Hugh White, author of How to Defend Australia (2019) and now the monograph Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America (2022), is a renowned defence and intelligence analyst. He was not only the principal author of Australia’s Defence White Paper 2000 but also Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU and one-time Deputy Defence Secretary for Strategy. Given White’s prominence, it is surprising that only three key—and complementary—ideas inform the substance of his argument about Australia’s place in the global scheme of things. These could be summarised as: (a) America is finished (or on the way to being finished) as a global power; (b) the People’s Republic of China is destined to be the over-riding power in East Asia; and (c) it is against Australia’s long-term interests to continuing aligning so closely with the United States. White’s overall prognosis, eerily like Beijing’s hankering for of a so-called “multipolar world”, is not entirely a case of appeasement 101 but in Sleepwalk to War he does happen to be wrong—or, at least, highly problematic—at almost every turn.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Take, for example, the very title of the work. Hugh White is here borrowing from the long-held but now deeply disputed proposition that the five great powers of Europe sleepwalked into the First World War. Though we might agree with Chris Clark, author of The Sleepwalker: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2014), that “the leaders of 1914 had a limited awareness of the larger consequences of their decisions” and that “the systematic outcome of individual rational decisions was irrational”, the evidence now points to a deeper truth—the Kaiserreich, under the sway of Helmuth von Moltke, saw the crisis of July 1914 as less of an emergency requiring a diplomatic resolution than an opportunity to be exploited. In short, Berlin wanted war but didn’t get the war it wanted, and so the outbreak of the Great War was, in the final instance, not a matter of shared culpability but German responsibility (aided and abetted by the hawks in Vienna). White, in Sleepwalk to War, takes a contrary position: “No one today doubts that all sides share responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914.”
This misreading (or unawareness) of the lessons of history skews White’s assessment of a prospective Battle for Taiwan. A Sino-American conflict over the independence of Taiwan, according to White, is in nobody’s interest, not least America’s:
This makes it more likely that Beijing will roll the dice on Taiwan and confront America with an appalling choice. Either it steps back and abandons Taiwan, fatally weakening its entire position in Asia, or it starts a war it has no clear way of winning, with a very real risk of going nuclear. But America cannot save Taiwan or its position in Asia by fighting this war. So, either way, whether it fights or not, America’s leadership in Asia would be finished.
Thus, the United States, in White’s narrative, cannot hope to win any Battle for Taiwan. This ought to rule out any idea of Washington risking a nuclear exchange on behalf of Taiwanese independence, though it will not if America sleepwalks into such a conflagration.
If (or, more likely, when) Beijing does “roll the dice”, says White, it would be to Australia’s advantage to be seen as impartial. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in this new post-America East Asia/western Pacific region as the ally of a defeated United States which, for all intents and purposes, projects no influence beyond the eastern Pacific. Worse, of course, would be ending up a target in any Sino-American nuclear confrontation. Achieving a more independent status vis-à-vis China and America, asserts White, will require “difficult compromises in a world where there are powerful states whose principles and ideals do not accord with ours”. This kind of “realism” in international affairs is going to require balancing our “principles and ideals” with “the need to maintain peace and stability”. So, the establishment of the rule of law on the island nation of Taiwan might be a positive development and yet if we are to avoid being drawn into a Third World War scenario on America’s side, our political leaders are going to have to forsake Taiwan: “To be brutally realistic, that means, among other things, abandoning Taiwan to Beijing.”
This is the context in which White has derided AUKUS since its inception in September 2021—and continues to do in Sleepwalk to War. We can agree with White that the project to replace the old Collins submarines has been a fiasco. The Rudd-Gillard administrations found the whole concept “so scary” they “sat on it” for six years, and then Abbott’s alternative plan to buy Japanese submarines was scuttled by Turnbull’s preference for Australian-made French submarines, which turned out to be “a disaster that defied every rule of project management”. The plan to obtain nuclear-powered submarines under the auspices of AUKUS represented, for White, the culmination of “the complacency, the incompetence, the illusions” of successive Australian governments. The acquisition of the full complement of six nuclear-powered submarines will not happen until the early 2050s and “probably much later”. Who would deny that the unsatisfactory nature of all this is a sad indictment of our political class, Labor and Coalition parties alike?
But delay and expense are not White’s primary objections here. By signing up to AUKUS, Canberra signalled to Beijing and the world an intention to develop our military alliance with—White would say dependence upon—Washington. AUKUS means, among other things, joining “the US Navy in American operations against China in the South China Sea”. From White’s perspective, at least, Scott Morrison quite likely enlisted us in a potential Third World War. On the other hand, if there is no war—because Washington averts it by “abandoning Taiwan to Beijing” and withdrawing to the eastern Pacific—we will be on our own, an isolated pro-America outpost in a post-America region. We will have little more to show for our American dependence than between zero and six nuclear-powered submarines and a small number of very expensive tanks. That, in the opinion of our master strategist, is our fate unless we urgently rethink our predicament.
