Bruce Grant

Hugh White’s valuable, if alarming, essay asserts boldly that a “Chinese challenge to American power in Asia is no longer a future possibility but a current reality.” He succeeds in ruffling the feathers of both those, like myself, who thought that the US and China were accommodating each other sensibly in the post-Cold War era and those for whom any mention of a loss of American supremacy is either silly or treasonable.

The essay ends more calmly than it begins. It begins with a call to action. Power politics is back! Australia must do something! The evidence, however, is sketchy. It seems to lie in China’s acquisition of new submarines and its assertion of authority in the seas around it (Yellow, East China and South China). Readers might think that China has more right than the US to police its brown waters, and whatever it may acquire in the way of a blue-water navy would be nothing compared with what the US already has. But White’s argument depends on logic, not evidence. As economic wealth is the basis of military power, he argues, China’s current economic strength and the United States’ current economic weakness inevitably mean that American supremacy in Asia is challenged. White is a former defence official, currently an academic strategic analyst, and the essay is peppered with international-relations realist terminology – primacy, supremacy, role, contest, domination – that is not examined. He may well turn out to be right, but the case for an outbreak of contested US supremacy is not made.

When he turns to ways of “shaping the future,” White adopts an insistently reasonable (if wistful) tone. A fresh and interesting idea is that “the best outcome for Australia would be for America to relinquish primacy and share power with China and the other major powers in a Concert of Asia,” based on the Concert of Europe among Britain, Austria and Russia that kept relative peace in Europe for a century from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. The difficulties, which he acknowledges, are membership (Russia?) and why China would want to submit its growing importance to the veto of a group including not just the US, but Japan and India.

White credits Henry Kissinger, with Richard Nixon, for the deal with China that brought relative peace to Asia after Vietnam. Kissinger made the Concert of Europe the centrepiece of a lifelong study of balance-of-power diplomacy. He argued that two essential conditions of its success were careful design, so that equilibrium could only be broken by a military effort of a magnitude too difficult to mount, and the fact that the warring states of Europe were nevertheless knit together by shared values. 

Asia, by contrast, is an ill-defined region of baffling diversity. It contains Japan, China and ten Southeast Asian states, including Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as (in another definition) the United States, Canada and Chile, and (in another) India, Pakistan and Russia. It is not a coherent region in the way Europe is, Christian and capitalist except for Turkey, or the American hemisphere is, Christian and capitalist except for Cuba, or even Africa, divided into Christian south and Muslim north. There is no common civilisation, culture or religion: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Shintoism, Confucianism and communism are all present. Moreover, it is physically spacious and its components are separated by stretches of sea. It operates through networks, not institutions, and the energy of these networks comes from small and middle-sized countries as well as powerful states. The spirit of the region is pragmatic, looking for accommodation, consensus and compromise in the pursuit of better living conditions rather than sustaining values.

White examines other options for Australia: remain allied to the US, seek another great and powerful friend (like China, India or Japan), opt for armed (or unarmed, like New Zealand) neutrality, build a regional alliance with Southeast Asian neighbours (especially Indonesia), do nothing and hope for the best. He is critical of all five, but in the course of the survey he grapples with Australia as a “middle power,” a concept he likes but is not convinced Australia has enough military muscle to fulfil. 

We get a glimpse here of perhaps why White wrote this essay. He is exasperated with incompetence and inadequacy in Australia’s defence. We are not spending enough (2 per cent of GDP, which will need to rise at least to 3 per cent), we are spending on the wrong things and we are not prepared to face up to what it costs to be “self-reliant” or “independent.” Introspection like this has been going on since the British decided to withdraw “east of Suez” and throw in their lot with Europe. Armed, even unarmed, neutrality had a brief following on the left in Australia, as did a nuclear-armed Australia on the right. White looks back to the great debate of that period with nostalgia, arguing that another is due. Alas, coherent and articulate we may have been, but influential we were not. The nation settled for “forward defence,” which got us into Vietnam and was based on the facile belief that, as we could not support forward positions on our own, the Americans would do it for us. And the “War on Terror” proved fatally attractive. Afghanistan, which could have been a short, punitive expedition, like China’s incursion into Vietnam in 1979, became a long war, and Iraq proved to be what it always was, a foolhardy war of choice. 

