See you around, Uncle Sam, and thanks for everything

Hugh White, a provocateur among his academic colleagues, publishes a Quarterly Essay this week that reads like a Tom Clancy novel – a version, perhaps, of Red Storm Rising.

In this case White is not describing the possibility of war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but conflict between the US and China over the latter's encroachments in the South China Sea.

According to this scenario Washington and Beijing venture to the brink of nuclear conflict, before a US president – unnamed – pulls back with the words in a tense White House situation room: "I'm not willing to risk a major war."

Leaving aside White's version of superpower conflict that might be retitled "Red Star Rising", no one could reasonably say in 2017 that a confrontation between a rising power and a status quo power in our neighbourhood is out of the question.

  Turnbull and his national security team are emphasising greater self-reliance. Photo: AAP

Turnbull and his national security team are emphasising greater self-reliance. Photo: AAP

Clearly, that is no longer the case as was acknowledged in the 2017 foreign policy white paper released last week. The paper was not overstating foreign policy challenges when it said the following:

"Navigating the decade ahead will be hard because as China's power grows our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia's modern history."

Those words "without precedent" encapsulate the task facing policymakers in Canberra.

Not even the most misty-eyed adherents of the American alliance could argue that our world has not been disrupted, and disrupted profoundly to America's discomfort.

  Senator Penny Wong said alliances were about common interests. Photo: Andrew Meares

Senator Penny Wong said alliances were about common interests. Photo: Andrew Meares

This is how White puts it in his essay in what is his most controversial passage:

"How the contest will proceed – whether peacefully or violently, quickly or slowly – in still uncertain, but the most likely outcome is now becoming clear. America will lose, and China will win. America will cease to play a major strategic role in Asia, and China will take its place as the dominant power."

In effect, White is doubling down on an earlier Quarterly Essay in which he advised the US and allies to acknowledge the reality of China's rise and yield "primacy" to Beijing.

Leaving aside whether China should be permitted to "win" or even assume "primacy", the next period is unlikely to be coloured in "win-lose" hues. Things are not that simple.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that power in our region has shifted, and shifted more rapidly than was foreseen even in White's mordant essay seven years ago. The pendulum has swung towards those who have been urging a rethink of Australia's alliance relationship with the US at a time when old certainties are being pushed aside by China's inexorable rise.

This was reflected in the foreign policy white paper, which cleaves to the US alliance as the "bedrock" of Australian security even as it is clear policymakers have reservations about US ability and willingness to stay the course.

Malcolm Turnbull himself alluded in his introduction to the white paper to the need for Australia to do more to stand on its own feet in remarks that distinguish him from his conservative predecessors.

"Australia must be sovereign not reliant," Turnbull writes in what was perhaps the most salient contribution to the entire white paper.

What he is saying in effect is that Australia needs to come to terms with a very different security environment than one that has prevailed more or less since the end of World War II.

In that regard Turnbull and his national security team should be given credit for seeking to mesh a more assertive Australian defence policy, outlined in the 2016 defence white paper, with a foreign policy emphasising greater self-reliance.

Where all this leaves Labor Party attitudes towards the US alliance is an interesting side issue and one addressed last week by the party's foreign policy spokesperson, Penny Wong.

In a speech – Australia in the Age of Disruption – interpreted by some as a response to calls for a distancing from the US, Wong made the case for a broadening and deepening of the relationship.

"The salient feature about alliances is this," she said. "They are not about warfare. They are about common interests."

This is a reasonable point. However, it should also be noted there was nothing in the Wong speech that would provide fodder for Labor's opponents who might wish to turn wavering about the alliance into a wedge issue.

This brings us back to White's provocative essay – Without America: Australia in the New Asia – in which he recalls Donald Horne's question in his 1964 polemic Lucky Country about how Australia might adapt as Britain and America fade.

We are about to find out. China's rise has been much swifter and more emphatic than a complacent political class serviced by conventional thinkers in the bureaucracy and various think tanks had anticipated.

White, who is nothing if not an energetic marketer of his own views, may have overstated the starkness of the choice facing the country in which China "wins" and America "loses", but in one respect he is right.

An era of a docile foreign and security policy joined at the hip to the United States is over.

Tony Walker is a Fairfax columnist.