Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2018

Without America, Australia in the New Asia (2017), by Hugh White (Quarterly Essay #68)

There is no doubt that this latest Quarterly Essay is deeply depressing to read.  Without America is unequivocal about the fading power of America and that we in Australia face the prospect of China becoming the dominant power in our region.  You don’t have to be xenophobic to fear this: it’s a straightforward matter of China not sharing the democratic values that we are used to.  We are used to having democratic elections, freedom of speech, freedom from censorship, the rule of law, judicial independence and the end of capital punishment many decades ago.  Chinese authoritarianism isn’t going to suit the larrikin Australian character at all.

But what this QE makes clear is that Australia has had its head in the sand.  Obama’s ‘pivot’ was a failure but we believed it because we liked and admired Obama. We’ve been backing America as a reliable ally when all along it’s been demonstrating that it its strategy in Asia is failing, while at the same time we’ve been relying on China for our economic survival.  The mantra that we do not need to choose between China and America is would be laughable if things were not serious: we often need to choose, and not having an intelligent, coherent and bipartisan strategy is not helping us to negotiate our way in uncharted territory.  Even before Trump, American foreign policy towards China was nonsense.

Instead of hiding our collective heads in the sand, what we need to do is to strengthen our ties in southeast Asia, and we need to ensure that Indonesia in particular becomes a strategic asset rather than a liability in the new Asia.  It will be the fifth biggest economy in the world by 2030, and still we send journalists there when they don’t have a word of Indonesian to interpret what’s going on.  (Indeed, I suspect that the last Australian journalist to speak a local neighbourhood language was Sean Dorney reporting on Papua New Guinea). Indonesia is our biggest and most powerful neighbour, and there are worrying signs of the erosion of democratic reforms and the slide towards authoritarianism and away from secularism yet it remains a mystery to us*.  India is also vitally important to us because it also has a vested interest in limiting China’s power, but the best we can do on Australian TV is repeats of Joanna Lumley’s excruciatingly Raj-ridden travelogues.

The only way the rise of China will be stopped is through outright and catastrophic war, and White asks the question of those who decry appeasement:

…is the prospect of an Asia dominated by China bad enough to be worth fighting a major [i.e. nuclear] war over?  Leaving to one side the practical question if whether enough countries with sufficient power would share our views and join the struggle, the answer depends on what is really at stake. Again, talk of appeasement suggests that the stakes today are comparable to the stakes in 1938, when it was no exaggeration to say that the future of liberal democracy, indeed of civilisation, was at stake.  People sometimes speak today in similar terms about China’s rise.  They say that China’s growing power and influence poses a direct threat to our liberal-democratic political system and the values that underpin it, and that our system and values cannot survive unless China’s power is curbed.

Plainly China’s values – or the values of China’s rulers – are different from ours, and there is much that happens there that we find disturbing or worse.  We would, I think, pay a very high price to prevent those values and the political system that reflects them being imposed on Australia.  Whether we’d pay the price of a major war is a question we might hope never to have to face.  But we do not face that question yet.  The question we should consider now, more carefully than we have so far felt the need to do, is what kind of threat China as the dominant power in East Asia would or does pose to the fundamental values on which our society is based, and the institutions that support them.  How seriously are our values threatened simply by the fact that China’s political system is based on different ones?  And how serious is the risk that China’s values and system might be imposed on us in Australia?

Answering these questions will require us to think about values rather differently from the way they mostly figure in our talk about foreign affairs.  That talk often presumes that values sit on one side of the argument and interests on the other.  That is sometimes true, but only when the stakes are relatively low.  When the stakes are high, the choices we face are not between interests and values, but between competing values on both sides of the argument.  In Asia today, as so often in international relations, the big choice we face is between justice on one side and peace on the other, and peace weighs heavily when the alternative is major war.  (p.67)

Lest we panic, White reminds us that while this situation is new for Australia because the countries that have had most influence over us have also been the ones we feel closest to, and whose interests and values have aligned most naturally with ours… world history shows that most countries have had to live with this situation and have been subject [to the influence of greater powers] much more than they would wish.  