When I was writing Australia’s Foreign Relations with Gareth Evans twenty years ago, we thought that the changes in Australia’s defence outlook, resulting from Paul Dibb’s report in 1986 and the Beazley White Paper that followed a year later, had, short of full-scale war, “liberated” Australia as a middle power. Whether or not we were right, a burst of activity followed. On the United Nations peace settlement in Cambodia, Australia worked first with Indonesia, then all five permanent members of the Security Council, Vietnam and the factions within Cambodia. We were instrumental in the foundation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and active in the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. The Howard government later preferred bilateral diplomacy; even so, it helped to get the vote for the International Criminal Court against the opposition of the United States. Our military compatibility showed in Cambodia, where we led the UN military contingent, and in East Timor, where we led several coalitions of interested countries. 

Although this activity was primarily regional, it was becoming obvious that, with the end of the Cold War, politics was global. A global system was emerging, embryonic yet increasingly tangible and fungible, compromising the self-help system that had been realism’s arena for four centuries. Parts of the global system had been there for half a century or longer, including the United Nations and its agencies and the World Bank and its offspring, but they were held in check during the Cold War. New bodies, like the World Trade Organization, and hundreds, indeed thousands, of inter-government and non-government organisations were now active globally. 

The world is searching for an effective forum to deal with multiple crises – financial regulation, climate change, poverty, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, to mention a few. The overriding concern is that the beggar-my-neighbour policies that led to rearmament and war in the twentieth century are not repeated. The United Nations is still a valuable forum, but it needs reform and a new generation of leaders. When it comes to action, the states themselves control the two staples of power – money and guns. 

For some time, the G20 has looked the most likely candidate for international action. Kevin Rudd was one of the first as prime minter to see the benefits of this for Australia, and his “meeting of minds” with Barack Obama on the usefulness of the G20 held out hope of a new kind of alliance between Australia and the United States. There is no mention of the G20 in this essay. It is an economic grouping and Hugh White’s world is the world of the nation-state, with the United Nations as a vague kind of moral and legal check on warlike tendencies in the world’s 200 or so states. But these are the world’s top twenty economies, and if economic strength is the basis of power, then this is the top table of global power, and for the first time in our history Australia has a seat at it. 

The G8 (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States) was the big-end of world politics from 1975 but, based entirely in the northern hemisphere and comprising only advanced industrial countries, it had a problem of legitimacy when speaking for the rest of the world. During the recent financial crisis, some of its members were a prime source of infection. The G20 brings together developed and developing states, adding to the G8 group Argentina, Australia, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey. It has scope and legitimacy, representing 60 per cent of the world’s population and 80 per cent of global GDP. While huge United Nations global gatherings on climate change like Kyoto and Copenhagen are unwieldy and fractious, the G20 is capable of consensus. It could even be a useful forum for the US to put pressure on China to liberalise its currency.

Having absorbed Hugh White’s analysis of prospective power conflict in Australia’s region, I am still inclined to look to an active Australian role in the multilateral world of the G20 rather than an assertion of traditional power through stronger defence as the way to go. 

In the contemporary world, middle-power diplomacy for Australia would be typically applied to a range of problems that were not regional, but global. It would be interested in the application of rules rather than power, as interlocutor between strong states with resolute interests and those that are weak, incapacitated by internal strife or without the resources to devote to global diplomacy. It would support international law and the free exchange of ideas, people and goods. Middle powers are cooperative rather than combative, intuitive rather than assertive, and they need to be imaginative. Great powers are reluctant to be imaginative. To do so would suggest that they do not value enough their prime possession, which is power and the authority that comes with it. 

Whether Australia has the diplomatic capacity for such a role is an open question. It would require resources, professional talent and intellectual persistence. It would not mean breaking the alliance with the United States, but it might test, even strain, relations from time to time, so it would need to be backed by political will. At some point, the Australian people will have to decide what kind of future they want.


Bruce Grant has been a foreign correspondent, columnist, academic, government adviser and diplomat. He has also written ten works of non-fiction, including Australia’s Foreign Relations with Gareth Evans, three novels and many short stories. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 39, Power Shift. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 40, Trivial Pursuit.


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