 1815 to 1870, the distribution of power among Britain, Prussia, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia was clearly multipolar, with key competitive advantages held by each: Britain with financial and naval power; Britain and France with overseas empire; Russia with geographical size; France, Prussia and Russia with land power; and Prussia with technological, economic and continental expansion.26 The stability of that system was derived from careful management of the balance of power, reinforced by shared monarchical fear of ideological revolution and ethnic nationalism. For the Courts of Europe, stability and regime maintenance trumped historical grievances and irredentist ambitions.27 The system collapsed into multiple wars from the second half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century because of the consolidation of the German states, the uncontrolled spread of nationalism and ethnic grievance, and ideational divergences as Britain and France became more liberal and Russia and Germany became more authoritarian and revisionist.

The Congress of Vienna, 1815
The Congress of Vienna, 1815Source: Getty

The emerging multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific today shares some attributes with the more stable era of the Concert of Europe, including advanced diplomatic practices (court-based then and multilateral now) and the prevalence of economic interdependence. Efforts by major powers around China to shape a stable balance of power today also resonate with the successful (for a time) effort by European courtiers to maintain stability through alignment as German or Hapsburg power waxed and waned. On the other hand, the prevalence of US power on a global scale, the solidity of formal security treaty arrangements in Asia, and the contest for maritime, rather than continental, supremacy are marked differences that make a new concert of power in the Indo-Pacific unlikely. Regime type also matters more today, and one can imagine the difficulties Castlereagh or Metternich would have had explaining their diplomacy towards authoritarian states in front of Senate Estimates or the US House Foreign Affairs Committee.28 Meanwhile, the entropic forces that tore apart the Concert of Europe in the 19th century, including ethnic nationalism and grievance-based foreign policy, have menacing resonance today.

The 19th and 20th century concert of power in Asia

In many respects, the European concert of power was replicated in Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though Japan defeated China and Russia and the United States eliminated Spanish imperial at the turn of the century, most of this period was characterised by a relatively stable multipolar distribution of power among Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Russia, and a comparatively weak China. There was certainly violence inflicted on indigenous peoples and resident empires across the region by these great powers, but multipolarity generally slowed the ambitions of the rising powers and prevented great power wars of the kind seen in the 20th century. Indeed, American and British diplomats had some success institutionalising multipolarity in the Washington Naval Treaties in 1922, which resulted in the first multilateral treaties inclusive of China to make the Open Door policy, at least nominally, an international agreement.29

This period of relative multipolar stability collapsed with the rising crescendo of nationalism, democracy and Bolshevism across the region, and because the First World War turned the former European colonies into weakened targets for Japanese imperial ambitions as it confronted the United States in a bipolar contest for regional supremacy in the interwar years. In short, while the US ability to manipulate multipolarity in the 19th century to expand its position in Asia was an impressive piece of middle power agency in retrospect, Washington ultimately failed to understand the new power dynamics that emerged after the First World War.30 Japan too played multipolarity to its advantage through the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance and associated acquisition of advanced naval capabilities from Britain, but was driven by a toxic brew of grievance and ambition to challenge the powers with whom it once sought to associate.31 By 1941, the diplomatic framework superimposed on an earlier multipolar distribution of power proved wholly inadequate for the new regional power dynamics that had emerged with the collapse of the Colonial poles.

There are obvious similarities to this earlier system in Asia today in terms of geography and competition in the maritime domain. China’s contemporary ambitions and historical grievances also echo Japan’s a century ago (it is worth remembering that Japan’s aggressive expansionism coincided with a slowdown in its economic growth). However, there are also important differences. The diplomacy of multipolarity in early 20th-century Asia was an artificial construct imposed by declining European powers onto colonies with their own rising sense of grievance and nationhood. Japan burst those bubbles in 1941, not only through military victories but also due to the appeal of Japanese pan-Asian nationalism with key regional constituencies. The battlefield victories of American and Australian forces in 1942 helped to reverse Japanese gains, as did the unmasking of brutality and racism of Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, but historians today often fail to appreciate how much appeal pan-Asian nationalism had at the beginning of the war.

Today, the US-Australia-Japan-India Quad represents a far more significant alignment of maritime democracies than any that emerged in the 1930s, and Japan and Australia have the sorts of mutual security treaties with the United States that would have been unthinkable to American policymakers in the pre-war years.

