An expensive leap into greater uncertainty? Hugh White and the defence of Australia 

Hugh White sees the US–Australia military alliance weakening, possibly disappearing, as China’s rise undermines US hegemony in East Asia and as US relative power wanes. ‘We will really be on our own’, he observes in How to defend Australia.

On this foundation, White builds a provocative case for greatly expanded acquisitions of submarines, fighter aircraft and, somewhat equivocally, nuclear weapons. His objective: to deter or to defeat a future Chinese attack on Australia without active US support.

How to defend Australia is an elegant, readable and confronting book in which White is asserting, once again, his prominent position among Australian defence intellectuals. He’s something of a gadfly, asking awkward questions, offering scathing criticisms, posing radical answers and urging quick decisions. ‘We don’t have much time’, he writes in the opening chapter. ‘Time is not on our side’, he reaffirms near the end of the book.

It’s obvious that historic strategic shifts are reshaping power relations in East Asia and that Australia now faces increasingly complex and uncertain security challenges. But is White’s pessimism entirely justified? Is the US really on a downward historical spiral while the rise and rise of China is now inevitable? If it’s not, White’s case for radical changes in Australia’s defence policy might seem at least unduly gloomy.

In fact, Australia’s alliance with the US has never guaranteed it US support in the event of an attack.  The ANZUS Treaty is an agreement to consult in the event of a threat; it commits the parties to act only in accordance with their constitutional processes. Likewise, there has always been uncertainty about the wisdom of Australia’s reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence. White rightly notes Australia will face a difficult choice on nuclear weapons acquisition if it can’t rely on Washington’s nuclear umbrella. But that has always been the case: military alliances between great and lesser powers rarely if ever guarantee certainty to the minor party seeking protection.

China is quickly catching up with the US as an economic and military power, but US military budgets still outstrip Chinese defence spending and US armaments are superior to most Chinese equivalents. Chinese military doctrine, organisation, training and leadership generally lag behind the US and other advanced powers. The Chinese military also lacks real war experience and global logistic support. Bureaucracy, graft and corruption remain serious issues for the Chinese military.

China faces other constraints. A recent report from China’s Academy of Social Services says the country faces a long period of ‘unstoppable’ population decline after 2029. It says growth in the working population has stagnated and the ageing population is ‘bound to cause very unfavourable social and economic consequences’. The US, by contrast, has a large, growing and diverse young population which will be available to develop the nation’s civilian and military power. China has abundant people, but they are increasingly aged and dependent and will grow old before they grow rich.

If economic and military power and demography aren’t sufficient to ensure the US remains a worthwhile and willing alliance partner for Australia, then it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to expect that America’s national pride and its democratic political system will help to keep the US engaged.

It’s true, as White argues, that the US is suffering political malaise under President Donald Trump. But despite his isolationism Trump is conducting a domestically popular escalating trade war with Beijing with scant regard for its effects on allies and others. That is not the action of an administration preparing to make way for China.

Democracies, unlike despotic regimes, ultimately and often painfully survive idiosyncratic leaders who rise periodically to challenge and even debauch their values. The US especially has large, excellent and powerful diplomatic and security elites with the political clout to restrain wayward leaders.

White undervalues these formidable US assets in concluding that US power and influence in the region will shrink and possibly disappear. He may have conceded too much too soon in reading the funeral rites for the US–Australia alliance. He also ignores the recent Lowy Institute poll which found that 73% of Australians believe the US would come to our defence if we were attacked and that only 32% of Australians trust China.

There’s another important reason why Australia should preserve the alliance rather than move to offset its demise. Most of our most advanced military equipment—including F-35 fighter jets, and submarine and surface-ship combat systems—can only be maintained, updated and kept operational by their US makers. Somewhat cavalierly White seems to accept this prospect and argue that we could manage with poorer weapons from Europe and perhaps even from Russia. It’s hard to see military leaders or the government acquiescing willingly in this conclusion while accepting White’s proposal to double the defence budget to $80 billion a year.

Nevertheless, White has confronted the country with some tough questions about the alliance and defence policy. But the alliance never has been an absolute security guarantee. We need it because it complicates the decisions of potential aggressors and because it assures us of access to the world’s best military equipment. In an uncertain world we can hope for little more. White’s proposals would be an expensive leap into even greater uncertainty to the strategic advantage of China.