For upward of a decade, Hugh White has been sounding a warning: that Australia’s long-standing policy of relying on the United States as guarantor of our security in Asia was approaching its use-by date. As a conspicuous relic of European colonial expansion, Australia has always viewed with trepidation the idea that our region’s centre of political gravity might one day tilt back towards China. Where would a country like ours find itself when the historic tide of Western dominance receded? This is a question that many Australians find discomfiting. White deserves credit for his tireless, and mostly thankless, efforts to force it into public view.
In an earlier Quarterly Essay, White outlined the inherent contradiction in our foreign policy – a staunch ally of the United States that relies on China for its economic prosperity – but argued that we might yet find a way out of the predicament, by acting as go-between to negotiate an Asia–Pacific condominium between China and the United States. Power Shift: Australia’s future between Washington and Beijing (QE 39, 2010) came on the heels of a series of events that led some to describe 2009 as an annus horribilis in Australia’s relations with China. With hindsight, those now look like happier days. White’s optimism about the possibility of resolving the contradiction in our stance was only outdone by his critics’ brash dismissal of the very existence of any such contradiction; the illusion that ‘we don’t have to choose’ could still be maintained.