Today, powers in the Indo-Pacific have greater agency and sovereignty than the inhabitants of the pre-war colonies. States in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific will prove far less vulnerable to revisionist appeals for anti-Western pan-Asianism. However, many of these societies do provide fertile ground for narratives at odds with the stated interests of industrialised democracies, as we have seen with the Global South’s response to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. The collapse of the 19th-century European-led concert of power in Asia is a reminder that the stability of a multipolar order can be shaped by competing ideological narratives as much as by the material distribution or alignment of military, diplomatic and economic power.

In that context, it is worth noting how ideational differences over colonialism and isolationism hobbled the ability of the United States and Great Britain, the two major maritime democracies of the day, to impose and uphold order. In retrospect, those ideological differences were miniscule compared with the threat from authoritarian rivals, but in the 1930s anti-British sentiment was strong in American politics. Today, the US-Australia-Japan-India Quad represents a far more significant alignment of maritime democracies than any that emerged in the 1930s, and Japan and Australia have the sorts of mutual security treaties with the United States that would have been unthinkable to American policymakers in the pre-war years. Nevertheless, ideational gaps among the maritime democracies could inhibit future cooperation, given US elections, Indian approaches to minority rights, and even some of the political ferment within Australia. As such, while the overwhelming and bipartisan trend in each of the Quad countries is towards greater alignment, the pre-war precedent offers a reminder that identity and ideology matter can disrupt these dynamics.

Trilateral multipolarity in the Cold War

A third instructive reference for historical instances of multipolarity is that which emerged with the Sino-American entente in the last two decades of the Cold War. Many international relations scholars of that period have argued that the tripolarity of Sino-US-Soviet relations provided more stability than the earlier bipolarity that characterised Moscow and Beijing’s common alignment against the United States and its allies.32 In fact, that trilateral multipolarity still saw significant violence in Cambodia and later Afghanistan, and might have led to a nuclear war between Moscow and Beijing had battles along the Amur River escalated in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the “China card” was embraced by US presidents as politically diverse as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan because it foreclosed the Soviet Union’s ability to pursue its wider ambitions unchecked, and prompted Moscow to enter Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and other diplomatic initiatives with the United States.33 Multipolarity — or at least tripolarity — contributed to strategic stability even as US relative power declined. Indeed, Richard Nixon previewed what became the China opening in a 1967 article in Foreign Affairs called “Asia after Vietnam” that anticipated a strategy of harnessing nascent multipolarity in the region to preserve a favourable balance of power.34 The strategy became tripolar, but the concept that drove Nixon to China was multipolar.

If there is a parallel to today’s emerging multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific, it is the ability of states to align to restore a balance of power without the presence of security treaties or even common values.

If there is a parallel to today’s emerging multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific, it is the ability of states to align to restore a balance of power without the presence of security treaties or even common values. The “China card” has been replaced by the “India card”, for example. Though India shares democratic norms with the United States, Japan and Australia, Delhi also pursues strategic autonomy in ways that evoke earlier Chinese approaches to alignment with the United States and Japan against the Soviet Union. Vietnam provides a comparable case today as Hanoi seeks strategic autonomy and the preservation of its one-party regime while leveraging growing relationships with the United States, Japan and other powers to shore up a favourable balance of power vis-à-vis China. A second similarity to today was the willingness of the United States and Japan to contribute to the economic development of China as part of the counterbalancing strategy towards the Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform to create a stronger and more prosperous China were inseparable from his goal of deterring and countering the Soviets. Here again, one can see that India and Vietnam’s economic ambitions are intertwined with their strategic concerns about Chinese hegemony. Strategic competition with China is shifting significant investment and supply chains to South and Southeast Asia, particularly to Vietnam. Alignment with the United States and Japan makes these countries both more secure and more prosperous.

