Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. As a leading global expert on defence and security policy, Peter has held senior roles in the Department of Defence and was a key advisor to Prime Minister John Howard.
Peter joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the US-China rivalry, how Australia should manage its changing relationship with the Chinese government, the importance of cyber-security in future 5G networks, how democracies should respond to threats posed by hostile state actors, and the rise of right-wing terrorism at home and abroad.
Misha Zelinsky Peter Jennings welcome to Diplomates.
Peter Jennings: Thank you very much.
Misha Zelinsky: Now, it’s always difficult to know where to start, and it seems foreign affairs is a big space, but naturally when you talk about Australia’s foreign affairs policy, you think about big powers and the influence upon on them on Australia. United States and China is obviously on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You recently wrote an article saying that 2019 was a turning point in the world’s relationship with China. Can you just tell us about that a bit?
Peter Jennings: Well, we’ve seen this coming for some few years. And I think historians will look back and say 2012 was a very significant year because that was when Xi Jinping came to power. And really the importance of that was I think she decided for his own leadership and for the country that the time of sort of hiding China’s power was was passed, and he was going to take China out more assertively onto the world stage. And we’ve been watching that ever since, including in areas like, for example, China’s military annexation of the South China Sea, which really happened between 2014 and 2016.
Peter Jennings: So I think 2019 becomes important because we’re now seeing a lot of countries in the developed democracies start to push back against China, seeking to gain too much influence in their societies. And one of those really big decisions has been around whether or not countries will allow Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei into the 5G network. Now, it all sounds a bit complicated measure, I guess. But 5G is going to become the most critical backbone of national infrastructure in every country. Everything is going to run over it from driverless vehicles, to new medical technology, to electricity, to gas. It’s going to be absolutely vital.
Misha Zelinsky: The so-called Internet of Things, right?
Peter Jennings: Yeah, that’s right. And quite a few countries, Australia included, have decided that it’s just not safe. It’s not secure to allow Chinese companies, Chinese telcos to actually run that critical infrastructure. And so I think Australia was quite literally the first country to formally decided that it was not going to allow Chinese companies into 5G. And then Japan and New Zealand, interestingly enough, and the United States followed suit. You’ve now got the Americans, and the Canadians, and the Brits, and a few others considering what they will do. I think that we’ll look back on 2019 as the year where a much more observable divide started to become clear in the world, which was China on the one hand, and the developed democracies on the other. And this is very significant.
Misha Zelinsky: Just going back to the question of Huawei, because this has caused a lot of angst for the Chinese government, why is it that our security agencies in particular and others within the Five Eyes network in particular taking such an issue with it, a Chinese telco. I mean, something, so, well, it’s just a company. They make good stuff. They do it cheaper than some of their competitors. Why is it a concern for them to be developing the 5G network?
Peter Jennings: Well, because capitalism in China is different. There is no such thing as a Chinese company, particularly a large Chinese company doing business overseas. There’s no such thing as that type of company being able to operate independent from the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party. So Huawei has had such success internationally precisely because it’s had the backing of the party, the funding from Chinese banks to go out around the world and to produce at remarkably low cost, sometimes lower than the cost of production, telecommunications infrastructure for many countries.
Peter Jennings: Why this is significant is because I think Huawei’s close connections to the Chinese Communist Party means that it’s really not in a position to say no if Chinese state intelligence comes knocking and says to Huawei, “Hey, we’d like you to facilitate our access to a particular communication system. Or we’d like you to make it possible to help us put some malware into a piece of critical infrastructure.”
Misha Zelinsky: Once overseas.