White expresses little confidence that the Albanese government will demonstrate the “courage and imagination” necessary to safely distance us from Washington in the years ahead. It is not just a matter of “political timidity”, writes White, but the fact that many of Labor’s leading figures on foreign affairs, such the Minister of Defence, Richard Marles, “assert their passionate belief in US leadership and their support for America against China”. White wonders if Albanese and his team have in them the “statesmanship” necessary to reach a more neutral position on Sino-American rivalry. And then, as White informs us, there are the Greens and the Teals: “None of them have yet had much to say about the great issues of foreign and strategic policy that we face. That should change if they are to do their duty and fulfil their potential.”
Even the Coalition, asserts White, has the opportunity in opposition to “think carefully about how far to stick with the policies on China and America that it fell into during its last few years in office”. Morrison, if we are to accept White’s narrative, began his prime ministership sensibly enough in 2019 by insisting that “Australia doesn’t have to choose and we won’t choose between America and China” but then “his tune changed in early 2020”. And why might that have been? The unpopularity that followed Morrison’s “disastrous response to the Black Summer bushfires” suggests White. The other possibility—and, of course, it is just a possibility—was Beijing’s lack of transparency about the genesis of the coronavirus and, in the early days, its human-to-human transmission. Morrison and his Foreign Minister Marise Payne, according to White, “stumbled, it seems unintentionally, into a confrontation with Beijing over the conduct of an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Australia and America, it seems, are always stumbling about with “no clear vision” of how to deal with China. The subsequent trade war President Xi unleashed on Australia is described as “a classic tit for tat”. To most Australians, unaware of the narrative advanced by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) English-language Global Times, it was more a case of Beijing attempting to bully us into submission by weaponising trade and destroying our economy.
One of the obvious flaws of White’s analysis is his refusal to truly confront the belligerent paranoia—or, if you like, totalitarianism—that characterises the government in Beijing. It is not enough to depict the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as simply a powerful state “whose principles and ideals do not accord with ours”. The ruling CCP regime is an imperialist-Leninist outfit, and the failure of Hugh White, along with other China experts such as Kevin Rudd, to address that reality tells us why we need to distance ourselves not from Washington but from Beijing. White et al are sweeping in their condemnation of America and Australia but craven in their cautious criticisms of China. Totalitarians have that effect on some people. White mentions, almost in passing, Beijing’s infamous 2020 Fourteen Grievances against Australia. However, to submit to even one of their grievances would be to surrender the rule of law, freedom and democracy that differentiates Australia from the totalitarianism—sorry, “divergent principles and ideals”—that embodies the PRC. Take, for instance, this grievance: “An unfriendly or antagonistic report on China by media, poisoning the atmosphere of bilateral relations.” What, exactly, is Beijing hoping Canberra will do to “unfriendly” journalists and academics?
As recently as September this year, the PRC’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Yi proposed to his counterpart that in future China and Australia should “meet each other halfway, uphold a more positive mindset, send more positive signals, tell more stories of win-win co-operation, and carry out more people-to-people and cultural exchanges at sub-national levels to create a favourable environment for the sound development of China-Australian relations”. Yi rounded off his Beijing-style diplomatese blather with the outrageous claim that his despotic regime retained its “principled position on issues related to Ukraine, the South China Sea, and Xinjiang among others”. Wong, in turn, reaffirmed Australia’s “commitment to the one-China policy”. From the point of view of the Albanese government’s spinmeisters, at any rate, this tête-à-tête, which took place at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, played very well in the media. Here was a Labor administration showing the unsophisticated Coalition politicians—not least Peter Dutton, former foreign minister and current opposition leader—how to manage Australia’s foreign relations. And yet our commitment to a one-China policy does not for a moment mean that we won’t aid and abet a Taiwanese resistance movement, just as we are currently doing for the Ukrainian resistance movement.
One unalterable consequence of anybody interacting with the CCP (or one of its instrumentalities) is that the former risks being compromised, co-opted or vanquished by the latter. Let us, for a moment, consider the fate of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. And how the World Health Organisation became an accomplice of Beijing’s Covid disinformation campaign. When, in May 2022, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made some mild comments on the advisability of Beijing modifying its zero-tolerance Covid strategy, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted Tedros for his impertinence and ignorance: “I hope the relevant individual will make objective and reasonable views of China’s epidemic protocol and policy and try to get a better understanding of the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks.” Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, put it more succinctly with his quip that it “doesn’t matter” what the UN body says. It mattered, of course, when Tedros allowed Beijing to fabricate a storyline about the origins and propagation of the coronavirus, or skipped the Greek alphabet to name a new variant of the virus “omicron” rather than “xi”, or attended the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics despite the horrendous human rights violations carried out by the CCP against Uyghurs, Tibetans, practitioners of Falun Gong, Christians and others.
