Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies and Head of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.
Suddenly Australian politicians have started talking just a bit more sensibly about America, China and the future of Asia. For the past couple of years this has been the central topic in Australian foreign policy debates, but leaders on both sides of politics have studiously avoided serious discussion of it. Not any more.
The drought broke with Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne’s addressed Asialink in Melbourne on Australia in the Asian Century.
Now another Liberal frontbencher, Malcolm Turnbull, has weighed in with a speech at the LSE last week. Turnbull is not just any frontbencher, of course. He is a former and potential future leader of his party, and one of the most thoughtful policy analysts in a notably policy-lite parliament. He has long taken a lively and intelligent interest in foreign and strategic questions, and his speech moves the political debate about Australia’s complex choices in the Asian century one small but very important step forward.
We can best see why Turnbull’s small step matters by looking first at Pyne’s and Gillard’s speeches. They both emphasised that China’s rise is fundamentally transforming Asia, and will have profound implications for the way Asia and the world works. Both spoke about how important the evolution of the US-China relationship is going to be in the future peace and stability of Asia and the wider world. And both acknowledged that Australia’s foreign policy would need to adapt to these very new circumstances.
But at that point, both Gillard and Pyne faltered. Both assured their listeners that despite the profound shift in relative power between the US and China, and China’s unambiguous challenge to the American leadership, US primacy would remain the foundation of Asian order for as far ahead as we can see, and Australia’s policy will be unwaveringly to support American in defending its primacy against China’s challenge.
In other words, everything in Asia is changing, but Australia’s foreign and strategic policies can continue in future decades as they have for decades past, as if nothing has happened. Of course this is nonsense. China’s rise has the most profound implications for America’s role in Asia, and hence for Australia’s alliance with America.
If Washington does as Gillard and Pyne suggest and tries to perpetuate US dominance in the face of Beijing’s rise, it will lead to escalating strategic competition with China which would be a disaster for everyone. As Asia changes, America will need to play a very different role, and our alliance with America will work very differently too. These are the inescapable conclusions that Gillard and Pyne evaded.
Turnbull’s small but important step was to press forward towards these conclusions where Gillard and Pyne held back. Here is the key line:
The best and most realistic strategic outcome for East Asia must be one in which the powers are in balance with each side effectively able to deny the domination of the other.
So there it is. For the first time a senior Australian politician has acknowledged that in the light of China’s rise, Asia’s peace and Australia’s security might not in future be based on the domination of Asia by Australia’s great and powerful friend. Now it remains only to explore what it should be based on instead, and how Australia can best help to bring it about. Lead the way, Malcolm.