Hugh White and the China Choice

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University. He has been a prolific commentator on Australian strategic and defence policy for over a decade. He is also credited with pushing the debate about the strategic implications for Australia of the rise of China into the mainstream media and political consciousness.

White first came to prominence with the publication of his 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing, which contends that China is increasingly unsatisfied with American hegemony in Asia and is actively working to challenge it. White argues that China seeks to play a role in regional affairs commensurate with its newfound economic power. Left unchecked, this strategic struggle will probably lead to conflict between the great powers. Thus, Australian foreign policy should not ‘choose sides’ by supporting the regional supremacy of either the US or China, and should instead foster a ‘concert of powers’ whereby the US and China agree to share power in Asia and the US forgoes a measure of strategic space to the growing geopolitical influence of China.

In August 2012, White released an expanded and updated book-length exposition of his Power Shift thesis, entitled The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. The China Choice outlined three choices for the US in the ‘Asian Century’: concede regional leadership to China, confront and compete with China, or formally agree to share power with China in a ‘Concert of Asia’ (including Japan and India) in which both the US and China recognise each other as peers and acknowledge a legitimate role for each other in the region. White uses realist theory to argue that the third option is best for the US and that Australia must play an active role in corralling other middle and small powers to convince Washington and Beijing to pursue this course of action.

Power Shift and The China Choice have received extensive media coverage and ignited significant controversy within Australian policy circles. Commentators lauded White for invigorating a much-needed strategic debate, but variously criticised his thesis for overestimating the potential power trajectory of China and relative decline of the US, for presenting an unnecessarily antagonistic portrayal of reality, for ignoring significant existing US-China bilateral and multilateral engagement, for allowing China greater legitimacy to use force to prosecute territorial disputes, and for proposing an overly idealistic and vague cooperative solution. Most Australian politicians were quick to distance themselves from White’s analysis and affirm unwavering support for the Australia–US alliance. However, some prominent public figures and politicians including Paul Keating, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd — whose concept of a Pax Pacifica White has likened to his own ideas — have all publicly supported White’s contribution to Australian public policy debate.

White’s views have led him to warn against the US military ‘Pivot to Asia’ [topic page link], to oppose Australia’s decision to host US marines in Darwin, to criticise the Gillard government for getting too close to China by upgrading the bilateral relationship to a Strategic Dialogue [topic page link], and to denounce the foreign policy of the Abbott administration [topic page link] for being dangerously anti-China.


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  • Gareth Evans, ‘Correspondence’, Quarterly Essay, no. 40, November 2010.

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