As New Zealand fights to preserve the global rules-based order, one expert argues it may be beyond saving – and warns we should prepare to fend for ourselves.

Hugh White is used to people questioning his worldview.

While Western politicians scramble to preserve the world order, White – a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and former defence strategist – argues that order as we know it may be too far gone to maintain.

“I am pessimistic – am I too pessimistic? Well, I don’t think so – to put it another way, I think most people are too optimistic,” he tells Newsroom during a visit to New Zealand.

“The old order in Asia” which has served those in the region well was built not just on American primacy, but that primacy being uncontested, he says.

Instead, the United States faces what White calls “the most powerful country we’ve ever seen in Asia”, with China’s raw economic power and strategic heft still underestimated.

Earlier in the decade, White suggested that the US and China could agree to share power in the region – a difficult, but credible, outcome. Now, he is far more dubious about that proposition, with China more successful in growing its economy and diplomatic presence and the US less successful in developing a coherent strategy to counter that growth.

“Even if Donald Trump is replaced by the next incarnation of Harry Truman or FDR…or Abraham Lincoln, it’s [rebuilding America’s influence] still going to be an extraordinarily difficult task.”

While White acknowledges the “idiosyncratic” presidency of Donald Trump has complicated US efforts to rebuild its presence in Asia, he does not believe a new president would be enough to turn around the problems it is grappling with in the region.

“Even if Donald Trump is replaced by the next incarnation of Harry Truman or FDR … or Abraham Lincoln, it’s still going to be an extraordinarily difficult task.”

The question facing American officials is whether they are willing to fight a new Cold War, and arguably against a more formidable foe than the Soviet Union.

Given that conclusion, he argues it is prudent to base policy decisions on an American withdrawal, and the need for countries like Australia and New Zealand to fend for themselves.

Some critics of White’s work argue that he places too much emphasis on self-reliance, and not enough on the benefits of coalitions of like-minded nations, but he says that is for good reason.

“There’s far too much tendency in Australia to assume that everyone wants to be our friend.”

Relying on an alignment of interests between smaller countries underestimates the importance of China, economically and otherwise, to each of those nations.

Hugh White’s view of the future would require Australia and New Zealand to consider a dramatic increase to military spending. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

If a country like Japan cannot rely on Australia or New Zealand to take its side over China’s, he says, how can we rely on it in return?

Then there is the more basic question facing potential partners – “What’s in it for us?”, as White puts it. Countries must have something to offer if an alliance can be formed, and if the intention is to be prepared for military conflict then we must be accordingly equipped.

“If we don’t have the forces, we won’t have the wherewithal to build the alliances.”

His prescription for Australia is certainly provocative: he suggests the country boost its defence spending from two percent of GDP to 3.5 percent – taking it up to AUD$30 billion a year – and consider the “difficult and uncomfortable” question of building a nuclear capability.

Such a proposal may seem anathema to many in New Zealand, where barely one percent of our GDP goes towards the military and successive governments have dialed back our operational capabilities. 

White acknowledges that Kiwis may not judge the risk of any invasion worth the cost of building up our ramparts, but believes that is a public debate New Zealand, like Australia, must at least have before it is too late.

“Whether it’s high enough to warrant spending 3.5 percent of GDP I’m not myself sure, but what I am sure of is that we shouldn’t drift into that future blithely assuming the defence force we’re getting at the moment … are going to give us the type of security that we tell one another we’re getting.”

Pacific plans

Where the countries’ efforts to account for China’s rise have been most obvious is in the Pacific, where New Zealand’s Pacific Reset and Australia’s Pacific Step-Up have sought to rebuild ties with neighbours who have at points felt neglected.

White is reluctant to comment in depth on New Zealand’s approach, but is clear about the deficiencies in Australia’s relationship with the region, saying “the intimacy has really fallen away” with countries like Papua New Guinea.

“We find it very hard to get the South Pacific right: every few years we suddenly have a rush of blood to the head and decide we have to take the South Pacific seriously, then we forget about it.”

While Australia needs to work harder, its focus should not be on excluding the Chinese but on increasing its own presence.

The greatest potential to grow the relationship exists not in competing with China to build roads and other infrastructure, he says, but in building up personal links through education exchanges, labour mobility schemes and other mechanisms to bring the people of the Pacific to our shores.

“In the long run, a bunch of kids with an Australian education gives us a bigger hold on Papua New Guinea than a hundred kilometres of highway.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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