10 July 2019
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.