Hugh White goes all-in for Beijing

At Nikkei:

Hugh White is emeritus professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. He was Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence from 1995 until 2000 and was the inaugural director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Australia today is facing the most severe threat to its economic future in many decades, as Beijing applies an ever-growing range of restrictions on Australia’s exports to the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

China is by far Australia’s biggest market, now taking almost 50% of its exports, and new opportunities there would offer the best prospects to pull the economy out of the COVID crisis. All this has been jeopardized because Canberra has chosen to launch an offensive against China’s growing power and influence, which has become more and more strident over the past few months.

Things will likely get worse this week when Prime Minster Scott Morrison takes the extraordinary step of visiting Tokyo in person despite the pandemic to help conclude a defense agreement which is unambiguously aimed at China.

Naturally Beijing is displeased. Over the past few weeks a series of administrative measures in China have choked off access for a range of Australian goods including barley, wine, lobsters, timber, copper and wool. Though Beijing officially claims these measures have been taken for technical reasons, the strident attacks on Australia in the government-controlled press make their real purpose clear. Australia is being punished for opposing China’s rise.

This all began three years ago when then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, having earlier boasted of his close links and deep understanding of China, began to stridently criticize its regional strategic ambitions and accused Beijing of seeking improper influence over Australian domestic affairs.

He rushed through laws to curb alleged Chinese covert interference in Australia, and launched a diplomatic campaign to encourage other regional countries to resist China’s growing power. His government also started to exclude Chinese companies from major infrastructure projects on the grounds that they might be used to apply pressure in a crisis.

But Canberra seemed surprised when Beijing hit back by imposing a diplomatic freeze, cutting off contact between Australia and their Chinese counterparts. Turnbull then made a halfhearted attempt to repair the relationship, which his successor Scott Morrison at first tried to maintain, going out of his way to avoid offending Beijing in his first 18 months in office.

But that all changed in April, when Morrison called for an impartial international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus on terms which clearly suggested China be held responsible. Beijing hit back by threatening trade access and Morrison, riding a wave of patriotic indignation at home, upped the ante. The anger and recrimination on both sides have escalated from there.

The problem for Canberra is that China holds most of the cards. Power in international relations lies with the country that can impose high costs on another country at a low cost to itself. This is what China can do to Australia, but Scott Morrison and his colleagues do not seem to understand that. They seem to have assumed that China will sooner or later change its mind and back off. At least that is what Morrison suggested in public, when he told Australians that they just needed to be patient and the problems with China would pass.

He has shown no sign of stepping back from his forthright, not to say provocative, statements and polices. On the contrary, almost every week sees new concerns aired about China and new measures announced in response. It is still not clear that the government in Canberra understands just how serious the threat has now become to Australia’s future prosperity. And he has no short-term political worries, because while some business groups are now starting to speak out, the weight of press commentary and public opinion are happy to rally behind the government as it stands up to China’s bullying.

Morrison has pandered to these emotions by saying that Australia cannot possibly resile from the positions he has taken because to do so would compromise Australia’s sovereignty and betray its interests and values. That kind of talk is designed to close down debate by painting dissenters as disloyal, but it misunderstands the nature of sovereignty and underestimates the complex array of competing interests and values that Australia must balance as it adjusts to the new power realities in Asia.

Deary me, Hugh:

  • The Australian economy is nowhere near this China dependent. Commodities are fungible and will go elsewhere. Iron ore is safe for now and was always going to decline in the future. We can absolutely live without Chinese students and tourists. Any macro-level impact will be offset by a lower AUD that will capture market share in other nations.
  • Beijing is only upset because it is so dependent upon iron ore. Ie, Australia has power and China hates it for it. Why else even bother with it?
  • The post-2017 pushback was entirely appropriate as China’s recent list of sovereignty-crushing demands makes abundantly clear.

The only one being emotional here is Hugh White who does not understand economics but has assumed China’s uninterrupted rise anyway, then staked his career on the out of the box contention that the US will withdraw entirely from Asia after losing a war in Taiwan it will likely never even fight. Proxy conflicts being much more likely in the nuclear age.

This is poor analysis, piled upon falsehood, based upon dubious assumption, lacking basic historical reference.


David Llewellyn-Smith
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  1. chuckmuscleMEMBER

    Surely the iron ore Achilles heal for China is plainly obvious to all those in Government, Treasury and the people that matter. Why are they hesitating?

    • MountainGuinMEMBER

      I have not crunched the numbers but with Xi asking everyone to ensure their plates are clean and pushing the fishing fleet into others territory, food imports seem to be more of an Achilles heel.

  2. SnappedUpSavvyMEMBER

    “the weight of press commentary and public opinion are happy to rally behind the government as it stands up to China’s bullying.”

    bullying hey, so….. whats ya problem Hugh

  3. Hugh doesn’t seem to understand that Ian Hamilton’s book “Silent Invasion” was the eye-opener for much of Australia’s political class and the more broadly read citizens. They all saw that we were being played by the CCP and they did not like that one bit. This is the outworking of that realisation.

  4. I think old mate might be fighting for his legacy…”His major publications include Power Shift: Australia’s future between Washington and Beijing, [2010], The China Choice: Why America should share power, [2012], Without America: Australia’s future in the New Asia [2017], and How to defend Australia [2019]”

    • happy valleyMEMBER

      Yep, Hugh joins Ferguson, Howard, Raby, Bradley and probably quite a few more to come in the next little while – the whole BCA, AiG, Twiggy, …?

  5. PaperRooDogMEMBER

    “Morrison called for an impartial international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus on terms which clearly suggested China be held responsible”
    clearly suggested China be held responsible??? What is he referring to?

  6. Give Hughie a choice, spend the rest of your life in US, or China. Would he hesitate, any longer than i would?