White, misleadingly or at least unrepresentatively, approvingly quotes Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, back in June 2021, admonishing Morrison’s approach to Beijing:
You need to work with the country, it is going to be there, it is going to be a substantial presence and you can co-operate with it, you can engage with it, you can negotiate with it. But it has to be a long and mutually constructive process … You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you. And you have to be able to work on that basis.
I say misleadingly and unrepresentatively for a number of reasons. First, the Republic of Singapore is a mini-state and a de facto one-party state. It might be able to “engage with” the PRC and “not become like them”—though I seriously doubt it—but for other nations in the Indo-Pacific region, whether open societies like Australia or impoverished and vulnerable states such as the Solomon Islands, the situation is very different.
Has Hugh White read Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion (2018)? Has White anything to say about the likely infiltration and subversion of Australian society on every front, from our universities and private schools to our political class and journalists and everything in between? One chapter in Silent Invasion refers to “Beijing Bob”, meaning Bob Carr who, according to Hamilton, falls into the category of “China’s appeasers”, keen to justify most things about Beijing’s foreign policy, even the charge that critics of the PRC are likely xenophobic. However, with the publication of Alex Joske’s Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operation Fooled the World (2022), we now have another candidate for the “Beijing Bob” moniker—former PM Bob Hawke. CCP affiliates, allegedly, provided Hawke with great business opportunities in China as a way of Beijing re-engaging with the West in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Hamilton, helped with the research of his book by none other than Alex Joske, is labelled a “China innocent”. However, after the revelations of high-level corruption in Troy Branston’s biography Bob Hawke (2022), it might be more accurate to classify the Australian voter as “China innocent” and Bob Hawke some version of immoral.
In Silent Invasion Hamilton classifies Hugh White as a “capitulationist”, who believes that “we do not have to know much about the nature of the modern Chinese state in order to decide what kind of strategic stance we ought to decide”. In other words, in a region of the world in which the “balance of power” has shifted inexorably in favour of Beijing and against Washington, it is in Australia’s interests to choose the Vichy option. White casts his eyes around East Asia, South-East Asia, South Asia and the western Pacific—he distrusts the term “Indo-Pacific”—and, apart from Taiwan and Australia, he can see no one who wants to stake their future on American backing. Even the Quad alliance—the US, India, Japan and Australia—ostensibly founded to constrain the geo-political ambitions of Beijing, is something of an illusion. Thus, India, in the considered opinion of White, is less interested in contributing to a pro-US and anti-Beijing bloc than in establishing itself as a regional force that enjoys a “balance of power” with China, which does not preclude good relations with its Himalayan neighbour. This might be the best point White makes in Sleepwalk to War, and yet even in this he is probably wrong, especially in the long term. Prime Minister Modi might like to have positive relations with President Xi, as suggested by hosting President Xi in his country in 2019, but the CCP is never going to share the Tibetan Plateau peaceably with anybody, not the Tibetans, not the Bhutanese and not the Indians.
As for Japan, White is completely off the mark. On the way to building its own sixth-generation fighter jet, Japan is set to become an even more influential military force in East Asia—no small thing when its East Asian neighbours include nuclear-capable Russia, China and North Korea. Tokyo recognises that the annexation of Taiwan by the PRC would constitute an existential threat to Japan, both in terms of its national security and its export-dependent economy. Australia’s new defence pact with Japan, then, is not a matter of “jingoism” or hubris or Sinophobia—and we could say the same about the Quad, the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, our growing military ties with the Philippines (which borders the South China Sea) and AUKUS—but a powerful forewarning to Beijing not to invade Taiwan. One of the unintended ironies in Sleepwalk to War is White’s indignation that Britain, in a moment of “post-Brexit geopolitical posturing”, should be invited to make a commitment to our national security: “Have we learnt nothing since 1941?” It is true that the UK did not prioritise the defence of Australia during the Battle of Britain. That said, another leading light—the leading light—of what the Kremlin derisively calls “the collective West” more than compensated for that. Has Hugh White learnt nothing since 1941?
White makes mention of Putin’s War although, predictably enough, it is about the need to appease the Kremlin in order to make Russian feel they have “a respectable place in the international system with which they can be satisfied”—15 to 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory, presumably, might help satisfy them, just as gifting the Sudetenland to Hitler in October 1938 was supposed to mean “no further demands for land in Europe”. Yes, just as “abandoning Taiwan to Beijing” will guarantee peace for our time.
Daryl McCann contributed “Ukraine’s Gift to the House of Freedom” in the October issue. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com