The Realities of Changing Power in Asia Require a Fundamental Rethink in Australian Policies

And important article has been written by Hugh White the emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and a former deputy secretary of the Department of Defence. It deserves to be widely read and the points he makes absorbed by all who are concerned about the current direction of Australia’s defence strategy.

White commences his article by pointing out the alarming drop in Australian exports to China, a country that is by far its major trading market, taking 40% of Australia’s exports.  That is a figure twice the proportion of Australia’s next largest market, Japan.

Australia is responding to the difficulties with China by going out of its way to seek new ways of offending the country. It has deteriorated to the point where senior government ministers are talking with what he calls disconcerting nonchalance to the growing risk of war. He points out that the government shows no signs of appreciating how serious and dangerous the current situation is. Equally disturbing is that the government seems to have no plan to fix the problem. This must count, he says, as one of the biggest failures in Australian history.

On a more contentious level, White points out that Australia’s interests have been well served by the United States led order. He argues that this order has kept our region stable and peaceful for so long. That is dubious to say the least. In the post-World War II era the United States promoted the Korean war, invading the North of Korea and continuing right to the Chinese border. We now know that the Americans sought the approval of President Truman to use nuclear weapons as part of the invasion of China, then under a newly installed Communist government.

The American belligerence brought China into that war, with the Americans and their allies, including Australia, being rapidly driven back south of the North-South Korean border. Millions of North Koreans died in the aerial assault by the Americans on their country over the next two years.

It would also be difficult to argue that the United States war on Vietnam, again with the willing assistance of Australia, that raged from 1954 with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu to their final humiliating retreat in 1975.

White says that the Australian government has a plan, it wants to make the Chinese problem go away by forcing the Chinese to go away and abandon its own ambitions in favour of United States concept of the rules-based order, a peculiarly framed concept that the Americans have long promoted. This writer argues that it is an attempt to replace the more widely accepted concept of the rule of international law which has served the international community well in the post-World War II era.

Australia has been quick to join the Americans, and more recently the British, in placing China at the top of its opponents list. White points out how easily this plan to contain China could go awry.

Australian policy is based in large part on a belief that its concerns are shared by other nations in the region. That seriously underestimates the extent to which other countries in the region value their economic ties to China. China is by objective measurement the world’s largest economy and by the estimate of Australia’s own 2017 foreign policy White Paper will be close to double the size of the United States economy by 2030.

This simple stark brutal fact overshadows everything else, White says, because wealth is power in the international system. One of the simple effects of China’s great power is that it could easily impose great costs on those who oppose it. That is the fundamental principle that the Australian government fails to acknowledge.

It is the brutal reality that Australia’s other friends in the region, including Singapore, South Korea and even Japan, recognise. He quotes Singapore prime minister Lee who in a recent major speech very plainly repudiated the idea of trying to control China. Instead, Lee argued, we should be accommodating China’s ambitions by creating a new regional order that reflects the new realities of regional power.

Those realities mean that the Morrison government ambition to push China “back into the box” are doomed to fail. This is a reality that is even recognised by the Americans under President Biden. Biden will choose the option of rebuilding America to that of trying to contain China.

It is a brutal reality that has not been recognised by the “lacklustre administration” in power in Australia. White argues that the current Australian leadership seems to have no idea of the risks to Australia that their current policy represents. The government is currently hiding behind the benefits of the high iron ore price. The future looks a lot grimmer for Australian exports, with other markets only partially replacing the lost Chinese market.

As important as the economic losses are, however, they are trivial in comparison with the strategic risks and costs that Australia faces as a consequence of its incredible stupidity in advocating a policy of containment toward China.

White points out that the current Australian policy toward China runs the very real risk of degenerating into a shooting war. This blunt effect was recently acknowledged, among others, by defence Minister Peter Dutton. The governing assumption appears to be that the United States will go to war with China, and that Australia will follow along, as it has done so in the past, Including in at least three current foreign wars of little or no real relevance to Australia.

The consequences of Australia fighting a war with China would be devastating. Not the least of its consequences would be the loss of America’s position in Asia. Australia is blindly following the United States into the possibility of a war with China and no one in the government appears to have given a thought as to the consequences of what is almost certainly an American loss.

Australia needs to spend some serious time thinking about a new approach to China, indeed to the implications of the inevitable rise of our great Asian neighbouring powers, including India and Indonesia. All of this has implications for Australia’s relationship to its traditional modes of thinking, none of which is of real relevance in the realities of the 21st century.

White points out that such rethinking would require hard work, deep thought and subtle execution. It would mean, he says, a revolution in our foreign policy. The changes in our region require nothing less. The real question is whether our political leadership even begins to grasp the implications of these changes and do they have the wit to formulate and execute the policy changes that are so manifestly required. Thus far the signs are not encouraging.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.