Professor Rory Medcalf: Democracy v Autocracy – Friends, Rivals and Values

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. 

A journalist, intelligence agency analyst, diplomat, academic and thinker, Rory is one of the world’s leading experts on geopolitical strategy and his work has contributed to recent Australian government defence policy including the Defence White Paper of 2016. 

Rory is recognised as a thought leader internationally via his acclaimed 2020 book – Contest for the Indo-Pacific. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Rory for a chinwag about the US election and why the stakes are so high for Australia, whether the CCP or Russia might pull a move in the case of a litigated US election, how Australia should manage an assertive CCP, why democracies should be more confident, why minilaterialism is the new multilateralism and why its time Australia got serious about India and Indonesia.


Misha Zelinsky:

Rory Medcalf, welcome to Diplomates, mate. How are you?

Rory Medcalf:

Very well, thanks Misha. Great to be on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks for joining us. Now, always so many places we can start and it’s probably a topic that’s been done to death, but you almost can’t ignore it, it’s the elephant in the room, the US election. But I kind of want to approach it, I mean we could talk about the horse race all day, about who’s going to win, but I kind of wanted to approach it firstly, what are the stakes here? I mean, does it matter? Firstly, does it matter for Australia and then also what does it matter in a global context?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s hard to say anything particularly new and enlightening on this subject. Everyone seems to be a pundit on the US election or on its significance in world affairs. What I’d say is that of course it matters for Australia’s interests and security, and it matters perhaps more in an indirect way than in an immediate direct way. I mean, I do put a lot of weight on the importance of I guess American credibility in the world. I don’t think we have to think about American leadership quite in the way that we used to, and of course American leadership and credibility have both taken an enormous hit in the last few years for obvious reasons.

Rory Medcalf:

I think, though, that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential the United States still has to be a formidable player in world affairs. I see this election really as a chance to firstly arrest the damage, arrest the decline. Secondly to begin the very big repair job that needs to take place, and thirdly to also take I guess any … Salvage any positives out of the past few years. The main positive I talk about there, despite all of the harm that Trump personally and his administration have done, is the bipartisan awareness in the United States about the China challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s if you like, the one positive, or in fact the second positive, being the reawakening of the importance of democratic participation in so much of the American population. I think salvage those things, begin the repair job. Either way, this matters profoundly for Australia and for our Indo-Pacific region.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked a bit about US leadership, or US credibility. One thing I wanted to … And you’re right, there’s a lot of pundits out there, so we’ll focus on perhaps your subject areas of expertise, but one of the things that’s been tossed up is what happens if there’s a contentious election? What happens if for a period, maybe like in 2000 when it went on and on, there was recounts, it was contested, or it was a particularly contentious election with litigation?

Misha Zelinsky:

Peter Jennings from ASPI has been on this show before, he’s floated potentially you could see some aggression from the Chinese Communist Party in respect to Hong Kong or Taiwan. You might see Russia aggressive in Europe. I mean, how do you see something like that in a lame duck scenario, where the US is internally focused and not able to externally focus on its security guarantees around the world?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s obviously a risk. I also worry about what that internal crisis might look like inside America, because of course, in many ways the … And I’ll take sides here. I mean, I would prefer to see a Biden victory, but in many ways a downside of a Biden victory, unless it’s really decisive and really clear upfront is the way in which Trump or parts of Trump’s base could really exploit the situation internally over a few months, and you could see some very significant unrest moving within the United States.

Rory Medcalf:

As to the external foreign exploitation of that situation, I tend to think that even when China is at its most opportunistic and its most adventurous under the current leadership, I think there’s still a recognition that there would be a lot of risk in, for example, seizing this as the moment to take Taiwan by force, seizing this at the moment for some other aggressive action internationally. On balance, I think the Chinese aren’t going to be quite that crazy. Russia’s a different kettle of fish, of course, because I think Russia has made something of a constant of its interference in American processes over the past few years.

Rory Medcalf:

I tend to think that Russia thinks or the Russia leadership operates quite a bit more tactically than the Chinese. So I think the possibility or the potential for some kind of Russian exploitation of the situation is there. It’s probably happening already.

Misha Zelinsky:

What would that look like? What would a Russian aggression look like?

Rory Medcalf:

I guess what I’m referring to is an attempt to magnify and amplify the differences internally in the United States. I don’t see, if you like, some new sudden act of continental aggression by Russia, because in many ways at the moment Russia has most of what it wants and needs, and can handle. It’s certainly yet more pushing the envelope in cyber, particularly, and … Really it’s a continuation but with the United States that’s even less capable for that window of meeting any kind of concerted push back.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you’re talking about that perhaps driving wedges into the United States’ discourse by using Facebook and other social media channels and misinformation?

Rory Medcalf:

Oh, absolutely. As Russia has quite definitively done for more than four years now, going back to actually pretty early in 2016.

Misha Zelinsky:

You talked about the China challenge and that bipartisan, I suppose the way that the United States is now treating China as a strategic competitor. Turning I suppose to our neck of the woods here and how it impacts on Australia, how concerned should we be that we’ve got a rise of authoritarian regime, which is going to at least challenge the United States militarily, and certainly economically? How concerning is that just by of itself?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, the risk factor in China’s rise has become much starker, much clearer to Australian policymakers over the past few years. I think there’s now a growing awareness in the public, in the political community, even in the business community about that. That would be the case regardless of whether Trump was in the White House or anyone else. In some ways, despite the recklessness and the confrontationalism of Trump, there’s also, as I said, been that awakening in the United States recently, which is a good thing.

Rory Medcalf:

Either way, whatever happens in America next week, the China challenge isn’t going to go away. Australia faces it more starkly as not only a developed country in the Indo-Pacific region, and a very proud democracy, but a country that also is deeply enmeshed in so many ways with China economically, at a societal level, and so forth. And so much of that interaction has been over the years, a net positive for Australia. We’re now focusing on the risk factor, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

Look, I think that we really need to understand Australia’s journey on this. Almost really on Australia’s terms, in terms of actually quite an independent assertion of Australian interests, values, and identity over the past four years, and not as some commentators have claimed, as some kind of proxy for our loyalty to America, or some kind of deputy sheriff role. I think the good news is that there are senior policy thinkers, senior voices on both sides of politics across the political spectrum in Australia, who recognize the necessity of Australia really adopting this quite assertive position of its own.

Rory Medcalf:

That said, we’ve now reached a point, I’d love to go into this in the conversation, if you want to, Misha. We’ve now reached a point, we’ve got to understand what a sustainable new normal looks like in the relationship with China, and with Australia’s relationship with China in the context of all the other regional relationships in the Indo-Pacific. Because so much of Asia is not China, and I think a lot of commentators conveniently overlook that sometimes.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s a really good point. I certainly want to dig into engagement in the region more generally, but just sticking with China, the Chinese Communist Party. One of the things that gets discussed quite a bit is Australia’s relationship, so much of it’s focused on trade. We’ve said to split the trade relationship out, along with the defense component, or the strategic concerns. I mean, firstly, is that possible? Can we even separate the two anymore, given the way we’re seeing the Chinese Communist Party weaponizing trade, increasingly against Australia and others? And secondly, should we be worried about upsetting China and the Chinese Communist Party? I mean, so many people in the business community tend to say, “Well, we need to just keep the dollars flowing.” I mean, how do we handle those two components?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll start with the second half of your question and go to the whole thing of the whole idea of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, as we’re sometimes accused of doing, and then go to the trade question. Look, I think the paramount consideration every time an Australian government looks at what to do in foreign relations, whether it’s to do with China or any other country, is Australia’s interests, values, and indeed I’d even use a term like national identity. Who are we as a country? A liberal democracy, proudly multicultural.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re a status as a pretty dynamic middle power, as related to our identity in the world. Those things I think should be starting points for policy and diplomacy is not contrary to what some would suggest about at no costs hurting the feelings of the other country that you’re dealing with. Because in the end, so much of the hurt feelings you encounter in diplomacy is really something of a confection of outrage that countries will come up with for I guess negotiating advantage.

Rory Medcalf:

China has a thicker skin than the Communist Party sometimes like us to believe. There is a lot of diplomatic game playing that goes on, and I think in many cases, especially if you look at the way nationalism has been fostered in China over the past 30 years by the party, through hardcore patriotic education, those sensitivities are deliberately cultivated so that our room for maneuver is less. That’s a long winded way of saying of course we don’t want to cause gratuitous offense.

Rory Medcalf:

We don’t want to go out of our way to poke any country or political system in the eye, but I don’t think that the protestations of outrage by Chinese diplomats need to be the barometer for policy. Importantly, if you were to map, let’s say the last 4-5 years, and map for example, our trade patterns in I guess in the context of Australia standing up for a rules based order in the region, in the South China Sea or elsewhere, Australia strengthening its own domestic infrastructure against foreign interference, as we’ve done with various laws over the last few years.

Rory Medcalf:

In fact, in many instances and in the macro sense, trade has actually increased. For most of that time, it is not as if there was a correlation between our independent policy stance and being punished in a trade sense. Now, that may be a different story this year, if we can go to the coercion that’s being used, by at the moment China hasn’t pulled the really big levers, partly because it’s operating in a global context where it knows, its leadership knows that acting so coercively against one country is going to send a signal to others, not to be frightened but to actually accelerate their own diversification away from China.