Peter Jennings: One that’s overseas indeed. And Huawei, of course, denies as you would expect it to. They say, “No, we operate independent of the Chinese state.” But back in 2017, the Communist Party passed a law called the National Security Law, which says that every individual and every company in China must support the work of the intelligence services if they’re asked to do so. And that was, I think, a clear factor behind the Australian government’s decision. In fact, the government said, “Look, we’re not going to let any company bid into 5G if we have concerns that it might at times follow the bidding of a foreign government. And so I think that’s why there’s been this concern, because if you’re designing the technology in China, and you’re manufacturing key parts of the technology in China, and you have the Chinese Ministry of State Security looking over your shoulder, that is the best possible intelligence gathering partnership that you could imagine if you believe that China might have an interest in tapping into your information technology.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s interesting because there’s sort of a global race now on in 5G. And it’s one thing for Australia to say we’re not going to have Huawei here. But is there a issue globally with through the Belt and Road Initiative and the way that China is rolling out its network in other parts of the world, across Africa, parts of Asia, central Asia particular about the contest between standards and which standards are adopted, because if the Chinese standard is adopted, does that have implications for security globally as well?
Peter Jennings: I think we’re going to see a world that’s divided into essentially two types of 5G networks. And they will be Chinese supply will be one type, and there will be Western supplied will be another. Yet I think it’s a great shame that the developed democracies have not found it possible in the last decade to sort of create an industrial situation where an obvious 5G supplier can become a champion for the democracies in providing those 5G networks. But what I am pretty sure about is that the market will meet that need if enough governments conclude that they’re not going to allow Chinese suppliers into their networks. And of course we are talking about technology that in the first place came from companies like Ericsson and Nokia. And so I think that the technology is there.
Peter Jennings: And unfortunately, for a number of developing countries across Africa, for example, Huawei has been able put a price case for adopting their technology, which has been impossible to ignore. But the question we should be asking ourselves is why is it so cheap? Why has China of all countries found it to be strategically valuable to try and lock down as much IT infrastructure around the world as they possibly can and actually do so at uncompetitive prices?
Peter Jennings: Well, it’s because they see a strategic value for themselves to own global telecommunications. And I think that it’s never too late to kind of push back against that type of strategic positioning. And that’s what the democracies have to do now.
Misha Zelinsky: So you sort of touched there on Chinese want to dominate strategic industries. There’s so-called the 2025 plan that China announced just recently. It caused a lot of alarm, the United States in particular, with China saying, “We’re going to dominate these 10 key industries.” Firstly, is it a concern that China wants to do that? And secondly, if it is a concern, how should worldview respond to that. Is this the beginning, are we seeing the beginnings of a cold war, or is this something that’s perhaps not as considered because they’re looking to tech up?
Peter Jennings: I think we are at risk of finding ourselves in a new type of cold war with China, and quite frankly we’re probably in an industrial cold war, you might say, because China’s objectives both in the 2025 plan and in earlier five-year plans that they’ve produced will often become the sort of box-checking list for Chinese intelligence agencies to actually see, “Well, what technology can we go out and steal, or legally acquire, or force from Western companies that want to do business in China if we’re having trouble developing that technology ourselves?”
Peter Jennings: And the 2025 plan is a very good indicator of where Chinese intelligence activities are pointed in terms of industrial espionage to steal the technology that they can’t develop themselves. That’s been a pattern of Chinese behavior for years. I think on top of that, we’d have to also acknowledge a reality, which is that China is building its own in-house capabilities very quickly and becoming extremely good in some areas like artificial intelligence, for example.
Peter Jennings: But a lot of that, at least to begin with, has been done on the off-back of intellectual property theft. And we have to wise up to that. We have to understand that our businesses and our universities are being attacked regularly by Chinese intelligence, precisely to try and sweep up all of the interesting tech that we might be producing.
Misha Zelinsky: It was described by a prominent member of the US security agencies or defense establishment that this Chinese property theft was the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. So there’s the obvious grounds that you want the commercial benefit of white people. What does it mean in a contest between perhaps democracies and the traditional sort of alliance structure versus a Chinese government-led approach to it, which is being tech advantaged? Does that lead to being defense or offense capability advantaged as well?
