'The White Paper has been praised for acknowledging that China's power and influence are growing, and that America is having doubts about how to respond. But it goes nowhere near recognising just how far these trends have already gone, and where they are heading. In fact it evades them on four key issues.
First, the text is silent on the implications of a graph, presented in the White Paper itself, showing Treasury estimates that just 13 years from now China's economy will be close to double the size of America's – $42 trillion to $24 trillion. It does not comment on what these remarkable numbers mean for the shift in power between Washington and Beijing, and hence for America's future role in Asia. And yet the implications are fundamental, and revolutionary. It reflects by far the biggest shift in the distribution of wealth and power in Asia since Australia was settled by Britain in 1788.
Second, the White Paper is equally evasive on what China aims to do with its growing power. It coyly acknowledges that Beijing seeks more influence, but nowhere says that it aims to dominate East Asia as the region's primary power. But this now absolutely clear, especially since Xi Jinping's plain statements at the 19th Party Congress in October. That means China aims to deny America any significant strategic role in our region. Malcolm Turnbull himself acknowledged this in a big speech back in June.
Third, the White Paper again coyly acknowledges that America's commitment to preserving its leadership in Asia is not as clear as it used to be. But this massively understates the reality. Under Donald Trump, Washington clearly has little desire to remain the leading power in Asia, nor the skill in statecraft to do so. But it is not just Trump. The deeper reality is that as China's power grows, the costs and risks of resisting its challenge in East Asia have become more than Americans are willing to bear. Leadership in Asia just doesn't matter that much to them.
"All this makes it very risky to expect, as the White Paper does, that America will remain deeply engaged in the region as the guardian of the rules-based order. It says that this is "essential" to peace and stability. It further assumes that if America does play the role we want, China will abandon its ambitions and peacefully accept it. The reality today is that America is very unlikely to resist China's bid to dominate East Asia, and that if it does – with or without the support of like-minded democracies – we are headed not for peace and stability but rivalry and conflict.
Is this the best we can do? Perhaps the saddest thing about all this is that many people in Canberra's foreign policy community know how inadequate the White Paper's evasions are, but have convinced themselves that it is simply impossible for the government – or the opposition – to speak more frankly about it.