The Choice between Hope and Anger

Two new books from Australia, perhaps unexpectedly, shed light on the future of the Asia Pacific. China Choice, Hugh White’s expansion of his original Quarterly Essay, “Power Shift” has been published by Black. ABC correspondent in Washington Michael Brissenden’s tour of the continental U.S. is out under the title of American Stories: Tales of Hope and Anger, published by the University of Queensland Press. Taken together they make for interesting if not seemingly disparate reading; yet the whole left certainly exceeds the sum of the parts.

White’s essential message revolves around recognition of China’s rise, economically for sure, but strategically and politically as well. White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, acknowledges that ”…the Chinese military has been prepared for war with the United States. Now, the principal task of the United States military is preparing for war with China and is being actively reshaped for that purpose”. The underlying readiness for conflict reflects a mindset that sees China and the U.S. as rivals for influence and control in Asia. To White’s way of thinking the US has three choices: maintain ‘primacy’ to use his term, relinquish all influence, or renegotiate its terms of engagement with Asia, granting room for China in the would-be new Asia. Not surprisingly, White’s thesis has earned him considerable mind-numbing ire from commentators both in Australia and the US (though probably none from China).

He has certainly broken with orthodoxy and as with many heretics is being pilloried in some corners. What I like most about White’s thesis is not its insight or thoughtfulness, but rather the very fact that he has taken on the establishment and caused such a furor. Australia, not to mention the US, needs to have a debate over an emerging China. Until recently the public debate has been rather weak kneed in Australia. There are many reasons to disagree with White’s thesis (such as the PRC’s capacity to maintain economic growth and internal political stability), but the very fact that he has put his thesis forward offers a glimmer of hope. What makes his thesis all the more powerful is the fact that White has been a senior establishment bureaucrat for over twenty years in the Australian Defence Department. He cannot be written off as some carping ivory tower academic.

Half a world away Michael Brissenden has collected a fascinating set of impressions taken from his travels around the U.S. It’s a fantastic romp through the hard scrabble, rich, fantastic and decidedly odd parts of America. Brissenden captures the U.S. long enough after 911 that much of the immediacy has worn off. The global financial crisis (or GFC as it’s known in the antipodes), Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party mark the post-Bush era that Brissenden describes. The essence of his book serves to remind us of just how diverse the country is. Reading Brissenden’s book leaves the impression that there are many Americas. Thinking of another Australian, the actor Toni Collette who stars in the television series United States of Tara about a woman with multiple personality disorder, I cannot but help think that Brissenden’s book underlines the American reality of a country with many different personalities. He does not see a declining America, but rather a nation in flux.

Unlike White’s China Choice, American Stories is not likely to generate disagreement or debate, but it is nonetheless insightful and instructive. In thinking about America’s intentions in China I cannot but help ask “which America?” Parallel to that what would Brissenden make of China? To what extent do local events overtake and cancel out the grand strategic discussion undertaken by White? Taking White and Brissenden together and thinking about Australian choices it’s not just a matter of primacy in Asia, but of capacity to deliver the goods. White’s critics have taken him to task for having overstated China’s rise, but equally it could be argued that America’s capacity is overstated. As Brissenden observes in his closing “Hope is an aspiration, not a plan, and change is constant.”