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Oz Doubts U.S. Staying Power

John Lee

In a matter of weeks, the Australian government will release a White Paper entitled “Australia in the Asian Century.” According to my sources, the report will look at how Australia can best exploit future economic opportunities in the region focusing on China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Conspicuously absent from the primary analysis will be America.

This should raise alarm bells in Washington and the region. It signals that America’s staunchest ally in Asia may be losing faith in the revival of the U.S. economy. If so, steadfast support for the alliance will not be far behind.

It’s true that the American strategic presence in Asia has never been more welcomed than it is today. America has deepened its bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines in addition to its de facto alliance with Taiwan. It maintains a close security relationship with Singapore, a long-standing partnership with Malaysia, and is reforging ties with Indonesia.

These countries offer America generous access to their bases, ports and sovereign sea-lanes, and openly support America’s military and diplomatic presence in the region. Even former adversaries in India and Vietnam are welcoming the Seventh Fleet with open arms.

But it is Australia that has the best claim to a “special relationship” with America. It stood alongside the United States in every major war since World War II, from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama’s visit in November 2011 was enthusiastically received, as was the decision to rotate up to 2,500 U.S. marines through Darwin by 2015. Australian officials are genuine when they say that ANZUS—the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty—is the bedrock of Australian security in a dangerous region.

Yet Australia also has a strong culture of public debate about foreign policy. Our top strategists will dare contemplate in public what many Asian counterparts will not.

Over the last couple of years, Australian strategist and academic Hugh White has challenged the wisdom of supporting America’s efforts to maintain its strategic predominance in Asia. Last month he published a book entitled “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power,” summing up his argument.

Mr. White says that America—unchallenged as the pre-eminent power in Asia since World War II—has three options in the face of growing Chinese power: contest leadership in Asia, voluntarily cede primacy, or else establish a regional concert of great powers. Historically, the foundations of American primacy are built on unparalleled economic strength. For Mr. White, America will find it difficult to accept that its period of strategic pre-eminence is over, even as its economic dominance wanes.

But peace and stability depend on Washington being prepared to step back and accept Beijing as its strategic equal in Asia, as a prelude to sharing power in Asia. Far from cheering the Obama administration’s so-called pivot back to Asia, Mr. White urges Canberra to do all it can to persuade America that maintaining primacy is all but impossible.

One man’s work does not make policy, and the government and opposition leader have gone to great lengths to reject Mr. White’s recommendations. But Mr. White is neither a fool nor a China lackey. As a former senior advisor to Prime Minister Bob Hawke and the principle author of Australia’s 2000 Defence White Paper, Mr. White is a highly credible and eloquent commentator.

Moreover, Mr. White’s thesis has significant support, including from former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, recent leader of the conservative opposition Malcolm Turnbull, and many business and social elites. In short, he is a leading proponent of imagining an alternative set of arrangements in Australia’s and the region’s security environment.

Many flaws can be found in Mr. White’s thesis. “Sacrificing” Taiwan would not permanently satisfy Chinese ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea. It would simply give Beijing a greater strategic gateway into the Western Pacific and seriously undermine the credibility of America as an alliance partner.

But that is not the point. America’s stagnant economy is harming the credibility of the message that it has staying power in Asia. Mr. White’s book is but one eloquent attempt at re-imagining Asia in light of a significantly weaker America.

Allies are so far rejecting Mr. White’s message and standing firm because America remains the most capable and constructive power in Asia by a wide margin. But if the next four years resemble the last four in terms of economic stagnation, then analysts throughout Asia may think differently.

America’s major allies are democracies, and democratic governments need an enduring popular mandate to sustain a meaningful alliance relationship. China is now the largest trading partner of them all. If regional elites lose faith in America’s staying power, then governments will come under serious pressure to consider arguments such as those proffered by Mr. White.

In November, Americans will predominantly vote for the presidential candidate with the better and most credible plan to revive the economy. Allies in Asia are hoping that Americans will choose wisely.

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