We can get a clearer idea of what [coming out from America’s wing] will mean by looking at other countries’ experience of the way great powers exert influence over weaker ones.  It is not as straightforward as we often assume, because even relatively weak sovereign states have a formidable capacity to control what happens in their territory.  Great powers cannot simply dictate to smaller ones unless they intervene with armed force.  Short of that, they exercise influence by offering rewards, or more often, by imposing costs.  In fact, a key measure of a state’s power is its ability to impose costs on other states at low cost to itself  China’s power over Australia will be reflected in its ability to impose costs on us to persuade us to do what it wants, and the stronger it becomes, the greater the costs it will be able to impose.  This means, however, that weaker states have choices about how they respond to pressure. Even a very weak state can defy a great power if it is willing to pay the price.  North Korea has shown this over many years: it has been able to defy US pressure to abandon its nuclear program because it has been willing to accept the costs that America has imposed.  (p.69)

But already Australia is choosing to acquiesce: we don’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we kowtow over independence for Tibet, and we have nothing to say about alternatives to the Chinese Communist party.  It’s our economic relationship that makes us vulnerable…

Would Australians be willing to pay more for consumer goods if China made demands that are more painful to comply with?  Already there are insidious forms of Chinese pressure: they want control of some forms of critical infrastructure, they attempt to influence media coverage, they are buying political influence from both sides of federal politics, and there is surveillance and harassment of Chinese students in Australian universities.

It is no good hoping that Beijing will stop doing these things if we ask nicely.  If we don’t want to live with them, we will need to take steps ourselves to curtail them, and pay the costs accordingly.  Some things are easy, like banning foreign political donations.  Others are more difficult: it is hard to see how we can prevent China using its money to promote favourable media coverage without curtailing the freedom of the press.  (p.71)

So there’s lots to think about.  What QE doesn’t say, presumably because it knows its readership is awake and paying attention, is that Australians voters – who are either totally disengaged or gazing awestruck by its navel-gazing politicians carrying on about internecine warfare, Section 44, and gender equity – need to sit up and demand a bi-partisan approach to dealing with critically important issues that are on the threshold.

  • The latest issue of the journal Australian Foreign Affairs (also published by Schwarz Publishing) is titled Australia and Indonesia, Can we be friends?  and it features an essay titled ‘The Jakarta Switch’ also by Hugh White. It’s on my TBR (because I subscribe to the journal) and I’ll be reading it soon.

Author: Hugh White
Title: Without America, Australia in the New Asia
Quarterly Essay 66, 2017, 107pp
Publisher: Black Inc, an imprint of Schwarz Publishing
ISBN: 9781863959636
Source: Personal subscription to Quarterly Essay

Available from Fishpond: Without America: Australia in the New Asia: Quarterly Essay 68


  1. Food for thought.


  2. Thanks for this Lisa. I appreciate the summary. Insightful, although worrying!


  3. Indeed yes. I find myself putting off reading these journals sometimes because they often are worrying, but then when I read them, I realise that really, the biggest worry is that we’re sleepwalking our way into big problems… and I think part of the reason for that is John Howard’s promise to make Australians ‘relaxed and comfortable’ and that politicians don’t want the electorate to think about anything except domestic issues that (they think) they can control.
    Sometimes I watch Kevin Rudd on Stan Grant’s Matter of Fact program (the only place Rudd seems to be able to get a gig) and each time I am so impressed by the way he has such a firm grasp on the international situation, compared to anyone else around.


  4. Well argued Lisa. I think many on the left would like to see Australia become neutral politically, but that seems to be a level of independence beyond our politicians understanding and of course Asio and Defence are tightly bound up with – and may even be owned by – the US.


    • I was mindful as I read it, of Fraser’s Dangerous Allies which argued for greater independence. He said then that it was not going to be easy to achieve. ( if you want to refresh your memory, you commented on it at the time).
      I would like to feel that there was some interest in Canberra that involved careful analysis of our options, but we don’t hear much about it if there is. But the arrival of Black Inc’s Australian Foreign Affairs journal is a good sign that more people are taking an interest in all this.
      I have Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion on the TBR too, though goodness knows when I’ll get time to read it.


  5. I read this in November 2017 from the perspective of non-Australian….ex pat American living in The Netherlands (…do you still follow me?)
    China’s rise is a fact and isn’t going away.
    This will require Australia to rethink a lot of things,
    to make some hard choices, and perhaps
    to pay some heavy costs.
    Excellent… #MustRead essay!


    • Ah, yes, you are ahead of me there.
      White does have some harsh things to say about Trump, but then, most people do!


      • Harsh words in this essay not only for Trump but also Sec. of State and Secr. of Defense!
        “Rex Tillerson has proved to be the worst secretary of state in living memory,
        ….and the overpraised General James Mattis in Defense
        ….has failed to bring coherence to the administration’s strategy.”


        • Well yes. But I have to admit to paying very little attention . I have switched off from The Debacle in the White House and don’t plan to put my head back up over the parapet until either they impeach him or the American electorate votes him out, whichever comes first.


  6. Very thought-provoking and insightful post and essay, Lisa! Thanks so much for sharing!


  7. […] Without America, Australia in the New Asia, by Hugh White (Quarterly Essay #68) […]


  8. […] Without America: Australia in the New Asia by Hugh White (Quarterly Essay #68) […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: