Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2021

‘Great Expectations’ by Hugh White, in Australian Foreign Affairs #10 (2020): Friends, Allies and Enemies, edited by Jonathan Pearlman

The Australian Foreign Affairs journal only publishes three issues each year so there’s no excuse for neglecting it, but as usual, I am really behind with my reading of the journals I subscribe to.  But—six months after its publication—this issue is still very relevant because it raises the viability of our current foreign policy strategy, i.e. to counter the rise of China with new strategic partnerships instead of relying on the US. If Australia’s foreign aid cuts in our region have taught our neighbourhood to look to their own interests and dispense with their loyalties accordingly, where does that leave us?

In the Introduction, Editor Jonathan Pearlman makes the point that countries in the region hold differing views of China and vary widely in readiness to confront Beijing. 

In July 2019, for instance, Australia joined twenty-one countries in issuing a condemnation of China’s mass detention of Uyghurs; the only other signatory in the Indo-Pacific was New Zealand.  Among the more than fifty countries that, days later, issued a statement defending China, at least five were regional neighbours: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal and the Philippines.  Australia does not, like South Korea or Japan, stare at China across a sea; nor is it one of the many claimants to disputed territory in the South China Sea.  Each country in the region has unique interests and qualities, which are likely to stretch the limits of the term “like-minded”.  (p.5)

Hugh White in ‘Great Expectations’ argues that building new alliances in Asia is destined to fail.  The language of our Defence White Papers have changed over time, from a policy of self-reliance when Indonesia seemed the most likely threat, to overt support for Any American Adventures (whether they were in our strategic interest or not).  But things have moved on.  The most recent White Paper acknowledges that Australian confidence in America has been shaken, and not just by Trump’s isolationism, his erratic diplomacy and his focus on China as an economic rather than strategic rival.  China is now the most powerful adversary America has ever faced. It is also determined to take America’s place as the leading power in East Asia. Washington still has no coherent plan to counter this, and not just because of Trump.

The reasons […] go to the fundamental  question of whether America needs to preserve its leadership role in Asia enough to justify the costs and risks of containing a rival as powerful as China in China’s own backyard. China’s strength and resolve means those costs and risks will be high.  (p.11)

The idea of an ‘Asian NATO’ has been around for about 20 years: a regional coalition of US-led Indo-Pacific alliances to contain China.  But it assumes that harnessing regional anxiety about China will lend itself to cooperation in our region.

Broad gestures of diplomatic support don’t thaw much ice in a Cold War.  China is determined to restore its position as the primary power in East Asia, and will bitterly resent and savagely punish those who oppose it.  It has the capacity to impose high costs on its weaker neighbours at relatively low cost to itself.  Asian countries will pay dearly if they dare to support US efforts to contain China.  So while they might like to see China contained, it is unlikely they will be willing to contribute towards this containment. (p.14)

(We in Australia already know about ‘economic punishment.’  40% of Australian exports to China have been affected by their trade bans.)

Whereas NATO, for all its flaws, was always clear about the security of its member states being contingent on a united defence against the Soviets, SEATO, (the Asian equivalent) never had a similar cohesiveness and most of its members were militarily weak and in no position to help each other much anyway.  The other difference is that the geography of our region means that until recently all that the US needed was bases in the region because dominance in Asia requires maritime strength, and the US learned in Vietnam that ground forces are doomed to fail. (LH: They knew that anyway from WW2: apart from wanting to demonstrate their overwhelming power in the new nuclear age, they A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because they did not want to fight, island-by-island towards Tokyo, with inevitable catastrophic American troop casualties.)

What about India?  By 2030 its economy will likely be bigger than the rest of Asia’s combined (excluding China) and approaching America’s. It won’t want to be dominated by China, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will align with the US nor that it will oppose China’s domination of East  Asia.  White says that if China moderates its ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, where India seeks preponderance, India will have little reason to challenge China’s ambitions elsewhere.  What he doesn’t say is that China may only defer those ambitions, though I have read elsewhere that China is not expansionist: it seeks to restore its historical position, not to augment it.

Proponents of an Asian alliance based on shared values, says White, haven’t looked around.  Think of Vietnam, with a communist government just as authoritarian as China’s, or indeed India, whose democratic political system nonetheless encompasses some highly repressive policies against minorities.

Having analysed the prospects of an Asian alliance at the strategic level, White goes on then to analyse the operational level, i.e. the realities of military strength in the region.  The difficulty of fighting land wars for China’s mainland neighbours means that only maritime powers could help one another, though these days it’s easier to find and sink ships than to defend them.  Countries with a nuclear capacity such as Japan and India can defend themselves, they don’t need America or each other. So they don’t need to take on commitments to risky alliances that may offend their powerful neighbour.  China’s maritime power in the region means that any conflict in the Pacific would not deliver a swift, cheap US victory whether Asian allies join in or not.

