The Challenge for Small States in Navigating Turbulent Geopolitical Times
Kevin Rudd's Remarks to the Conference on the 100th Anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew’s Birth in Singapore
The following is the full text of the remarks, as delivered, made by The Hon. Dr. Kevin Rudd AC, Australia's Ambassador to the United States, and Founding Chair, Center for China Analysis, Asia Society Polity Institute, to the Conference on the 100th Anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew’s Birth in Singapore.
Note: Kevin Rudd spoke in this address in his personal capacity, and not on the behalf of the Australian Government nor in his capacity as Founding Chair of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI).
I thank the conference organizers and the Government of Singapore for their kind invitation to address this conference honoring the life, career and contribution of Singapore’s first prime minister and its greatest statesman — Lee Kuan Yew (LKY).
It was my privilege to meet LKY on several occasions after he had retired and while I was still serving as prime minister of my own country. I found him a source of sage counsel for various visiting Western barbarians (including myself) as we sought to peer through a glass dimly to understand the emerging geopolitical fault lines of the post-Cold War world.
I also admired him for his singular political determination in building this modern republic after Singapore’s turbulent separation from Malaysia more than half a century ago.
LKY was a man who knew instinctively that his vocation was politics and he pursued his mission for his country, his region and the world with passion, absolute determination and the powers of sharp persuasion. His vision was for a prosperous people, a secure region and a stable world — notwithstanding the geopolitical turbulence surrounding him.
He sought to do so through a deeply realist lens trained on the complex shoals he had to navigate, matched by a deeply pragmatic view of politics and public policy, yet still tempered by his own intellectual formation during Atlee’s post-war government in the decade before Singapore’s independence.
Against these measures, LKY’s achievements were remarkable.
We miss his wisdom today as we seek to navigate a new set of geo-political shoals — with the rise of Xi Jinping’s China, America’s response to it, and the impact of this profound strategic competition (including the growing risk of crisis, conflict, and war) on smaller states across the vast expanses of the Indo-Pacific region.
Our Changing Strategic Environment
As part of these celebrations of LKY’s life, I have been asked today to address the challenges facing small states given our turbulent geopolitical circumstances.
I’m happy to do so.
I do so in a personal capacity as a former Australian prime minister, a friend of this country, and someone who cares about the future of the region we share. I don’t therefore speak as Australia’s Ambassador to the United States or as an official envoy of the Australian Government.
My interest is to contribute to our wider conversation on how best to preserve the peace, prosperity, and sustainability of this region — a region which will determine so much of the fate of humankind during the 21st century.
Henry Kissinger, like LKY another remarkable elder statesman, said to me some years ago when I was setting up a new think tank [the Asia Society Policy Institute] in New York, that the critical question to always ask ourselves is: “what is really happening in the world?” — as opposed to what the current accepted discourse, in the millions of words that are pumped out every day describing what we once quaintly called “current affairs,” may want us to believe is really happening in the world.
Henry also said to me that we should also ask a second question: “what are we not seeing?”; or, “what are we missing?” In other words, what deep changes are occurring and what forces are driving them?
These are hard questions. Much harder than they at first appear. They are the sort of questions that LKY would ask of himself and of others when they visited him, even when his answers might sometimes seem impolite in their brutal candor amidst the superficial politeness of much of international society.
For my own part, I argue that there are five major global change-drivers at work at present, and our futures lie in understanding their forces and in navigating their dynamics.
First, as LKY predicted decades ago, China’s aggregate national power across the military, the economy, and technology, has now begun to match that of the United States (notwithstanding Xi’s best efforts since 2017 to ideologically undermine the historical success of China’s economic growth model over the previous 40 years).
Second, Xi, unlike his predecessors Deng, Jiang, and Hu, has now resolved to deploy China’s aggregate national power to fundamentally change both the regional and global status quo, including on territorial boundaries over Taiwan, the South and the East China Seas, and the Sino-Indian border (unless of course he can be deterred from so doing). Xi is also determined for China to become the preeminent power replacing the United States in the East Asian hemisphere. And Xi has resolved to re-write the norms, rules, and institutions of the wider global order in a manner more compatible with Chinese national interests and values.
Third, the United States has since 2017 decided not to passively accept this changing of the regional and global geopolitical guard. Instead, the United States has now resolved both nationally and (with its allies) internationally to fight back through all levers of its statecraft to prevent this from happening.
Fourth, for the rest of the world, these competitive dynamics create an increasingly binary set of policy choices — despite the fact that most third countries would prefer not to have to make binary choices between Washington and Beijing on the future of the world order, given the competing equities they have with each of them.
