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Thinking the unthinkable: Hugh White suggests that the rise of China is fundamentally changing the strategic outlook in the western Pacific and undermining assumptions that have underpinned Australian defence thinking.

There are important differences in the way Australia and New Zealand see or at least talk about the fundamental bases of our security. If you ask Australians how to defend Australia, the most spontaneous answer will have a lot to do with alliances. In New Zealand the corresponding formulation would have a lot more to do with international order with multilateral systems, with the rules and with cooperative activities. Notwithstanding the differences in the way we describe those fundamental bases of our security, there is close agreement about what is disrupting them: that we are facing a fundamental shift in the distribution of wealth and power globally and especially in our region. It is also true that both countries are finding it hard to decide what to do about it; and that is fundamentally challenging our thinking about our diplomacy and our approach to defence. I will focus here on the defence side. That is not say the diplomatic side is not very important; it is just a subject for a different article.

Let me start by referring to Australia's defence predicament. Australia's defence policy today, and indeed for decades past, has been based on two very simple assumptions: the first is that America will, by its dominant position in Asia, prevent any great power attacking Australia or, indeed, will prevent any great power seriously challenging the broader stability of the Asia-Pacific region; and, second, that if for some reason that first proposition goes wrong and that Australia does face a threat from a major power, the United States will be there to defend us and to defend our stakes in the regional order.

That confidence has set a pretty low ceiling on what we have had to expect our defence force to be able to do. It has meant that when we thought about defending our own continent, we have been able to focus our efforts very much on defending Australia only against small or relatively not very well armed local powers, like Indonesia. We have not had to worry much about the possibility of defending Australia against a major Asian power.

The second thing we have realised we had to do is find a way to support the United States modestly in retaining its position in Asia, which was important to sustaining those two assumptions. But the emphasis there is on modest. We have assumed that America would not need much support to retain its primary position in Asia and that there would not be much for Australia to do militarily or, for that matter, diplomatically in order to do its bit to preserve America's leading role in Asia because we did not believe it would face a serious challenge.

Like everyone else, we bought the argument at the end of the Cold War that America had emerged from the Cold War with an unchallengeable preponderance of power globally and in Asia; and an unshakable determination to use that power to preserve its leading role as the pre-eminent power in Asia as well as everywhere else. But it slowly dawned on us that that assumption was wrong, that the United States does face a very serious challenge to its leading position in Asia from China.

We are increasingly becoming aware that that challenge from China starts to undermine the confidence we have had in those two assumptions that form the foundation of our defence policy and framed the expectation we have of our own armed forces. It will be no surprise that this is an awkward reality for Australia because China is not just any old country--it is our economic future. It is true of most countries in the world that China is extraordinarily important to them. But perhaps there is no country in the world whose economic future has been as closely tied to China's as Australia.

Strategic understanding

The basis of that economic relationship has been a strategic understanding reached between Australia and China in 1996 by Prime Minister John Howard, which was that Australia wanted to develop the economic relationship with China just as far and as fast as we could. We would remain a US ally, but nothing we did as a US ally would be directed against China. That is the deal that Howard did and that is the deal that China seeks to hold us to. Now for almost a decade, the obvious dilemma has arisen in a situation where America faces a growing strategic challenge from China. We depend on America resisting that challenge for our security; but we depend on not supporting America and resisting that challenge in order to preserve our relationship with China.

That very tough triangular dilemma has defined a great deal of Australian foreign policy for more or less a decade. Australia has managed that tension by a combination of duplicity, denial and hope. The duplicity has arisen by us saying two different things to two different audiences. This is not unique in the history of diplomacy. We tell China that we are not supporting America in pushing back against China and we tell America that we are. The amazing thing is how well we have got away with it. The denial is that we have persuaded ourselves that we were not really doing that. The slogan which has framed Australian policy for a long time is that we do not have to choose between America and China; what is more that we will not have to choose in future. We just hope the problem will go away.

