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Following is a letter published in The Australian on an article written by Hugh White, now a Professor at the ANU and formerly director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute when I was on the board of that body. A copy of White’s article, which repeats a thesis he ran with when at ASPI, also follows.

Our only protection
letter published in The Australian , 14 September 2010

When responding to Greg Sheridan’s overly-generous critique of his article arguing Australia needs to convince the US to relinquish primacy in Asia, Hugh White dodges the issue (“As China rises, we must look beyond the US alliance”, Commentary, 13/9). Our alliance with the US is the keystone of our foreign policy because we share common values and the US is the only country that can protect us against a major attack or intrusion on those values. 

White says it is wrong to believe that  “no price is too high to pay to keep” the alliance going: but this is a typical academic hypothecation that nobody has suggested. 

It’s in our interests for the USA to retain its leading position in Asia-Pacific and not to give China and India veto rights over US policy.  Indeed, while China continues to be ruled by a communist government we should not sensibly want to give it a veto over anything.

Des Moore, South Yarra, Vic


As China rises we must look beyond U.S. alliance

THE US alliance today is the bipartisan bedrock of Australian foreign policy for a very good reason.

American power has kept Asia peaceful and Australia safe for the past 40 years.

Arguably these have been the best decades in Australia's history, and we will be very fortunate if American power continues working this way to keep Asia stable and Australia secure forever.

But that may not be possible. If China's economy keeps growing, its strategic and political weight will keep growing, too. China will exercise more power in Asia. That power must either be accommodated or resisted.

Either way, Asia would then be different: less stable and less secure, and less comfortable for Australia. But some outcomes would be much better for Australia than others. Some would be merely unfamiliar and unsettling. Others would be disastrous.

Australia therefore faces unwelcome but very important choices about the best way to respond to China's rise, including choices about the future of our relationship with America. My new Quarterly Essay just published by Black Inc, titled Power Shift: Australia's Future between Washington and Beijing, sets out to explore these choices and to present them as clearly - even as starkly - as possible.

Many people will find the essay's argument disconcerting. It certainly seems to have disconcerted my old friend Greg Sheridan, whose characteristically feisty response appeared in this newspaper last week. He is dismayed that anyone who, like me, has worked within the Australian foreign-policy system and has understood the value of the US alliance could imagine a world in which American power no longer guaranteed our security and framed our entire foreign policy.

At one level his response is understandable: the issues raised in the essay are not ones to be raised lightly. The alliance is fundamental to our security, so only an equally fundamental shift in our strategic circumstances could justify the kinds of questions I pose about it. But that is just what we face.

China's rise, if it lasts, is one of the biggest changes in global affairs since Australia was founded, comparable only to the rise of the US in the 19th century or the end of colonialism in the 20th century. Changes such as this reshape the way the world works. When they occur, countries like Australia must rethink their place in the world. This will indeed be unsettling. One clear possibility is that Australia might best be served by America not struggling against China to maintain primacy in Asia, but making room for it. If the US does resist China's challenge and hostility grows between them, it is possible Australia will have to choose whether to follow America into that fight or step back from it.

These are not pleasant prospects, but this is not a time for wishful thinking. We should all prefer American power to endure unchallenged indefinitely, but good policy requires us to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. We must try to make the best of the world as we see it, minimising risks and maximising opportunities.

It is not quite clear whether Sheridan accepts that China's growth really is changing the power balance between Beijing and Washington, and whether he accepts that their roles in Asia will also change as profoundly, as I have argued. If not, it would be good to know why not. If so, it would be helpful for him to explain why he is so uneasy about discussing the issues Asia's transformation raises for Australia.

Perhaps he is one of those people - some of whom I admire - who believe Australia's commitment to its alliance transcends the ebb and flow of events. For them, the US alliance is more than just a policy instrument, to be kept while it works and discarded when it doesn't. For them, the alliance is an end in itself, an object of loyalty, part of our identity. For them, an Australia that abandoned the alliance would no longer be Australia. For them, no price is too high to pay to keep it going.

But this view is wrong and ultimately self-defeating. The US alliance has always been neither more nor less than an instrument of policy. It is an agreement between two countries for their mutual benefit, to be judged on how the benefits balance up against the costs, and recognising that the balance might shift as circumstances change. It can have no other reliable basis.

Even judged in these coolly realistic terms, it is far from inevitable that China's rise means the end of the alliance. As China grows, a new order can be built in Asia that accommodates its power peacefully and preserves a vital role for America, including a strong US-Australia alliance. This would be the best outcome for Australia. We will have to work to make it happen, including by talking to Washington about it.

That is what a true friend of the alliance will do.

Hugh White is a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

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