This analysis leads White to conclude that Australia needs to step up its own self-reliance and to build the strongest links possible with countries in maritime South-East Asia that offer strategic value, such as Indonesia, which would in turn benefit from Australia’s military help.  And, he says, Australia should rethink its military strategy and its defence budget to build capacity to achieve maritime denial in our own defence while at the same time make a major contribution to defending the islands to our north as well.  He stops short of suggesting that Australia should have a nuclear deterrent as Japan and India do.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include essays:

  • Rory Medcalf considers the potential of multilateral forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the ‘Quad’).
  • Karen Middleton examines how foreign aid and diplomacy can strengthen ties with our neighbours.
  • Patrick Lawrence calls on Australia to bid farewell to US influence in the Asia-Pacific and embrace an Asian-led regional order.
  • Allan Behm proposes a bold new Pacific aid donors’ conference led by Australia.

There are also reviews of new books by

    • Primrose Riordan details the rapacious effects of China’s new security law in Hong Kong.
    • Timothy J. Lynch examines the challenges ahead for the United States.
    • Renée Fry-McKibbin surveys capitalism’s failure in the midst of COVID-19.
    • Sophie Chao reports on the West Papuan struggle for independence. (Source: the  the AFF website)

The most interesting one of these, IMO, was Patrick Lawrence’s essay ‘Goodbye America, The remaking of Asia’.  He calls a spade a spade, to the point of being blunt, and that’s refreshing.  Commenting on Congress deliberations about more money to expand its East Asian operations, he writes that America’s nostalgic view of its role in the world is unrealistic:

This is all about China, to state the obvious.  More to the point, it is about prolonging American primary in the Pacific as the People’s Republic emerges as a regional and global power.  This is a forlorn project by any balanced reckoning.  Yes, America will remain a Pacific power.  No, it can no longer presume pre-eminence.  The compulsion to insist otherwise arises out of longing for the once-was, anxiety in the face of change and an appallingly poor grasp of China’s aspirations and intentions. (p.69)

Lawrence is derisive about the US commitment to a ‘new Cold War with China’.

This one is almost certain to remain cold by design: only fools imagine a hot conflict with the mainland could be won, and while there seem to be fools aplenty at the Pentagon, it is unlikely there are enough of them to carry the day on this point.  But Cold War II will nonetheless prove as divisive and ruinously wasteful as the first.  In the matter of friends, allies and enemies, Asians and their southerly neighbours will have some serious sorting to do. (p.70)

I am reminded that this journal is the October 2020 edition.  Writing his essay now, Lawrence would surely mention ‘fools aplenty’ sprouting warmongering rhetoric in Canberra too…

BTW at Inside Story, there’s an interesting review of Stan Grant’s new book With the Falling of the Dusk: A Chronicle of the World in Crisis.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Friends, Allies and Enemies, Asia’s Shifting Loyalties
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 10, Oct 2020
ISBN: 9781760642051
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library


  1. I often think there is no one of enough intelligence or strategic know how to ever solve the problems facing us now. Our leaders sure don’t seem to be enough to do much here. America also has a long ways to go. I respect your reading choices. I can’t cope with much political readings any more.


    • Pam, I really appreciate that you visit here even if what I’ve read is not really to your taste:)


      • I enjoy the diversity of everyone’s reading. I am more time limited to lots of posts from lots of people more than anything else.


        • Me too:)
          And you know, it’s sensible to ringfence to some extent. It isn’t good to be online all the time.


  2. I agree with Hugh White, and I must read this edition as well. Thank you for reminding me.


    • LOL I’ve got one more AFF journal to catch up, then a Quarterly Essay and two Griffith Reviews…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think we’ve got a comparable publication here, but I can certainly attest to being well and good behind with my subscriptions. Only six months, you’re doing rather well I’d say (though it does FEEL like longer when the actual year has turned in the meantime…when you’re reading May’s issue in November, you’ll feel practically caught up)!


    • *chuckle* I hadn’t thought of it like that!


  4. Interesting summary – thank you. If you’re interested in an Australia-centric view of China, try ‘The Beijing Bureau’ (eds Trevor Watson & Melissa Roberts, Hardie Grant 2021)


    • Thanks, MsWriter, I’ll look out for it in the library.
      But while I’m interested in that, I’m also interested in reading about their view of us. No one yet has adequately explained why the relationship has so suddenly deteriorated.

      Liked by 1 person

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