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll come to your second point in a moment if you like, about trade per se. Because just in a nutshell, I think it’s great that Australia has a very substantial trading relationship with China as we should. It’s also great that we have a whole range of growing trade and investment relationships. It’s important to separate trade and investment in this regard, and I think most Australians do not realize that Australia is not heavily dependent on China for the foreign investment, and it’s probably not going to become heavily dependent on China for investment, and that’s fine.

Rory Medcalf:

Investment I think is much more a reflection of trust, whereas trade is a reflection of transaction. Yes, we have a major trading relationship by an order of magnitude, focused heavily on the iron ore trade. Australia is actually a less trade dependent country, however, than many other developed countries in the region and around the world. Trade as a proportion of GDP is actually less than most of us realize. Doesn’t mean China can’t hurt us if it wants to. Imperative now, nothing new or original to say here, really Misha, but the imperative is diversification.

Rory Medcalf:

Not excluding China, but very much China plus and keeping in mind the question, what do we want Australia to look like 20-25 years from now? Do we still want to be a country that relies for so much of its export income on essentially iron ore trade with Australia? I see that was a pretty unsustainable, one dimensional policy in the long run.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think COVID-19 is a bit of a wake up call in terms of our exposure on supply chains and over reliance perhaps on a commodities trade with one major country?

Rory Medcalf:

No question. I think it’s a wake up call on so many fronts, and for all of the damage that it’s done, and all of the distress that it’s brought, it’s also an opportunity for government now to build a much more united national approach, dare I call it a united front, with the industry, with civil society, to begin a conversation about what does the resilient Australia we want for the next generation actually look like?

Rory Medcalf:

At what point do we, if you like, start to focus more on security and less on the factors of efficiency and cost that have just been allowed to be so paramount for the past few decades?

Misha Zelinsky:

So look, we talked a bit about I suppose specific nations. One of the things that the big emerging challenges that we’re seeing now is return to systems competition, democracy with I suppose liberal economics has been the dominant ideology for the last 30 or 40 years. Now we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism. Democracy’s certainly not expanding, on the slide around the world. Perhaps is on the slide in some nations that have been democratic for a very long time. How concerned are you about this systems competition? Do you think it’s a function of may the best system win, or do you think that democracies need to get their houses in order to a degree?

Rory Medcalf:

Well, you can say both of those things if you like. I think democracies have had and are having a very rude wake up call. Those of us who believe very firmly not only in democracy or liberal democracy really as a system under which we like to live, and really which in so many ways makes life worth living, but also who recognize that this is not exclusively some kind of resting system. That in fact human societies all around the world have the right to the kinds of freedoms that let’s face it, are there in the UN Charter or various UN declarations in the hopeful post-Second World War era.

Rory Medcalf:

In other words, democracy has a home in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, in Africa and so much of the world other than just the so-called West. It’s a time when we really have to take stock and think much harder about what is worth defending and how to defend it. I would say that like the French Revolution, it’s a bit too early to tell whether democracy is actually in decline. I mean, if you look at the sentiment on streets of Hong Kong, the streets of Minsk, the streets of Bangkok, if you look at really the movements of people power over the last really 12-24 months in the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East, that appetite for some kind of basic dignity through civil freedoms has not gone away.

Rory Medcalf:

Through participation and essentially choice about how you will be ruled and who rules you. And I would add, also incidentally, the exceptional we’ve seen of Taiwan this year. Both in its resistance to interference in its democratic election at the start of the year, and the way in which it succeeded in setting the global standard for dealing with a pandemic within a democratic framework. So, I certainly think we need to play the long game in protection and advancement of democracy. In a country like Australia, we need to do that with humility, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re not aggressively proselytizing and nor should we, but we shouldn’t feel insecure or unconfident about it, either. I think if we look over the next 10-20 years, democracy is going to adapt and we just have to find ways to help that adaptation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I agree with you about the universality about democracy, and I think the protests in Hong Kong and the incredible election result in Taiwan was certainly affirming that people … There’s universal rights that everyone hopes. It’s not a Western conceit that people like to say, “Oh, well these nations have no history of democracy. Therefore they don’t want it.” Which I think is a nonsense. But you’ve touched on it a bit, we talked about Russia and its interference in the United States, we’ve talked about CCP interference in Taiwan. Obviously we’ve had quite a bit in Australia. I mean, how concerned are you about foreign interference and the concept of political warfare more generally?

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is I suppose the weaponization of all elements of society. We’ve got this total integration now of our systems where once upon a time perhaps in Cold War, there was competing systems but they were very much separate. Now they’re woven into one another. Makes it hard to grapple with all the different ways that you’ve got touchpoints which are also leverage points. How concerned are you about that, in terms of democracies being able to maintain their integrity?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah look, there obviously is … Look, there’s a degree of attack, but also there’s a degree of now waking up to the fact that we’ve been under attack for a long time. If you look at the, for example, I think very credible reports about CCP interference, but also influence operations in Australia over many years, and I should hazing to add, that influence isn’t necessarily a criminal thing. I mean, diplomats do influence as part of their job. It’s when it spills over into interference involving particularly corrupting conduct or coercive or clandestine conduct, that we’ve got a different situation.

Rory Medcalf:

I think there’s much greater awareness of these issues now. There’s much greater vigilance. I think the challenge we’ve got ahead is to ensure that this is not simply a government thing. This is not simply security agencies telling people they have a problem, telling parliamentarians they have a problem, and almost compelling them to do something about it. It’s got to be a much more inclusive and voluntary thing about cherishing what we’ve got. I think there are some positive signs there, and I do think that the more we can encourage bipartisanship on this, the better.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that these are issues that actually have to be owned by the center of Australian politics and owned by the moderate center of Australian politics. But I think for example, the more that we see communities cherishing that right to not only mobilize but participate in the democratic process and elections, but also apply scrutiny to voices within their own ranks, who take certain views. And apply scrutiny not in a kind of ASIO way, but in a much more free contest of ideas, media investigation.

Rory Medcalf:

Then I think we’re going to get through this. I worry a little bit about … In fact, I worry quite a lot about the risk of stigmatizing parts of the Australian population, and certainly stigmatizing some people in Chinese Australian communities, and they will take that personally. I think that unhelpful intervention by Senator Abetz on this the other week. I think in many ways the center in the debate has already shifted sufficiently that the scene is going to be set for communities to start, if you like, scrutinizing themselves and for media to take a continued interested.

Rory Medcalf:

Again, I’m moderately positive about our ability to get through this. However, if we see a hard partisan polarization on these issues, for example one side of politics saying we’re the side of politics that’s in favor, we have a good relationship with China, this other side is not, accusations of racism on either side. Anything that mirrors the kind of talking points we hear coming out of Beijing or echoed in the Chinese state propaganda, that’s when we’re going to have a challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

One last point, though I’ll make, Misha, and that is about the Australian electoral process, as well. One area where we’ve seen I think exploitation within the United States and elsewhere by foreign actors of the democratic process, is by amplifying any kind of criticism of the process itself by one side or other politics. Anything that undermines the credibility of the institutions themselves, the credibility of electoral systems. That’s a convoluted way of saying that I hope that in the Australian system, where we do have such a professional and impartial, credible electoral commission, I hope to see in future elections in Australia this continued restraint on the part of Australian political parties, so that whatever they do, they don’t cast the integrity of the electoral process in doubt. Because that is one of the vectors through which foreign interference operations will then, if you like, seek to magnify and cause harm.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you mean in the sense … Yeah, I completely agree. You certainly don’t want to delegitimize your own system and it’s certainly quite stark what we’re seeing in the United States, in terms of the Russians certainly couldn’t hope for so much propaganda about the failures of the voting system in the United States. And unfortunately coming from the US president at the moment is quite extraordinary.

Rory Medcalf:


Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to dig in a little bit into … I certainly share your concerns about the demonization of Chinese Australians or even Chinese people that are Chinese citizens studying in Australia, et cetera. How do you balance off the challenge where you know that … This is particular to the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party, which itself deems the Chinese diaspora, not just in Australia, but around the world, to be part of its I suppose domain. They certainly exert a lot of pressure and are highly active, basically a United Front Works Department in those communities. How do we balance off that activity as well as making sure that we’re not demonizing and using I suppose improper rhetoric when discussing this challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s firstly where I think the quality of a lot of Australian investigative journalism has really been a major national asset. It’s almost been a contribution we’ve made to friends and partners overseas, to the Five Eyes and other democracies, as a early warning system. I think it has shifted public perception. I think that the greater public awareness that you need to question the … Not accuse, but seek clarity on the motives of certain interventions in Australian politics or certain interventions in community affairs, I think is quite reasonable.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that the proper resourcing of government agencies to conduct outreach to civil society, to business, even to universities, is going to be a really important part of the solution. Because what you want in the end is civil society, business, universities, all of these other players, basically being proactive and demonstrating the integrity of their systems, so that we can avoid and minimize anything that looks like taking I guess a much more forceful approach. Sooner or later, there are likely to be prosecutions, for example, under the foreign interference laws. But we don’t want that to become the norm. We want that to be the exception.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I mean, just to round this part of the conversation out, I mean, one of the things I think so the big challenge is lack of reciprocity between the systems. We’ve essentially seen a weaponization of the openness of Western liberal societies, and our openness of our systems, our discourse, the economics, all these things have been shifted. I mean, how do open systems beat closed systems? Because the thesis before was that closed systems are brittle, and they collapse. Now it seems that because they’re so open to so many vectors, a concentrated effort from a regime that means you harm can be quite challenging to deal with. I mean, how do you see that challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. Look, I think reciprocity’s important. I think we certainly have to be careful about anything that looks like, if you like, threatening some kind of interference in other societies. I don’t think that it’s a sane or sensible policy to be saying, for example, to the Chinese Communist Party, “Well, the more that we see you active in our system, we reserve the right to sow discord and dissent on your soil.” That’s going to be a losing game.

