Reflection on Dr. Auslin’s Seminar on the Turbulent Pacific

The Buckley Program hosted Dr. Michael Auslin for a seminar series on the Turbulent Pacific from February 12th to 26th.  Michael Auslin, PhD, is the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. A historian by training, he specializes in US policy in Asia and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.  He is a longtime contributor to the Wall Street Journal and National Review, and his writing appears in other leading publications, including the Financial Times, The Spectator, and Foreign Policy. Previously, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo.

By: Oleksii Antoniuk

Prompted by its immense economic growth, China is behaving more aggressively abroad as it aims to subjugate other nations of the Indo-Pacific. Through investment deals with developing countries, Beijing continues to expand its military presence across the main trade routes in the Indo-Pacific and jeopardizes freedom of navigation in the region. China’s expanding military and economic power has scared its neighbors into submission. Additionally, its increasing authoritarianism has distanced nearby nations from the liberal world and made them more dependent on Beijing. For centuries, the western bloc had ensured that the Indo-Pacific remained open, combatting any country that tried to dominate the region. However, China is now trying to obtain an exclusive right over the Indo-Pacific, like Japan did in the 20th century, and it is closer than ever to achieving this goal. These changing regional dynamics were the subject of Dr. Michael Auslin’s seminar on the Turbulent Pacific.

During Dr. Auslin’s seminar, we focused on how the US and its allies can maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific to keep the region free and open. At the end of every session, Dr. Auslin divided us into small groups in which students discussed practical solutions to tackling a specific Chinese threat. Afterwards, each group presented and discussed their ideas with the rest of the class. I found our discussion on combating the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) especially helpful for my understanding of policy-making. It is easy to discern why the BRI is dangerous to the free world: it ensnares developing nations with debt and enables the Chinese military to maintain a presence near major waterways. Determining what to do about such Chinese threats is less straightforward. The major reason for this difficulty is what Dr. Auslin referred to as the Lippmann Gap, a situation in which our capabilities do not measure up to our commitments. The free world, of course, would like to outcompete the BRI with their own alternative trading route, but this would require outpacing Chinese BRI investments that will be worth two trillion dollars by 2030. Through this exercise I learned that policy-making is an art which entails a constant balancing of your capabilities with your objectives.

The major liberal Indo-Pacific powers can overcome their individual inabilities to finance a BRI analog by cooperating with one another. During the seminar, we explored potential futures for the Quad — a quadrilateral partnership between the US, Australia, Japan, and India. The Quad has the potential to create a unified belt against Chinese expansion both in economic and military realms since all members are interested in combating China’s rise. New-Delhi, for instance, is concerned that the Chinese navy may encircle India as Beijing constructs ports throughout the Indian Ocean and uses them as naval bases. Tokyo, in turn, wants to prevent China from controlling the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea so Beijing cannot limit Japan’s access to the European and Indian markets. Australia, meanwhile, frequently falls victim to China’s covert political interference and suffers from Chinese tariffs on Australian products. The Quad’s strategy could take on a variety of objectives, ranging from furthering freedom of navigation and deepening security ties between members to establishing a shared investment pool to counterbalance the BRI.

I also learned from Dr. Auslin that a good policy-maker thinks of both black swans — unexpected, unlikely events with devastating consequences — and of grey rhinos — predictable, unlikely events with devastating consequences. What if, for example, China invades Taiwan? The US won’t have much time to develop an effective policy; it will need to respond immediately. One way to tackle this issue is to come up with a policy on each grey rhino beforehand. This method will not work, however, for the unpredictable black swans. Nonetheless, we can speed up the development of policy regarding black swans by designing a grand strategy. With a set of well-established and well-understood strategic principles, we can  use these objectives as a starting point for designing appropriate responses to even the most unexpected of crises.

These practical policy-making insights helped me to better understand the logic behind the Indo-Pacific countries’ foreign policy. Although I wasn’t particularly interested in Indo-Pacific affairs beforehand, now, after participating in this brief three-session Buckley seminar, I hope to further study the subject while at Yale.

Oleksii Antoniuk is a first-year student from Grace Hopper who hopes to major in Global Affairs. Oleksii currently works as an international security analyst at the Ukrainian Parliament and assists Professors Rosenbluth and Shapiro with their research on party discipline.