Peter Jennings: Look, it’s a tricky one. I think that democracies are always going to be less efficient than autocracies in terms of their ability to harness industry or to protect intellectual property because we are sort of messier systems that actually place a lot of value on giving people freedom from being directed to do things be a government, and happily so. That’s entirely the right kind of system, from my point of view. But it is a weakness compared to the ability of the Chinese state to simply direct industry, for example, to say, “Right. This is a particular type of technology we want. Got to develop it or steal it,” and to compel individuals to actually support the work of China’s intelligence apparatus.
Peter Jennings: So in some senses I think we’re behind the play and probably always will be against what a powerful authoritarian government can do. But on the other hand, there is still a sense that democracies produce I think better types of innovation. So it remains the case that it’s the democracies, the Americans, the Europeans, even Australia in some niche areas of technology which are producing the best types of stealth technology, the best types of artificial intelligence technology. How long we can rely on that sort of innovative advantage, I don’t know. But my sense is that, and an authoritarian state like the People’s Republic of China is going to struggle at that very fine edge of the best innovation.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s interesting, though, that, I mean, you sort of said Western governments struggle. There is a precedent for this in that the Americans were caught flat-footed in the ’50s and ’60s when the Russians sort of had the so-called Sputnik moment, where they launched a satellite into space. And then Kennedy of course said, “We’re going to go to the moon.” And they did shortly thereafter.
Misha Zelinsky: So if the political world is there, so do you think perhaps going back to your 2019 example, the United States now very clearly, and Pence said that in a speech not too long ago, very clearly now sees Chinese or China as a strategic rival, could that be sort of the impetus to drive that level of sort of innovation and perhaps government-led innovation rather than relying on the private sector just to do it entirely?
Peter Jennings: Yeah, I think there is now probably more consensus in the United States around the risks presented by China than I’ve ever seen. And there is some ironies in that, Misha, when you think about it because it’s not a country that’s known for consensus under the leadership of Donald Trump. And indeed I think the one point of weakness I see in Washington is how personally Trump might be signed up to this consensus view. There’s quite a fear amongst a lot of people in Europe and well indeed in the United States that feel that Trump might try to cut a deal over trade with Xi Jinping. And that could lead to turning a blind eye on some of the intellectual property protection that I think is really the core of America’s concerns about China.
Peter Jennings: But putting Trump to one side across the national security community, across mainstream Republicans and Democrats, Congress, the American System will generally, there is now a very strong view that the number one strategic problem the Americans face is a powerful China, especially a China which is becoming more authoritarian. And this is something that will have consequences for America’s allies and for how America kind of operates in the world in coming years.
Misha Zelinsky: So it’s interesting. One of the things I think often gets raised, and it’s quite difficult in the Australian political context at times where I think you see globally in that this pushback you’re seeing, critics of that pushback will say, “Well, this is really xenophobia. This is kind of the Anglosphere not being comfortable with the rising East, or being replaced, or being strategically rivaled by another country that wants to do well.” Is this, do you think that that argument has merit, or is this something specific to the Chinese government and the way it conducts itself? I’m just curious about your thoughts around that question?
Peter Jennings: Well, I think it’s a great way to muddy the waters in a strategic discussion for some people, and we see them in Australia, that are determined to say that this is ultimately a debate about race. And therefore if you are expressing concerns about China, that must mean that in some way you’re going to be a xenophobe. The point I’d like to make is that it is not racist to be concerned about the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. And I think we’re going to have to work very hard to be clear in the language we use. For example, we often say China as a kind of a shorthand, when most of the time, what I’m really talking about is the role of the Communist Party.
Peter Jennings: I do believe that this is almost a debating tactic that a lot of PRCs supporters use. I have seen what a democratic China looks like, and it’s called Taiwan. So I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the people of the mainland of China could operate very effectively in a democratic system. And in fact in many ways, it’s the nature of the party status, it’s called, the Communist Party, which is the biggest risk factor that we have to deal with. So I completely reject any sense that this is racist or xenophobic—it’s not. It’s about what types of political systems do we want to live under and how much pressure in a country like Australia should we be prepared to accept from the Communist Party of China in trying to dictate how the Asia-Pacific is going to run.