Rory Medcalf:

But simply by protecting the sanctuary within our own systems for dissenting voices, but making it absolutely clear that we’re not going to allow, for example, free expression to be shut down in parts of our society by a foreign actor, as has been attempted I think by the CCP occasionally in diaspora communities in Australia and elsewhere. We’re actually taking a defensive measure that I think is quite sustainable. I guess it’s about setting limits. It’s not about achieving any kind of absolute victory. It’s just about demonstrating that our system will survive, will be resilient, and that we will not be afraid of, if you like, attributing, pointing out what’s occurring. But also setting limits.

Rory Medcalf:

I don’t think there’s a guaranteed win for authoritarianism here. I’ve sort of meandered on this a little bit, but you might want to also think about time frame. Because in many ways, there’s now this new myth that time is on the side of authoritarian states, and of course, 15-20 years ago as we were saying, there was this naive belief that the internet, for example, would be this magic bullet for democratic freedoms everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

As Bill Clinton said.

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. But we’ve swung around now to this idea that time is automatically on the side of authoritarian systems. It’s really up to democracies, whether it’s Australia, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in America, whether it’s in Asia, to demonstrate their own adaptability and I’d say if you … I see this as a 10-20 year long contest. In some ways, the playing field could look quite different. Especially in a decade or so from now, and especially, and this is a missing link, especially if you can build greater solidarity among the democracies and how they push back.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re seeing the kernel of that solidarity already. There’s no end of discussions now among evolving groupings, the quad in the Indo-Pacific, obviously the Five Eyes intelligence partners now widening their scope. But even institutions like so-called D10 of democracies. Not a formal government to government relationship, but a so-called 1.5 track arrangement of 10 of the world’s leading democracies, where policymakers and experts and commentators get together quite regularly now to exchange notes on how to manage the authoritarian challenge. I think we’ll see a lot more of that and we will begin to see concerted not so much push back, but concerted setting of limitations by these countries. Whether it’s on issues like hostage diplomacy as Australia and Canada have suffered.

Rory Medcalf:

Whether it’s on issues like how to build best practice in limiting foreign interference, whether it’s on issues like building alternative supply chains in areas such as critical minerals. There are a whole lot of areas where if we stay the course over about the next 5-10 years or beyond, the democracies will end up I think in a sufficiently strong and stable position, and a lot of the contradictions within authoritarian countries are likely to become more difficult for them to manage.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. You’ve stumbled into the next question that I wanted to ask you, which is about you’ve talking a lot about this concept of minilateralism. So, essentially small groupings getting together, like-minded nations, more than just bilateral. But do you see essentially things, true multilateralism, is that basically dead do you think in a modern context? Or are we going to have to rely on things like a D10 or the Five Eyes, a deeper Five Eyes, or things of that nature?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s certainly too soon to say that multilateralism is dead. The inclusive multilateralism of the United Nations, or big regional organizations where simply by being part of the region, you’re almost automatically entitled to membership. Of course we have all of the ASEAN centric institutions here in the Indo-Pacific. We have the EU, we have organizations that have built up over time to accommodate the widest possible range of interests.

Rory Medcalf:

Minilateralism, and for the benefit of your listeners, it’s small, self-selecting groups of three or more countries. Bigger than bilateral, but smaller than multilateral. I think that is the trend of the times, and we’re seeing that in everything from the trilaterals and the quadrilateral security dialog, right through to the way in which small groups are getting together to share best practice on COVID response, the way in which the Five Eyes intelligence partners are expanding to a whole geoeconomic agenda now.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s because it’s easiest, or it’s most effective for small groups to select one another on the basis of having interests in common, having capabilities that they can bring to the table, and having the political will to work together. But all of these layers of diplomacy will keep working I think in a loose kind of concert. I would call time on I guess the international rules based order, or the multilateral system, if you had essentially a wholesale defection. Whatever China and Russia are doing, we haven’t yet had the equivalent of an imperial Japan walking out of the League of Nations, as it did in 1933.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, what does that red line look like to your mind?

Rory Medcalf:

Of course, some would say that in fact the country that’s been calling on multilateralism has been the United States under Trump, rather than the Russians or the Chinese, even though so much of what Russia and China does is about double standards and about saying one thing and doing another. Look, I think a lot of it would relate to a comprehensive act of international aggression where major powers essentially either took sides or took that as a final warning that they would have to greatly reduce their exposure to one another.

Rory Medcalf:

So, a fully fledged attack on Taiwan, a fully fledged outbreak of hostilities between China and another major country. Not necessarily China and the United States, but for example China and India, China and Japan. I’d see those as pretty clear breakpoints. Likewise, overt Russian aggression against European countries. I think we’ve seen something beyond the grayzone that we’ve seen in Ukraine and elsewhere. I think we’re still not at that point. I think there’s a real possibility in the next 10 years that we’ll get to that point, but it’s not at all inevitable, and I guess I’d like to think that the US election in the next week or two could be the beginning of a point towards stemming that risk, especially if we see the United States begin to show a bit more respect for the system that it established in the first place.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’ve talked about minilateralism. One of the ones that gets focused on a lot, or is getting more attention now, is the so called quad, which is Australia, United States, India, and Japan. China’s very displeased about this arrangement. I mean, what sort of hopes do you have for the quad? Do you think it can be a significant player in addressing these challenges we’ve talked about?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ve written quite a bit about the quad. Recent article in Australian Foreign Affairs and the quad features pretty heavily in my book on the Indo-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s it called, mate? Feel free to plug it.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ll do that. We’ll get there, I’m sure. The quad is not what its critics often claim it to be. Some critics say that its problem is that it’s going to become an Asian NATO. In other words, it’s an alliance, it’s the basis of a formal alliance that will “contain China and provoke China” into all sorts of things like military modernization, assertiveness and so forth. Things incidentally that China’s already doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say, they’re already happening.

Rory Medcalf:

Sort of since the last 15 years proves, if you like, or the 13 years since the quad that was originally conceived, proves that in the quad’s absence, from 2008 to 2017 there was no quad, in the quad’s absence, pretty much all of the troubling things that the quad was supposed to provoke have actually taken place. The quad is not now or in the foreseeable future, a hard alliance. On the other hand, nor is it a flimsy, meaningless conversation. Critics also say, “Well, what’s the point of this?” Since when the chips are down for countries with somewhat disparate interests as America, Japan, India, and Australia are not going to take fundamental risks on one another’s behalf. They’re not going to be true allies, so what’s the point?

Rory Medcalf:

However, most of what happens in statecraft and diplomacy happens in between the extremes of golden peace and total war. There’s lots of assertiveness and coercion and negotiation, and second guessing that takes place. And the quad, and other minilateral institutions provides I think a really flexible vehicle for all of those issues in between, where you want to start showing gradations of solidarity, gradations of resolve. You want to demonstrate to a country like China that the more it throws its weight around against individual states in the Indo-Pacific, the more it’s going to encourage states to trust one another far more than they will trust China.

Rory Medcalf:

As for practical cooperation, we’re really only at the very beginning. We’ve seen in the last two or three years, not only the rebirth of the quad going very quickly to a ministerial level dialogue, now to military exercises, the Malabar naval exercise that Australia’s been admitted to. But there appears to be lots of behind the scenes and actually fairly upfront diplomacy occurring on issues like supply chain security, COVID response, critical minerals, cyber, critical technologies. In other words, the quad’s creating a new infrastructure of trust for the next 10 years or more, and it’s sending a signal I think to other countries in the region that it’s possible to build these new coalitions of trust.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d like to see the quad build its own additional relationships with, for example, South East Asian countries like Vietnam or Indonesia, that have a lot at stake and a lot to offer. Maybe with European partners, France and Britain, who are playing back into the Indo-Pacific in a big way. Let’s see where we can get with this thing. I don’t think the Indians and the Indians are critical in this, are under any illusion that were a conflict to flare up on the border with China again tomorrow, that the quad would be parachuting troops in from its member countries to hold the line.

