Foreign Minister Winston Peters was pushing the case in Washington yesterday for a free trade agreement with the United States and in the process “reaffirmed” his view that the United States should have a greater strategic engagement in the Pacific.

What he didn’t say — at least in public — is that it should do so to counter China’s growing influence in the region.  He did imply that in a previous speech in Washington last December

But yesterday’s speech was much more measured and looked as though it bore the hand of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its drafting.

However Peters is pressing for more United States involvement, just  as one of Australia’s leading strategic studies academics has published a book arguing that China’s rise to total dominance of Asia and the Pacific is inevitable, in part, because of its economy and in part because all sides of the political divide in Washington are ready to abandon the idea of US global leadership. 

Hugh White is the Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australia National University in Canberra.

He is a frequent visitor to New Zealand has advised a number of governments on defence and strategic policy issues.

His book, “How to Defend Australia”, and an essay he contributed to the Guardian newspaper last week has sharpened debate about the future of Australia’s defence policies, and has raised questions about New Zealand as well.

White says China’s economy is likely to be twice the size of the United States by 2030.

The Australian economy; the New Zealand economy;  we are all used to thinking oh yes China has changed the way the regional economy works and the way our economies work but we’ve somehow just turned our eyes away from what seems to me to be the inevitable connection between that massive shift in economic weight and the consequent shift in strategic and diplomatic and political power,” he told POLITIK.

White says that China’s economic growth must have a fundamental effect on the way that China and American relate to each other in the Asia-Pacific.


And he says this will affect Australia and New Zealand who have assumed that Asia is “safe” because they knew that the United States was the dominant regional power.

But now, not only is there now another big power in the region, but Washington is wanting to withdraw and step back from its global leadership role.

He says that that goes beyond Trump and is a  view shared by the Democrats.

“This seems to be not just a Trump thing that when you look at at the at the Democrat side of politics, you look at the Melbourne Cup field of Democrat contenders,  when they talk about foreign policy at all, they just do not touch on the idea of US leadership at all.

“It’s not a phrase they use.

“And what that tells you is that no matter who wins the election next time there is no  political will in America to pay the costs and risks of a serious strategic confrontation with China.”

White is not saying America is going to abandon Asia; it’s not going to do what Britain did when it ended its military commitment “east of Suez” in 1968.

“It’s not that I think America is sort of disappearing.

“The United States of America is going to continue to be an enormously powerful and effective state.

“But it is going to face in China the most powerful rival it’s ever faced.”

It is Asia without America that is the subject of White’s book.

China will be a very different country to face than the Soviet Union whose economy was a fraction of the size of the US.

And what the consequent likely stepback by America will do is raise questions about the security of the whole region.

“There are two things America does for Australian security — one is that its presence in Asia provides us with a very high level of confidence that no serious state on state aggression will occur and certainly not of the kind that would threaten countries as remote as Australia and New Zealand,” he told POLITIK.

“But the second thing is if that does occur, then we’re very confident that the US would come to our aid and defend us.

“Now after the ANZUS split, New Zealand was less confident of the second of those but could remain very confident that it was living in a region whose whole international order was profoundly stabilised by American power.

“And so in a sense for New Zealand as much as for Australia the decline in America’s leadership in Asia; the replacement of America’s leadership in East Asia by what I see is most likely to be China’s leadership is a really fundamental shift in our strategic circumstances and in some ways the most fundamental shift we’ve seen since European settlement. “

White is also asking what the impact of the economic rise of Indonesia will mean for the region.

A PWC survey of where economies will be internationally in 2050 shows that China will the biggest, followed by India; then the US and then, Indonesia.

Australia’s economy will be significantly smaller.

He says Australia has never had to deal with a neighbour more powerful than itself.

White proposes a radical reshaping of Australia’s defence forces to cope with this new strategic architecture.

There would be a much bigger emphasis on air and sea power — but that could involve submarines, missiles, drones and satellites as much as conventional submarines. In the air, he would deploy more F35 fighter aircraft and buy no more P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (New Zealand ahs just ordered four). Instead, he would buy piloted or unpiloted anti-ship surveillance and strike aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship missiles.

White says how much Australia spends on defence and what it buys with it are not the only choices it must make.

“We must also decide how to use our military power alone or in coalition with others,” he says.

The first option is with New Zealand; “now two countries have more in common with each other than we have with New Zealand.”

“We are likely to grow closer, at least strategically, over the next few decades as our ability to rely on former allies fades.

“How much closer we grow depends in part on the choices New Zealand makes as it decides how to respond to Asia’s strategic transformation.”

White says New Zealand has been slow to respond to the starkness of the choices it faces.

“Their  smaller economic base means they do not have the option of building military forces to sustain strategic independence, so their choice is between small power isolationism and close alignment with Australia.”

White says Australia should do all it can to encourage New Zealand to join Australia in the closest possible trans-Tasman alliance.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives in Australia this morning for a series of speeches and a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It is not part of the formal series meetings the pair have every year, so there is no agenda, so there is no way of knowing whether Morrison who is about  to visit President Trump will want to discuss the wider strategic environment.

But White’s book surely puts the ANZAC  relationship and what’s left of ANZUS on the table for a pretty serious trans-Tasman debate.