Thinking the unthinkable: Hugh White suggests that the rise of China is fundamentally changing the strategic outlook in the western Pacific and undermining assumptions that have underpinned Australian defence thinking.

Author:White, Hugh
 
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There are important differences in the way Australia and New Zealand see or at least talk about the fundamental bases of our security. If you ask Australians how to defend Australia, the most spontaneous answer will have a lot to do with alliances. In New Zealand the corresponding formulation would have a lot more to do with international order with multilateral systems, with the rules and with cooperative activities. Notwithstanding the differences in the way we describe those fundamental bases of our security, there is close agreement about what is disrupting them: that we are facing a fundamental shift in the distribution of wealth and power globally and especially in our region. It is also true that both countries are finding it hard to decide what to do about it; and that is fundamentally challenging our thinking about our diplomacy and our approach to defence. I will focus here on the defence side. That is not say the diplomatic side is not very important; it is just a subject for a different article.

Let me start by referring to Australia's defence predicament. Australia's defence policy today, and indeed for decades past, has been based on two very simple assumptions: the first is that America will, by its dominant position in Asia, prevent any great power attacking Australia or, indeed, will prevent any great power seriously challenging the broader stability of the Asia-Pacific region; and, second, that if for some reason that first proposition goes wrong and that Australia does face a threat from a major power, the United States will be there to defend us and to defend our stakes in the regional order.

That confidence has set a pretty low ceiling on what we have had to expect our defence force to be able to do. It has meant that when we thought about defending our own continent, we have been able to focus our efforts very much on defending Australia only against small or relatively not very well armed local powers, like Indonesia. We have not had to worry much about the possibility of defending Australia against a major Asian power.

The second thing we have realised we had to do is find a way to support the United States modestly in retaining its position in Asia, which was important to sustaining those two assumptions. But the emphasis there is on modest. We have assumed that America would not need much support to retain its primary position in Asia and that there would not be much for Australia to do militarily or, for that matter, diplomatically in order to do its bit to preserve America's leading role in Asia because we did not believe it would face a serious challenge.

Like everyone else, we bought the argument at the end of the Cold War that America had emerged from the Cold War with an unchallengeable preponderance of power globally and in Asia; and an unshakable determination to use that power to preserve its leading role as the pre-eminent power in Asia as well as everywhere else. But it slowly dawned on us that that assumption was wrong, that the United States does face a very serious challenge to its leading position in Asia from China.

We are increasingly becoming aware that that challenge from China starts to undermine the confidence we have had in those two assumptions that form the foundation of our defence policy and framed the expectation we have of our own armed forces. It will be no surprise that this is an awkward reality for Australia because China is not just any old country--it is our economic future. It is true of most countries in the world that China is...

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