A representative of cold-blooded realism, White insists he is an accidental heretic. “I started this process as a classic pro-American Australian defense official,” he says. “I had custody as a bureaucrat of some of the most important and sexiest parts of the alliance. I’m still a pro-alliance person so I think it’s gonna work. He pauses. “I just don’t think it’s going to work.”
White’s first major foray into provocation came in 2010 with his debut Quarterly trial, “Power shift”. His argument was that America should share power with China and relinquish its military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, a position that sparked heated debate in the foreign policy community.
Twelve years later, White thinks his idea of a power-sharing deal in Asia is no longer feasible. China has become too strong and the United States too weak. According to White, the most likely outcome in the coming decades is that “the US-led era in our region will give way to an Asia divided between two regional hegemonies…India will dominate South Asia. South and the Indian Ocean, and China will dominate.” East Asia and Asia-Pacific.
The crucial question, says White, is whether America is relinquishing its dominance in Asia peacefully or as a result of catastrophic conflict. The obvious trigger for such a war would be a decision by China to send troops to Taiwan with the aim of taking control of the island. China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory, but Taiwan’s democratically elected government operates autonomously from Beijing.
Since the 1980s, successive US presidents have pursued a policy towards Taiwan known as “strategic ambiguity”. The policy means the United States is not revealing whether it would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if Beijing were to invade. Its objective is twofold: to prevent Taiwan from declaring its independence from China while deterring Beijing from launching an invasion.
So far, the policy has worked. But with Beijing increasingly assertive, it is under intense pressure.
During a CNN forum last October, President Joe Biden was asked if the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack. “Yeah, we’ve committed to that,” Biden replied, setting off a frenzy of speculation. Did Biden misrepresent himself or was he abandoning the policy of strategic ambiguity? White House officials were quick to clarify that Biden was not announcing a policy change, but his comments still caused alarm in Washington.
“The president has a tendency to blunder, but it’s potentially very dangerous,” Bonnie Glaser, one of America’s most respected China experts, told me at the time. “That’s the only issue the United States and China could go to war over, so it’s something the administration has to be very careful about.”
Biden’s comments weren’t timely, however. During a visit to Tokyo last month, he said “yes” when asked if the United States was prepared to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan. It’s unclear exactly what Biden is up to. He may be trying to unbalance Xi Jinping or clumsily referring to the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the US Congress in 1979. The law commits the US to providing military support to Taiwan but does not oblige not the United States to intervene militarily. if China invades.
Nonetheless, Biden’s comments were applauded by anti-China hawks in the US Congress and Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles. On 7:30 a.m. this week, Marles said: “I welcome President Biden’s remarks because I believe they represent a statement of greater American intent in this part of the world – in the East Asian time zone, in the Indo-Pacific.
White would be delighted to see an end to US strategic ambiguity, but in a whole different way. He states bluntly that the United States should abandon Taiwan to Beijing. And if the United States does not do so of its own volition, Australia should make it clear that it will not participate in a war for Taiwan.
White admits that a Beijing takeover would cause great suffering for the people of Taiwan. His position seems ruthless; in fact, it amounts to a preemptive capitulation to China. His analysis, however, becomes more compelling when considered in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden has explicitly ruled out sending US troops to Ukraine to avoid provoking a wider war with a nuclear power. The same argument can be applied to a theoretical Chinese invasion of Taiwan. China has nuclear weapons, if not as many as Russia. Unlike Ukraine, however, the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. Why, then, would the United States risk starting a Third World War in Taiwan if it is unwilling to put boots on the ground in Ukraine?
White’s essay contains other difficult arguments. The prospect of a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands? White is remarkably optimistic, saying it’s less of a threat to Australia than many realize. The highly publicized Quad Group between the United States, Australia, Japan and India? White argues that the Quad holds meetings that result in grandiose commitments but never deliver anything concrete.
What about the AUKUS pact, adopted by the Coalition and the Labor Party as a landmark agreement that will help keep Australia safe? White sees this as colossal folly, both in terms of defense procurement and geopolitical strategy. He says the eight nuclear submarines envisioned, due for delivery around 2040, will take too long to arrive and be too few in number to make much of a difference in a war with China. AUKUS, he says, brings Australia closer to America when it should be pursuing a more nimble and independent foreign policy.
There’s a lot to question — and even vehemently oppose — in White’s essay. He is abusive in his criticism of policymakers in Canberra and Washington, but applies little scrutiny to the competence of officials in Beijing. He views China’s rise as unstoppable, ignoring the possibility of its trajectory being upended by a Chinese economic slowdown or a major strategic miscalculation.
More hawkish foreign policy pundits will no doubt single out White’s arguments. But they should seriously engage with them. The same goes for Australian political leaders. Bipartisanship in foreign policy can be a good thing, but not when it degenerates into thoughtless conformity.
We need heretics, even if they make us uncomfortable. At the very least, they challenge our assumptions and sharpen our thinking. Some of their unpopular ideas might even turn out to be clever. What we consider heresy today could become conventional wisdom before too long.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, opinion and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up for our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.