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10 July 2019

With Jonathan Pearlman

The Hugh White debate

Late last month, China tested a series of anti-ship missiles close to its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Beijing initially denied building these islands, and then insisted they would not be militarised. Now, yet again, China is going one step further.

These strategic developments reflect the current pattern in the Asia-Pacific. China advances, tests the resolve of the United States and others in the region, banks its successes and then prepares for its next move. It’s a pattern that presents difficult questions for Australia, which will have to rethink its approach to diplomacy, alliances and defence.

China’s actions may seem sinister, but history suggests they are an inevitable part of the rise of a new power. The difference in this instance is that no state in recorded history has ever risen so quickly. From 2000 to 2014, China’s economy went from being less than a third of the size of the US’s to overtaking it on some measures. It is not clear where China’s ambitions will end. Its competition with the US for regional primacy is playing out in real time, and history provides only a limited guide to the consequences.

All of this helps to explain the frenzied debate over the past week about Hugh White’s new book, How to Defend Australia, which both confronts these questions and presents solutions. He argues that Australia’s new strategic uncertainty means it must prepare to fend off a potential Chinese attack without relying on the US for safety. White’s outline of the problem produces unease because it leaves Australia so insecure and so far from its comfort zone – alone in the south, away from the protective custody of the US. 

The remedies that White proposes are alarming. Australia would have to almost double its defence spending to at least 3.5 per cent of GDP to build more submarines and fighter jets. It needs to focus on protecting its maritime approaches and to abandon its plans to build large, expensive and hard-to-protect warships, which are designed to both project force further afield and support the US Navy. Australia, he says, may also have to consider acquiring nuclear weapons, deliverable by submarines, to prevent the threat of a nuclear attack.

This is not some Dr Strangelove–style shopping list. It is, in White’s view, the unfortunate and unavoidable outcome of Australia’s emerging regional reality. The recent anti-ship missile tests occurred after the publication of White’s book, but they confirm the scenario he outlines. Similar processes unfold around the region almost daily. A Chinese spy ship is currently on its way to northern Australia to monitor the biannual US–Australia military exercises in Queensland, which start tomorrow. Clearly, Australia has to start seriously considering its options.

White’s diagnosis is sound and compelling. Of course, his prescriptions should be – and already have been – challenged; second opinions will be crucial. Technology is changing, cyberwarfare is becoming more dangerous, India is becoming more nationalist and assertive, and China’s intentions may shift or become clearer. This debate is just beginning. The risk of ignoring it is that the new reality will arrive and it will be too late to prepare.


Chinese spy ship heading towards Australia to monitor joint war games off Queensland

“On Saturday night, the Type 815G Dongdiao-class electronic surveillance ship was believed to be north of Papua New Guinea, having begun its voyage south towards Australia late last week.” Andrew Greene, ABC News

China’s overrated technocrats

“The determination among outsiders to see apolitical or meritocratic technocracy in the Chinese leadership – based largely on decades-old degrees – reveals more about Western fantasies about China than it does about politics in Beijing. In fact, the struggle for power inside the Communist Party is cutthroat and intense.” James PalmerForeign Policy

Diplomacy and defence remain a boys’ club, but women are making inroads

“The Lowy Institute found that of all the fields in international relations, women are least represented in Australia’s intelligence communities . . . Another important finding is that the presence of female trailblazers in these fields, such as foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Marise Payne and Labor’s shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, may be masking more systemic issues.” Susan Harris Rimmer and Elise Stephenson, The Conversation


Measuring the “NU effect” in Indonesia’s election

“Putting Amin on the ticket helped Jokowi to win by capturing a missing demographic of NU voters in Javanese-majority districts (and without Jusuf Kalla on the ticket . . . Jokowi’s support from South Sulawesi plummeted).” Naila Shofia and Tom PepinskyNew Mandala

Sunny Asian century versus dark Indo-Pacific

“The US Indo-Pacific strategy means the tool has been weaponised. US President Donald Trump weaponises the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ just as he weaponises globalisation. Lots of stuff around here is loaded with explosives.” Graeme Dobell, The Strategist (ASPI)

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Next Voices winner – “Indonesia calling”

“While I am in Jakarta, a presidential debate is televised. Curious about my nation’s coverage of it, I check Australian news websites. The focus is on an explosion heard outside the venue. It was fireworks: nobody was injured, the debate was uninterrupted. But it has become the story. This, in Australian eyes, is Indonesia.” David Fettling, HERE



I don’t think this [US] administration will ever look competent.

Sir Kim Darroch, diplomat (United Kingdom), leaked cable

Get me out of here.

Donald Trump, president (United States), overheard at the G20 Summit

I do worry. I am worried . . . I told you.

Emmanuel Macron, president (France), overheard talking to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 Summit

Sources: Daily Mail, Business Insider, The Guardian

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