Misha Zelinsky: And so bringing it back to Australia, I mean, some of the things that I think have shifted the debate here, I mean, has been China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its claim of it as being strategic interest. Does that matter? Should we be concerned about this sort of the building of islands in the South China Sea and the increase creep of what China considers to be its spheres of influence? Is that something we should be concerned about or is it up, as the Chinese would contend, “It’s called South China Seas. So leave it to us”?
Peter Jennings: Look, I think we should be concerned. The last time the world was at war, at least in the Pacific was in dealing with the maritime ambitions of a Japan, which was determined to try to control its trade roots all the way down into the South China and through Southeast Asia. So we’re talking about a strategically vital bit of territory. The South China Sea is itself about the size of the Mediterranean. So it’s not a small area. And the fact that a country like China has come in the space of about 24 months, annexed it in much the same way that the Russians annexed the Crimea, I think it’s something that the entire world should really be outraged about. And this is I think very much a problem for Australia.
Peter Jennings: So perhaps another dimension to add just to that point, though, is that was the wake-up call. I think for a lot of people that might’ve said, “Well, we’ve never seen China behave in a hostile military way. Frankly, that’s a bit of a myth, but it’s a line that you often hear. But I think this has become a wake-up call for people to realize that in Xi Jinping and in the People’s Republic, what we have is a country which is now trying to militarily dominate the region. And for countries like Australia, Japan, and most others, that’s simply unacceptable.
Misha Zelinsky: So the question then becomes, how should Australia respond to this? Because you had traditionally maritime disputes that dealt with, through maritime law international courts, a ruling came down very clearly that did not rule in favor of China and its claim in the South China Sea. Basically got ignored. And increasingly what we’re now seeing is kind of payback from the Chinese government or countries that displease it.
Misha Zelinsky: Really good example recently is the Canadian arrests of the prominent Huawei CFO. And now you’re seeing these hostage diplomacy with those several individuals arrested in China, and then of course the banning of Canola oil or Canola seeds is imports from the Canadian economy. So, I mean, how concerned should we be about that kind of belligerent approach to independent foreign policy decision-making?
Peter Jennings: Well, firstly, I mean, the first point to make is so much for Huawei’s claim that they operate completely independently from the Communist Party because the party has been savage in its application of bullying tactics towards Canada over the arrest of Mrs. Meng. And, again, I think that begins to be a bit of an eye-opener, that we are dealing with a country that is quite prepared to go beyond legal barriers to promote its interests where we can.
Peter Jennings: My view is, to sort of answer the broader part of the question, how do we deal with this, I think firstly we’ve got to be very clear-minded in terms of our own thinking about what is strategically important to Australia. I’m perfectly happy, for example, for us to have a very successful trading relationship with China. That doesn’t bother me in the least. We win from that. The Chinese win from that. I’m much more concerned, though, about seeing Chinese ownership of Australian critical infrastructure.
Peter Jennings: So, for example, the fact that China owns of the electricity and gas distribution and transmission assets in Australia today is not something that I feel comfortable about from a strategic point of view. So where those types of issues come up, I think we’ve got to be very clear about where our strategic interests lie. And we should then be prepared to push back against Chinese opportunism either of an economic sort or indeed of a military type that we’ve seen in the South China Sea.
Peter Jennings: Then the second element to that is what can we do with allies and like-minded friends? And I think frankly the world has really failed to actually think about what is a type of concerted response that’s necessary to stop Chinese takeover of the South China Sea and a more assertive and outward-looking Chinese military posture. We’ve allowed China to kind of like split and stop the Southeast Asian countries from being able to develop sort of a shared position on the South China Sea.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah, they want to do it on an individual basis.
Peter Jennings: Yep. And that’s a very obvious Chinese tactic is, “We’ll deal with the countries bilaterally.” And through the sort of, the bullying that you see, where they can hint that maybe your exports are not going to be received, or that they can stop students from coming, or they can stop tourists, it’s led to a whole bunch of countries that really should know better just kind of looking the other way in the interest of maintaining economic relations with China.
