Sleepwalk to War: correspondence

In June 2022, ANU Emeritus Professor Hugh White published a Quarterly Essay with Black Inc., titled Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America. The Head of the ANU National Security College, Professor Rory Medcalf, was among authors invited to write a response.

Strategic analysis can be a weird game. With incomplete information, in a haze of uncertainty, you are expected to reach durable conclusions about the interplay of power, people and events, their impact on national interests, and options for sound policy.

There are several ways to play. The most frustrating is the endless hedge of discussion and description, without an actual attempt to guide strategy: matters could go this way, or that; we lack a full dataset (and always will, since this is about the future, not just history); so better to be hesitant than wrong. Leaders shun such stuff. Foreign Minister Penny Wong openly laments commentary that merely “admires the problem.”

Rarer is the effort to strike a fine balance of evidence, plausible judgments and practical implications for decision-makers. Proffer conclusions, by all means, but temper with analytic humility. Concede the limits of your information and method, recognise what you may have got wrong in the past, be prepared to change your mind and avoid the temptation to score points. It should be about the community of experts helping government get the best estimate. That’s how good assessment works in the intelligence world. It’s a pity that public discourse too often responds to other and somewhat perverse incentives: the reward is less for being useful than for product differentiation.

I’ve admired my ANU colleague Professor Hugh White for decades: his singular intellectual style, public profile (such that many mistakenly assume he speaks for Australia), unorthodox career, generous mentorship of next-generation thinkers, sharp good humour, even his zeal. He is a past master of the strategic analysis game. But he insists on playing it just one narrow way – his own, derived from his training in philosophy and winner-takes-all Oxford debating. And, sadly, his new Quarterly Essay maintains the cage.

True to the essay’s title, Sleepwalk to War, Hugh’s is a mesmerising approach. It’s a kind of syllogistic hypnosis, using superbly readable prose to generate camouflage that looks like free and open debate. That sounds uncharitable. But my frustration comes from forever hoping for more: waiting through several essays and books now for Professor White to engage on terms wider than those he rigidly sets (always the same) at the outset of each foray. That, of course, would make for a very different intellectual expedition, one where the end – China wins, America loses, Australia needs to change drastically before it’s too late, and anyway it’s probably too late – is not preordained. In this ritualised tragedy, the author’s argument always triumphs. But the denouement feels less like the outcome of an exhaustive and evidence-rich contest of ideas and more like the imagined acme of Chinese strategy: winning without fighting.

Despite the obligatory early reference to a pat economic projection (that China will overtake America as world’s largest economy), and various admissions that we need to consider China’s power-play in wider contexts, the essay is really a self-contained drama with few protagonists, dimensions and moving parts. It’s primarily about conventional and nuclear military confrontation between China and the United States in East Asia, principally over the status of Taiwan, the risks and projected outcome of war, and the decisions this forces on Australia. This is interspersed with a lot of virtuous throat-clearing about Canberra’s alleged missteps in China policy over many years, a critique of the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement and a selective tour of global and regional security dynamics, but all to reinforce the headline argument: that, to live with a powerful China, we must turn our statecraft towards urging America to back off. This means – and Hugh cannot be accused of lacking clarity here – “abandoning Taiwan to Beijing.” This line is so thunderous, it may paradoxically lull readers into thinking they’re wide awake and alert to all realities, rather than dazed by a false dichotomy.

Hugh aims to provoke, and he does. Other correspondents will no doubt elaborate on the awful implications of such anticipatory capitulation – surrendering a self-ruled, Australia-sized community at the heart of Asia to a fate worse than Hong Kong’s, demolishing the most successful democratic endeavour in the history of Chinese civilisation and the most robust young democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Hugh’s rejoinder is that, while this may not be pleasant, it beats nuclear war. This computes in the parameters of his self-structured debate, but it ignores all plausible futures short of unlimited war. If you accept that, in the years ahead, Beijing is more likely to launch campaigns of extreme pressure than do-or-die invasion (and any planned invasion would be preceded by a rising tempo of threats and coercion), then we need to hear also about how to counter and deter China in that vast grey zone. Hugh’s commitment to peace is admirable, and his point that America is underinvesting in front-line conventional forces is well made, but this does not mean Beijing is poised to risk doing battle with them. A counsel of despair can also be an invitation to aggression – and overlook that the loss of Taiwan could prove the beginning, not the end, of a perilous struggle for security in Asia, not least in the view from Tokyo.

China doesn’t want war, as Hugh acknowledges, and would much prefer a bloodless victory. For Australia, America, Japan and a range of other prospective partners, sensible policy advice therefore would be to understand Beijing’s coercive playbook and explore every avenue of preparedness and deterrence. Well before it contemplates total war, China is likely to consider economic sanctions, maritime blockades, political interference, cyberattacks, sabotage of critical infrastructure, disinformation, intimidating military exercises, incursions and seizure of outlying islands. All of these steps are feasible; some are already being tried. They exist in a space of contingency, where matters could go either way: they could be discouraged, even deterred, by a combination of military, economic, cyber, intelligence and diplomatic measures. Or they could bring risks of escalation and damage to the global economy and its technology supply chains, in which Taiwan plays an integral part. But this spectrum of potential Chinese action also widens the range of prospective countermeasures by the many nations wanting to preserve the status quo. These could involve increasing support to Taiwan as an advanced economy and a durable democracy located close to vital international sea lanes, without necessarily crossing thresholds to state recognition.

