Australia’s regional future

Thoughts and suggestions from some members of the Chinese-Australian community

2 September 2021 | CCCA

Australia working as peace-broker for US-China, is the best choice for Australia’s national interests. Australia should follow the advice of Professor Hugh White who brought this subject up 10 years ago before the Australia-China relations began to crack and freeze.  

Most Chinese Australians are not aware of White’s 2010 thesis “Power Shift’ which considered Australia’s future between Washington and Beijing.  As the power balance shifts, China’s influence grows and what is the effect of China’s rise to Australia? (Quarterly Essay) 

In another article in Quarterly Essay “Without America” White surmised: As America is fading, and China will soon be the dominant power in our regions what would this mean for Australia’s future 

There are many who claimed themselves as China expert in Australia but few would be recognised as a real expert by Chinese Australians. 

White is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. He studies Australian foreign, strategic and defence policy, and regional and global strategic issues as they affect Australia. He spent much of his career in government, including as International Relations Advisor to Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Deputy Secretary for Strategy in the Department of Defence.

He was the first Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), and from 2004 to 2011 he was Head of the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. His recent major publications include Power Shift: Australia’s future between Washington and Beijing (2010), The China Choice: Why America should share power (2012), Without America: Australia’s future in the New Asia (2017) and How to defend Australia (2019). 

In his thesis, White recanted the “primacy” of the British followed by the Americans in Asia. The rise of China economic power challenges the US dominance and presents problems for Australia that extend beyond the boundaries of trade and diplomacy. It makes us think of our place in the world, our loyalties and long-term security; as well as raising important questions: 

(1)  Will China replace the US as a regional leader? If so, we will be dealing with an undemocratic and vastly more powerful nation). 

 (2)  Will China wield its power differently from the US? If so, should we continue to support America and so divide Asia between our biggest ally and our biggest trading partner? 

(3)  How to define the national interest in the Asian century? This visionary essay considers the shape of the world to come and the implications for Australia as it seeks to carve out a place in the new world order. 

Pinning the narrative down to the East Asia, as China’s backyard and a rising China, the question of whether US should (a) relinquish her primacy in East Asia and work as collaboratively as collective leadership, (b) continue to maintain a presence as a ”balance of power” or (c) contain and stop China’s rising. 

Of the three possibilities, White argued that Australian foreign and strategic policy should aim to promote a new order in Asia whereby the US is persuaded to relinquish primacy in the region, in favour of working with the PRC and others in a shared regional leadership. 

Ten years passed since his thesis first appeared in 2010 and his narrative, prediction, and advice till remain valid and relevant to today’s current geopolitical climate, ie. the containment of China by the US aligned by Australia, and possible consequences. 

In 2021, there appears growing evidence that contrary to White’s advice, Canberra is throwing its support behind Washington in a competition between great powers. And Washington and Beijing are struggling to find a way to work together peacefully as relative power shifts from one to the other. Has the ‘bleak’ future foreshadowed in White’s analysis been confirmed?

Is it too late for Australia to change tack? Or have weaknesses in White’s thesis been revealed, and does an alternative, potentially more positive future for Australia await even as relations between its security guarantor and most important economic partner deteriorate? 

All the above questions are answered in the latest ACRI video broadcast Aug 2021 when White was interviewed by Prof. James Laurenceson (Director, UTS Australia-China Relations Institute). 

In watching the video, one can draw some insight to the geopolitics of this region: 

  1. The European experience of “balance of power” had led to European wars and if US adopts this policy, it can lead to WW3. 
  2. China has already risen economically, and it would be difficult to stop her. 
  3. There is no real solidarity within the US alliance in East Asia (ie. Japan or South,  Korea), or SE Asia (ie. Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam & Indonesia) as their economic interests are in conflict with the US policy on China containment No one wants war in their doorsteps.
  4. Trying to imagine the QUAD as an Asian NATO is also a wishful thinking. 

If there is a possibility that US would successfully contain China with her allies, then Australia will suffer first. Most pundits in this area predict that the US containment policy would be a failure. 

White’s thesis stood the test of time and will be continued to be relevant in the near future. Time is of essence if we wish to recover the lost relationship with China as with each rising year, China will grow stronger and she will mimic the US as a strong regional power and it would be difficult to get concessions from super powers. 

Hence, the Chinese Australians supports Prof White’s arguments that for peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific, a geopolitical climate of collaboration will be the best step forward for Australia to repair the broken Australia-China relations.  Despite a pessimistic outlook about the Australia-China relations expressed by Brian Toohey, we must not give up.

Looking from humanitarian universal values that civilised world aspired for and for so long trying to achieve it since UN was established in 1945, no one will welcome another disaster war like Afghanistan/Middle East, Vietnam, Korea again in Asia-Pacific region from US. War between US and China will be the whole world’s catastrophe and no one will be spared with the potential nuclear warfare between US Allies and China-Russia Allies.

Given the choice for Australians will anyone go for such a war Mr Morrison and Anthony Albanese? The choice is so obvious. The Australian and Asian peoples will go for peace. Australia’s skill in peace maker’s role will be paid off many times more than trying to beat the war drum! That is also where our national interests lie.

Principal authors, Tony Pun and Dr Ka Sing Chua. This commentary is supplied by the Chinese Community Council of Australia Incorporated: Founding President, Dr Anthony Pun OAM, President, Mr Kingsley Liu. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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