View of the Soviet delegation (on left) and United States negotiating team (on right) sitting together at a long table during Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Vienna, Austria circa 1970
View of the Soviet delegation (on left) and United States negotiating team (on right) sitting together at a long table during Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Vienna, Austria circa 1970.Source: Getty

However, the lessons from the tripolarity of the 1970s and 1980s are limited. The most notable difference is the unprecedented levels of economic interdependence across all the poles in today’s multipolarity, in contrast to the Sino-US-Soviet triangle, with their attendant complications for geopolitical and geostrategic calculations. Another significant difference is that Moscow’s objective in the tripolar order of old was to pose maritime security dilemmas and to pressure US alliances in Asia to draw Washington’s attention away from the central front of the Cold War in Europe. In other words, Asia was the secondary theatre for Moscow in that trilateral game. Today, of course, the central front of strategic competition is the Indo-Pacific itself, but that in turn focuses attention on the advantage of an extra-regional “NATO” or Europe “card” for Australia, Japan or other US allies to play in the Indo-Pacific.

The historical lessons

Though these earlier models of multipolarity are not a guide for the future of regional dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, they do highlight the variables that will matter. Specifically:

  1. Capacity-building matters. Hegemonic powers will leverage multipolarity and enhance alignment by contributing to other states’ national capacity and resilience when they are driven to do so by a deteriorating strategic environment: Britain with Japan in the 19th century; the United States and Japan with China in the tripolar era; or the United States and Japan with India or Vietnam today.
  2. Economic advantage matters. Non-aligned states will move away from strategic autonomy and align in a multipolar setting when they are facing a deteriorating external security environment — but they will be more likely to do so when there is economic advantage and capacity building to compensate for their relative loss of strategic autonomy (Japan with Britain in 1902, China with the United States and Japan in 1972, India with the United States and Japan today).
  3. Partnership diversification matters. Non-aligned states will temper their strategic autonomy more readily in a multipolar setting when there are other middle powers to help manage dependence on major powers: China turned to Japan to calibrate alignment with the United States during the Cold War, and India and Vietnam are turning to Japan to calibrate alignment with the United States today.
  4. Ideology matters. The Concert of Europe and its extension to Asia in the 19th century was effective because the major states were mostly aligned against self-determination. That system collapsed rapidly when demands for self-determination gave way to revolution and pan-Asianism. A new order was hobbled by the inability of the United States and Britain to align around common values and foreclose Japanese expansionism before 1941. Though pan-Asianism has less currency today, anti-Western narratives can still be harnessed by Beijing to impose costs on the United States and Australia for multipolar alignments like the Quad or AUKUS. And ideational friction among the democracies can also limit alignment.

The trajectory of multipolar security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

The thickening defence cooperation among US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific today suggests that key states will continue seeking security through external balancing in the face of Chinese revisionism, but not necessarily through formal collective security arrangements. That’s not to say that such arrangements were not contemplated early in the post-war period. For example, the lead negotiator on the 1951 security treaties with Australia, Japan and the Philippines, John Foster Dulles, proposed a “Pacific Pact” to match the trans-Atlantic security provided by NATO.35 Some Asian leaders were eager for such a pact, particularly those like Syngman Rhee of South Korea or Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China (colloquially, Taiwan) who wanted an Asian NATO to align their countries behind a common concept of force.36 For that very reason, however, Tokyo and Canberra were not enthusiastic, and Washington moved away from the idea, fearing entrapment in a Korea or Taiwan war that would distract from its strategic priorities in Europe.37

Uncertainty about the merits of moving from security networking towards a broader collective security arrangement today can also be attributed to fears of entrapment, but a larger factor compared to the early Cold War is the extent of countries’ economic interdependence with China. During the early Cold War, NATO members’ trade with the Soviet Union rarely approached one per cent of all trade for those states.38 In contrast, in 2022, US trade with China represented 13 per cent of all US trade; for Australia, 28.4 per cent of all trade; for Korea, 21.9 per cent of all trade; and for Japan, 20.3 per cent of all trade.39 It is no wonder, then, that states have been more willing to put that economic interdependence at risk only in the aftermath of Chinese military or mercantile coercion that threatens more fundamental interests in sovereignty and security. Japan’s bipartisan embrace of the Quad, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and enhanced defence cooperation with Australia and the United States accelerated amid Chinese coercion following the nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands in 2012.40 India’s enthusiasm for the Quad and repairing strategic ties with Australia flowed directly from China’s deadly use of military force against Indian troops in the Galwan Valley in 2020.41 The Philippines’ agreement of new defence guidelines with the United States in May 2023 and enhanced military exercises and access for US forces was propelled by China’s aggressive intercepts of Philippine Navy and Coast Guard ships around Second Thomas Shoals and Scarborough Shoals that year.42