Rory Medcalf:

But at the same time, I think increasingly you’ll see intelligence sharing, geoeconomic support for one another on supply chains, on resilient infrastructure, on cyber, that will actually help individual countries like India build their capability to protect themselves, protect their sovereignty, and that’s enough, in my view.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about India. Switching back to bilateralism. It’s probably a country that I know you’ve talked about it quite a bit, increasingly others are talking about it. There was a report commissioned by the government a couple of years ago about looking at deepening economic ties with India. What’s your view? I mean, are we underdone in the relationship from a strategic point of view? How could we deepen it? Why does it matter?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, India matters, and I think what I’m pleased about with the way the strategic dialogues have evolved in the last few years is that no one in Australia really questions anymore that India’s important. It’s just that we have trouble still quite coming to terms with it, quite knowing the right line of engagement. Because India is big, it is complex, it’s untidy. That’s no surprise for anyone.

Rory Medcalf:

I think one of the reasons why I’ve actually got a certain respect for India’s achievements over the past 70 years or more really, is that when you think of all India’s problems, you’ve also got to think of what an extraordinary challenge it is to manage such a large and diverse society within a single democratic framework. If you were to take the entire American content and Europe and a good chunk of the Middle East, and treat that as one federated democracy, that would be less diverse than India.

Misha Zelinsky:


Rory Medcalf:

Certainly linguistically or culturally, and roughly the same population. That’s the political challenge, and that’s actually the political achievement that India has demonstrated. Yes, its democracy is imperfect, yes I’m worried a bit about the illiberal turn that parts of the Indian polity have taken in the past few years, but India has enormous resilience. It’s a very antifragile country in a way, and I’m reasonably confident that it will chart its own path. We want to think really about India over again, over a generational time frame.

Rory Medcalf:

A large proportion of the world’s youth in India, the future workforce, the future unemployed, however you want to see it. We want to help India achieve as much of its potential as we can, while respecting its democratic institutions and traditions. And without placing I think unrealistic expectations such as that India and Australia are going to become formal treaty allies anytime soon, and we shouldn’t … I’ll pause on this point. We shouldn’t project on India the mythology that somehow it’s going to be the next China, that it will have within the next number of years, as spectacular an economic rise as China had in recent decades.

Rory Medcalf:

Because democracy means, and the nature of Indian democracy means in a sense, India fails every day, but it keeps going. Whereas I’d say that in China, we’ve seen a spectacular achievement at enormous cost to human rights, and if China in some way fails, it’s going to do so spectacularly. That’s how I’d see India. We’ve got to be patient. We’ve started on this journey. We’ve got many years to go.

Misha Zelinsky:

So just quickly, one last point on India and China, because you talked about demography there in India. I mean, one of the things that China is struggling with is its demographic destiny, with the one child policy. It’s going to be old before it gets rich. Do you think India has inbuilt advantages on that basis?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it does, but there’s potential for an extraordinary demographic dividend or something of a demographic disaster, as well. It really is about employment, education, and dignity for this extraordinary Indian youth demographic. I would say that on balance, the creativity that we’ve seen over many years now among younger generations of Indians, not only in India but in diaspora communities all around the world, is going to provide India with a pretty significant advantage. But it is going to take further reform, economically. It’s going to take pretty high degrees of mutual respect and tolerance inside the Indian political system.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s where the role of decision and leadership is going to matter in the years ahead, and that’s where it’s going to be important firstly, for India to reinvigorate its democracy, to have a more effective opposition if you like, because one reason that Modi has done so well is that the Congress Party, which has now become the main party of opposition, used to be the natural part of government, really hasn’t reinvigorated itself. Hasn’t got beyond its dynastic dependence on the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ve also seen I think a lot of the talent of young Indians go into the private sector and that’s a good thing, but we now need to see the Indian state and the Indian private sector work more closely together within the democratic framework. Lots of uncertainties there, but I think Australia is absolutely right to be investing in the relationship, as long as we keep our expectations tempered.

Misha Zelinsky:

One last regional scan around the place. I mean, and we’ll have to keep it short because I know your time is precious, but Indonesia, again, probably a nation-state that is massively unders in its discussion in Australia, other than perhaps Bali trips. How do you see that relationship and what’s its relevance to Australia, and also to the region?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll link Indonesia and India in this sentence, if you like, because there’s obviously certain things they have in common that aren’t respected enough in Australia beyond the policy class. I would actually say that our policymakers, particularly our diplomats, generally get India and Indonesia now. I used to despair that 20 years ago our diplomats generally didn’t appreciate India’s potential, but our officials have always known that Indonesia is important.

Rory Medcalf:

What we need to do, though, is to get that awareness beyond Canberra and beyond the bureaucratic and diplomatic and indeed political elite. And India has the advantage in a way, because there is now such a strong people to people link, such a strong societal connection between India and Australia, or between really South Asia and Australia, that a cultural understanding of what India is and where it’s going is becoming I think pretty grounded in Australia society.

Rory Medcalf:

The same has not happened for Indonesia, and in fact, there are still other South East Asian societies, or South East Asian diaspora communities that are very established in Australia such as from Vietnam, for example. But we don’t have the same popular perception of what Indonesia is or what it can be. There is hard work for government and business still ahead on this, and I would say that that really needs to be a priority because Indonesia is at the center of our region. I mean, I’ll plug my book here, Misha, if you don’t mind.

Misha Zelinsky:

Please do.

Rory Medcalf:

My argument in the book Contest For The Indo-Pacific, is not as some people would argue, it’s not that all of the region’s problems are about China, or that India is the magical solution. It’s a much more nuanced argument than that, but I do make the argument that middle powers and middle players, countries that are not China and not the United States, are working together, are going to really provide the best hope of holding the line while either the United States gets its house in order, or we work through the next 20 years or so and China discovers the limits of its own ambition.

Rory Medcalf:

Indonesia is going to be important in that game because geographically it’s at the crossroads of this maritime region, the Indo-Pacific. So much of the trade and commerce that all of our nations depend on, even now because deglobalization is only going to be ever a partial thing. Maritime trade this year has actually increased, despite COVID, which I found fascinating. Indonesia is at that crossroads, and secondly Indonesia as a democracy, and as actually a pretty multicultural democracy, with the Muslim majority, Indonesia has the potential to be a leader and the natural leader in South East Asia, and occasionally is showing signs that it’s willing to do that.

Rory Medcalf:

So, diplomatically we should work with Indonesia, at least as much as we do and probably more so, but the missing link is still finding that societal and cultural connection, and really encouraging our business community to bet on Indonesia and bet on Indonesia’s own youth dividend that it has just like India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Rory, I could go all day with this, as you well know, and everyone that listens to my podcast know that I can go all day on these things. But now it’s time for one of my famous clunky segues to the fun part of the show, and I know you can’t wait to answer these questions, but a barbecue at Rory’s where you’re plugging your book, three foreigners coming along, I’m sure … I’m quite interested in your answer actually. There’s three foreigners, alive or dead, come to a barbecue at yours. Who are they, and why?

Rory Medcalf:

I’d be curious to know what answers you got out of others for that rather fascinating, contrived question.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Americans can be a bit hit and miss depending. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying that. Sometimes they say Russell Crowe, which I have to always point out to them, is a Kiwi.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s right. He’s a foreigner. No look, for a start, because we’re talking about international attendance at my special barbecue, it’s going to be probably a halal barbecue with vegetarian options, to respect that cultural diversity. And most of the people I’d love to have the conversation with that I can’t have, are people who aren’t with us anymore. There’s a few famous or forgotten names, particularly from the 20th century, who I’d love to see at my barbecue. I’d certainly want a few thinkers, a few big thinkers there. People like Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin, who are some of the great anti-totalitarian thinkers of the 20th century.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d love to have a couple of great statesman, or leaders from the 20th century. Particularly those who we’re not always quite so aware of. For example, Gustaf Mannerheim, who was really the great leader of independent Finland in the early 20th century. And apart from anything else, not only led many aspects of Finnish independence, but fought the Winter War against the Russians. Someone who I guess a bit like Lee Kuan Yew, in a somewhat more democratic setting, really helped a small country to make its way in the world.

Rory Medcalf:

And then finally I think it’d be great to connect with some voices from our region, from Indonesia or India in particular, and I’d enjoy seeing for example, three generations of I think the most accomplished Indian families. So, the current Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar. His son, Dhruva, who’s a great Indian security thinker, and in fact Dhruva’s late grandfather, K. Subrahmanyam, who was a great thinker in India’s strategic journey from the 1970s onwards. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a man as learned as yourself.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s the conversation I’d love to have about really how do you advance the interests of your country in a really contested world while staying true to your values?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think there’s certainly plenty to teach us based on the conversation we’ve just had, so I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. Rory Medcalf, thank you so much for joining us Diplomates.

Rory Medcalf:

Thank you.


Richard McGregor: The war within the war on COVID-19

Richard McGregor is an internationally recognized expert on the Chinese political system and a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

McGregor’s book, The Party, on the inner-workings of the Chinese Communist Party is considered the pre-eminent text for understanding the CCP and was called a “masterpiece” by The Economist and a must read” by the Washington Post.

A former Bureau Chief for the Financial Times in Beijing and Washington D.C., Richard has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. He is also a regular commentator on the ABC, CNBC and Bloomberg TV.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about the COVID-19 crisis and what this means for the world, including the escalated US-China rivalry and who is winning, how Xi Jinping is using the crisis to his advantage, how fake news is making the problems worse in the west, how democracies are struggling under the weight of the challenge and losing soft power, the pivotal battle underway in the pacific and why its critical we engage the Chinese diaspora in western values.

