Hugh White’s essay Sleepwalk to War starts with a compelling observation about China. “Not since we faced Imperial Japan in the 1940s,” he states, “have things been so bad between us and a major Asian power. And this is potentially worse.” This jarring but accurate statement is the right starting point for a serious discussion about Australian strategy and managing relations with China and the alliance with the United States. But the essay unfortunately goes on to provide the wrong diagnosis of the problem and then essentially concludes that the best treatment for Australia is pre-emptive strategic euthanasia.
Sleepwalk to War reads like an Australian iteration of the hyper-realism of self-professed American “restrainers” such as John Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt. The balance of power that upsets these authors most is not in the Indo-Pacific, but in Canberra and Washington. Their greatest ire is reserved not for China or Russia, but for their own foreign policy establishments’ “alliance back-slapping” and “cringe-makingly sentimental” statements.
It is always fun to critique the bureaucrats, of course, but the attacks would be more convincing if the underlying analysis of the power dynamics in the international system was actually right. The geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific is not the simple bipolar contest between China and America that Hugh posits; nor is the world moving towards respective spheres of influence with China at the centre of Asia, as he predicts. The only country in the region that would like this to be so is China, which is why Beijing promotes its own version of Hugh’s argument through repetition of Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” thesis and offer of a “new model of great power relations,” in which the United States would avoid conflict by conceding to Chinese demands in a bipolar condominium that excludes the interests of Australia, Japan and other US allies and partners.
But this is not Athens and Sparta. The regional distribution of power is not bipolar. Instead, the Indo-Pacific region is defined increasingly by a multipolarity in which almost all of the other regional powers greatly prefer the existing US-led rules-based order to Chinese hegemony. To the extent Hugh pays attention to the other players in the system, it is to dismiss them as doomed or feckless. He ignores Japan’s growing defence capabilities, jointness with the United States and infrastructure financing (which rivals China’s Belt and Road and is much better received); South Korea’s recent election of a government much more aligned with US regional strategy; and Europe’s harder line on China. He casts India as largely irrelevant because New Delhi is refusing to become a real ally like Australia, when the US strategy was always premised on India not being an ally but a counterweight to China in a multipolar Asia – a reasonable long-term bet considering India’s demographic advantage over China.
The diplomacy involved in a multipolar Asia is not always straightforward, to be sure: Southeast Asia and the Pacific will always be porous; India will never be fully aligned; and the architecture of multipolarity will remain fluid and messy and fall short of a convenient collective security arrangement like NATO. But for a realist supposedly preoccupied with the distribution of power, it is a major oversight for Hugh to ignore the growing pushback against China in Tokyo, New Delhi and increasingly Seoul and Brussels. And it would be strategic malpractice for any Australian or US government not to harness this resistance to maintain a favourable balance of power going forward.
Hugh’s assertions about the economic power dynamics in China and the United States are also lopsided. Readers should by now be sceptical of the linear projections of Chinese economic dominance that underpin Hugh’s geopolitical arguments. As former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers predicted – even before Beijing’s self-defeating COVID lockdown, squelching of the private sector and real estate downturn – Chinese growth is reverting to the historical international norm. The United States averaged growth rates of 2.9 per cent from 1979 to 2021 and is projected by most economists to continue that performance in future. China averaged 9.5 per cent from 1979 into the second decade of this century, but now hopes for a 5.5 per cent growth rate that few private economists think is actually achievable (many predict stagflation this year). Even if China surpasses the United States in nominal GDP in the next decade, the next largest economies will still be the United States, India and Japan – collectively larger than China’s GDP and none prepared to cede regional economic leadership to Beijing. This is not to argue that the China challenge will solve itself because of China’s internal contradictions – its economy and military are huge and the strategic challenge for the rest of us is as real and as perilous as Hugh asserts in the opening of his essay. History suggests an economically stressed China could be even more dangerous for the world. But either way, it is important not to hyperventilate about China’s inexorable economic dominance over Asia. That is not how Chinese business leaders privately describe their own projections or why they increasingly seek permanent resident status in Singapore.