Australia hosted key partners India, Japan and the United States for Exercise Malabar 2023
Australia hosted key partners India, Japan and the United States for Exercise Malabar 2023.Source: Australian Department of Defence

These accelerations in defence cooperation are remarkable for the speed with which governments have acted in response to Chinese coercion. This is a marked contrast to the US and most other regional governments’ responses to Chinese maritime coercion a decade ago, which were more measured and far less decisive. A CSIS study of maritime coercion in 2017 found that Beijing achieved tactical success in the East and South China Sea on multiple occasions between 2010 and 2015 and recommended that cost-imposition on Beijing could not be fully achieved in reactive tactical operations alone and would require a focus on strategic alignments and counterbalancing.43 Governments have clearly internalised that lesson in recent years. Multipolarity provides states with agility and more options to impose strategic costs on Beijing and to calibrate when needed in a way that a NATO-style collective security arrangement would prevent. This is particularly important for India, the Philippines and other states that have other national identities ranging from non-alignment to ASEAN centrality. States in a non-kinetic, contested environment will naturally want a diverse playbook for their statecraft.

At the same time, however, the Indo-Pacific’s current variable geometry has its own limitations in terms of delivering dissuasion and deterrence. The lack of common strategic objectives, joint and combined command and control architecture, shared requirements and common platforms, and more extensive joint exercise schedules would all become major liabilities should like-minded regional powers be forced to operate jointly in response to a contingency. By way of historical comparison, the current network of allies and partners is probably more ready to operate together than the hapless American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (APDACOM) that came apart at the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942 — but not as ready for collective action as NATO or the US-Korea Combined Forces Command, which have well developed strategic objectives, operational plans, requirements definition processes and exercise schedules to test all of the above.44 The motto of US Forces on the Korean peninsula is “we fight tonight.” No such readiness exists with the emerging network of allies and partners in the region.

The core pathfinders of this new multipolar security dynamic — Australia, the United States, and Japan — will need strategies to enhance dissuasion and deterrence by seizing on crisis opportunities to set new precedents and patterns of cooperation. The design should be deliberate, in other words, but implementation might continue to be opportunistic.

The core pathfinders of this new multipolar security dynamic — Australia, the United States, and Japan — will need strategies to enhance dissuasion and deterrence by seizing on crisis opportunities to set new precedents and patterns of cooperation

There is every reason to believe that Beijing will continue providing those opportunities. If that assessment is wrong, then the requirement for collective action will be correspondingly reduced. However, experienced policy experts clearly expect the tempo of strategic competition and Beijing’s appetite for coercion to remain high. In 2021, New York University and the American broadcasting company CNBC developed a quantitative methods model drawing on the input of over 100 former senior officials and experts from the United States, Australia, Japan and India and concluded that strategic cooperation between and within the Quad would become more regularised, specific and operational in the coming decade.45 The model also predicted that non-Quad members such as Canada, Korea, New Zealand and the Philippines would increasingly seek to participate in the grouping’s nascent collective security activities. Beijing, the scholars predicted, would attempt wedge strategies against members of the Quad but these would largely backfire as the target countries assessed that China’s ultimate goal was hegemonic influence. Two years on, that quantitative model has proven highly accurate.

What would the pathway from the current multipolar variable geometry to collective security look like if the NYU/CNBC predictive model continues to prove correct? If one assumes that the imperative of dissuasion and deterrence capabilities steadily outweighs the risk of decoupling from the Chinese economy and the attendant risks of escalation and relative loss of freedom of action, it is possible to see three stages of implementation, each driven by new rounds of coercive behaviour by Beijing. In aggregate, this evolution would represent a shift from multipolarity towards bipolarity. However, the initial stages would be enhanced by the agility, calibration and freedom of action afforded by multipolarity. At each stage, the United States would seek synergies between US operational requirements and the self-defence requirements of other states in the system.

