THERE was a time when prophecies of the false genre discredited an academic’s reputation. Not any more, it seems.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, has become the go-to intellectual when journalists are seeking criticism of the Coalition’s foreign policy.
His views are widely reported in Fairfax Media newspapers and on the ABC.
On Christmas Eve, The Age ran a column by White titled “China will inflict pain if Abbott blunders on”. Earlier in December, the same newspaper published a piece by White under the heading “Abbott semantics won’t solve Indonesian problem”.
The former article predicted a rapid deterioration in Australia’s relationship with China, the latter said much the same thing about the ties with Indonesia.
The gravitas extended to White by The Age was evident in its description of the columnist. After mentioning White’s ANU professorship, it added that “he has spent much of his career working in and with Australia’s intelligence community”. Well, that’s correct. And it’s also true that White was an adviser to defence minister Kim Beazley in Bob Hawke’s government, and later a senior adviser to Hawke.
A brilliant career, to be sure. But not without some blemishes.
In March 2005, White predicted that the US and China just might fight a naval war over Taiwan. Moreover, on Boxing Day 2012, The Age ran an article by White which contained the following warning: “Don’t be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year over the uninhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu islands; and don’t assume the war would be contained and short.”
As academics above all should appreciate, the only thing we know about the future is that we do not know anything about it. There was no war over Taiwan in 2005. And there was no war over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands last year. That we do know.
White, who was born in 1953, is too young to belong to the “whateverist” school of China experts which was all the rage in the late 1950s, 60s and early 70s. Put simply, they accepted whatever the leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing was saying. Hence the enthusiasm among many members of the Western intelligentsia for Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (in which tens of millions died in a forced famine) and Cultural Revolution (in which tens of millions were purged and the country’s cultural heritage devastated).
There is still a reluctance among many China watchers to acknowledge the crimes of Mao, who died in September 1976. Interviewed on Radio National’s Breakfast in September 2012, Martin Jacques (author of When China Rules the World) declared that the Chinese “had a really bad time between 1850 and 1950” because “they were so poor, the country was in a mess, it was occupied and so on”. All true. However, Jacques did not even mention the disaster inflicted on China by Mao during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
White is not a whateverist. Yet he does seem to place an inordinate focus on the views of China’s rulers. In his article in The Age, White argued that Tony Abbott “could hardly have got off to a worse start in managing Australia’s most important and complex diplomatic relationship”.
He went on to predict that if the Prime Minister “does not change his tune, Beijing will start inflicting pain” and that “he is about to get a lesson on the nature of power”.
White’s essential gripe is that Abbott and his Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop are too close to the US and Japan, and that Australia needs “to think more deeply about where our real interests and values lie”. In his 2010 Quarterly Essay, titled Power Shift, White suggested that Australia should “urge the US to relinquish primacy” in the Asia Pacific region “in favour of shared leadership with China”.
Certainly Bishop has expressed concern about China’s announcement of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea. However, Australia’s concern about China’s actions in the region is shared by not only the US but also such nations as Japan, South Korea, The Philippines and Vietnam.
Yet White believes that the present disagreement between Australia and China is essentially Abbott’s fault. He maintains that the Prime Minister “doesn’t get it”, since “he still thinks we and our close mates in the Anglosphere hold all the power”.
There is no evidence to support this interpretation.
Abbott and Bishop know, just as Kevin Rudd did, that Australia needs China and China needs Australia. They also know that the US is Australia’s traditional ally in the region and that Australia’s relations with Japan and South Korea, neither of which is in the Anglosphere, have been extremely good for more than half a century.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.