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Powershift: Australia's Future between Washington and Beijing

Quarterly Essay, Issue 40, 2010


Hugh White has opened up an uncomfortable debate – but one that we need to have – about whether it is reasonable to assume that Australia can go on enjoying indefinitely both a hugely prosperous economic relationship with China and a hugely reassuring security relationship with the US in an environment where the tectonic plates really are shifting, and where it cannot be assumed that China will continue to recognise – as over time it becomes economically dominant – the primacy of US power.

His basic point, which may have been obscured by the subsequent static, is plausible enough. China is much more likely to seek a balance of power – or a nineteenth-century European-type “concert of powers” – in the broader Asia of the future than to try to impose a harsh hegemony backed by military force, or even the kind of “soft” hegemony imposed by the US on Latin America in the past. But China will only be able to do this if the US recognises it as a genuine equal.

White argues the US has three basic choices in responding to China’s inevitable rise: to withdraw from Asia (which it is extremely unlikely to do, and allies like Australia would certainly not want it to do); to compete with China for primacy (which runs a very serious risk of ending in tears); or to be prepared seriously to share power with China (which it has so far been reluctant to do). This lays credible foundations for a serious debate, although one is left hungry for a fuller, more nuanced and, in some cases, more persuasive discussion of the premises, precise meaning and implications of each option.

There is much to contest in White’s thesis, especially his description of what it would mean in practice for the US to deal with China as an equal. The way he expresses it, yielding ground in terms of advocacy, sounds more like kowtowing abdication than showing appropriate respect to a peer, or indeed to any sovereign country. My own view, after years spent conveying unpalatable truths to the great and powerful – and to many others – as foreign minister and in subsequent incarnations, is rather more robust. With a mindset of mutual respect, and with the right institutional machinery in place, there is plenty of scope for muscular bilateral and multilateral debate – and, following it, for the effective accommodation of quite different interests and worldviews.

That said, the crude vitriol that has been poured on Professor White by some commentators is wholly unjustified. He is right to open up the debate. Moreover, his description of the policy choices that will inevitably confront the major players – and Australia – seems broadly accurate; it certainly makes us think hard about how we might have to position ourselves. We cannot just assume that these hard choices will go away.

Bill Clinton (who, like several of his counterparts, seems to have got right rather more foreign-policy issues after his presidency than during it) would not have disagreed. I heard him in a discussion at Davos nearly a decade ago – when the global understanding of the scale and speed of China’s rise was nothing like as acute as it is now – putting the issue of American power, its long-term limits and the policy consequences of this in a way which, to my Australian and internationalist ear, was just about pitch-perfect and deserves wider reporting than it received at the time or since:

America has two choices. We can use our great and unprecedented military and economic power to try and stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can seek to use that power to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.


Gareth Evans