I do not think anyone has believed that the denial and the duplicity are a long-term solution to the problem. Right at the heart of our hope that somehow this problem would disappear or take care of itself has been an expectation that, for some reason or other, China would decide to back off; that China would conclude that it should not be challenging America's leadership in Asia and that it would go back to accepting US leadership the way it did back when its economy was 120th the size of America's.

That was always a bit of a hard sell and it is getting harder. The US-China strategic rivalry has become more and more overt, particularly over about the last two years; indeed, especially since China was formally declared a strategic rival by the US government in its national security strategy of December 2017. It has been amplified in turn by the very complex, some not entirely identical but closely related, strategic or economic rivalry which we have seen emerge through the various dimensions of the trade disputes, technology disputes and so on between Washington and Beijing, especially over about the last twelve months.

Choice demanded

This was brought home to Australia in August 2019 when we had our annual Australia-US ministerial talks in Sydney with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The United States went further than it ever had before to explain to Australia, certainly in public and I suspect more sternly still in private, that indeed America does expect Australia to choose; that it does expect Australia to be there supporting the United States as it pushes back against China; and that it expects that support to be expressed in some pretty concrete ways, including, for example, being willing to entertain the basing of US intermediate-range ballistic missiles on Australian territory. Pompeo presented that choice to us in fairly stark terms, saying that Australia just had to realise that it had to choose between what he called a stack of soya beans (he does not quite understand the nature of Australia's trading relationship with China--we do not export soya beans but we know what he means), on the one hand, or security, on the other.

Now it is worth noting that Canberra is still resisting this, notwithstanding the starkness of Pompeo's language. Canberra is still refusing to call China a strategic rival and keeps trying to walk that narrow path that we have been walking the last decade or so. But it is also worth noting that if you press Australian policy-makers or, for that matter, many commentators and those engaged in the defence/ foreign policy debate, most assume that if and when we do have to choose we will recognise what Pompeo has said and will choose America and security over China and prosperity.

I differ from the mainstream of Australian thinking about this because I do not believe that is the choice we face. I do not believe that siding with America offers Australia the security that Pompeo seems to be offering us. I do not think America has a way of winning this contest with China. I think for Australia to support the United States would simply generate further and deeper insecurities.

On the surface, it is a contest about all sorts of specific nitty-gritty things: what is happening in the South China Sea, issues about law of the sea or territorial sovereignty, questions about the future of Taiwan, questions about China's violation of intellectual property rules and so on. But what really drives that escalating strategic rivalry is something much deeper and in a sense much scarier and much more serious.

Chinese aspiration

It is about China's ambition to take America's place as the world's biggest and most advanced economy and, specifically, to take America's place as the primary power in East Asia. On the other hand, it is about America's determination, or rather the determination of some Americans, to prevent China doing that. So the stakes are very high. This is a real contest over the two countries' place in the regional order in the world's most dynamic and powerful region. It is pure power politics.

Some Americans describe this contest as a new Cold War. They are right. That is what we are facing, and it should be pretty sobering for anyone old enough to remember the old Cold War. Strikingly, most Americans involved in the debate do not seem to find it as scary as they should because, of course, they won the last Cold War. The way in which Americans use that concept of a new Cold War does carry with it an expectation that they will win this one too, and, what is more, that it will not be that hard, that China will be persuaded to back off and leave America back where it wants to be.

That is a very big mistake because in a million different ways China is not the Soviet Union. In particular, its economy works. The most fundamental thing about the Chinese challenge to America's leadership in Asia and, indeed, to the regional order upon which both of our countries' security depends is the scale of its economy. It already has on the measure most relevant the biggest economy in the world. We have not encountered a country like that for well over a hundred years and it is likely to keep growing. The Australian Treasury's conservative estimate is that by 2030 the Chinese economy will be US$42 trillion and the US economy $24 trillion.

We have all talked about the rise of China so much for so long that we have forgotten just what an amazing thing this is. Call me old-fashioned, but I see economic weight as the absolute foundation of national power. This is a very powerful country indeed. Moreover, China has possibly some very clever investments that largely offset America's global military advantages. The strategic contest between them is focused on the western Pacific, which is China's backyard, so it has all the advantages of the home team.