Episode Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Welcome to Diplomates I’m your host, Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Richard McGregor. Richard, are you there?

Richard McGregor:

I’m here. Thanks for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Thanks for joining us. Of course, we’re doing this live from both of our socially distant bunkers, vice the beauty of Skype, which everyone’s now very acquainted with over the last couple of weeks working from home, those who are. But thanks for joining us and obviously your expertise is in foreign policy and in particular the Chinese communist party. But given we had been talking about all things COVID, I thought an interesting place to start. You’re an expert in the CCP and you’ve written a book about the workings of the party. What does the handling of the virus tell us about the way the party does or does not function? And how did that impact on the, I suppose early stages of the outbreak in the Wuhan province.

Richard McGregor:

Well let me start at what might sound like an old place. But there’s a phrase in the US politics, it’s called the permanent campaign and that comes from the late 60s when politics basically got out of the old ways and old boroughs and things like that. Got into the hands of professionals and politics became a permanent occupation. Parties were running for election permanently in many respects. And I think that’s a good way to explain how the communist party in China works. And it’s one reason by the way, that why Western countries struggle to keep up with it. They are like a political organization running for election 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. And so they’ve got remarkable skills and faults. We’ll come back to that as a result of that. So look at the COVID crisis is a bit of a classic case.

Richard McGregor:

The start of this, China mishandled it, however you want to put it. They lied. It was the virus in its early stage was covered up. This is not just Western propaganda, it’s all on the record in China. The outbreak and the spread of the virus would not have been nearly as bad in China and then to the rest of the world if it hadn’t been covered up in Wuhan initially. But look what happened, once they acknowledged it. They basically locked down first a city of 11 million people, Wuhan. Then they locked down a province of about 50 million people in Hubei. And after that they locked down the country.

Richard McGregor:

One of the funny things about this is, we’ve all come to know a lot of epidemiologists on TV and radio and the like, and they’ve become household names and none of them said, quarantining the source of the disease is basically a textbook way to handle it. But I guess, the textbook didn’t quite envisage quarantining about 760 million people, which was probably had the idea of a medieval village in France, but the CCP had the capacity to do it.



Richard McGregor:

Because they don’t just have a strong central government when they get their act together, they were able to exercise their power right down to every neighborhood committee and street and keep people indoors. So that’s state in genuine power state capacity. The second point on this is look how quickly they’re able to turn on a dime. We can come back to the issue about whether the latest Chinese figures are right on that, but once the Chinese got the spread of the disease under control and there were much fewer new infections.

Richard McGregor:

It is just amazing to me how quickly they turned on a dime and then their focus was outward propaganda. In other words, we want to tell the world not how we covered up the virus, but how we beat the virus. And we are now in this process now where China is running an incredible global campaign as a good global citizen to underpin public health. And you can only do that if you’ve got a political organization which is both top-heavy but flexible and fleet of foot, not bound by any law, can turn on a dime and that’s what we’re witnessing at the moment. So that’s what I mean by the sort of the permanent campaign.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Now that’s actually a perfect way to turn to I suppose the war within the war. I mean, we’ve got the war against the virus itself, but there’s this I suppose the contest that’s underway and it’s perhaps another front for a contest that’s already been underway between the United States and China. Do you think that this is going to be a decisive battle between the U.S and China or is this just a skirmish of a broader play? Because there’s a real big focus now in the United States about blaming China, then China is now of course putting out misinformation suggesting that the disease came from the United States military. How do you see that war within the war at the moment between two superpowers?

Richard McGregor:

Now I think just about everything is a contest between the U.S and China in many respects. There’s very little cooperation at all and it’s not just a contest between two countries, it’s a contest between two systems. Because China benchmarks itself against democracies, for its own citizens it demonizes democratic system. What’s the most important democratic system in the world? And that’s the United States which sadly at the moment it’s doing very poorly in handling this crisis. Now, as you and I know there’s many different democracies and there’s many different types of democracies.

Richard McGregor:

And many democracies in the world Taiwan, South Korea, Japan to some extent, Singapore, which we might call a guided democracy. Maybe Australia we’ll see how we go there have handled this crisis in a very different fashion and relatively speaking, touch wood successfully. Not the U.S though, so China is focused on the U.S. Both sides have stepped back a little from the rhetorical war, but it was only about two weeks ago that an official Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as you alluded to, started tweeting out that this virus had probably not originated in China but it had probably been bought to China by a U.S military serviceman, a woman actually.

Richard McGregor:

There’s no basis to this, it’s the product of fettered conspiracy sites, one in Canada, some in America, all around the world. And this was quite a remarkable thing for the foreign ministry to do. Now I think there’s been a split in China within the foreign ministry over these tactics. But nonetheless, the fact that an official foreign ministry spokesman was authorized to do this tells you that the system in China is hardening up against the U.S. They wouldn’t have done this 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have done it five years ago but they are feeling pretty confident now and pretty involved in and pretty assertive and aggressive all under Xi Jinping. And so they are willing to take on the U.S in any form possible and that includes spreading fake news almost from the very top of the system.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I’m curious just to dig into that about this total campaign or this information war by China and the Chinese Communist Party. I mean, one of the things that I think the difficulty there is that the system tended to reward, or at least at the beginning was that misinformation or managing perceptions rather than truth. Where people in Wuhan doctors were arrested and journalists were arrested for reporting on it almost at the beginning for political reasons. I mean, is it possible do you think that China is going to be able to position itself as a savior globally, and can we really believe the narratives of the infection rates, the mortality rates out of China? And is that something that’s going to be effective for them?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah. Well the jury is still out on that. I would say not completely effective, but there might… I’d say two things. It might be more effective than we think or would like, and remember all this propaganda is also internally directed to the Chinese people themselves. The Chinese people have just gone through an absolutely brutal experience with a really tough quarantine. You think of yourself how much you might be sort of champing at the bit at the moment, after a few weeks-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I’m climbing the walls here mate.

Richard McGregor:

Well, right. You think of Wuhan you weren’t allowed out at all, if you were you were severely punished, people were dying all around you and like. So there’s been a lot of civil unrest in China since then at various different places, you can see it on the internet. They were for example, outside the provincial headquarters, sorry the city headquarters of party organization this week. There was a massive protest calling for rent relief, something that people in Australia are going to be sort of angst that they will be very familiar with very soon. So going back to the start as you alluded in Wuhan and the origins of this and whether that really undermines China’s claims to soft power.

Richard McGregor:

I mean, I think it does overseas but let’s see how it plays out. For example I think one of the major battlegrounds right now is Europe. We’ve got terrible situations in Spain and Italy to France and also the UK, and China has been making extremely high profile air lifts of masks and protective equipment and gowns and that sort of thing for the use of medical professionals. And this has really caused quite a stir. If you look at Macron, president Macron from France recently he’s had to make very statement saying well, “Look, we’ve given as much to other countries in Europe as China has, stop this propaganda.”

Richard McGregor:

So it might work in a superficial way at the start, but I think it really alerts the leaders of other country like Macron who’s been thinking deeply about China. That they’ve really got to wake up to themselves and just see the attention and focus of what China is doing and they have to respond. We’ve been through this same debate in Australia, so the coronavirus has been important in that respect. I should say one other thing though, that on the figures you mentioned. Look, the quarantine was brutal in China but there’s no doubt it worked to a degree. Now, is it true, as they were saying a week or two ago that there were no new cases in China? Obviously that’s not true.

Richard McGregor:

Is it true that the death rate in Wuhan was as low as they suggested a few thousand? I think there’s no doubt that under counts the death rate. But having said that, I treat the Chinese figures to a degree like I treat Chinese GDP figures. They’re not right to the decimal point, but they’re broadly right as to the trends because I think with the virus, it’s something you simply you can’t sort of cover up for good. And another way of judging it is an old thing with China, don’t watch what they say, watch what they do. Now Xi Jinping has been out and about, he was into Zhejiang yesterday the province near Shanghai. He’s been to Wuhan. There’s no way they would put Xi Jinping out in public unless they were pretty confident that they’d made massive progress in containing the virus.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. So just turning to Xi Jinping, your essay recently the backlash essay, you’ve written that Xi was under pressure internally and that perhaps China isn’t an unstoppable monolith that we sometimes perceive it to be. What to your knowledge has been the response in China by Chinese people? Are they buying the narrative from the government that things have been well handled by the Chinese Communist Party? And is this information war, you mentioned some of it’s being projected externally for soft power reasons to manipulate the global narrative, but a lot of it is for the domestic audience. How much is that of confidence as how much is that of fear in your mind?

Richard McGregor:

Yes, that’s a very good question and hard to be definitive in answering it. Before the coronavirus I had a very simple crude rule of thumb and emphasis on crude, and that was that the people, the citizenry liked Xi Jinping, the elite disliked him. Now why would I say that? Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is highly popular amongst people because that’s something that people have been angry about in China for a long time. Saying public officials get rich at their expense so bringing these people down works for him. The elite it’s a bit different. There’s a lot of criticism of him for his management of the economy, favoring the state over the private sector.

