US, China and Australia’s Asian century: a view on Hugh White’s argument

Author: Brad Glosserman, CSIS, Washington DC

‘No, thanks’.

That, in summary, is Hugh White’s response to the recent announcement that the US would be sending marines on permanent rotation to Darwin.

White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU, one of Asia’s most distinguished strategists, and a former Australian deputy secretary of defence. And he has been making the case for strategic reorientation in Canberra for a couple of years now.

White is also a distinct minority among Australian strategists, and his comments have triggered fierce discussion in his country. Canberra’s decision to accept the US forces is for many a definitive rejection of his conclusions. But White and the debate he has unleashed deserve more attention, for this discussion is — or will be — taking place in capitals throughout the region, although there is little chance it will be as public or as sharp. Australia is the canary in the Asian security coal mine.

The Debate

White starts from a simple premise: China is getting stronger and more powerful, and the basis of its growing strength and influence is economic dynamism. Australia’s Defence White Paper 2009 concludes, for example, that China will eclipse the US as the world’s largest economy around 2020. This newfound heft manifests in two dimensions.

First is the military modernisation and capability afforded by increasing national wealth. White also notes that with military modernisation has come diplomatic outreach to help consolidate the image of a county that wants to work with its neighbours (at least until 2010).

Second, and perhaps more significant, is the gravity created by the desire to tap the Chinese market. White notes: ‘a country that wants to benefit from China’s unique economic opportunities must … take careful account of China’s political and strategic interests’. Consistent with that, in my meetings, Chinese interlocutors remind us that the US should put relations with it above all other concerns, especially Taiwan.

The list of countries subject to the Chinese economy’s gravitational pull is long. China is Australia’s top trading partner, comprising 23.1 per cent of Australia’s total trade (a 27 per cent increase over 2010); it has invested A$11.8 billion in China and China has invested A$19.5 billion in Australia. And regionally, China invests in every US ally in Asia.

This sets up a competition between these nations’ economic and security interests. But as White correctly points out, ‘the real question is not about how we balance our ties with the US and China. It is about how we protect Australia’s interests in this strategic transformation. Those interests are reasonably clear. We want Asia to keep growing strongly and for Australia to be part of that growth. And we want America to stay engaged in Asia, to prevent domination by China but not in a way that forces us to choose between them, or inhibits Asia’s economic growth’. White even argues that China’s rise does not mean the end of the alliance: ‘A new order can be built in Asia that accommodates Chinese power peacefully and preserves a vital role forAmerica, including a strong US–Australia alliance’.

White is not choosing Beijing over Washington, as many have accused. He is conscious of the pressures in China — a strong self-image, a desire to maximise its independence, a powerful nationalism — that push Beijing to fight the subordination of its growing power to US primacy. It is this inclination that threatens the stability that made Asia’s prosperity possible. White believes that ‘continued US primacy would be the best outcome for Australia, but the chances of it being achieved in the face of China’s power and ambitions are low’. That demands a focus on the second-best outcome, a ‘Concert of Asia’ in which the US voluntarily relinquishes primacy to share power with China — a nation that ‘has a legitimate leadership role to play in Asia’ — and other major powers in collective leadership based on the principles of the United Nations Charter. White calls this a US choice between influence and order.

There are two ways to challenge White’s argument: question his premises or question his conclusion. Opponents do both.

Those who take the first course argue China’s rise is not inevitable, its trajectory will change and its influence will be checked. Even if it is not, Beijing’s capacity to upset the regional order requires allies: a revanchist China cannot act alone. Some analysts assert that a US-led hierarchy will continue to be the first choice of regional governments who will try to preserve US primacy rather than back Chinese efforts to dilute it. Others argue the US may yet recover and remain ahead of potential peer competitors.

The second group argues that White’s recommendation is wrong. Rather than forging a new order that embraces China, they believe that Australia — along with other nations — should double down on efforts to balance Beijing. Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030, a report by Australian think tank the Kokoda Foundation, endorses that approach, calling for diplomatic and military measures to strengthen Canberra’s capacity to respond to a more assertive and potentially hostile China.

The Response

Make no mistake: Canberra has chosen the second approach. Of course it seeks to engage China, as do all regional governments. But Canberra’s commitments to Washington were made clear during President Obama’s recent visit to Australia. And as described by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard before a joint session of Congress, Australia is ‘[a]n ally for the sixty years past and Australia is an ally for all the years to come’. While there is no sign of a shift in Australian thinking, it is worth noting that Gillard has called for a new white paper, Australia in the Asian Century. This whole-of-government analysis, drawing on external advice as well, will explore a strategic environment where Australia ‘hasn’t been’ before.

Even if he has not prevailed, Hugh White has made a clear and plain case for strategic reorientation. This debate needs to be had and heard. In recent conversations throughout the region, I have heard echoes of this discussion but they were invariably less focused, coherent and articulate. Governments and publics throughout the region are facing a new world and they must understand the choices they face. The canary is not dead, but it is clearly uncomfortable.

Brad Glosserman is Executive Director at the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC. A longer version of this article was first published here on CSIS.

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