The astonishing David Hale
27 Jan 2016|

David Hale

The last time I saw David Hale was at a dinner in a restaurant at the Griffith shops in Canberra. He was passing through Australia on one of his regular visits and suggested we get together. David was a most remarkable polymath and any encounter with him was master-class in understanding how the world worked, how economies could grow and shrink, how national politics was shaped by the random endowments of resources and human ingenuity and how all of it fitted together into a global system, hissing at the seams, but still chugging along.

As luck would have it, we met close to Valentine’s Day and so it was that the restaurant was full of sparkly-eyed couples drinking champagne and seemingly saying not too much at all while David and I opted for Shiraz, steak and chips and a thorough-going discussion on the dysfunctional economies of Africa and the Middle East. ‘Nigeria’, he would say with a ringing Bostonian intonation: ‘failing in terms of political reform.’ Chips. ‘Corrupt. Hopeless.’ ‘Oil production down 6.2% on last year.’ Shiraz. ‘But amazing spread of mobile telephony.’ Steak. Thus round the Continent and the Fertile Crescent until coffee.

As David spoke his eyes would look inward to his astonishing cray computer-like mental database. He retained facts about the economics and politics of every country on the planet. Time series; dates of coups; forthcoming elections; year on year comparisons of crop yields and mineral outputs and all cross referenced and instantly accessible. He would rock slightly as he spoke, a mannerism which many Australians would recall from his dozens of interviews on Lateline (and here in this ASPI interview) about the Australian economy and our place in a rapidly transforming world. But David Hale was no Bower Bird collector of random information. He synthesised it all into coherent and balanced assessments of the world around us. He also had a dry humour and would look at you shyly to see if you got his jokes. Australians did. That’s probably why he liked us so much and why we liked him.

David wrote two major studies for ASPI, the first, remarkably, a decade ago in February 2006. In the Balance: China’s unprecedented growth and implications for the Asia–Pacific set out exactly what the title described, a data-rich assessment of the impact of China’s rise. His summary assessment is worth reconsidering here:

‘There is great apprehension in Washington, Tokyo, and other capitals about the rise of China as a new power. The US Congress is alarmed about the large American trade deficit with China. The Pentagon is concerned about China challenging American military supremacy in East Asia. While it is natural that traditional powers should be concerned about the rise of new powers, China’s capacity to pursue an aggressive foreign policy will be very contained by her new economic circumstances. China’s ratio of exports to GDP is now 38% or three times higher than that of the US, Japan, and Europe. It is unusual for a country as large as China to be so heavily dependent upon foreign trade but as a result of low labour costs, good infrastructure, and pro-business economic policies the global corporate community has turned China into a workshop of the world. China has become so integrated with the global economy that she can no longer pursue a high-risk foreign policy without jeopardising her economic prosperity. China is likely to become a threat to other countries only if she experiences domestic political instability which produces an upsurge of nationalism or a search for external scapegoats to blame for local problems.’

That’s as good a one-paragraph assessment of China over the last decade as you can find. In 2006 David thought that one possibility for the China of 2016 might be that ‘China could become more open and tolerate greater dissent. Such a political opening could then open the door to forces such as nationalism and populism.’ On that he was half right –nationalism is rapidly gaining strength.

When we asked David to give us a fresh assessment in February 2014 about the implications of China’s rise, he was decidedly more pessimistic. Here is what he wrote in China’s new dream: How will Australia and the world cope with the re-emergence of China as a great power?

The new president, Xi Jinping, appears likely to be the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. His faction controls six of the seven seats on the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The recent plenary made him the leader of both the new national security and economic reform committees. There’ll continue to be a free debate on many issues, and the government will carefully monitor public opinion on issues such as corruption and the environment. In pursuing economic and legal reforms, though, Xi won’t tolerate any threat to the supremacy of the Communist Party. The Chinese political system will therefore continue to be an evolving story, combining an authoritarian leadership with a rising middle class demanding more accountability for the government’s actions.

The re-emergence of China as a great power will be Australia’s greatest foreign policy challenge during the 21st century. Canberra will have to carefully balance Australia’s growing economic relationship with China and its traditional alliance with the US. The major threat to this balancing act would be if America’s fiscal problems force it to slash defence spending and withdraw from the East Asian region. In such a scenario, Australia would cease to have a great-power ally and be more vulnerable to foreign aggression than at any time since 1942. The only Asian country with the long-term potential to challenge Chinese hegemony is India. Australia should therefore hedge its bets with the US and China by pursuing better relations with New Delhi.’

What a cracker of a paragraph! Intellectually fearless and unconventional, yet empirical and always looking for more data. ASPI and Australia lost a great friend in David Hale when he passed away unexpectedly in Chicago on 19 October 2015. He was only 64. People with his abilities don’t come along often and his loss will be felt here, in the United States and many other countries.

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