Richard McGregor:

You obviously upset a lot of powerful people with an anti-corruption campaign. Most of all I think the elite technocrats are absolutely furious with him about making himself president or leader in perpetuity, that was really the turning point. I don’t see at the moment, there’s no way at the moment Xi Jinping has his hands firmly on the levers of a power in every sector, nobody’s going to knock him off or anything that. It’s very hard to mobilize even elite opinion against him because you can’t. If you form a group to criticize him or a ginger group against him you’ll be shut down, you might be arrested and the like. Look at what’s happened in recent weeks after Wuhan.

Richard McGregor:

In the initial stages of the virus in Wuhan, we had an extraordinary display of public opinion on the internet criticizing the government, mourning the death of doctors who tried to speak out and like. Citizen journalists going around giving us fresh reports daily about what was happening on the ground. Well, that’s all stopped. The system’s got his act together, those citizen journalists are basically in detention. Other people who criticize Xi recently, most famously a big time Beijing property developer who was always a bit of a rat bag commentator but he was well-connected. He’s been detained.

Richard McGregor:

So anytime there’s any outbreak of criticism against Xi before it can take grip, before it can gain an audience at the top, before it can embolden people, he shuts it down and that’s what’s happening now. Whether the impact on Chinese people, people in China haven’t gone through a deep recession before, they probably about to go through one now. So we’ll see. The system will be tested but the propaganda system will also be working over time to convince people that they did the right thing with a lockdown. China did better than other countries, particularly America and they should stick with Xi and they should stick with the CCP.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah, that’s interesting. You sort of touched earlier on the contest between systems and that’s very much evident now. I mean, it was emerging before, but we’ve now got a full blown struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And we talked about the limitations around why the authoritarian regime might’ve led to a cover up at the beginning, but the ability to turn on a dime as you said. I mean, what is the response to the crisis tell us about democracies struggling to get the balance right between I suppose, the repression of people and rights of individuals and the suppression of the illness?

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And the other thing I think is perhaps troubling people that are in favor of democracies as I am. When you look at the United States response to some other democracies in Europe, basic competence appears to be in question here. I mean when you look at the United States, a lot of their soft power came from being the country that put the man on the moon and being the global leader. They’re certainly not stepping up in a global leadership capacity, but also in basic competence capacity there’s certain question marks there.

Richard McGregor:

Well that’s right. When you let the state wither, and when you attack the state for decades, and when you load them up with all sorts of things that the bureaucracy in America is loaded up with by Congress, you undermine the effectiveness of the state. Whatever you say about China, they’ve got enormous state capacity. They can mobilize resources, they can mobilize people, they have a extraordinary ability, logistical ability to get suppliers here or there. That sort of thing has been corroded over many years in the U.S. We could go on about that about that tribal political culture. You’ve seen a bit of sclerotic democracies in Europe as well struggling at the same time.

Richard McGregor:

And this is all grist for the Chinese mill. I mean, the context for the Chinese is, the turning point of the Chinese confidence in their system compared to America was obviously first of all in the global financial crisis in 2008. The Americans had been coming over and lecturing the Chinese about how to run a modern financial system and the like. Then of course, we had the GFC and the Chinese saw okay, thanks America no more lectures from you on how to run banks and the like, we’ll do that ourselves. After that, that was the start of Chinese hubris after that under Obama and American made a bit of a comeback. You can criticize Obama, but the economy did start to recover and that Chinese notice that.

Richard McGregor:

I think this second point of Chinese hubris was the election of Donald Trump. The Chinese have always said we’re meritocracy and look you’ve just selected as your new president, a real estate celebrity developer from New York. So thanks very much, we’ll stick with our meritocracy. Now, I think that came off again because Trump in his initial stages really destabilize the Chinese, they didn’t know how to handle him. I think they got a better grip on him as of about last year. But now I think we’re getting maybe to a third point of Chinese hubris. In other words, if America really suffers and it looks they’re going to from this virus, both economically, societally and the like.

Richard McGregor:

All the holes in the health system, all the impact on poor people and the like in U.S. The way that the rich will be able to protect themselves in the U.S and poor people won’t. Well, that’s going to be another high point of Chinese hubris and this is at a time when compared to 2008, they’re a really powerful country. Their economy 2/3 the size America’s, their military I think they’ve got a bigger Navy these days than America’s, untested obviously. So we’re getting to a point where China will feel even more assertive and they’ll feel their able to be more assertive because the U.S more so than in 2008, will be really turning inward angrily. We hope not, but that’s the direction it’s heading in.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And so just turning to you mentioned I suppose, China in the context of its military and forward projecting foreign policy. How worried should we be about the Pacific during the pandemic? I mean every country at the moment is grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve gone through a big focus where we’ve done the Pacific step up because we took the view, we’d taken our eyes off the prize with our Pacific partners. And China had been doing a lot of soft power, a lot of debt diplomacy through it’s a belt and road initiative there. I mean, how worried are we generally right now about the Pacific? And should we be more worried about China’s activities there during the COVID-19 situation?

Richard McGregor:

Well, I think we’re worried about it. To be fair we are focused on it, whether we’ve got the capacity to remain competitive it remains to be seen. But let me give you one story. About three weeks ago I was actually in Papua New Guinea giving talks on China and the like and this was just when the situation was starting to turn in China, in other words they thought they were getting on top of the virus. And at that point the Chinese convened a teleconference with the entire cabinet of P and G and I think the Solomon Islands, to give them a talk about how to handle COVID-19. And I thought that was just remarkable. They were so fast, they’d barely drawn breath from battling back the virus and they’re on the front foot in this propaganda campaign.

Richard McGregor:

And it was obviously a global campaign because the Pacific Islands are important, but they’re not the biggest front for China’s global push. And there they were convening the entire cabinet and the Solomon Islands to in an exercise of what we might call soft power, teaching them about the virus. Now since then, for example Solomon Islands tests for the virus where were having to be sent to Australia. The Chinese said, “Oh, we’ll come and do them for you.” As a response to that, Australia has actually sent the Solomons their own test kits so that they can be done there. So, yeah there’s definitely a contest going on. In Port Moresby you can see Chinese construction sites everywhere, that they look just the construction sites I used to see Beijing.

Richard McGregor:

For good reason they’ve got the exact same signs outside them, the same companies, the same sort of safety signs in Chinese and bad English. And of course, Chinese workers were drawn and imported at the expense of the locals. I asked many of the Papua New Guinea friends up there why do you allow this? What about you’ve got massive underemployment in your country. And they said that well, the Chinese just insisted on it. So yeah, it’s a big contest in the Pacific and fundamental one for Australia. I think the federal government has done the right thing to focus on it. The problem with Australia I think often is we have excellent well-meaning policies, but then the execution falls away. And China isn’t going away from the Pacific so we’ve got to stick with it for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

No I think it’s absolutely critical, it’s one area hopefully that there’s bipartisan support. I mean the Pacific essentially is Australia’s geopolitical neighborhood so it’s something that we need to keep an eye on. I’m curious about your take on criticism of the CCP regime by those in the West. Clearly at the moment Donald Trump for the reasons we’ve already discussed, that Macron story but also he’s domestic political reasons he’s been calling COVID-19 coronavirus and calling it the China virus. I mean, where do you see the differences between criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, China as a nation state? What’s fair and what delves into racism? Because often you have a situation where the regime, the CCP very quickly come out and say any criticism amounts to racism. Which is clearly untrue, but where is the line there and how do we manage that when we’re looking at both our domestic politics but also geopolitically in this contest between democracy and autocracy?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, it’s a bloody hard question. In Australia, we have a very sort of racist history in Australia at the gimps, that’s obvious to anybody. We had an anti color bar in immigration till about ’65 or ’73 or however you decide to define it. Since then I think we’ve opened up remarkably and I’m sort of a glass half full on all this, but we’re being tested right now. I guess there’s two things to mention here. It’s very painful to see all the headlines in papers in Australia now about Chinese profiteers on masks and this, that and the other as though the only carpetbaggers in the world are Chinese and not of any other race or color.

Richard McGregor:

I have some sympathy for the Chinese companies in Australia, which sort of bought up all the masks and the PPE equipment in January and sent to China. Well, there was an emergency then, they’re now bringing it back here. I don’t know whether they’re price gouging or not, and if they are price gouging then something should be done about them. But it’s just seems a really easy, cheap, free kick in the tabloid and newspapers and maybe sort of you know prodded on from his sick bed by Peter Dutton. And I think we have to be really careful about that because we end up with people of Asian descent no matter where they’re from, being screamed at on the streets and the like and that’s bad all round.

Richard McGregor:

On the issue of the so called China virus, Chinese virus or Wuhan virus now look, I would never call it that and I don’t know whether it’s racist on not I mean. But I’m a little bit reluctant to allow the Chinese to play the victim card on this account. We have Japanese encephalitis, that’s what it’s called in Chinese newspapers. We had the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, We had Spanish flu, which by the way started in Kansas in America, not in Spain.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It is that right? That’s interesting.

Richard McGregor:

Yes it is. It was only sort of came up and was reported in Spain. But the WHO I think because the Japanese complained about Japanese encephalitis I think tried to encourage people as of a few years ago, not to attach geographical names to diseases and fair enough. I think. But it is funny or interesting I should say, not funny. If you look at Chinese papers from say five weeks ago The Global Times, some of the headlines there talked about the Wuhan virus. And guess what? They’ve gone back in recent weeks and changed the headlines on the online stories and they are no longer calling it the Wuhan virus.