Finally, this geopolitical contest for regional and global dominance is intensifying at a time when new grave global challenges are sweeping across the world with a sharpening intensity — led by an emerging global climate crisis, the ever-present risk of global pandemics, and the revolutionary impact of artificial intelligence on all past assumptions concerning human agency, economic competitiveness, and national security writ large.
I argue that these are the five deep challenges that cause most policy makers in both the democratic and non-democratic worlds to feel overwhelmed — overwhelmed by the unprecedented complexity of each of them, by the fact they are all happening simultaneously, and by the fact that the national and international institutions for dealing with them are under unprecedented duress and dysfunctionality.
Interestingly, Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) often asks similar questions of itself about what deep changes are unfolding in the region and the world.
Xi’s oft-repeated question of his comrades is: “What is the main trend of our times?” Or within the complex epistemological and methodological framework of Chinese Marxism-Leninism: “What are the principal contradictions the party is facing today, both in China and the world?”
Xi’s answers to these questions are important for us to understand, although many will disagree with his conclusions.
In China, he sees the principal challenge or contradiction facing the party as the urgency of attacking the imbalances that have arisen from China’s long period of untrammeled economic growth, to be done by reasserting the power of the party over the relative freedoms accorded both the Chinese private sector and the individual citizen over the previous 35 years.
In the world at large, Xi sees the principal contradiction or opportunity as lying in what he calls the “rise of the East and decline of the West,” driven by what he also sees as the internal political and social weaknesses of the world’s democracies, compared with the strength and virtue of China’s new authoritarianism — one that he argues represents an effective and alternative model for the emerging world.
Whatever our differing analyses of the strategic environment might be, most analysts would agree that we now find ourselves objectively in a new era of strategic competition, where the stakes are high and the trip-wires for actual armed conflict are disturbingly real, and where our capacity to deal effectively with transnational problems is increasingly constrained by the overwhelming weight of geopolitics.
So What Then is to be Done?
Faced with these challenges, what then are the options for the rest of us, whether we are larger or smaller powers, whether we are allies or strategic partners of the United States or not? Assuming that our common objective is to preserve the peace, stability, and prosperity of our region and our world?
Our core analysis should be that China is no longer a status quo power. This is clear from the Chinese official record. Xi says he wants to change the region and the world and we should take him at his word.
By contrast, by and large, the United States has been the status quo power. Indeed, China is now the dynamic in our overall strategic calculus, while the United States has until recently remained relatively static. U.S. military outlays have only recently begun to increase. Its alliance structure in Asia has been the same for nearly three quarters of a century.
And until recently the U.S. economic model, for both itself and for the world, based on free markets both at home and abroad, has remained relatively unchanged. Although this U.S. economic model too is now evolving through an unprecedented embrace of a new form of national trade and industrial policy, this has in turn been driven by its response to the size and seriousness of the China challenge.
Given all these challenging and changing factors, for the future of our region and the stability of the global order more generally, I argue that, as a matter of strategic logic, the best way to preserve the status quo is through the maintenance of strategic equilibrium.
Strategic equilibrium is achieved not just through maintaining a military balance, although that is critical within any realist frame of analysis. It is also about remaining competitive economically and technologically.
And it is also about sustaining a foreign policy consensus anchored in the United Nations (UN) Charter, the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the wider fabric of international customary and statutory law.
That, for example, is why violation of Article 2 of the UN Charter by the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is such a line in the sand for us all. It is also why the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Tribunal’s 2016 unanimous determination on the South China Sea is so important.
Furthermore, on the specific question of how to maintain strategic equilibrium and the military balance, a core part of the equation is deterring any party from the use of unilateral military force to fundamentally change the status quo — whether that status quo pertains to Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or the Sino-Indian border.
That is why, for example, the Quad is useful in supporting overall strategic equilibrium and balance.
That is why enhanced trilateral military collaboration between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is useful in supporting this same equilibrium and balance.
That is why the continued strengthening of the U.S.-Philippines Defense Treaty is also important.
That is why AUKUS is similarly useful in supporting the same.
That is why we should also ask ourselves the reverse question, as an equal matter of elemental strategic logic: namely, what would happen to strategic equilibrium, military balance, and regional stability if the United States were suddenly to militarily withdraw from its alliances and the region as a whole? After all, this is what China has so long formally advocated for in its formal pronouncements on the future of regional stability.
