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America has already lost the contest for primacy in Asia. That iconoclastic statement forms the core argument of Professor Hugh White’s recent Quarterly Essay ‘Without America: Australia in the New Asia’. It is controversial, and a darker hypothesis than the one he published seven years ago. His essay ‘Power Shift’ in 2010 asked whether China would replace the US as regional leader. ‘Without America’ claims that is exactly what has happened. “We’re now more or less at the point where it’s practically impossible for the United States to win that contest,” he says.
Professor White also calls for Australia to “wake up”. Australian political leaders still assume that America will remain the primary power in Asia indefinitely. “That’s not what’s happening,” he says. “We have to start recognising that we’ll be living in an Asia in which China is the dominant power.” While it’s a serious issue, the third key point in White’s essay is “don’t panic”. White observes Australia is in danger of sliding from utter complacency to moral panic on the issue. He calls for finding a cautious middle ground, and to prepare for the adjustments that come with a change in leadership. It means Australian identity will gradually change, too. “But it was always going to change,” White says. “That’s what living on a continent at the edge of Asia means.”