BEIJING — When the Australian government set out to write a new foreign policy paper, it faced hotly contested questions shaping the country’s future: Will China replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia? If so, how quickly?
The government’s answers came in a so-called white paper released last month by the administration of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. For sure, China is challenging the United States in Asia, though in the end, it argues, America will prevail and Australia can count on its security guarantor of the past 70 years.
But a prominent defense strategist, Hugh White, has disputed that view, arguing in a provocative new essay that China has arrived, the United States is fading and Australia must find a way to survive on its own.
The contrasting assessments have set off a debate in Australia about the durability of the American alliance and China’s intentions toward Australia.
The government tried to reassure the public that there was no need to make a choice between China, Australia’s biggest trade partner, and the United States, its security patron. Despite the America First policies of President Trump, who is unpopular in Australia, the United States of old would endure. Australia would deal with the changing environment, it said, by working “harder to maximize our international influence.”
The arguments come against a backdrop of concerns over China’s growing influence in Australia. These include allegations of Chinese meddling in Australian universities and news stories about ethnically Chinese businessmen with connections to the government in Beijing giving generously to election campaigns.
Australia’s heavy reliance on iron ore and energy exports to China has long raised questions about the need to diversify its economy. However, dependence on China has only grown, as an influx of Chinese students and travelers now also helps to sustain the higher education and tourism industries.