Launch of Hugh White’s ‘China Choice’
Well thankyou. I’m delighted to be here to help with the Canberra launch of Hugh’s book. Only books can have multiple launches. I don’t think ships can. Ships can be refurbished I suppose, and launched again. But simultaneous launches are only reserved for books – and only great books.
Hugh White has made an enormously valuable contribution to strategic thinking both in Canberra and Washington, and perhaps in Beijing for that matter, for confronting the world as it is not as we would like it to be. And he outlines the choices that need to be made even if we don’t agree with his conclusions. The thesis of his book – which is very timely and very provocative – essentially goes like this: He says China and the whole region, including our country, have benefited from the peace and stability delivered for over 40 years by the unchallenged pre-eminence of the United States navy. According the IMF China, which is the world’s second largest economy, will overtake the US in five years. Its wealth and dignity compels it to acquire a military capacity worthy of a great power – even though, as Hugh notes, it only spends two per cent of GDP on defence, compared to the United States’ 4.7 per cent.
One of the important points Hugh makes in his book is to remind us that we can’t dismiss the talk of China’s rise on the grounds that the rise and rise of Japan turned out to be not quite as inevitable as people suggested. At the end of the day, arithmetic resolves that. Japan’s working population is around one third of the United States’; China’s is four times as large. So it follows that if China is to equal the United States’ GDP it doesn’t need to match American incomes or indeed American productivity. Chinese workers, if they can be just one quarter as productive as Americans workers, then the two nations will be equal. And who can doubt that Chinese and American productivity will continue to converge?
Now Hugh’s work has been misrepresented in some quarters and mostly criticised and discussed in a respectful and intelligent fashion but not universally. But I think it is important to recognise that Hugh White – and Hugh can speak for himself in a moment – but he is not suggesting or proposing that the United States should vacate the field or withdraw from Asia or cede dominance in Asia to China in some sort of retreat. His practical point is really no more than a recognition of reality that as China becomes a stronger and greater power, there will inevitably have to be a harmonious balance of power because the Chinese side will not accept total hegemony from the United States. They see that the world has changed. They feel that the Chinese people are standing up, in Mao’s words from 1949, and they have a dignity that they wish to assert. Equally of course, everybody else in the region has a very keen and active interest in the new power being balanced by the old power. So what Hugh is talking about is balance.
Now I guess where I would part company from Hugh — and those of you who have read my review of his book in The Monthly would be familiar with this — is that while I agree that there needs to be a better understanding between the two great powers and a recognition that we are talking about a balance of power going forward, and that is a recognition of reality in my view. And to deny it is only to create friction with all of the possible adverse consequences that entails. I don’t go as far as Hugh to suggest there can be a formal ‘concert of Asia’ balance of power. However, I think its very useful of Hugh to put that up — and I really thank him for it, because it does focus people’s attention on, as I said at the outset, the world as it is, not the world as we would like or imagine it to be. My own view. . .and this room is full of people who’ve reviewed your book, Hugh — this is sort of a reviewers’ concilium, ‘the panel’, (laughter). But I think my view, and I think the view of the number of others here is more along the lines of the opinions expressed by Henry Kissinger in his really important recent book on China where he says a balance of power is something that will evolve — that will naturally evolve. And if it doesn’t we are going to face some real problems.
Now I guess the key point I want to make, and I’ve made them elsewhere so many of you will be familiar with them, is that while we will always be a very strong and intimidate and close ally of the United States, our interests are no co-extensive with one political administration or another. The deployment, or rotation, of the 2500 Marines through Darwin is a thoroughly good development, and one, frankly that had been an aspiration of the previous government. So this is something that has been a long time in the making and very much to be welcomed.
It is of no relevance to China in any practical sense. There are 70-odd thousand American servicemen stationed much closer to China, in Japan and Korea alone so the idea that these Marines coming and going in Darwin is somehow or other a challenge to the People’s Republic of China defies both geography and common sense. However, President Obama’s administration, facing the usual criticism from Republicans (that Democrats always face) that they are soft on foreign policy, despite in Obama’s case, quite a lot of evidence to the contrary I might add, Obama’s administration chose to spin this as part of a pivot to Asia, standing up to China. And I regret to say that our government went along with that. And that was clearly in my view a mistake. We have to recognise that great powers regard deference as their due.
