Tensions between the US and China, along with the economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, are threatening the Asia-Pacific’s hard-earned prosperity like never before, according to a visiting expert

The prospects of war in Asia have never been greater, an Australian academic has warned, as intensifying Great Power rivalry risks a broader unravelling of the regional order.

Nick Bisley, an international relations professor and dean of the humanities at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, said a “re-scrambled globalisation” was the most likely outcome from instability in the region.

Bisley, who is visiting Wellington for a series of lectures, said the Covid-19 pandemic had acted as a “hinge point” for Asia, freezing the progress which had been made in the region up until 2020.

Before then, the emergence of a China-centred global trading network had helped Asian countries move away from competing with each other, instead taking part in pan-Asia supply chains which had helped to build a regional identity.

“What you’ve got is that economic integration of Asia for the first time, bringing these disparate parts together, and so in our more optimistic and kind of happily liberal moment in pre-Covid times it was like: ‘This is where the market opportunities are, there’s all of this growth that’s going to drive all these things’.”

China’s rise as a regional power, and US efforts to curtail its ascent, had also somewhat counterintuitively helped to strengthen Asia’s identity, as American complacency about the region was replaced by competition to shape its future on a global stage.

However, Bisley said regional order had been thrown into disorder by Covid-19, which had hit the economy hard and led to greater talk of decoupling and diversifying supply chains to guard against unexpected disruptions.

There were a range of options for how the decoupling drive would play out, ranging from a Cold War scenario with the US and China “travelling on separate economic highways” along with their respective allies, to a return to near-normality with a sharper sense of competition.

“I feel like the risks of conflict happening has never been greater, and the risk … will continue to go up until such time as we can figure out a way of managing this competition properly.”
– Nick Bisley

However, he believed “a messy kind of re-scrambled globalisation” was most likely, with trade networks continuing as at present but with completely different systems for particular industries such as advanced computer chips.

A great deal would depend on whether the US and China could find a compromise to ease tensions, given the price each side would pay for a decoupling of critical industries.

“They want very different kinds of regions, and they have fundamentally incompatible views of each other’s role within that.”

It was possible the countries would find a sufficient degree of comfort to negotiate a joint position, Bisley said, noting the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Apec summit in Indonesia.

However, it was too early to tell whether those positive signs would prove enduring, while neither side was likely to give up its desire to play a leading role in Asia.

Speaking about the prospects of war in Taiwan, Bisley said: “I feel like the risks of conflict happening has never been greater, and the risk … will continue to go up until such time as we can figure out a way of managing this competition properly.”

Although an invasion of Taiwan didn’t appear imminent, for China it was “an area where rationality can disappear very quickly”, while its status as a democracy in a strategically significant part of the world was of greater resonance to American politicians.

“Where conflicts escalate into the ‘oh crap’ situation … is precisely that kind of combination of Great Power interest, but also the sense of emotional nationalism, honour, prestige, pride, that this island has.”

* Nick Bisley is speaking at Victoria University of Wellington on Thursday November 24. For more details, click here.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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