Narratives that confound strategic thinking in Asia

Asia World

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

In the end, it is decisions made by people — prime ministers, presidents and their advisers, given half a chance — and not just the backdrop of history that frames their choice, that shape the course of international affairs. At no time is this clearer than it is today.

US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, 9 November 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, 9 November 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

The consequences of President Donald Trump’s populist assault on the post-war liberal rules-based economic order; the disconnect between President Xi Jinping’s China dream and international geopolitical reality; former British prime minister David Cameron’s hapless stumble into Brexit; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own-goal on RCEP against all best advice; or the personal imprint of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea on the downward spiral in Japan–South Korea relations are present examples that continue to play out across the global stage.

There is a plausible view that the default condition in human affairs is a state of anarchy. The intellectual quest of the ANU’s Hedley Bull was to mobilise the forces for global order over an anarchical international society. The myriad inclinations to lack of respect for humankind and evidence-free diatribes that claim attention day by day on the world-wide-web are a modern manifestation of a disturbingly anarchic world.

How does good order and reason prevail against all these odds?

The human experience of working together in teams and of creating frameworks for cooperative behaviour and its noble, religious and other inspirations, conditions the ordering of responsible societies. The multi-layered order of the nation state encourages civic duty and rational consideration of social choices through institutions, norms and customs that suppress the human tendency to chaos.  Yet, while it may be true that the normal condition of mankind is not instinctive ‘nationalism’ or treating those different from ourselves as other, these are nonetheless important drivers in human society. Thus, managing productive interactions between people while suppressing the tendency to chaos is both important for mutual understanding and in making progress towards the resolution of collective problems.

The institutional arrangements that validate and support positive relationships in society are also present in international affairs. Leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders need therefore to take care in the management of international relationships and in understanding the implications of the choices about the institutions that shape them. It’s reassuring to observe when stakeholders, behaving rationally, give due consideration to the strategic interests of all the parties that are involved. Yet, often, is collective rational strategic calculation overwhelmed by ingrained narratives, formed in times and circumstances that fail simple tests against contemporary relevance.

Every political leader and policy maker in Australia, for example, should know some basic facts about their country’s circumstance: that over 60 per cent of all Australia’s export trade is destined for the economies of Northeast Asia; that over 60 per cent of Northeast Asia’s externally procured strategic raw materials is supplied from Australia; and that a quarter of Japan’s energy and roughly the same share of China’s imported raw materials come from Australia.

These data are critical to understanding both Australia’s and Northeast Asia’s mutual strategic interest in the multilateral trading order and the rules that, despite their weaknesses, still make it work. That’s why Japan, China, South Korea, and Australia have so much at stake in ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiative, which beyond its objective to deepen regional integration and buttress regional economic growth, seeks above all to defend the WTO global trading order with a huge statement for international openness by the largest economic grouping in the world — even minus India.

‘Neglecting the function of narrative in policy development … deprives international strategic thinking of vital information required to envisage more sophisticated scenarios for shared security and prosperity’, writes Jacob Taylor in this week’s lead essay. Research in neuroscience and psychology demonstrates that narratives do not simply exist ‘out there’ in the world, but are ‘physically embodied in patterns of neuronal, emotional and psychological activity. Limiting international strategic thinking to security and economic interests is unlikely to stop subjective narratives from overthrowing rational strategic outcomes’.

Be it the now-retired US-led strategy of multi-faceted engagement with China, or Washington’s current view of China as a strategic competitor — both strategies are ‘constrained and propelled by an implicit mythology about itself (‘the United States as liberal champion’) or the other (‘China as national threat’).’

The danger is that subjective narratives shape strategic thinking with worrying blind spots.

The ‘China as threat’ narrative interprets the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) pervasive yet opaque influence in China as evidence of a coordinated system of control that threatens US interests. A significant element in the policy community in Australia apparently buys the same story.  But that story precludes consideration of how international economic interdependence is an instrument of security — economic interdependence with China pluralises and constrains China’s interests and mitigates security risks.

The function of implicit narratives in strategic thinking is no more acute than in current attempts by the United States to decouple from China in areas of basic science research and advanced technology. But, as Taylor asks, does the story of a ‘winner-takes-all contest between monolithic national actors … offer space for the United States and its allies like Australia to assess the risks of disruption to global supply chains, fragmentation of international cooperation on research, cross-border data flows or protection of IP?’ The facts are that Chinese firms and organisations generate close to a third of international patents in the field of artificial intelligence, account for over a fifth of the world’s R&D expenditure and author over a fifth of global peer-reviewed publications (a vast number of which are co-authored with US collaborators) — and these figures are set to rise for years to come.

‘Analysing a specific policy in terms of the genealogy of the story that drives it helps to expose how emotional and subjective factors — and not just explicit economic or security interests — shape international strategic thinking’ says Taylor.

This warning is timely as we consider the contest of narratives for strategic dominance in the centres of power in Asia today: about China’s inexorable rise and one-dimensional ambition; how US bilateralism will make ‘America great again’; how India can find its modern future through appeal to Gandhi’s ‘self-sufficiency’ creed; or nationalist narratives about Japan and South Korea in each country.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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