If you go to Washington and tell the imperial power that you love them and you know are devoted to them and you know worship the ground they walk on they will say well of course you do, of course you should, naturally we are the imperial power. And if you go to Beijing and say similar things they will have exactly the same reaction. So it is important, it’s important that Australia’s stature is one that is that of a strong ally, and I would say an intimate ally, of the United States but nonetheless a thoroughly independent point of view.
And there was a, one of the very experienced diplomats from our region, one of our Ambassadors here in Canberra a gentleman who has had a very long diplomatic career and a very thoughtful man, was talking to me not so long ago about this issue and he said, he said you have to remember that if you are seen in the region as agreeing with everything the American’s say and doing whatever they ask you to do, we will ask why do we take time to talk to you at all? Why don’t we just talk to the head office? Now you might think that that’s a bit tough but I can’t say who the Ambassador was but this is someone of decades of experience in diplomacy and a representative of one of our very good friends. So that’s important, that’s important you know politics and diplomacy are as much about perception as anything else.
Hugh makes a very good — he’s a fan of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, which is in my view, well it’s certainly the first history ever written at least in the Western languages, and many would say one of the best. But he refers to the causes of the Peloponnesian Wars and how Thucydides – this is the war between Athens and Sparta of course – and how Thucydides chronicles this incident and that incident and all these little bits and pieces but he says at the end of the day the war came about because the Spartans were just apprehensive and filled with anxiety about the rising power of Athens. And wars, tensions, conflicts, can arise because of anxiety and a failure to understand what a new power is doing and so transparency is vital from the Chinese side as it is from the Western side.
It’s also important I think to have empathy. You know one of the terms that’s often used to describe Chinese-American relations, I’ve often used it and others have too, is that wonderfully cynical Chinese saying, ‘same bed, different dreams’. Now there’s nothing wrong — the point of that saying or phrase, is not that there’s anything wrong with being in the same bed as anybody else and having different dreams, it would be very boring if you think about it, whether in a domestic or international environment.
But what is important is to know that the person or the country with whom you are in bed –and we are in the same bed as China and America, and they’re in the same bed as each other, that’s a fact of life. It’s important to understand what those other dreams are. What those different dreams are, and be able to put yourself in their shoes. And as far as Australia is concerned, I think the message in large measures, Hugh’s book is written as a message to the Americans and the Chinese, the message for us it seems to me, is one of independence. Again, independence is not inconsistent with being a strong and intimate ally. But not being taken for granted – and that is the, it is vital we are seen as that. And of course that is essentially what the debate, what the book and the commentary around it has provoked in terms of the debate.
I said that Hugh was a lover of Thucydides. I’ve always thought the best passage about Realpolitik and diplomacy ever written was actually in Thucydides in Book 5, when Alcibiades and the Athenian ambassadors go to the island of Milos to seek to persuade the Melians, who are independent – neutrals – in the war, to come across the Athenians side, and there is a wonderful dialogue. The Melians say to the Athenians “look give us a break, fair’s fair, we just want to do our own thing, and we’re not hurting anybody.” And the debate goes on, and on along these lines, and then finally these Athenian ambassadors say “Listen, you know as well as we do that justice in this world is only found between equals in power. The strong do what they will. And the weak suffer as they must.” And there’s another message there. Just as we must be independent, we must always be strong. We can never be as strong as the United States or as China, but we must always be strong. We can never be, we can never be a weak power – we can be a strong and independent power. And I think that is essentially Hugh’s message, and it’s one the Government should take into account both as they react to American pronouncements on the pivot to Asia, and as they consider the cuts they are making to our defence budget.
So with those words, and a touch of Thucydides, I am delighted to launch for the umpteenth time, this great book. And encourage you all to buy it, and I think Hugh is going to say a few words to us now. The man himself.