A member of the Chinese military marches before the welcoming ceremony for President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. AP

A member of the Chinese military marches before the welcoming ceremony for President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. AP

Foreign policy: why we should expect more of ourselves

4 December 2017

We are starting to turn the “soft bigotry of low expectations” against our own government, and therefore against ourselves. Look at the way we have responded to the government’s recent Foreign Policy White Paper, which has been widely welcomed for providing both a convincing assessment of the international challenges we face and credible response to them.

This says a lot about how little we have come to expect of our governments, because the White Paper so obviously underestimates the seriousness of our situation, and offers no convincing policy response to it. If we accept this as “good enough”, then we are accepting that Australia should keep drifting into the most profound and problematic shift in our international circumstances in many decades, without any comprehension of what’s happening or any idea of how to deal with it. And we acquiesce in the idea that as a country we are not capable of doing any better.

The White Paper has been praised for acknowledging that China’s power and influence are growing, and that America is having doubts about how to respond. But it goes nowhere near recognising just how far these trends have already gone, and where they are heading. In fact it evades them on four key issues.

First, the text is silent on the implications of a graph, presented in the White Paper itself, showing Treasury estimates that just 13 years from now China’s economy will be close to double the size of America’s – $42 trillion to $24 trillion. It does not comment on what these remarkable numbers mean for the shift in power between Washington and Beijing, and hence for America’s future role in Asia. And yet the implications are fundamental, and revolutionary. It reflects by far the biggest shift in the distribution of wealth and power in Asia since Australia was settled by Britain in 1788.

Second, the White Paper is equally evasive on what China aims to do with its growing power. It coyly acknowledges that Beijing seeks more influence, but nowhere says that it aims to dominate East Asia as the region’s primary power. But this now absolutely clear, especially since Xi Jinping’s plain statements at the 19th Party Congress in October. That means China aims to deny America any significant strategic role in our region. Malcolm Turnbull himself acknowledged this in a big speech back in June.

Rising rivalries

Third, the White Paper again coyly acknowledges that America’s commitment to preserving its leadership in Asia is not as clear as it used to be. But this massively understates the reality. Under Donald Trump, Washington clearly has little desire to remain the leading power in Asia, nor the skill in statecraft to do so. But it is not just Trump. The deeper reality is that as China’s power grows, the costs and risks of resisting its challenge in East Asia have become more than Americans are willing to bear. Leadership in Asia just doesn’t matter that much to them.

And fourth, there is no reason to assume, as the White Paper does, that America’s failing position in Asia can be buttressed, and Australia’s fears of China assuaged, by like-minded democracies such as India and Japan. When it talks of the “Indo-Pacific” the White Paper presupposes that India and China will be rivals across that entire region, which implies that India will use its power to constrain China’s ambitions in East Asia. But that is very unlikely, because India will be focused on keeping China out of the Indian Ocean. And as Japan’s confidence in America falters it will be focused on managing its own relationship with China. It won’t spare much thought for Australia in doing that. Why should it? What can we do for them?

All this makes it very risky to expect, as the White Paper does, that America will remain deeply engaged in the region as the guardian of the rules-based order. It says that this is “essential” to peace and stability. It further assumes that if America does play the role we want, China will abandon its ambitions and peacefully accept it. The reality today is that America is very unlikely to resist China’s bid to dominate East Asia, and that if it does – with or without the support of like-minded democracies – we are headed not for peace and stability but rivalry and conflict.

This is not inevitable. It is possible to imagine a new Asian order that both accommodates and constrains China’s power and ambition. It would be one in which China plays a larger role, but America stays engaged to balance and limit its power, along with India and Japan. For Australia that would be undoubtedly be the least-bad of the plausible outcomes. But this is very different from the Asia we have known, and which the White Paper proposes we try to cling to. It makes no effort to describe or promote a new vision of Asia’s future that realistically reflects the distribution of power in Asia today and in the future.

Instead it has us looking backwards, hankering after the Asia we have lost, as we are propelled swiftly forward to an Asia we barely understand but instinctively fear. And we are right to fear it if we do not work harder to understand and adapt to it. By refusing to acknowledge how swiftly China’s power and influence in East Asia is growing and America’s is shrinking, we are preventing ourselves from making the best of the new circumstances we face. We will glide into supine subservience to China’s power because we lack the courage and imagination to deal with the reality of its rise.

Is this the best we can do? Perhaps the saddest thing about all this is that many people in Canberra’s foreign policy community know how inadequate the White Paper’s evasions are, but have convinced themselves that it is simply impossible for the government – or the opposition – to speak more frankly about it.

They, and we, have forgotten what real foreign policy looks like. We should refresh our memories by looking back a bit. We could look at Percy Spender’s speech to Parliament outlining his policy in February 1950, or Arthur Caldwell’s opposing the Vietnam commitment in May 1965, or Garth Evans’ paper on Australia’s Regional Security in 1989. They show how it can be done. We should expect more of ourselves.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU. His new Quarterly Essay Without America: Australia in the New Asia was published last week.

Story originally published in AFR.

Updated:  1 June 2023/Responsible Officer:  Bell School Marketing Team/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team