In addition to miscasting the material distribution of power, Hugh’s essay also misreads American willpower and intentions. His critique of the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations’ lurching and uneven efforts to find the right balance of cooperation and competition with China is not entirely unfair. As I described in my own history of US strategy in Asia, By More Than Providence (which Hugh kindly cites), the American way of grand strategy is always a messy “meta-process,” as one would expect in a system of government designed to reinforce checks and balances. Australia too was uncertain of what the transition from Hu Jintao’s China to Xi Jinping’s China meant in the years from John Howard to Scott Morrison. Hugh is also right to argue (as I and other American scholars such as Hal Brands and Zack Cooper have) that Washington has left big gaps in its emerging China strategy, including the fundamental question of what “victory” in a strategic competition with China looks like.
But while Hugh gets the faults in the American policy-making process right, he completely misinterprets the historic definition of US strategic interests. George F. Kennan would not have argued that Chinese domination of the Eurasian continent would be acceptable because it is far from the American homeland, as Hugh implies. In fact, Kennan asserted that there are two geographic “strongpoints” that would always remain essential to American security: Western Europe and Japan (and, by extension, the waters of the western Pacific beyond Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines that make up the first island chain). There is still broad consensus in the US strategic community and in Congress that Chinese control of maritime Asia is fundamentally unacceptable – a tradition that did not begin or end with Kennan. China’s strategy is clearly premised on domination of the first and second island chains, of course, which puts the US alliance system and Beijing’s vision of its security on a collision course. Hugh is right about what is at stake in that sense. But he is wrong to assert that historical American definitions of geopolitical interests in Asia point to a viable accommodation of Chinese dominance of the region. Several opinion polls (Pew, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, CSIS) indicate that the American public gets this and is more willing than ever to defend allies in the Indo-Pacific should it become necessary.
By extension, Hugh draws all the wrong conclusions about the geopolitical significance of Taiwan to US interests. The United States would not be able to brush off a Chinese takeover of Taiwan with skilful reassurance of Japan, as Hugh argues. The reality is that successful Chinese coercion of Taiwan would sever the first island chain, isolate Australia, put Taiwanese semiconductor firm TSMC and the “Ruhr Valley” of advanced semiconductor fabrication under Beijing’s control, and force states across the region to choose neutralism or possibly nuclear weapons to survive in the new environment.
But neither does Beijing have clear options to take Taiwan, as Hugh asserts. It would not be “easy for China to control the seas off Taiwan” for an invasion. While a Taiwan fight would be dangerous for surface combatants on all sides, the US Navy maintains a significant edge in undersea warfare that would make amphibious operations highly perilous for the PLA. Ukraine’s success against the Russian Navy in the Black Sea illustrates how much Taiwan could further complicate Chinese military planning with the introduction of more anti-ship missiles: a capability now at the top of Taipei’s shopping list. In short, it has become harder for the United States to execute its traditional plans for the defence of Taiwan, but Beijing hardly has an easy path of its own to victory. The unprecedented unity of US global alliances in response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine will further complicate Chinese assumptions about the use of force against Taiwan: Europe may not be neutral in Asian crises after all, as Beijing clearly assumed for years. That does not mean NATO sends warships, but there are now clearer geopolitical and economic costs to aggression. The bottom line is that deterrence and peace in the Taiwan Strait are still achievable, while pre-emptive surrender of Taiwan is neither necessary nor a reliable path to lasting peace.
The most surprising aspect of Hugh’s essay to me as an American is the curiously apathetic definition of Australia’s core values and interests. There may be an appetite in some corners for critiquing bureaucrats in Canberra or Washington, but would there really be political support in Australia for accepting the implications of Chinese hegemonic dominance of the Indo-Pacific? Is that the “China choice” Australians would make? Would they be prepared to curtail their free speech, as Beijing is already demanding, or to accept the odious apparatus of China’s high-tech surveillance state or PLA military bases in their immediate region? It is difficult to see any democratic society signing up for such a future – particularly when predictions of Chinese dominance and American retreat are built on such flimsy analytical scaffolding.
