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Reading Room: Without America, Australia in the New Asia

16 Jan 2018
Reviewed by Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA

What will an Asia-Pacific without America look like? In this topical and critically important essay, Hugh White discusses the scenario of a new China-led Asia and Australia’s place in it.

‘Without America’ is essential reading because it raises such important questions. Concise and incisive, it was written in advance of the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper of 23 November and President Trump’s National Security Strategy of 18 December 2017. Hugh White correctly anticipated that Canberra and Washington would maintain the ‘agreeable illusion’ that America can continue to impose its will in Asia. Even though the White Paper concedes that China is challenging US dominance in East Asia and that China’s GDP will double America’s by 2030, it does not admit that America is incapable of resisting China’s challenge, let alone defeat it, by going to war again in Asia in its own interests or in those of its allies. Hence it does not deal with the consequences for Australia.

Professor White expects that the US will withdraw from the region, just as Britain did. National interest will gazump history and values. Australia will have to deal with a powerful and demanding China which, he says, “is not an ally and with which we have little in common”. According to White, we should therefore get over what Alan Gyngell calls our ‘fear of abandonment’ and fearlessly protect our interests in an Asia without America, with much more defence spending and even with nuclear weapons. If the US and its allies cannot contain China by force, America will have to swallow its pride and reach whatever accommodation with China it can, just as Australia is slowly learning to do.

An alternative prospect is that the US, still the world’s predominant military force, will not go as quietly as White’s rationale assumes. The American military hate to give up their bases and the military-industrial-security complex likes to promote its technologies. Australia, as always, will urge America to retain its Asia-Pacific presence. Japan, South Korea and possibly India may do the same. A military contestation between the US and China would be disastrous.

China’s recent reminder to America and Australia that we have international undertakings to refrain from the threat or use of force was a sign of things to come. Beijing was quite right; the US regards itself as above such conventions and Australia incessantly recommends to others the ‘international rules-based order’ which it breaches when it suits us. America uses military force far more than any other country, often with Australia’s support, contravening or ignoring international law. It is time, in Cavan Hogue’s view, to get used to China doing what the US has always done. China’s international trade, infrastructure projects and most of what White calls ‘military gamesmanship’ are within the rules and they are working better than America’s wars. Whether we like it or not, he predicts, Australia is going to have a more independent foreign policy in the new Asia, which makes the Foreign Policy White Paper out-of-date in its first year.

Hugh White, Without America: Australia in the New Asia: QE68, Black Inc., 2017. ISBN13: 9781863959636

Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA is a former Australian diplomat and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. She has written and edited 14 books about Australia and the world.