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  • A Pilot Fish Returns to School:Australia Explores New Approaches in East Asia's Evolving Regional Order
  • Andrew Carr (bio)

East Asia's love of fish is well known. Fish are integral to the region's diet, culture, and strategic thought. South Koreans talk of their nation as a "shrimp among whales," while Singapore's military strategy is described as that of a "poisoned shrimp"—an unpalatable choice for the large and hungry.

Australians also love their seafood. Many would recognize their nation's strategic approach in the behavior of the pilot fish. These small fish swim in the shadow of a much larger predator to gain protection. But after decades of utility for Australia, the merits of this approach are threatened. Canberra is now quietly exploring alternatives, seeking protection in a school or loosely coordinated group of similarly sized fish. This essay will explore this inflection moment by first describing Australia's view of the contemporary East Asian order. It will then examine the new roles that the country is seeking to play in this order and the viability of its alternative approaches.

Australian Conceptions of the East Asian Order

Australia does not have a clear vision for regional order in East Asia, nor does it see the need to develop one. As a country formed from Western dominance in Asia, and in a region that is unlikely to become explicitly liberal anytime soon, Australia knows that the current order is about as good as it could hope for. Any deliberately imagined Australian vision would do little more than mirror today's world.

Australia is also not clear about the nature and scope of the changes that are occurring. Its policymakers have a tendency to swing between expecting nothing to change—with both China and the United States seeing the light and returning to their "appropriate" roles—and believing that everything will change, and at a scale and pace never before seen. Embodying this turbulent swell, the Australian foreign minister views the region as caught [End Page 45] "in a strategic holding pattern."1 Yet while wary of change, Australia is not unwilling to change. As such, it is not a status quo–oriented power as the middle-power literature often assumes.2

Instead, Australia is best seen as a stability-oriented power. As Hedley Bull noted, from the 1970s onward, Canberra's policymakers "came to gradually recognize that Australia's interests lay not simply in bolstering up the power and presence of the United States…but rather in an equilibrium among all the great powers."3 This nuance has been obscured at times, yet as Hugh White, principal author of the 2000 defense white paper explains, even under the conservative government of John Howard from 1996 through 2007, "Australia's primary interest [was] in the stable strategic balance itself."4 For this reason, Canberra has consistently welcomed Asia's rise—including China—well aware that this could change the region and undermine the U.S. position.5

Australian leaders have tended to reject hierarchical assessments of Asia's order, for both normative and pragmatic reasons. As such, while acutely aware that the Sino-U.S. relationship is increasingly competitive, policymakers have preferred to focus on the health of the global rules-based order. How well or poorly each great power supports this order is thus more important than the precise balance of their relationships (short of war).

As such, while the United States is today a status quo power seeking to hold Asia's actors and institutions in place—for instance, by rejecting the proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—Australia desires mediated and manageable change that sustains the regional order. Its overriding concern is that East Asia remain "a world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small."6 As such, once checks and balances were in [End Page 46] place and clear regional support for the AIIB had emerged, Australia signed on to the new institution, regardless of U.S. displeasure.

The central tension within this approach is thus not whether to choose between the United States and China (of which there is no question), but rather what kinds of change Australia should support. An...


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