One thing Hugh gets absolutely right is how much influence Australia has in Washington. As he notes, the strategic community on Asia policy in DC is pretty small (I should know, I was part of it) and also very impressionable (see earlier parenthetical comment). If there are good ideas from trusted partners like Australia, they go right to the top. That is particularly true today, when the Congress and the Biden administration put such heavy emphasis on alliances and when Americans (especially younger Americans) are more positively disposed towards allies in polling than ever. But Hugh is wrong when he asserts that Australian officials just use that influence to cheer for whatever America wants. That was never my experience in my time in the Pentagon, the White House, or in think-tanks in DC. Australian officials may close ranks with the United States in public, but they don’t cheerlead in private. More often, they join forces with Japan or Britain to push the US system towards smarter policies. Sometimes they fail, but more often they succeed. AUKUS, the White House Indo-Pacific Strategy with its emphasis on engaging Southeast Asia, and the renewed US commitment to the Pacific Islands are just three recent examples of direct Australian influence on US strategy. I suspect that if the Australian embassy followed Hugh’s advice and went to President Biden to say, “You can’t win, best to turn the place over to China before it’s too late,” the meeting would not go well and Australian strategic influence in Washington and by extension the region would start to plummet. But since no Australian government on the horizon is likely to do that, I do not lose much sleep over that scenario.
What Australia should do with its influence is continue shaping American strategy towards China, not trying to break it. Hugh notes that the Biden administration has yet to define what victory looks like in the competition with China. Fair point. Australia should push the Biden administration to think over the horizon to a regional order that rests on a more sustainable equilibrium with Beijing. That starts with shoring up a favourable balance of power, enhancing deterrence, blunting dangerous Chinese initiatives and investing in the resilience of smaller states in the region. But if the goal is to find acceptable terms for less dangerous and more productive relations with China down the road, then the United States should be more focused on economic statecraft that can provide leverage over China’s treatment of investors and trading partners, rather than just looking at ways to decouple.
In that regard, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is still a very thin reed compared with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Australia and other allies are right to push Washington to do more to shape regional economic rules. Along the same lines, the Biden administration would do well to reintroduce the kind of strategic dialogue with Beijing that Bob Zoellick in the Bush administration and Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration sustained with key players like State Counselor Dai Bingguo. Xi’s opaque and authoritarian leadership style makes this harder but it is no less important. In some ways Washington is still in the John Foster Dulles stage of competition and will sooner or later have to get to the JFK stage, when tough-minded but serious dialogue channels were established with Moscow – and this time preferably not after a Cuban missile crisis. (The administration has tried to establish transparency and guardrails around high-risk areas, such as nuclear weapons, but these talks have been aimed at making geopolitical competition less dangerous rather than finding a sustainable strategic equilibrium.) So yes, there are shortcomings in the US strategic approach where quiet prodding by close allies can help – as it often has in the past.
A balanced assessment of power and purpose in the Indo-Pacific would highlight for Australian policy-makers when to invest in jointness and interoperability with the United States, when to support American resolve, when to partner with Japan or others, and when to hedge. It would also highlight where pushback and risk are necessary with China, and where reassurance and even cooperation might be possible. There is no binary “China choice.” Instead, there are dozens if not hundreds of smaller choices that strategists and policy-makers must make to protect Australian interests – just as there are in the United States. Fortunately, a balanced assessment of the strategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific will lead us to the same conclusions in almost every case – and with a growing number of like-minded allies and partners along the way.
So kudos to Hugh for shaking things up as always. There is urgency, as he notes. There are also many big and hard decisions ahead. But the basic consensus behind current Australian and American grand strategy is founded on a more nuanced and realistic assessment of the international system and the relative balance of power than offered in the polemical pages of Sleepwalk to War.