It is not the competition between superpowers as the concept of G2 dictates. It is a G-Zero world, where the superpowers have failed to exercise leadership and every nation must fend for itself. In this scenario, small and middle powers must enter a coalition to fill the vacuum in global power politics.
BY LEE JAEHYON
At least in the past 10 years, there has been a growing trend of superpower competition between the United States and China. The two superpowers have put forward such grand visions and strategies as Pivot to Asia, New Type of Great Power Relations, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, among others.
Two things are clear. First, these are not simple foreign policies or strategies of the superpowers, but instruments of superpower competition to outwit or discredit opponents and to secure the support of other countries. Second, the main battlefield of the superpowers has invariably been Asia, particularly the Asia Pacific, East Asia or Indo-Pacific, depending on how one imagines it.
Increasingly, the concept of a G-Zero world has also gained prominence. In the past, the term “Group of Two” (G2) was used to describe the world order shaped by two great powers. With G2, the global audience expected vision and principles for a global order from the two superpowers. After all, the two countries – the United States and China – are the most powerful economically and militarily. It is debatable, however, if their leadership will be supported voluntarily by other countries.
G-Zero used to mean there was no single hegemonic or dominant power in the global order. Today, G-Zero means that neither the United States nor China can shape the world order nor assume the global leadership role based on the voluntary support from other countries.
Some have expected that China, as an emerging power, would come up with a new vision or order, but it seems that patience has worn thin as Beijing fails to suggest an alternative. Indeed, questions surrounding the Chinese blueprint for the world are growing and doubt is mounting that China will suggest an alternative global order anytime soon. China’s BRI is also increasingly causing negative side effects in recipient countries. Recent Chinese abrasive and assertive measures, such as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, only magnifies suspicions that there will never be a benevolent China. In fact, it generated negative outcomes that gave the United States an opportunity to discredit China further. Besides, China’s outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic through mask diplomacy hardly earned positive responses.
At the other end of the spectrum, the United States is not any better. The United States gave up its traditional foreign policy principles and derailed from its old strategic track very quickly, showing little respect for its allies. Exploitation has replaced cooperation in its relationships with allies and partners. The United States’ exits from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Agreement on climate change were indicative of its contempt for multilateralism. Its weaponization of trade does not just affect China, but its allies and partners as well. To top it all off, how the United States is managing the COVID-19 crisis has become a global concern.
This is the context in which arguments about the role of middle powers and a coalition of small and middle powers have emerged in the Asia-Pacific region. The middle powers maintain that the vacuum of global leadership must be filled by a joint effort of reliable and confident middle powers. The combined force of the middle powers may not be enough to defeat a superpower. However, to fill the power void, a credible and reliable alternative of middle powers would make a difference. The emphasis here is a matter of moral persuasion, not military mobilisation.
The coalition of small and middle powers has an edge – strength in numbers. When superpowers try to amass the support of as many countries as they can, such a coalition gives small and middle powers the leverage of collective power. During the Cold War, the term “containment” was used to describe the strategy adopted by superpowers to outmanoeuvre and isolate their adversaries. However, it is not only the superpowers that can contain something. A coalition of small and medium powers with strong ties amongst themselves will also be able to “contain” and “isolate” unruly superpowers.
Such a coalition has two choices. Firstly, they can collaborate to reinforce the elements of liberal order, including rules-based order, free trade and multilateralism. These elements are presently being challenged or abandoned by superpowers. The regional order has served the interests of regional countries in the post-World War Two era, bringing about economic prosperity and stability in the region. Secondly, the coalition may work to expand the room for small and middle powers to manoeuvre in the region. The two options need not be exclusive, but can be mutually fortifying.
Whether we use the term “middle power alternative” or “small and middle powers cooperation”, the key phrase is “strong ties and close cooperation” among regional countries. There should be enormous efforts to build the coalition among regional countries and cooperation based on strategic consensus. This is the point where the Republic of Korea’s (ROK, hereafter South Korea) New Southern Policy (NSP) must engage. The policy intends to build stronger and deeper ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India. The ties built should serve as a springboard for deeper strategic cooperation between ASEAN and Korea, which is facing a similar strategic pressure and dilemma in the G-Zero world.
The NSP’s goals of “valuing and connecting people” and of building “prosperity based on mutual benefits” will not be complete without strategic stability in the region. The superpower competition to maximise their self-interests does not guarantee the interests of small and middle powers in the region; indeed, superpower competition will undermine overall regional stability.
The NSP’s Peace pillar aims to build “a community which can contribute to maintaining and stabilizing regional peace”. Now is the time for NSP to put more energy and resources to realise the “Peace” goal. This is a way to facilitate the attainment of goals in the other two pillars as well, namely People and Prosperity.
The first step to strengthen peace cooperation is by upgrading strategic dialogue with ASEAN Member States (AMS). It begins with understanding each other’s strategic dilemmas and positions, while sharing individual strategies. The efforts will eventually lead to the building of a strategic consensus in the turbulent environment of the G-Zero world. Furthermore, the channel of strategic communication should not be confined to a particular administration whether in South Korea or in AMS. Thus, we should establish an institutional arrangement for strategic dialogue and cooperation based on a strategic epistemic community with a common strategic outlook.
Lee Jaehyon is Senior Fellow in Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Seoul