Pray tell me, will there ever be a time in the immediate future when Australia reaches Peak Hugh White? It would seem that the likes of the ABC, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper would hope that the answer is in the negative – since the emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre appears to be the go-to expert for them when it comes to discussing Australia’s defence and foreign affairs.
In this month alone, White has received two long-and-soft interviews on the ABC Radio National Breakfast program from presenter Patricia Karvelas. The first on April 3, following his 5000-plus word article in The Monthly titled Penny Wong’s Next Big Fight. And the second was on April 25, following the publication of the Albanese Labor government’s Defence Strategic Review.
White’s article in The Monthly’s April issue was condescending, to say the least. Towards the end of the piece, he wrote that the Foreign Minister’s “recent speeches show that she clearly understands the risk of war (with China) and what war would mean”. Fair enough. But White went on to claim that Wong’s “colleagues in the government may not” understand that a war between America and China would be “catastrophic”.
I am not aware of anyone in the Labor government or the Coalition in opposition who would regard a military conflict between the US and China as anything other than a catastrophe.
What White is attempting to do is to separate the “Good Wong” from the “Bad Wong”. The former was the shadow minister whom he claims did not want Australia to pick a side in the US-China conflict. The reference is to a speech by Wong in Jakarta in 2019. The latter is the Foreign Minister who is fond of saying in recent times that “we need to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”.
White overlooks the fact that Wong is correct. The security situation in the Asia Pacific has worsened in the past four years as China’s military capacity has increased substantially and its aim to control the South China Sea has become even more evident. Also, under the Morrison government, Australia signed up to AUKUS, under which we will get nuclear-powered submarines along with increased access to the military technology of the US and the UK.
In The Monthly, White comments that Labor has found itself following the Coalition down this “disastrous path”. Interviewed on the ABC RN Saturday Extra program on March 18, he described nuclear-powered submarines as “stupid things”. Really.
The word from White is that AUKUS and more besides will lead Australia into a war with China over Taiwan. Indeed, in his Monthly article, White wrote that “the probability of war” between the US and China “has grown sharply over the last five years”.
White may be right, but in the past he has been something of a false prophet in this area. In The Sydney Morning Herald in March 2005, White wrote that “we may face … a naval battle this year … between the US and Chinese navies, ostensibly over Taiwan’s independence, but in reality over which power would emerge pre-eminent in Asia in the 21st century”.
Then in December 2012, White wrote in The Age that we should “not be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China in 2013”. Then, speaking on the ABC TV Lateline program in November 2014, White was asked: “Are we going to see war in our region?” He replied: “Look, I think that’s a possibility we can’t rule out” since the situation was a “little like what happened in 1914”.
Sure, it’s possible that, in time, White’s predictions may come to pass. But precedent suggests that his self-proclaimed view warrants querying. This did not occur on RN Breakfast on April 3 when Karvelas declined to challenge any of his claims in The Monthly. The interview began with the ANU professor declaring, once again, that war between the US and China “is clearly a lot more likely than it was even a few years ago” – with Taiwan as the flashpoint.
To White, there are “two ways of approaching this whole question”. Just two, it seems. He told Karvelas: “We can just pick a side … do we side with America or do we side with China?” If so, “it’s obvious for everyone, we side with America”. However, he added: “But I don’t think that’s the right way to approach it.” White wants Australia, instead, to look to “a new order in Asia” where the US remains a strong player “but China is going to be a stronger player”.
This analysis overlooks several factors. First, Australia and the US share intelligence facilities which are essential to the security of both nations. Second, Australia is not alone in its concern about China’s emerging power in the Asia Pacific. Similar concerns are felt by Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Vietnam and India, among others.
This takes expression in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US. The Quad leaders will meet in Sydney on May 24. In his Monthly article, White barely mentioned the Quad.
Interviewed by Karvelas on April 25, White essentially dismissed the Defence Strategic Review, which was released the previous day. He repeated the view that Australia cannot rely on the US to play the same role in our security as it has done in the past. This is not a fresh insight. The anti-communist commentator B.A. Santamaria said as much in his 1970 book The Defence of Australia. But Santamaria never underestimated the importance of the Australia-America alliance.
Writing in The Saturday Paper on April 15, White supported French President Emmanuel Macron “for distancing himself from US policy on China and suggesting that Beijing’s concerns should not be too readily dismissed”.
In White’s view, “our leaders could do worse” than study Macron’s example. Which overlooks the fact that France is a long way from the Asia Pacific. Moreover, our leaders should be wary of taking Peak White too seriously.