Strong tendency

Notwithstanding these points, though, there is still a very strong tendency in Washington and, to some extent, in Canberra to under-estimate China. Under-estimating one's adversary is a very common mistake in strategic affairs. One can trace a lot of the strategic screw-ups in history to that kind of a mistake. We, the West, the United States certainly and arguably Australia, have under-estimated China very consistently for the past twenty years or so.

It is not clear to me that those talking in Washington about a new Cold War with China have any clear strategy about how to win it; any diplomatic, economic or military strategy. Because this is power politics, armed force comes into the picture: the United States does not seem to have a coherent conception of how to win a war with China in the western Pacific. If such a war occurs, it will be immensely costly. It would be the biggest war America has fought since the Second World War at least. That is not to say that war is inevitable, but the stakes are so high for China that the United States can only deter China's challenge by convincing Beijing that it will have to fight a war with America in order to promote its challenge. So to deter China it has to convince Beijing that America is willing to fight such a war. I think that is very hard to do it when the United States has no credible military strategy to deliver a cheap and easy victory and no clear resolve to fight a war that does not produce the cheap and easy victory.

That is where President Trump comes in (although America faced a really difficult challenge in Asia whoever won the 2016 presidential election). The fact that Trump won and what he has done since then is a very significant additional factor because the talk of a new Cold War in Asia from Washington is something we are only hearing from some in Washington. We are hearing it from the foreign policy establishment, from the think tanks, from many of the commentators and from people within the administration, including up to Cabinet level. But we never hear it from Trump. He talks in terms of China being an economic rival, absolutely, but not as a strategic rival. Trump himself is not committed to preserving US primacy in Asia. That is consistent with Trump's view of America's place in the world, stretching back right into the 1980s. He has been very consistent about this. Moreover, if you look on the candidates for the US presidential nomination on the Democrat side, none of them talk about China as a strategic rival in any coherent way. None of them are arguing that the United States should be prepared to bear the burden and pay the costs that would be required effectively to resist China in Asia.

Caution needed

That must make us very cautious about presuming that over the years and decades to come the United States is going to find a way to push back effectively enough against China to give it a high chance, even a modest chance, of preserving its leadership. If that is right, then Australia and New Zealand do face a very significant shift, indeed. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is now prudent for Australia and New Zealand to start thinking about how they manage their security in an Asia where the United States no longer plays a strategic role.

This is almost unthinkable at one level because the US strategic preponderance in Asia has been such a key framing feature of our international environment for well over a century. But it is the natural consequence of the massive shift of wealth and power to China that we have seen in the last few years. It is the end of the era of Western dominance in this part of the world, which began in some ways with Vasco de Gama. It is a reflection of the fact that, although we have a strong presumption for continuity in international affairs, big discontinuities do happen and we just happen to be living through one.

That means for Australia, particularly when we look ahead 30 years, as defence policy-makers must, we cannot assume that America will play the same role in Asia as our defence policy has presupposed. Nor can we assume that it will continue to support Australia directly in facing challenges in the future. That overturns the foundations of our defence policy. It challenges a very old assumption in Australia, an assumption which goes right to the heart of our visceral, hormonal enthusiasm for great and powerful friends: the conviction that we cannot defend ourselves independently. We are not going to have a great new friend. That assumption looks very problematic.

Both New Zealand and Australia face the same choices in the decades ahead about defence: we both face the erosion or disruption, maybe even destruction, of the features of the international system that we have seen as fundamental to our security by deep strategic changes globally, especially in Asia. New Zealand does have a different set of strategic perceptions and assumptions from Australia. But the pressure of events in Asia, the pressure on the assumptions about the foundations of our security and the implications of the pressure on those assumptions for our confidence about future security will drive us closer together.

Prof Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra and author of How to Defend Australia (2019). The first of a two-part article, this is the edited text of an address that he gave at Victoria University of Wellington's Centre for Strategic Studies on 2 September 2019. The second part will examine Australia's response to the situation outlined here.

Caption: Xi Jinping inspects Chinese naval personnel

Caption: John Howard

Caption: Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo with Australia's Foreign Minister Marisa Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds
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Author:White, Hugh
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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