Peter Jennings: Now, I just think that that’s going to continue to be a problem for us; we’re going to see more and more examples of this come up. We governments will have to make hard decisions between making money on the one hand but looking after national security on the other. And this is going to be hard for whatever party’s in power in this country for years to come.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s a tricky question, though, when 30% of our trade is with China. It used to be 50% was with Britain. Then it was 25% with Japan. We’ve never had a situation like this before. I mean, do you think, is there a case to be made for trade diversity, diversification of Australia’s trading relationships, not withstanding we should continue to trade with China obviously. I mean, there’s a lot of mutual benefit there for everyone.
Misha Zelinsky: But that threat now that they … Well, it’s not really a threat. You’re seeing it being used against the Canadians and others. Is there a case for Australia to look to other avenues for its export relationships in order to limit the impact of those kind of things, for example, the coal that we’re seeing now being held up in Chinese ports for various reasons?
Peter Jennings: I think we desperately need to try and diversify our sources of wealth creation. And there’s an interesting question to ask. And our successors will look back and say, “How was it that policymakers over a generation allowed such a level of dependency to be created on a country which is so alien to the values and political system that we operate in?”
Peter Jennings: And indeed I think that we made some really quite terrible policy mistakes along that journey. So, for example, there was a time when there was a very aggressive sort of push inside the Australian public service to say, “Well, we are an Asian country.” And part of that demonstration of being an Asian country meant that we were reducing our ties with Europe. And we weren’t bothering to build ties in Latin America, say, or Africa.
Peter Jennings: And so if you look at the shape of Australia’s international relations, it is heavily skewed, particularly on the economic front to a handful of countries in North Asia. And I think that by definition that’s risky. So developing alternative markets, rediscovering Europe, looking, if you take a 30- or 40-year-perspective at what 900 million African consumers can do for the Australian economy, looking at Latin America, which is almost a closed book as far as Australia is concerned, I think there’s lots of things we can do to reduce our dependence on one country, namely China.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. We’ve sort of talked a bit there about the trading relationship. The question, then, is also about moral leadership and the difference between … The Western liberal democracies, they’ve always seen themselves to be custodians of morality globally. The Chinese government has got a pretty questionable record of human rights violations. There’s a million Uyghurs locked up in detention, which gets very little discussion. Is this scenario where countries like Australia, first, we should call out this behavior, but also use it as a way to assert morality as a values-based projection of Australian leadership globally?
Peter Jennings: Yeah. So I think we talk quite a big game about individual human rights. We say in the 2017 foreign policy whitepaper that we have a foreign policy ultimately based on values. And yet I really don’t see much in the way of a practical demonstration of that. I think what we have is a foreign policy that’s ultimately shaped around pragmatism and trying to facilitate making money. Not that I’m opposed to making money, but I do think that I personally would like to see a stronger Australian foreign policy approach, which emphasized individual human rights as articulated in the UN charter as being something which really should be a sort of a guiding point for how we think about our role in the world.
Peter Jennings: We’re always going to be dealing with countries that perhaps have a poorer record on human rights than we do. And I would not say that it’s smart to kind of like boycott those in those countries and say we will have nothing to do with them, because if we were to do that, we’d have a pretty lonely existence talking maybe to New Zealand, and that would be about it. That’s not sensible. But nor should we shy away from the reality that, for example, in China we appear to have over a million people in Xinjiang Province, the Uyghurs, now in essentially reeducation camps. This is just unacceptable. And to sort of just kind of like meekly accept a Beijing line that what this is is sort of like school education is just fatuous. So, yes, I think a strong stand on individual human rights is a natural part of what should be a principled Australian approach of standing up for our strategic interest.
Misha Zelinsky: And so one of the important things about values of democracy is the integrity of elections. Increasingly globally we’ve seen a lot of foreign interference from hostile state actors. You’ve got very well-documented Russian interference in the 2016 election. There’s hints of Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Recently we had a hack of our Parliament but also our major political parties by a sophisticated state actor, which it could only be a few. How concerned should we be about this type of sort of hostile attempts to interfere with democratic institutions by foreign state actors that are not democracies?
