ANU academic Professor Hugh White, from the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the College of Asia & the Pacific, released the Quarterly Essay ‘Without America’. The widely anticipated publication explores the potential challenges Australia might face in light of declining American influence in Asia.
‘Without America’ comes seven years after the publication of Professor White’s first Quarterly Essay, ‘Power Shift’. In this issue, Professor White put forward the idea that China’s rise will challenge US dominance in Asia.
This view drew criticism.
Many denied that China would become powerful enough to be a credible challenger to US primacy.
But in the past seven years, China’s growth has been both comprehensive and extremely rapid. With it comes ever-growing strategic ambition.
“A lot has happened in the seven years since I published the earlier essay. China has grown, and has kept growing, much faster than most people expected,” said Professor White.
“We didn’t expect Xi Jinping to emerge as the kind of leader he has emerged as, with such radical and plainly articulated agenda for China, internationally as well as domestically,” he continued. “We didn’t expect how hard China has pushed in the South China Sea and the East China Sea to demonstrate its resolve, and we didn’t expect how artfully it would use the statecraft of armed forces and the statecraft of economics to build its diplomatic position in Asia.”
Meanwhile, the United States has endured a decline in its international standing. President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ foreign policy platform has proven ineffective at constraining China’s rise. Military and diplomatic failures in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have further challenged the legitimacy of an American order.
But most of all, these incidences have demonstrated America’s unwillingness to maintain its primacy.
“We didn’t predict just how clear it has now become that no-one in the United States seems really willing to pay the costs and bear the risks that are required for the United States to sustain its leadership in Asia against a challenge as serious as the one China today poses,” said Professor White.
“I believe it’s now clear: that the US will not deter China from challenging, but that China will win that challenge, and will end up as the dominant power in East Asia,” Professor White said. “The US, as a result, will cease to play any significant strategic role in Asia, and Australia’s alliance with the United States will fade away.”
Professor White says that China’s actions in the South and East China Seas demonstrate a greater willingness to bear the risk of war than the United States. China’s incursions suggest it is seeking to enter in an open contest with the United States over leadership in Asia.
“This is a contest between immensely powerful states for a leadership position in the world’s most significant and dynamic region,” said Professor White. “The stakes literally could not be higher.”
This is not the first time Australia has found itself faced with a potential Asian hegemon. But in the past, rising Asian powers have been constrained by their relatively small economies. Professor White noted that, according to the Foreign Policy White Paper, China’s economy will reach $42 trillion by 2030. The United States economy will be just $24 trillion.
In light of these figures, it is clear that Australia must begin to think intelligently about what the future might look like. A Chinese-led regional order will likely bring challenges, as well as opportunities.
“As a country, we are failing to have the debate we need to have about how we can respond to this very different Asia,” said Professor White. “It is going to be one of the most important debates in our history.”
“We can’t begin to have that debate until we as a political community find the courage to see how the world is changing around us,” he said.
The essay is for sale at the Quarterly Essay website.
By CAP student correspondent Dot Mason.