Richard McGregor:

But personally, we should speak truthfully don’t shy away from the fact about where this started and the problems of the initial cover up. That’s all fair game, but trying to use this as some sort of political cajole as U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did recently at the G7 meeting. He wouldn’t agree to a communique until the word Wuhan virus was in there and of course there wasn’t a communique as a result. I think that’s pointless and not the main game and unnecessarily stigmatizing.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I mean, one of the things I think we’re grappling with here. I mean, traditionally people sending I suppose goods back to their homeland probably not an uncommon event in Australia’s history. The difference I suppose here is we’ve never had a situation where we’ve had an authoritarian regime which seeks to control its diaspora in other nations. So I mean, I’ll be curious to get your take on how worried we should be by CCP interference in Australia’s institutions, the United Works Front Department which is the propaganda wing of the CCP. How worried should we be about that when you’ve got former ASIO head saying look, “Essentially we’re being overwhelmed.” I mean, how concerned are you about things that? And then how do they play into things where you have seemingly China on a global scale, not just from Australia using its it’s diaspora networks to essentially source goods from beneath the nation states.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well once again, it’s a really difficult issue. On the issue of diaspora network sourcing goods, sometimes that can be great for trade. I mean, people have complained, I’m sitting in Sydney as I talk to you and Michelle and I listened to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley in the morning, the shock jocks, and they’re often complaining about the so called diagos the people who grab milk powder off the shelves here and send it back to China knowing that they’re getting a higher price. Now that’s no good price gouging but the other way of looking at it, these people have established what could be a lucrative trade for Australia.

Richard McGregor:

So instead of sort of demonizing why don’t we take them over? Why don’t we use it? Why don’t we make ourselves a base for which the Chinese would be dependent on to buy these things? So I kind of think in some respects we approach it the wrong way. Now onto your bigger point of how we handle the diaspora issue, it’s a really difficult issue. A lot of Chinese in Australia feel singled out over a lot of heavy press reporting in recent years about overseas Chinese and infiltrating the Labor Party and the Liberal Party of course.

Richard McGregor:

And not being loyal to Australia and that’s extremely hurtful thing to be told. But the truth is the problem starts in many respects in China, in the CCP with Xi Jinping because they’re very experienced at this kind of work. Saying that to these people your Chinese, your first loyalty should be to China. So how do we respond to that? It muddies the waters, it makes it very difficult for Australian institutions to manage when the CCP is quite openly targeting these people to support China. So it’s a day to day proposition and a very hard one to get right on every single day.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

The other difficulty of course is essentially the CCP has been very good at infiltrating all the I suppose the ethnic groups, the Chinese ethnic groups and taking control of those institutions. I mean, how do we push back on the independence of those institutions including things the Chinese language media in Australia, which a lot of it is a mouthpiece straight from the party? How do you see that challenge?

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well the Chinese community in Australia is actually extremely diverse, some have been here for decades. The 70s we got a lot of people after the Beijing crackdown in 1989, we’ve had waves in more recent years. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, a lot of the Chinese middle class as well, very varied. A lot of the evangelical Christians and the like. So it’s a diverse community but as you say, the community groups which represent them and the newspapers which speak to them are not diverse. They are almost entirely pro PRC and the newspapers in fact basically censor themselves along PRC lines. Now, I want to make an important distinction here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of China’s success since 1980, that’s quite natural.

Richard McGregor:

That doesn’t make you a CCP student and we’ve got to be careful about that. But nonetheless as you say, the control of the key groups or the mollifying of them if you like, is really striking. So we’ve got to be very aware of that. Where it’s a problem, we’ve got to be very open about it, sunlight helps. Everybody needs to understand how the Chinese political system works so we can get a bit of, a hate to say this, nuance into the debate. We can make judgments about whether something is in the interests of Australia and whether it’s not. But don’t target the entire community with a single brush because the community is diverse and we would like them to stay diverse in both their political opinion, especially I would say in the political outlook.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I think that’s a really critical point. I mean, I think one of the mistakes we make in the debate is treating “the Chinese community” as a monolithic group. So I think it is very important, but it is also kind of that challenge between that pointy end that seems to be controlled by the CCP and how we navigate around that. The other question I want to ask you and sort of going back to some of the things we were talking about earlier relating to a repression and use of information in this total campaigning both globally and domestically. How do you see technology now seemingly… Once upon a time we thought technology and information was going to favor democracies. Now it seems democracy is being overrun now by misinformation, challenging of sources, impossibility of working out what truth is. The Chinese are very good at it, the Russians are excellent at it. I mean, how do you see that challenge and how do democracies push back against that?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, very good question because you can make sure that the Chinese are pushing on all fronts. They’ve got their domestic internet locked down. They want to at the same time I would say transform or reform in their words, their global internet governance. They’ve got this thing called cyber sovereignty. In other words, they resent the fact that the internet having been set up mainly by the U.S and Western countries has been sort of governed by NGOs set up by those countries at the time. China wants to change that.

Richard McGregor:

Twitter is a great example of how China has it both ways. Inside China Twitter is banned outside China the Chinese government through its various ambassadors use Twitter remorselessly to promote their cause and spread all sorts of information. That same kind of access to Chinese citizens on Chinese social media, on Weibo and things that, the Twitter equivalent is not available. One of the big things you touched on there of course is Western countries being awash with misinformation and not much of it comes from China and Russia.

Richard McGregor:

And I think one of the big tasks is particularly to if not reform ourselves, is to get better ourselves. To make sure our institutions are protected and resilient, that we have a free and open media that is both sort of independent and healthy. In other words, that should, not entirely help crowd out as much misinformation as possible. And if we’re successful our rivals will be less successful. That applies particularly to America, but it certainly applies to Australia as well.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. I wanted to get your take on… I mean, China and the CCP will have to focus a lot of the debate when in discussions about the economic benefits to relationship with the Chinese state. I mean, how critical do you think the issue of human rights is? It’s dropped away now with COVID-19, but the way your issue was certainly getting a lot more attention probably in 2019. How do you see the importance of continuing to challenge China’s human rights record? A lot of countries shy away from it. Do you think it’s important that we continue to step up in that space?

Richard McGregor:

Well, it’s certainly important, but I do think Australia’s ability to lead on this is limited. Unless other bigger Western countries are taking the lead, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to do that. The Chinese don’t even bother to have the bilateral dialogue with Australia on human rights, which we conducted for a number of years. They steadily downgraded the level of representatives they would send to it, now they don’t bother with it at all. In the case of the Uyghurs for example, yes we should continue to pursue that, particularly in where Australian citizen involve, we should continue to publicize it.

Richard McGregor:

The media should continue to write about it. Think tanks like mine should continue to have events about it as well. But we don’t want to have too much expectations about what we will be able to achieve other than keeping it on the agenda. Now I may sound a little bit not as tough as some people would like, but this is not a new issue. China when it was much weaker and poorer didn’t respond very much to what pressure we were able to mount then and what pressure of course the U.S was able to amount then. And I’d say that’s even more the case now.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

But certainly, I mean and I think it’s really troubling that use of the technology in repression of Uyghurs in particular with at least one million people locked away it’s something I think we need to keep striving to draw attention to. But you’re right, it is extraordinarily difficult certainly from Australia on its own, but even from a global coordinated effort. Lastly, I just want to ask your opinion. I mean, we’ve got this big contest, you’re an expert in the CCP and its workings and it appears like this perhaps and it’s of their narrative to project themselves as a irrepressible monolith. But are you confident or an optimist when it comes to democracy prevailing in this contest or are you bearish at the moment in terms of us getting our act together and prevailing?

Richard McGregor:

I’m a little bearish. I do think China’s going to have many more problems than people appreciate or not every… For example, demographics. They’re going to get old very rapidly before they’re rich in a per capita basis. They’ve got enormous environmental problems particularly with water. The economy will not grow even at 6% a year for too much longer. So they’ve got enormous problems, but they’ve had enormous problems for years and they keep exceeding expectations in their ability to manage them. So in that respect, I don’t underestimate them and I think we shouldn’t underestimate them. So then it comes back to your question, can we get our act together?

Richard McGregor:

Well, if the U.S doesn’t get its act together, then it’s a whole new world. We’re already sort of part way down there in Australia by trying to establish much more regional multi-lateral partnerships, tighter relationships with Europe perhaps as well. That is going to be a whole new ball game once the Ex-Americana doesn’t so much fall off the cliff, but no longer becomes the dominant force in the region. This is a once in a two or three generational change in our foreign policy situation, and this it’s going to be a tough struggle I think some decades to come. So I just hope Australians can step up to the mark really and be prepared for it.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Do you see the election in 2020 in the U.S in November as critical to that then? Given that second Trump term could really lock in a lot of those trends you just discussed?