Peter Jennings: Well, we can’t afford to imagine that it somehow doesn’t relate to us. I think we do have to be concerned about it. I think the Russians and the Chinese probably have different objectives when it comes to the types of interference that they’ve engaged in. When I look at Russia’s actions in the US and in some European elections, I think broadly I would say that there’s a kind of a wrecking objective, which is to create a sense that the democracies frankly are as bad as we are. So what does it matter? How could anyone kind of put a democracy forward as being in some way inherently superior to the type of system that exists in Moscow under Putin?
Peter Jennings: I think the Chinese probably have a different set of objectives than that, which would be to engage in doing their best to try to produce outcomes in elections, which suit Beijing’s interests more than other outcomes. And here something that I think is going to become a bigger issue in Australia than we’ve seen at the moment is whether or not there is a sort of attempts on the part of the mainland to influence the voting behavior of Australians of Chinese ethnicity.
Peter Jennings: One thing we know is that for a certain group within that community of Australians with Chinese ethnicity, there’s this strong reliance on getting their information from Chinese language newspapers, which in this country are almost all owned by mainland interests. And there’s a strong capacity to shape how voters might behave through WeChat and other forms of Chinese language social media that is pretty much impenetrable to non-Chinese speakers.
Peter Jennings: And I think this is something that we’re going to have to look at very closely just to make sure that Chinese Australians are not having their democratic choices interfered with by people from the mainland that have an interest in trying to shape election outcomes.
Misha Zelinsky: So what’s the future, then? You kind of sort of touched on it earlier, talking about this splitting of standards, but what’s the future? I mean, the West, and the Internet have always been priding themselves on the openness of the systems, the openness of the political process, the transparency. The openness of the Internet is fundamentally information should be liberally and freely available, and that will conquer all.
Misha Zelinsky: You know, I’ve got a very deliberate situation where autocratic regimes are having closed systems. So we got a contest now not so much between nations as much as we have one between an open and closed system, and the Russians very deliberately recently have attempted to basically disconnect the Internet, if I can put it in very … I’m not a … In the words of our former prime minister, I’m not a tech head, but they are deliberately unplugging themselves from the rest of the world because they don’t want their domestic population to be influenced by information flows from the open Internet, and whereas we have a pretty much a hands-off approach. How do you see that future? Can Western liberal democracies remain open and remain their integrity, or if they close themselves, almost lose something that’s inherent to them as well? So it’s a really difficult one to grasp.
Peter Jennings: It sure is. And I don’t have a solution for you. I mean, I find both ends of the spectrum pretty scary. It’s obvious that what we’re seeing in China and quite a number of more authoritarian regimes is that in fact the Internet and everything that comes with the Internet of Things and 5G technology is a tremendous mechanism for authoritarian control of populations. It means that you can control what people know. You can see and understand what people are reading to a degree that no one could’ve anticipated when George Orwell was writing 1984. And that’s deeply scary.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. I mean, you can change history in a way. If you just Google Tiananmen Square in China, it’ll just tell you that Tiananmen Square is a lovely place to visit, and you’ll never know that there was a horrible-
Peter Jennings: That’s right.
Misha Zelinsky: … suppression and killing of domestic citizens.
Peter Jennings: In fact, most Chinese under 30, mainland Chinese, would have almost no knowledge of what happened in Tiananmen. On the other hand, you come into the democracies and you’ve got a sort of almost like a Wild West of badness at the extreme edges of the Internet.
Misha Zelinsky: Nothing’s true. Everything’s true. Your opinion is as good as my fact.
Peter Jennings: That’s exactly right. And I had the experience after the Christchurch shooting of writing a newspaper article about the murderer and doing some research was literally within about 10 seconds of starting to see what was on the Net, watching this guy’s shooting video inside the mosques, which is just dreadful. Normal citizens of our countries have not up until the last 10 years had such open access to such violent imagery. It’s the sort of thing that combat veterans might be aware of, but almost no one else. And that scares the living daylights out of me as well. I just think that that sheer openness of our system is one which is almost causing a sort of brutalizing of how people think about how they should interact with the fellow citizens.