Current phase: Enhanced security cooperation under multipolarity

  • Implementation of Quad working groups around maritime security;46
  • Increased US, Japan, Australia support for maritime domain awareness and associated capacity-building in Southeast Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia);47
  • Increased Korean commitment to participation in maritime security and capacity building under President Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy;48
  • Regular US, Japan, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Philippines, United Kingdom participation in Talisman Sabre, Malabar, Keen Edge and other traditional bilateral or minilateral exercises;49
  • Increased intelligence diplomacy and sharing of assessments among Quad, Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD), and with Southeast Asia;50
  • Regularised summit and 2+2 level meetings of the Quad, TSD, US-Japan-ROK trilateral;51
  • Increased alignment of economic security strategies and de-risking (export controls from US-Japan-Netherlands to include Korea and others);52
  • Expanded coordination on capacity-building for Pacific Islands countries around maritime security, coast guard, fisheries, counter-corruption, etc. among Australia, the United States, Japan, Korea, India, the United Kingdom and France;53
  • Deliberate progression of defence cooperation agreements across all 2+2s and other arrangements (e.g., Australia-Japan 2+2 statements advancing US-Japan-Australia trilateral agenda, etc.);54
  • Expanded declaratory policy (though short of binding treaties) comparable to US-Japan-Korea Camp David statement or October 2022 Australia-Japan leaders’ joint statement articulating collective security concepts;55
  • Expanded collective support for critical infrastructure in Southeast Asia and the Pacific (e.g., undersea cables).56
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a trilateral summit at Camp David, August 2023
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a trilateral summit at Camp David, August 2023.Source: Getty

Phase two (if coercion increases): Federated security under multipolarity

  • Establishment of a standing joint naval task force (supported logistically and with strategic intelligence by US Seventh Fleet with rotating command among participating countries—Japan, Australia, Canada, Singapore, New Zealand and possibly India, Philippines, United Kingdom, etc.). Its mission would be to plan and coordinate among regional naval exercises and to provide rapid response command for humanitarian and disaster relief or other operations as needed;
  • Implementation of federated defence production (e.g., Japan and Korea associated status with Australia’s Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance (GWEO) Enterprise or AUKUS Pillar Two; Japan procurement of E-7 wedgetail or AIR 2000; joint India-Japan development of maritime patrol aircraft; etc.);
  • Increased use of Diamond Shield and other AI-driven command and control solutions that do not require physical joint and combined commands and retain sovereign decision-making;
  • Coordination on access, basing and overflight (ABO) requirements in Southeast Asia (exercising, pre-positioning, access agreements advanced in concert by the United States, Japan and Australia, with partners’ consent);
  • Increased alignment of cyber strategy, doctrine and policy between Canberra, Tokyo and Washington;
  • Intelligence-sharing moves from assessments to actionable and operational intelligence among more partners;
  • Collective critical infrastructure agreements with more states (covering 5G, undersea cables, “smart cities”, etc.);
  • Passage of necessary legislation to implement the above, including security clearance legislation in Japan, defence export control reforms in the United States, etc.;
  • Enhanced connectivity with NATO (a Headquarters in Japan, joint exercises, etc.)

Phase three (if coercion becomes kinetic): Collective security

  • Joint Statement on Collective Security (“an attack on one is an attack on all”) and the potential negotiation of treaty commitments, possibly with NATO;
  • Establishment of joint and combined headquarters among the most able and willing states (Australia, Japan, Philippines, Korea and the United States);
  • Enhanced defence cooperation agreements with other important regional states (India, Indonesia, Singapore and New Zealand);
  • Formal agreements on access, basing and overflight in select countries;
  • Integrated operational plans among US treaty allies.

The purpose of this concept paper is not to endorse or predict the third phase of outright collective security described above. This would be imprudent in the current strategic environment and would represent a failure of emerging strategies for dissuasion, deterrence and engagement should the collective security option become necessary. However, uncertainty about China’s intentions and the need to dissuade Beijing from further coercive measures have been the major drivers of networked security cooperation to date, and will continue to influence the pace at which states in a multipolar Asia are willing to accept the risks associated with collective security in future. The NYU/CNBC methodology has been as thorough as any in providing an informed assessment of future cooperation in the Quad and networked security more broadly, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that discontinuity is becoming less surprising. In 2022, few experts would have predicted that Finland and Sweden would join NATO. In 2012, few experts would have predicted that Japan would essentially double its defence spending within a five-year time frame. In 1941, no experts were predicting that the United States and Britain would form a combined chiefs of staff across their two governments.