Were the United States to withdraw, we would face the very antithesis of strategic equilibrium. Indeed, it would accelerate strategic change of the most fundamental nature.
The Impact of Strategic Equilibrium on the Sovereignty of Smaller States
Finally, we need to examine the impact of the maintenance of strategic equilibrium on the territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and freedom of choice for smaller powers.
The truth is that the maintenance of strategic equilibrium is the most effective means of maximizing the individual political agency of smaller regional states.
Larger states, including those who also see themselves as great powers, may believe that through their own national power they can guarantee their national autonomy. That luxury rarely extends itself to other powers.
Some middle and smaller powers may rely on direct security assurances from a great power ally — as in the case of say Australia and the Philippines.
Others have relied on forming regional associations such as ASEAN, with its tradition of preventive diplomacy, not only to reduce the risk of intraregional tension such as once prevailed across Southeast Asia, but also to enhance their national negotiating leverage with external powers by joining with their neighbors.
For example, Australia is proud to have been ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974, a relationship we have sustained for half a century. Australia is also strongly supportive of ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, including ASEAN centrality and the Outlook’s four pillars of external engagement.
Beyond these arrangements, however, all regional states rely on the maintenance of a much broader strategic equilibrium across their wider security environment to provide them with maximal political sovereignty, freedom of policy maneuver, and the right to choose their national futures.
I would argue, therefore, that in the face of the rapidly expanding reality of China’s military power, technological capacity, and foreign policy and infrastructure development footprint, the ability of individual ASEAN states to chart their own course is enhanced by the continued strategic presence of the U.S. military, its alliances. and other pan-regional arrangements.
So too I would argue is the same for the 15 island states of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF).
Institutions such as ANZUS, AUKUS, and the Quad enhance regional autonomy by providing a level of surrounding strategic ballast that enhances overall strategic equilibrium, which in turn enhances the freedom of regional states to choose.
Regional states in both Southeast Asia and the Pacific that are not allies of the United States are not required to explicitly join these wider efforts to enhance this overall strategic balance. They are not “forced to choose” between Washington and Beijing — something the region has consistently said they do not want to do.
Indeed, the reverse applies: because others are doing the bulk of the balancing work, regional states remain free not to choose.
Some might argue that enhanced deterrence and greater efforts to maintain the military balance increase the risk of great power confrontation in the region. But, if the response to that risk is to call on the United States to withdraw from the region altogether, the consequences of U.S. withdrawal for the relative autonomy of individual states would be much, much greater if our region was then to become dominated by Beijing alone.
Because the United States will remain in the region, as will China, it is in the interests of all regional states to urge both China and the United States to engage in a substantive, military-to-military dialogue in order to develop mutually agreed “guardrails” to reduce the risk of crisis, conflict, and war by accident.
The United States has said repeatedly that it is prepared to do so. We should all urge China to respond to this invitation. It is in the region’s interests that they do so.
I have not provided any advice to my Singaporean friends in this address. Nor do I intend to do so.
This is a country of wise and considered statecraft, after the pattern laid down by LKY from the earliest days of this republic.
Almost all states, large and small, have a deep interest in the maintenance of the status quo because all peoples want to maximize peace, prosperity, sustainability, and stability. However, we cannot simply wish these things into existence.
At its logical core, it requires the maintenance of strategic equilibrium as the fundamental enabling factor.
Ukraine provides a telling example of what happens when equilibrium and deterrence fail.
If equilibrium and balance were to fail in our region, and we ended up in a general war, the consequences for the world at large would be catastrophic.
History tells us that when it comes to the great powers, the idea of a limited war is generally fanciful.
All of us, larger and smaller states, should therefore stand opposed to the unilateral use of military by any party that would undermine the regional status quo.
All of us should stand on the side of strategic equilibrium, geopolitical balance, and, where necessary, deterrence — and on the side of the political autonomy, particularly for smaller states, that these provide.
All of us, large states and small, should stand on the side of dialogue, negotiation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes — including building guard rails between opposing militaries in theatres and domains of concern in order to reduce the risk of crisis, conflict, and war by accident, just as the United States and the Soviet Union did half a century ago under the Helsinki Accords.
All of us should stand behind the principles and processes of international law.
And all of us should stand behind the unity, resilience, and centrality of regional institutions such as ASEAN, the Pacific Island Forum, and the European Union (EU), rather than allowing member states to be picked off one by one by those who are opposed to such regional institutions of resilience, or who seek to weaken them.
I look forward to working with our friends in Singapore as we wrestle with these great challenges that we face as we seek to secure our common future — together.