Michael Wesley

With Power Shift, Hugh White has done two important things. In the midst of arguably the most trivial and self-obsessed period of our national life, he has reminded Australians that there are issues crucial to our long-term future that need to be discussed. And he has staked out the big question that confronts our security and prosperity over the next decades: where will the major transitions of power and wealth that are going on around us leave this country?

White uses the angular reasoning and austere language of Realpolitik to argue that a Greek tragedy is playing out to our north. China is rising inexorably. With its wealth comes a desire for influence and a capacity to do something about it. The big obstacle is America; confronted with Chinese demands for elbow room, it will either push back or pack up and go home. Rather than live with these extremes, it’s in Australia’s interest to convince both to share leadership in this region.

This is strategic thinking on its grandest scale: a forced focus decades into the future and a disciplined consideration of what we should be doing now to be best positioned for that future. The hardest thing about all this is looking at present trends and trying to predict how they will interact to shape the future. 

White is right to focus on the rise of China; this is the single most important strategic shift that will occur in the first half of this century. But it’s not the only one. The story of Asia’s power shift is not just a China–America story. And if we factor in the rest of the story we get to a very different future, and a different set of strategic choices, than those posed in Power Shift.

Without question, China is rising faster than any other major country on the planet. It is already the centre of economic dynamism on the Asian continent, a significant force in global finance and an increasingly potent military power. This, of course, makes it a country of intense focus and concern to the United States, which has been all of these things for generations.

But China’s rise hasn’t occurred in isolation. It is surrounded by other considerable countries with already large (Japan) or rapidly growing (India, Vietnam) economies. Nearly all of China’s neighbours have either fought against it or had seriously tense relations with Beijing in living memory. And nearly all of those neighbours are increasingly integrated with China economically. 

And so China’s rise has kicked off a complex dynamic among its neighbours. Desperate to avoid their economic interdependence with China turning into all-round dependence, China’s neighbours are building their economies and military power as quickly as they can. They are searching for and building diplomatic and military links that offset their integration with China’s economy. The last thing anyone wants is to be left alone to Beijing’s tender mercies.

To be sure, China is bigger and stronger than any one of its neighbours. But even if it continues to grow at current rates, it will not become stronger than all of them. All around its long land and sea borders, China is surrounded by significant countries that don’t trust it: Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, India. So as China has risen, particularly in recent years, we’ve seen relationships tighten between America and its allies in the Pacific; new friendships form between Washington and former antagonists such as India and Vietnam; and most importantly, the tendrils of mutual assistance, investment and strategic cooperation among China’s neighbours: Japan–India; India–Vietnam; Korea–Indonesia. These aren’t formal alliances because they don’t want to provoke Beijing’s paranoia, but they grow more strategically significant with each passing year.

Beijing is therefore caught in the foreign-affairs equivalent of the tar-baby story. Whenever it tries to muscle up and assert its interests against America or one of its neighbours, it scares the rest, tightens their solidarity with each other and deepens its own strategic isolation. It makes China’s neighbours even more determined to preserve American power and leadership in the region.

This situation means that a central dynamic in White’s Greek tragedy – a direct Chinese challenge to American primacy in the Pacific – is very unlikely to occur. With neighbours like these, Beijing simply won’t have the elbow room to challenge Washington directly. China’s abiding fear is strategic isolation and encirclement by a hostile coalition of countries. If it takes on the United States, or anyone else in the neighbourhood, it will make this fear more manifest.

Australia is already becoming a part of this emerging dynamic. Not that anyone’s noticed, but our defence links with Japan and Korea have thickened substantially in the past couple of years. If we can get our act together, the same process could occur with India, Vietnam and Indonesia. As these dynamics play out, it would look decidedly anomalous for us to try to convince the United States to concede strategic space to China in the Pacific – because our position would be not only out of whack with our own strategic interests, but with those of most of our northern neighbours too.

This is the sort of discussion and debate we should have started years ago. Hugh White has done this country a great service in provoking it now. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure we don’t let it slip back into obscurity again, displaced by great matters of consequence, such as who’s going to be deputy speaker.


Michael Wesley is the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Previously he was professor of international relations and director of the Griffith Asia Institute. His most recent books are Energy Security in Asia, The Howard Paradox: Australian Diplomacy in Asia 1996–2006 and, with Allan Gyngell, Making Australian Foreign Policy.


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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