On the 27th of August, Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU, Hugh White took part in a public discussion with Fairfax’s former China correspondent, John Garnaut.
The talk was centred on the influential legacy of White’s Quarterly Essay “Power Shift”, which focuses on Australia’s shifting relationships between China and the US in a future where the latter’s preponderance in the region is not guaranteed. Australia would, according to the essay, have to accommodate for China’s rise to maintain regional order.
When asked by Garnaut what he got wrong, White said that “I did get some things not as right as I would have… I underestimated how fast China would grow… how fast China was growing in maritime capability… and how slow the US has been to realise China’s challenge.”
In regards to China’s relations with its neighbours, White said that “everyone in Asia values their Chinese relationship enormously,” which raises concerns especially when “America’s main goal is to preserve US leadership in the Asia-Pacific.” Additionally, he noted that since the US “pivot” to Asia, Australia has tended to “talk big and do very little.”
On war, he said that “China absolutely does not want war with the US” and vice-versa. Also, while China’s military is inexperienced, “the US has no experience either” in a full-blown maritime war. Ultimately, in considering this with its ground strength, “China is in a very real sense uninvadable, and certainly uninvadable by the US.”
Robert Lee, Political Counsellor at the US Embassy, was also in attendance and during question time said that White’s characterisation of US policy was inaccurate. Lee asserted that the US had to protect its economic interests at stake, and was against the use of coercive power by regional players.
Afterwards, White told Woroni that China’s rise may have implications for the Australian identity. “In the end the biggest foreign policy questions always end up about how you see yourself, and how we see China, its power, and how we react to it.”
“But we do have to accept that Australian identity is more flexible than people often assume. The Australia of the 1850s, 1900, the 1950s, and of the 2000s were four very different Australia’s. And the Australia of 2050 is going to be very different again.”
He said that he does not believe a future government of either Labor or Liberal persuasion would adopt his thinking on the China issue, despite the support of some former policy-makers.
“Only one [senior politician in parliament] has ever spoken with any clear sense of endorsement of the broad argument I’m making, and that’s Malcolm Turnbull,” he said.
White also commented that his fellow academics have received his ideas “very warmly, very vigorously, and very disputatiously. But the Quarterly Essay is not a scholarly work; it’s more a work of public debate. But I was supported in my thinking for the essay by conversations with innumerably colleagues at the ANU, including those who knew a hell of a lot more about China than I do,” and that the engagement of his colleagues “was one of the most rewarding parts” of his research.
White was pleased with the night, and found his conversation with Garnaut, who he described as “a wonderful journalist, and one of the best analysts on the issue”, a “very special opportunity.”