Arguably, the most significant obstacle to China’s peaceful rise would be collective counterbalancing — hence Beijing’s immediate and enduring diplomatic attacks on the Quad, AUKUS and defence arrangements between the Philippines, United States, Japan and Australia.

For the variable geometry of defence cooperation under multipolarity to have strategic effects on Beijing’s calculations — that is, if these alignments are to enhance dissuasion and deterrence — it must also anticipate the requirements of collective security. Arguably, the most significant obstacle to China’s peaceful rise would be collective counterbalancing — hence Beijing’s immediate and enduring diplomatic attacks on the Quad, AUKUS and defence arrangements between the Philippines, United States, Japan and Australia. At the same time, containment is not the objective of US, Australian, Japanese or Indian policy. For example, the increased use of “de-risking” rather than “decoupling” by US and other policymakers to describe the goals of economic security indicates that governments expect robust economic, social and cultural interactions to continue with China, even as the military elements of strategic competition may assume more confrontational forms. In public opinion surveys by CSIS in 2020 and the USSC in 2022, no more than 20 per cent of the publics of the United States, Japan, the European Union, and Australia favoured complete decoupling from China.57 Nevertheless, Beijing’s charges of containment do highlight the challenges that collective security would pose to China’s ambitions under Xi Jinping. It will be essential to send the strategic signal that Beijing’s actions could eventuate in the collective security arrangements China has sought to avoid.

In addition to strategic signalling, enhanced multipolar defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific would help to shore up the resilience of weaker states against Chinese coercion and would shorten the decision-making timeline required to execute operational plans should deterrence fail. For these reasons, enhanced defence cooperation under multipolarity should anticipate and lay the foundations for all the phases listed above, even if the clear intent is to avoid departing from phase one. Indeed, multipolarity offers smaller states advantages if there is an evolution towards greater collective security. In a purely bipolar or unipolar setting, smaller states in alliances face more acute versions of the Thucydides Dilemma — the concept that these smaller states risk abandonment if they pursue too much autonomy vis-à-vis the hegemonic state or, just as equally, entrapment if they are too compliant with a hegemonic state’s aims. In a multipolar setting, the leading state is more dependent on the smaller states to maintain a favourable balance of power, enhancing the agency of those smaller states — particularly if they are networked with their peers. Enhanced Australia-Japan, Australia-Korea or Australia-India strategic relations reinforce each of those states’ influence on the strategic decision-making of the United States as long as those states are not pursuing autonomy and risking abandonment.

Thus, in terms of dissuasion, deterrence, building sovereign capabilities, leverage vis-à-vis Beijing and sovereign influence vis-à-vis Washington, Australia stands to benefit from a deliberate strategy of harnessing strategic relations with other states in a multipolar Indo-Pacific, predicated on peaceful competition but prepared for collective security should it become necessary.

These assumptions largely inform Australian defence concepts already. The question is whether Australia is organised to gain an advantage in this new dynamic.

Conclusion and recommendations

In summary, multipolarity offers multiple advantages for Australia to enhance its strategic agency within the Indo-Pacific. States like Japan, India and now Korea that see similar opportunities will be drawn to greater cooperation with Canberra. This alignment will enhance Australia’s already considerable influence in Washington — and perhaps more importantly allow Australia to reinforce the agency of those actors in their relations with the United States. Strengthened alignment with these other states that collectively exceed China’s economic, diplomatic and military power will give Australia greater leverage vis-à-vis Beijing, as long as the emphasis of these efforts rests on balancing influence rather than collective containment.

The multipolar character of the Indo-Pacific is not the only reality of international relations in this region, of course. Aspects of unipolarity and bipolarity still, as noted. There are still strong elements of regional economic integration. Contested ideological narratives in the region do not align perfectly with the distribution of power. Yet framing strategic approaches in terms of multipolarity as one layer of reality in the region brings enormous opportunities for a state seeking to preserve an open regional order free of coercion and to punch above its weight in terms of shaping the regional strategic environment.

In order to do so, Australian policymakers should consider the following policy options.

