The best way to describe Asian geopolitics in the past year is encapsulated by the term "strategic maturity", namely the ability of nations to see the bigger picture beyond the fog of short-term tensions and uncertainty. What began as a tumultuous year, which took an even more troubling turn over the coming months, ended on a relatively more encouraging geopolitical note, largely thanks to the proactive role of "middle powers" in encouraging the better angels of superpowers’ nature.
Already divided by the war in Ukraine, and locked into a disruptive trade and technological warfare, the US and China almost sleepwalked towards direct confrontation following a controversial visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the departing Speaker of the US House of Representatives, in August.
In particular, South-East Asian nations such Indonesia – this year’s G20 president, and the incoming chairman of Association of South-East Asian Nations – was instrumental to brokering a desperately needed detente between the two superpowers. The upshot is a more manageable competition rather than a mutually destructive conflict.
Sino-American ties constitute the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world. But the past year also demonstrated the growing significance of middle powers in shaping the 21st-century global order – in ways that preserve the interests of smaller nations and ensure maximum possible stability and prosperity for all. Thus, both the reigning superpowers as well as key regional players such as Indonesia have demonstrated commendable degree of strategic maturity, which bodes well for the future of the Indo-Pacific.
Lest we forget, 2022 began with a shocking geopolitical development. Just days after the Munich Security Conference in Germany, where Russia’s threat of military action against Ukraine dominated the proceedings, Europe witnessed the first major conventional war of the 21st century.
I vividly recall late-night conversations with European counterparts on the sidelines of the conference. Few believed that a major armed conflict was truly on the short-term horizon. Having spent years in conflict-ridden regions of the world, especially the Middle East, I remained deeply sceptical of the strategic complacency pervading the European strategic community.
Closely following analyses by a few perspicacious Russian experts, I publicly argued that an actual war was more probable than not. I also maintained that Asia could not insulate itself from a potential war in Europe, especially given the centrality of both Russia and Ukraine to global commodity markets. Just weeks after the actual war broke out, a number of Asian nations grappled with a huge energy and food crisis.
The war in Europe, meanwhile, only accentuated Sino-American rivalry. While the US mobilised its European and Asian allies against Russia, the Chinese leadership blamed the West for provoking the conflict. Aside from laying blame on Nato expansion into post-Soviet space, Beijing also stepped up its energy imports from Russia in a bid to shield its Eurasian ally from western sanctions.
By and large, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin projected a united front, pledging to jointly pursue a "new world order" beyond the West’s dictates. In response, the Pentagon spoke of the need to confront a Sino-Russian alliance in a new era of "great power competition".
Accordingly, the Biden administration moved on three fronts. To begin with, it released two major policy documents in quick succession, namely the National Security Strategy document and the National Defence Strategy to signal its commitment to confront its superpower rivals with gusto.
In particular, the NDS described the Asian powerhouse as the “most consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades", while the NSS openly accused Beijing of harbouring the “intent to reshape the international order [with] … increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it".
Second, the Biden administration mobilised a new set of sanctions to weaken the foundations of its rivals' economies. While Russia was met with comprehensive financial and energy sanctions, China confronted unprecedented sanctions targeting its cutting-edge industries. In particular, Washington threatened to punish any western or multinational companies providing semiconductor technology to China.
While tightening the noose around China’s economy, the Biden administration proposed an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which aims to deepen strategic economic co-operation among a dozen US allies and partners, particularly in the realm of cutting-edge industries, public infrastructure development, and green technology.
Finally, the Biden administration also stepped up its military footprint on both ends of the Eurasian landmass. While mobilising European military allies against Russia, Washington forged ahead with solidifying a new alliance of “maritime democracies” in the Indo-Pacific.
In a surprising move, the Biden administration signed a nuclear submarine deal under the Aukus alliance, with the clear objective of countering China’s growing maritime capabilities in the Western Pacific. This went hand-in-hand with expanded naval patrols across China’s immediate neighbourhood.
Crucially, the US also began negotiating new basing access across vital locations in the Philippines in order to expand its forward-deployment presence in East Asia. The ultimate aim is to build an integrated network of allies and partners to keep China’s ambitions in check.
Against the backdrop of rising tensions across a whole range of issues, Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which Beijing considers as a "renegade province", almost provoked a full-scale conflict between the two superpowers.
Perturbed by the perilous direction of Sino-American relations, South-East Asian leaders openly warned that the two superpowers could end up "sleepwalking" into conflict. It was precisely at this point that regional states, namely Indonesia and Singapore, stepped up their efforts to mediate between the rival powers.
Neither Asean member state has the same economic and military resources as the reigning superpowers. But what they bring to the table as "middle powers" include credibility as responsible regional powers, and a proven capacity to foster co-operative relations and corral geopolitical coalitions. They are also capable of exercising a significant degree of strategic autonomy and, accordingly, projecting power beyond their immediate borders.
While Singaporean leaders publicly warned of the disruptive impact of Sino-American relations, Indonesia mediated among them. Crucially, both countries were backed by other "middle powers" such as Japan, India, South Korea and Australia, which had also fretted over this concern.
Following a historic trip to Europe to mediate the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Indonesian President Joko Widodo convinced his Chinese and American counterparts to find a common ground on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali before the end of the year.
As non-aligned nations with robust ties with all major powers, and key leaders within Asean, Indonesia and Singapore were also in a unique position to nudge the US and China towards a new modus vivendi. The upshot was the "Bali detente", which saw both Mr Biden and Mr Xi hold a cordial meeting and recognising their shared interests in creating a broadly stable and prosperous order in the Indo-Pacific.
The highly encouraging episode not only underscored the strategic maturity of the two global statesmen, but also the proactive contribution of middle powers such as Indonesia and Singapore. The past year showed that smaller nations don’t want to be at the mercy of superpowers and, accordingly, are willing and capable of becoming captains of their own strategic destiny.