Even an imminent or limited Taiwan conflict would have dire economic consequences for Australia and globally (as our iron-ore miners privately know, and many corporations worldwide are beginning to wargame). One of the many lessons from Ukraine is the danger of economic reliance providing asymmetric leverage to an authoritarian aggressor. A fruitful avenue for new policy thinking is not only how to wean oneself off such dangerous dependence, but how to begin turning the tables. If Beijing’s Taiwan threats jeopardise the international economic order on which China’s internal stability depends, then it makes sense to begin mapping the collective geoeconomic leverage of democratic states and signalling how this could be brought to bear. This is a conversation that has begun in America, Japan and, crucially, even in Europe (including Germany) – whose investment, technology and markets China needs more than the other way around. If a Taiwan conflict is going to destroy business as usual – and it surely would – then what’s to lose from warning about that up-front and weaponising that fact as a form of deterrence? This geoeconomic dimension may seem peripheral to Hugh’s thesis, and may matter less if the shooting starts, but to ignore it entirely is to miss an opportunity for policy advice more realistic and nuanced than simply “abandon Taiwan.”

And geoeconomics is hardly the only vital piece of context missing or out of place in the unsettling dream world of Sleepwalk. Nations are not billiard balls, responding identically and predictably to the laws of physics: if they were, then Ukraine would have surrendered by day three; Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and India would long ago have conceded their contested boundaries to China; and Canberra would have meekly accepted the fourteen points accompanying Beijing’s economic coercion. Internal dynamics, leadership, risk calculations, events, national identity and public mood all matter. So it is disappointing how little attention the essay pays to what goes on inside China – though surely everything else follows from this.

There’s understandable reference to the troubled state of American politics, and a dismissal of the Taiwanese people’s will to fight, yet almost nothing about the internal challenges and attitudes of Chinese society, other than the uncritical assertion that primacy or regional leadership is “as dear to China’s people as it is to their leaders” – implying that they are universally ready for total war in this cause. This does a disservice to the complexity of what China’s people and the Communist Party must face. Development and stability are still compelling national priorities. Yet these must now be achieved with a slowing economy, a rapidly ageing society without a safety net, growing mistrust of China across much of the world, pollution and resource pressures, rolling debt crises, constant suppression of diverse springs of dissent, patterns of political and professional disengagement among youth, and a still-deferred reckoning with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Extreme nationalism spilling into military aggression may be an insecure Xi’s circuit-breaker for such internal trouble – or may make China’s predicament worse. We simply don’t know, though we do know the enormous lengths to which the Communist Party’s propaganda machine goes to insist that China owns the future. Yet we are asked to believe that the Chinese people are more than ready to leap over decades of restraint from almost any use of external armed force to risk everything – including generations of economic wellbeing – on a sudden willingness to wage nuclear war, and therefore strategically it’s game over.

There’s likewise a frustrating selectivity in the essay with evidence when it comes to the crucial questions of Australian and American objectives. We are told Washington is incapable of making Asia policy in any terms other than seeking primacy, even though it is acknowledged that some leading strategic thinkers on both sides of US politics are starting to explore more realistic alternatives. And we are told Australia’s entire policymaking elite has timidly put the nation’s fate in American hands – even though so many of the decisions that have upset China in recent years (such as the Quad and the bolstering of domestic security) can be read credibly as efforts to diversify our partnerships and do more for our own protection. Indeed, it’s baffling how wilfully the essay jumbles the timeline of Australia–China relations (during, before and after the reality check of the Turnbull years). It’s easy to disprove the claim that Australian policy was essentially about impressing and following America. Australia was the pioneer on many of the issues Hugh refers to; China knows this, and has said as much, which helps explain its bullying. The first round of the Sam Dastyari affair, which signalled the start of Australian pushback against Chinese Communist Party interference, occurred months before the election of Trump – who initially had no wish to pressure allies on China in any case.

The essay is also curiously uneven in the way it treats regional and global settings, as if these are painted opera scenery to be moved around as fits the unfolding plot. On the one hand, we are told China wants primacy in East Asia but is content to leave its hands off the Indian Ocean (and by extension South Asia and Africa), and will fail – thanks to Indian, Russian and European “multipolarity” – if it foolishly makes a play for Eurasia. And since it can’t dominate Eurasia, it won’t really threaten America by controlling the resources of this global heartland. Yet the argument somehow dismisses the whole question of whether multipolarity will, in time, work against China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific, where within a few decades the combined economic, population and military weight of India, Japan, Australia and Indonesia could, without America, be larger than China’s. Hugh claims that China and India can avoid a clash of interests because China will leave the Indian Ocean as a sphere of interest for India. This requires erasure of the inconvenient fact of Xi’s signature external policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which involves dominance of ports, undersea cables and other economic infrastructure across the two oceans, Eurasia and beyond. None of this means that India will line up militarily against China in a war over Taiwan – one of Hugh’s favourite strawmen is to claim that some of us imagine India alone will save the day.

But it does mean that China courts a widening horizon of risk and is provoking balancing coalitions across Indo-Pacific and global landscapes it cannot dominate. All this widens the aperture for more creative and expansive Australian policy – including multilateral engagement with Southeast Asia, support for Pacific and Indian Ocean island countries grounded in more than our own security fears, and, yes, judicious dialogue with China based on coexistence, mutual interest and an attempt at mutual respect. On that vision, perhaps Hugh and I can agree – though there’s no need to prematurely surrender Taiwan to get there.

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Updated:  16 June 2024/Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/Page Contact:  Web administrator