  1. Utilise 1.5-track dialogues and gaming to align strategic objectives with other key states. Government-to-government strategic talks can become mired in near-term tactical concerns, as governments will be inclined to protect current equities, sovereignty, and freedom of manoeuvre. Most of Australia’s key strategic partners have research institutions that are close enough to government to allow informed but less constrained strategic deliberations on the future agenda for defence cooperation. Staging simulations or policy dialogues that bring together officials and experts can provide useful forums for testing both new ideas and established assumptions within Australian strategic and foreign policy alike.
  2. Strengthen regional expertise in the Department of Defence. The growing importance of defence cooperation in a multipolar Indo-Pacific will require regional experts who are trained and empowered to pursue new opportunities for defence industrial relations, joint training and operations, and intelligence-sharing. The Defence Attaché program should be designed to produce not just intelligence analysts but also policy entrepreneurs. Postings overseas by operationally proficient junior officers should be rewarded in promotion decisions. Key embassies such as Japan, Korea, India or the Philippines should establish offices (or officers) for defence industrial cooperation similar to the Offices of Defence Cooperation in US embassies. Within the Australian Defence Department itself, officials should have more opportunities for short courses focused on the region at the Australian National University’s National Security College or with think tanks such as the USSC, CSIS, RAND, or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The Defence College should include more courses by regional experts to understand the strategic, historical and political context for building partnerships with those countries.
  3. Accelerate discussions with Japan and Korea on GWEO and AUKUS Pillar Two. Legislation to reform International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) in the US Congress in the interests of implementing AUKUS will be limited to Australia and the United Kingdom, but there is broader US Congressional and industry support for federated defence production with other US allies in the Indo-Pacific. Defence should accelerate discussions with Japan and Korea on opportunities to “dock” (in Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles’ words) into AUKUS and GWEO. These discussions will have to be predicated on participation without the planned ITAR exemptions for Australia and with the successful passage of security clearance legislation and other measures by Japan and Korea to protect sensitive information. Those procedures will take time, but they will be expedited if concrete proposals for cooperation on hypersonics, autonomous vehicles or quantum are held in tandem.
  4. Integrate the capacity-building strategies of key regional countries through US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). Senior Australian officers embedded in the component commands of US INDOPACOM are well-positioned to command cells with liaison officers from the United States, Japan, Korea, India and the United Kingdom that would be responsible for integrated planning for capacity building in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, particularly in the area of maritime security. This integrated planning cell would focus on resilience and capacity within cooperating states, as well as requirements for access, basing and overflight being developed at INDOPACOM.
  5. Embed Australian officers in US command structures in Japan and Korea. Australian officers are currently embedded in INDOPACOM and the UN Command in Korea. As the United States determines command and control relationships with Japan’s new Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) and explores operational aspects of Korea’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy, it would be useful to place Australian officers in more central positions. For example, an Australian O-6 embedded with US Forces Japan (USFJ) might participate in the bilateral US-Japan Alliance Coordination Mechanism while an officer embedded in US Forces Korea (USFK) could contribute to planning for Korea’s enhanced role in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
  6. Develop an integrated regional security engagement plan. Effective security cooperation should integrate all of government in a region-wide plan that leverages the access and capabilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Federal Police, Home Affairs and the intelligence community. The Australian Government would be well-positioned to prioritise resources and anticipate requirements if an interagency matrix were established giving visibility to key senior officials on lines of effort in the region across the diplomatic, informational, military and economic instruments of power and shared and coordinated in ways that allowed greater alignment with the United States, Japan, Korea, India and active European powers like the United Kingdom or France.
  7. Establish a declaratory policy that highlights multipolarity. Speeches and statements by ministers and senior officials can reinforce Australian strategic intent with respect to the emerging multipolar dynamics in the region. Stabilisation with Beijing will continue to be an important, if unpredictable, aspect of Australian national security, as will engagement with Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The missing piece of the narrative between stabilisation and listening to the southern tier of the Indo-Pacific is Canberra’s vision for the role of powers like Japan, India, Korea and Indonesia (this comes up frequently in USSC Track 2 dialogues with experts in those countries). Bilateral meetings offer one medium to articulate that vision, but a deliberate narrative about Canberra’s intent to strengthen partnership with those active middle powers to shape the regional environment would have two benefits: it would add credibility and momentum to achieving the objectives listed above, and it would signal in the stabilisation policy with Beijing that Australia is well-situated in terms of its wider regional partnerships.