Peter Jennings: So I don’t know what the solution is to this, other than we should probably spend less time on social media, all of us for our mental health. But at the end of the day, if I have to choose between those alternatives, I think there’s more to be said for an open system that’s less controlled than what we see emerging in China and indeed a few other authoritarian states.
Misha Zelinsky: So you’ve touched on the incident in Christchurch and the horrible events there. You wrote in that article about the dangers of right-wing extremism, and effectively you’ve said we’ve paid a lot of attention to the threat of Islamic extremism, but this threat of right-wing extremism, which is bubbled away in the dark corners of the Internet, as you say, and in plain sight in some instances with social media and other extremists in the political discourse. How concerned should we be about right-wing extremism?
Peter Jennings: I think we should. It has always been there, frankly. Before 9/11 probably that had been more of a focus of our intelligence agencies than Islamic extremism. But I do know that in the UK and in a number of European countries, there’s actually deep concern in police and intelligence services about the rise of the extreme violent right. And it’s here in Australia too. So that Internet that we’ve just been talking about is a way of actually connecting all of these groups. It’s a way of making people like that feel that they are actually part of a global social network and able to sort of radicalize each other.
Peter Jennings: And I think we are going to have to find ways to put more control and observation over that in order to prevent further attacks of the type that we saw in Christchurch. People have said to some extent correctly that New Zealand’s more open gun laws than Australia made it easier for Tarrant to access those weapons legally, which he did. But we would be fooling ourselves if we were to pretend that something like that couldn’t happen in Australia.
Peter Jennings: There’s intelligence research available publicly that says it’s about a quarter of a million long-arms weapons, so that’s to say rifles, and shotguns, and some military-style semiautomatic weapons that are illicitly out in the Australian population. So if someone’s desperate enough to acquire those types of weapons, they will be able to do so. And we know that there are Australians that have at least tendencies towards that kind of extremist ideology that presents a threat.
Peter Jennings: So, yeah, I do think this is a new problem. And I think we’re going to have to work amongst the Five Eyes intelligence partners, European partners to sort of collectively get a stronger grip over this extremist far-right movement to make sure that it never is anything more than just an absolute fringe part of our politics.
Misha Zelinsky: The thing about the incident, right, is that you could stand up in a crowded room and say something ridiculous. And most people would just call you out as being a nut. If you come and say the moon landing was fake or some other conspiracy theory of that nature, most people are going to just … But on the Internet, very quickly you can find people that agree with you and perhaps sell you something even more crazy.
Misha Zelinsky: So how do you grapple with the fact that it’s not just Australians coordinating with Australians, but it’s Australians coordinating with these right-wing groups globally and these global extremists that seem to export that into our domestic discourse?
Peter Jennings: Yeah. Well, it’s true, and I think in the case of Tarrant, most of his radicalization took place in Europe and actually reading European-sourced sort of radical commentary. And I don’t say that to try and say it has nothing to do with Australia. Very clearly it did. He’s an Australian citizen. But now you can be a part, you can be a nut in rural New South Wales and be part of a global group of like-minded nuts. And what’s the solution? Well, probably working more closely with European countries where I think has been a bigger and sharper problem for a number of years.
Misha Zelinsky: And more embedded in their political discourse as well, right?
Peter Jennings: Yeah. Well, there’s a history there, of course, and these countries are under pressure. And at the end of the day, those of us who aren’t nuts, we’ve got to kind of like I think reenergize the sensible center, if I could put it that way, to remind people that there are better alternatives. And mostly those alternatives are around robust democracy of the type that we have in Australia, thankfully. But, again, one of the regrettable points of the Internet is that it mutes sort of balanced, sensible, centered-type views, and it amplifies extremist radical views. And I think-
Misha Zelinsky: False balance almost.
Peter Jennings: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s we’ve just got to look at how we educate our kids and do a whole range of things that kind of damps down those extremes and sort of puts more emphasis on the sensible center.
