By Telling America What It Wants to Hear, Australians Are Missing the Real Question


For a long time, debate in Australia about its alliance with America followed a predictable pattern. Very few people doubted that the alliance was good for Australia, or questioned the durability of U.S. leadership and commitment to its allies. The only question was whether Australia should pay the costs of maintaining the alliance or abandon something which was so clearly beneficial. Not surprisingly, there was not much to argue about. Everyone of any standing in national policy debates agreed that the alliance should be preserved.

Many Australians, including Arzan Tarapore, think that this is essentially the debate we are still having today. Tarapore thinks the question we face is whether Australia should step back from an alliance that is increasingly costly because of growing pressure from China. He argues that this has already been answered with a resounding “no”: China’s rise notwithstanding, Australians still want an alliance with America.

But the issue today is not whether we want an alliance with America, but whether we can sensibly expect to have one. The debate we are having now is about whether an alliance with America will remain an option for us if America is stepping back from Asia and its alliances there, including with Australia.

Because he misunderstands the question, Tarapore misinterprets my position in the debate. He thinks I am arguing that Australia should step back from the U.S. alliance to placate China. In fact, I contend that Australia should recognize that America may well be stepping back from Asia, and hence from its alliance with Australia, because America will not be prepared to bear the costs and risks of resisting China’s challenge to U.S. regional leadership.

I will not rehearse my arguments for that position here, as I have set them out at length in a recent essay, but suffice to say that Donald Trump’s presidency is not the only or even the primary reason for my pessimism. Bigger forces are at work. In Asia today, America faces a formidable rival that is determined to take its place as the leading regional power. This is a far more serious challenge than any America has faced in Asia since at least the end of the Cold War.

It is not impossible that America might respond effectively to that challenge, and I very much hope that it will. Just to make myself perfectly clear, I agree with Tarapore that Australia’s interests would be overwhelmingly served by America continuing to play a major strategic role in Asia and by Australia remaining a U.S. ally. But I do not believe these hopes are likely to be realized because I do not think America has a credible idea of how to meet China’s challenge.

Only very recently, in the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, has Washington acknowledged the seriousness of China’s challenge, but it still underestimates what will be required to respond effectively. U.S. policymakers seem to assume America can preserve its old position against a formidable new challenger by doing the same things that worked so well back when U.S. leadership in Asia was uncontested.

That is surely wrong. We can no longer take the old policies for granted in Trump’s America. But even if we ignore the U.S. president, we cannot ignore China. If America is to retain a significant strategic role in Asia, it will need to rethink its approach to take account of the reality of China’s power and ambitions. This will mean recognizing that a sustainable future role for America in Asia will look different from the role it has played for so long. The United States will need to recommit itself to devoting the resources needed to sustain a reconfigured strategic role in these new conditions.

That is why it is so important for American policymakers and analysts to begin a fundamental reassessment of U.S. strategic posture in Asia. And that is why America’s friends in Australia should be encouraging them to do this, rather than reassuring them that all is well and that nothing about America’s approach to Asia needs to change.

That might be what our American friends want to hear, but it will not help them create the new policy they need to maximize their future role in Asia. And it will not help Australians confront the serious likelihood that America, under Trump, will fail to create a sustainable response to China, and will instead withdraw from Asia, leaving Australia without a great and powerful friend. Australians must stop living in the past, and start debating the real question we now face.


Hugh White is professor of Strategic Studies at ANU in Canberra, and a former senior Australian Defence official. He is the author of The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power [2012] and a recent Quarterly Essay, “Without America: Australia’s Future in the New Asia.”

Image: U.S. Department of State/Flickr