PODCAST: Australia's Strategic Challenge - An Interview with Dennis Richardson

By Donald Greenlees, Senior Adviser, Asialink

In Washington this week, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds met their US counterparts Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper for the annual AUSMIN talks. Amid rising tensions with China over the South China Sea, Hong Kong and foreign interference operations, this year’s AUSMIN was billed as the most important in a generation.

There are few people better able to analyse and interpret the raft of agreements reached between the Australian ministers and US secretaries than Dennis Richardson, former secretary of the Department of Defence, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, ambassador to the US and director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

In this podcast interview with Asialink senior adviser Donald Greenlees, Richardson ranges across some of the big questions facing Australian foreign policy and defence leaders – the scale of the strategic risks facing Australia, how we can manage the rise of China, the role of the alliance with the US, the level of defence spending, and the resourcing of our diplomatic and aid efforts.

The following are highlights of the Dennis Richardson Podcast:

On the Defence Strategic Update:

I thought the substance of the strategic update was very sensible. However, I thought the substance of it did not match the rhetoric. If you genuinely believed that we were going through a potential 1930s scenario, you would do two things: You would, one, bring forward much of your capability plans and you would hasten the development. Secondly, you would significantly increase the size of the ADF (Australian Defence Force).

To talk in terms of the 1930s and then announce that you're increasing the size of the ADF by 800 personnel, as good as the ADF is, I don't think the ADF would claim that 800 additional people would make potential adversaries shake in their boots. So, I think there's a mismatch there between the rhetoric and the substance. But I am very supportive of the substance.

I think what the Prime Minister did substantively was important. But it's very difficult for political leaders to resist the temptation of overshoot when it comes to rhetoric.

On the Level of Defence Spending:

I don't believe 2 percent of GDP will over the 2020s and 2030s provide the capability the strategic circumstances are going to demand. And indeed, given the fact that our GDP growth is likely to be negative over the next couple of years, and probably beyond that, depending upon whether we get a vaccine or not, could continue to be pretty low. Sticking to a 2 percent target would have been pretty minimal. So, I welcome what the PM has done there.

On the US-China Rivalry:

I don't know whether they're on an inevitable trajectory downwards, but I would be surprised if there was any sharp turnaround in their relationship, regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming US elections. I think the strategic rivalry has been cemented in place. I think what China has done in the South China Sea, and China's assertiveness globally, I think inevitably means that the US and China are going to rub up against one another for a while to come. Where that leads to – I think it's a bit too early to speculate.

As recently as two years ago, in the AUSMIN communique, it said both nations that is Australia and the US continue to place a high priority on constructive and beneficial engagement with China. That's a direct quote from the 2018 AUSMIN. Two years later, that sentiment does not exist in the communiqué. Indeed, the 2020 communique is noticeable for its very specific and sharp references to China.

On China’s Strategic Posture:

It was only in 2015 that the AUSMIN communique welcomed the commitment by President Xi not to militarise the islands in the South China Seas. He's gone ahead and done precisely what he said he would not do. China's own propensity to engage in effective cyber warfare, its interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, its turnaround in respect of Hong Kong—no longer two systems, one nation—all of that has led to a significant change. Throw in the unpredictability of a President Trump and you've got the mix with the outcome that you see today.

Australia’s Choices on China:

Peter Varghese, former secretary of DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), talks about a strategy of engage and constrain. And I think that's probably right. That's quite different to containment, which would be an impossibility. But I don't think an Australian government will think in terms of entering into an arrangement with China. I think the sensible course for Australia is to use public rhetoric, which is measured, consistent and firm. I think that's the public posture we should take.

But in being firm, we've got to be clear about boundaries. We must be clear. We must have clear boundaries when it comes to foreign interference in our own domestic affairs. We must be clear about our own national interests when it comes to the South China Sea. So, we are not going to return anytime soon to the relationship that existed between 1972 and 2012. That's gone. The relationship is simply going to be a very much more complex one, where there are areas of engagement and where there are areas of disagreement.

China is very, very sensitive to any public criticism of any aspect of any of its policies. It reacts very negatively to that. In that situation, it is difficult to see any Australian government engaging in a policy of accommodation.

On the Role of ASEAN:

I think there's a limit to what you can do with ASEAN in respect of China, simply by virtue of the way ASEAN works as consensus-based. However, I believe there's a lot more we could be doing in Southeast Asia, given current circumstances. I'm surprised that, against the backdrop of the coronavirus, and the enormous challenge that is posing to Southeast Asia, that we have not engaged more actively and done a lot more than what we've done up to now.

When you look at past crises in the region, whether it be Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, the Cambodia peace settlement, Asian Financial Crisis and 2004 tsunami, we've always been engaged in finding constructive outcomes. We've done some things in respect of coronavirus in Southeast Asia. But this is one crisis we do not appear to be taking advantage of.

On the AUSMIN 2020 Meeting:

What is significant about this AUSMIN statement? I think it's the following. One, there are more specific mentions of China negatively than there have been in any recent AUSMIN communique. And there’s been no positive comment about the importance of the relationship with China, as I flagged earlier.

I think for the first time in quite some time, if not the first time ever, there is a specific paragraph given to Taiwan. That is not something that has appeared in recent years in AUSMIN communiques. And finally, there is quite a bit of attention in more detail given to supply chain security, not only in terms of pharmaceutical and critical goods, but also critical minerals such as rare earths. And there's a mention there in terms of welcoming the agreement between the Australian company Lynas and the Pentagon, in terms of working in respect of rare earths.

So, there's a lot of significance in the communique. I think it's against the backdrop of the communique that I suspect, our foreign minister during the press conference, made some positive comments about China. And the other thing I should note is that the communique for the first time mentions China negatively in the context of the Uyghurs. That's not previously been done in other communiques.

I should say also, in respect of the communique, it is sharper in its references to the South China Sea than in previous communiques over the last five years.

On New Classified Principles of Defence Cooperation with the US:

We have always in the AUSMINs increased defence cooperation, interoperability. We've always got little agreements on the side. This isn't the first classified agreement we have had in the context of AUSMIN.

I think there has been a degree of engagement in terms of regional planning, developing for many decades. This simply takes it to another level.

On Perceptions of the US Alliance in Asia:

I don't think we've ever lost credibility in the region because of our relationship with the US.

I would simply note that there's never been a time where the countries of Southeast Asia have been so keen on active US engagement in the region.

On Investing in Diplomacy and Aid:

We should be investing more in diplomacy but not at the expense of defence. They should not be seen as a choice. I gave a speech when I was Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2011 in which I stated publicly that I did not believe that 2 percent of GDP (in defence spending) would buy us what we would need in the 2020s.

At a parliamentary committee, I was asked whether I believed we could to reduce our defence spending slightly to move it into diplomacy, wouldn't that be a better use of monies? And I said I certainly agreed that there should be more go into diplomacy. But I said it shouldn't come out of defence spending. There has unquestionably been an underinvestment in our diplomacy. Whatever way you want to look at it; Of the G-20 countries—it's been pointed out by the Lowy Institute—we are grossly underrepresented (in diplomacy).

I think governments in Australia should look at investing in foreign affairs in the same way as they do defence. If you're serious about national security, if you're serious about regional security, if you're serious about shaping where the region might go, you can't do that without additional investments in diplomacy. And you also need to see your development assistance programme as one of the tools of diplomacy.

Banner image: Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne speak with their US counterparts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, Washington, D.C, USA – July 28, 2020. Credit: @MarisePayne, Twitter.