Misha Zelinsky: One of the things I think a lot of people are concerned about just recently with, and you’ve talked about gun laws and the amount of … Everyone likes to think that there are no guns in Australia. It’s not true. But how concerned are you, some of the things about these things about attempts that would seem to infiltrate Australia’s political systems by far-right groups in the United States and the gun law be attempted? Because the world looks to Australia as the kind of the prime example of how you can go from having guns to not. How concerned are you about that attempt? Because I think that surprised a lot of people.
Peter Jennings: Well, it was appallingly misjudged. And I think it’s to the eternal criticism of those fools that felt that it was a smart ideal to go to Washington, D.C. to talk to the NRA to ask for money. It’s not a defense to say that they got a bit sloshed and started talking, because they certainly were sober enough when they were planning their trip, and they knew pretty clearly what they were doing.
Misha Zelinsky: It was a hell of a bender otherwise.
Peter Jennings: Otherwise it was a hell of a bender. But I think something that’s not been clear from those Al Jazeera programs is did the NRA or the Koch brothers at any stage ever think that it was a smart idea to offer money to these people? I don’t know that they did. And maybe that tells you that even those, that that American institution has got more sense than we might give them credit for for not handing over money to those folks.
Peter Jennings: I was part of the Howard government in the days when Martin Bryant was engaged in that appalling killing spree in Port Arthur in Tasmania. I recall very directly the pressure that Howard was under to compromise on the gun laws that he brought in. And I think that it was one of his best moments as prime minister to actually stick with it because it was actually quite a strong lobby that didn’t want to see as tough arrange of controls over automatic weapons that Howard put in place.
Peter Jennings: But we are, 20 years later, we are surely a better country for that decision having taken place. And I don’t, except at the fringes of Australian politics, I don’t see many people saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sort of go easy on the gun laws to make ownership of semiautomatic weapons more accessible?” So I thought that you really would have to say that the attempts of those individuals that went to the US to ask for money was about as ill-considered a political move as I’ve seen in my fairly lengthy career now of watching politics in Canberra.
Misha Zelinsky: So I always look for a segue on this, but it’s going super clunky on this one, but now I have a very lame hokey title called Diplomates. And I like to finish the interviews saying, well, three international guests got asked, who would you bring of three Aussies to a barbecue? But you get go pick three international guests. So who are three international guests coming to a Peter Jennings’ place for a barbecue?
Peter Jennings: Ooh, gosh, that’s an interesting one. Can they be political figures or could they be-
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah, anyone you like.
Peter Jennings: Anyone I like. Who would I like to talk to? Well, I’ll tell you three people who I absolutely admire. One of them I know reasonably well, that’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former president of Indonesia, who I actually as a young defense official escorted through Canberra on a trip, probably 25 years ago when he was a general, very fine individual. I admire him greatly. So I’d have him, Jim Mattis, former US Secretary of Defense, who I think was a fine general, someone who knew Australian fighting forces very well and who did for at least two years probably one of the toughest jobs in Washington, D.C., which was to be the defense advisor to Donald Trump as commander-in-chief.
Misha Zelinsky: He’s got some stories to tell, no doubt?
Peter Jennings: And he did, and a man that’s sort of much admired in Australian defense system. And I feel as though I should come up with a sort of quirky and different choice for you for-
Misha Zelinsky: Only if you feel quirky and different, man-
Peter Jennings: Quirky or different. I honestly don’t know. Seeing as I spend so much of my time traveling overseas, I think the person I’d most like to be able to see at a relaxed thing like a barbecue would be my wife, actually, who hears lots of stories about all of these fine people what I’m able to meet. So I’ll go for those two guys of great high standing and my own wife.
Misha Zelinsky: Most importantly, you’ve definitely got the right answer in the last one. But, look, thanks so much for your time.
Peter Jennings: [crosstalk 00:45:33].
Misha Zelinsky: It’s been a great chat, and I really appreciate it.
Peter Jennings: Thanks, Misha. It’s my pleasure to talk.
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