Richard McGregor:

I totally do. I’m sorry to say, but if Trump is re-elected that is a disaster. I’m not saying everything he’s done is bad, but he’s just corrosive for U.S institutions, the importance of at least some level of truth and transparency in a democracy, in stability, in using expert advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. I’ve always thought he’s going to lose actually because I think there’s so many Americans, you can look at all sorts of elections which have taken place, the democratic primaries, the midterms two years ago. So many people want to vote him out, it’s just a matter of the candidate who the Democrats field on the day, most likely Joe Biden we’ll see can get those people out. But I think you won’t undo the damage that Trump has done quickly and I should also say of course, Trump might be a symptom as much as a cause. He didn’t land in American politics a spaceship, the circumstances, the soil had been tilled for many years making way for him. But if he gets another four years then I think that will be devastating for global democracies.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, Richard on that very happy note, I’m going to switch to our final question that I ask every diplomates and I was trying to find something positive to switch us to, but you’ve defeated me. But I’ll get across there in an enormously clunky Segway, but three people coming to a barbecue or foreign guests coming to a barbecue at Richard’s place in Sydney. You’ve noted that you’re in Sydney, so who would they be and why mate?

Richard McGregor:

Okay. I guess we want a Chinese guest. Let’s get Deng Xiaoping along with an interpreter because of his sheer sense, the arc of history of his life is quite remarkable. I think he would be terrific. I would like, and this is by the way I’m not saying all these three people would get along. I’m just telling the people I think-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It might make it more interesting-

Richard McGregor:

More interesting. I think this is a great man of the old elite foreign policy, but a great thinker was a Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson who was pivotal in setting up the post war world. And a third person who I think might be a good peace maker amongst those or somebody who could step in when the conversation froze would be the late Kofi Annan from the UN, a great African diplomat. Many people would criticize him over many different things. He was in a job where he was never going to please everybody, but I think he also had a fantastic career as well. So he’d be my third guest.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, they’ll be fascinating conversations around that table. So we’d love to get a podcast of that one mate so make sure you record it if you do happen to get everyone on.

Richard McGregor:

That’s true, yeah. I’m sorry to sound so gloomy, I’m really sounding gloomy these days and maybe it’s been locked up inside and I can’t exercise enough.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

What is that? In fairness Richard, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so you are entitled to be a little gloomy right now in mate.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well, next time I’ll be happier, I hope.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Indeed. But look, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve given a lot to think about and I really appreciate the chat. So thank you so much.

Richard McGregor:

Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.




Dr Charles Edel: The Gathering Storm? How the ‘Lessons of Tragedy’ can help preserve global peace.

Dr Charles Edel is a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre.

He was the Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, advised the Secretary of State John Kerry on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific and was a Henry Luce scholar at Peking University.  Charles is the co-author of 

The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019)’ and his editorials regularly appear in The New York Times and other publications. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Charlie for a chinwag about Mike Pompeo’s visit to Australia,  ongoing US China tensions, whether we are seeing the repeat of the gathering storm of the 1930s, the brave protesters of Hong Kong, how democracy can revitalise itself, the dangerous polices of the Chinese Communist Party,  and why it’s so important that we learn from historic tragedy. It was a wide ranging chat and I hope you enjoy it!

Misha:                          Charles Edel, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Charles Edel:                 I’m great. Thanks very much for having me on Misha.

Misha:                          Pleasure’s all mine. I appreciate having you on. So for the audience now obviously have given you, lifting the lid on the white podcast. Look, you’ve got the great intro about with your bio, et cetera, that I thought would be interesting, how does a person who worked for a secretary of state Kerry foreign policy expert, how do you end up in Sydney, Australia?

Charles Edel:                 With a lot of luck, and a ton of skill by being married to the right person.

Misha:                          Right.

Charles Edel:                 So when I was working for a secretary Kerry in policy planning office of the State Department I was looking at and advising him on political insecurity matters for what we used to call the Asia Pacific. Now it’s been brought into the Indo-Pacific, but Australia was clearly a very important part of that. Remit I got to travel out here when I was in government.

Charles Edel:                 But after I left government in January of 2017, my wife who is a diplomat, said “Well it’s time we go abroad again how he feel about Australia.”

Charles Edel:                 And I said, “I feel pretty damn good.” So I’m just here as a traveling spouse and it was the best decision I ever made. Yes, clearly being married to her, but coming out here to Sydney.

Misha:                          Second best decision.

Charles Edel:                 Second best … Well, look, we say we won the jackpot twice, because it’s not only Australia, but it’s Sydney. We apologize to Canberra and Melbourne and everywhere else.

Misha:                          Now you are opening up a whole heap of how dangerous. I just lost all my three listeners in Melbourne. So anyway, so normally sort of talk about things in a more general sense, but been some news this week we’ve had a visit from Secretary of State Pompeo and I thought I’d just get your take on a few things. I mean, one of the things that caused a bit of a fuss was this question of missile deployment, foreign missile deployment by the United States. You know, there was no … In the end, prime minister Morrison ruled it out, but it took a few days. What’s your take firstly on the question of foreign missile deployment and what would that do to the balance of regional power? If Australia chose to partake in that?

Charles Edel:                 So first of all, I’m not sure I am in agreement with your assessment that Prime Minister Morrison has fundamentally ruled it out. I think the conversation in the commentary has really gotten ahead of what the quotes actually were. And so my read of it at least, is that a hot on the heels of the United States withdrawing from the INF the intermediate range nuclear forces agreement, which is only binding on the United States and the Soviet Union, then the United States and Russia, right.

Charles Edel:                 That they wouldn’t develop or deploy land-based missiles either conventional or nuclear. Right after the U.S. withdrew from this on Friday, the new secretary, the U.S. Secretary of defense, Mike Asper when he touched down here in Australia said that we are looking for more sites in Asia to potentially deploy U.S. land-based missiles. That’s the backdrop to all of this.

Charles Edel:                 And again, what I heard was then the followup questions. Well did he ask Canberra to deploy them? And no, he did not ask. And I drew a line under it is what Morrison said. To me that’s actually an ambiguous statement. But it’s true that he didn’t ask because A, those conventional assets haven’t yet been developed. The type of things that they’re talking about. But this is the beginning of a conversation about whether or not they can be developed, if they should be developed and where they are deployed for what effect.

Charles Edel:                 So sorry to give you the long backdrop, but to me the reason that you can see the U.S. withdrawing from this is if you are a Europeanist, if you’re a Russian hand, this looks disastrous, right? Because for a long time it was arms control, strategic stability between the Soviet Union. Then Russia and the U.S. Well, the argument that was made, which I think has a fair amount of weight behind it, is why would you be party to this if only one side is abiding by it only the United States because the Russians have consistently been cheating on this and on what they’re developing, what they’re deploying forward. But even if you could bring the Russians kicking and dragging into compliance a big if there, it was never binding on what happened out in Asia. And so the Chinese over the last 20 plus years have literally been developing thousands of missiles, conventional and nuclear that range across the entire region and that are specifically designed to prevent the United States and certainly deeply complicated its access to project power into the region.

Charles Edel:                 Now, one of the ways that you would offset that to have a countervailing strategy is to have land-based cruise missiles that would potentially target and range things within China. Now that sounds very scary, but it’s also how you do deterrence classically. So that is the basis of the conversation. That is where we are on. And the attempt is, it’s a good discussion to say, well, would assets in Australia matter? Do you need them closer to China? Does that simply spiral up tensions or does that in fact create deterrence by one side balancing off against other, that’s where we’re at in the conversation.

Misha:                          And so an interesting point because part of the visit from Secretary Pompeo, saying we’re here to stay, we’re friends, et cetera. In this discussion with this a hundred years of mate ship, one of the issues that’s discussed at length now in the discourse within Australia is how dependable is the U.S. guarantee via ANZUS

Misha:                          Does the guarantee mean anything in that sense? Or is something like missile foreign deployment something a way to underwrite that guarantee? Or do they or they linked at all? I mean, I think it’s an interesting question because we had Jim Mattis who was a Secretary Defense quit on the basis of the Trump administration’s treatment of allies. And it’s sort of that capriciousness. So kind of curious about the dependability of the United States as a partner in that context.

Charles Edel:                 So you’ve actually asked about 15 different questions wrapped up into one. Let me see if I can pull apart some of those with some randomized thoughts for Misha.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 So first of all, I think that what Pompeo was saying, I’m not going to try to translate it.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 Is something that I believe at least is fundamentally true, that the United States is a Pacific power. It has been for the last 230 plus years.

Charles Edel:                 If you look at America’s strategic and economic and commercial interests, they are all in this region. That is the bet that’s successive U.S. administrations have made. So I don’t think that’s going away. The United States wants to be deeply anchored in the Pacific. Second point, the United States is a Pacific power comma predicated on those in the Pacific wanting it to be one because of the tyranny of distance. Now, there are certain us territories, a certain US states in the Pacific, but to remain a balancer, an offshore balancer in the Pacific that has to be acceptable to those in the region, which again is not something that the U.S. can impose unilaterally. It has to work with allies, friends and partners.

Charles Edel:                 A third point when I say a balancer that is the United States preferred role, I would argue not to Lord it over everyone and not to have hegemonic abilities you know, but simply to make sure, and this has been consistent U.S. American grand strategy and I would say both Europe and in Asia, but over the past 200 plus years that it is a driving mode of force of America and American strategic thought that they’re … They want there to be a balance of power in Asia when there is a lop side, when there is no balance of power.

Charles Edel:                 When you have one power dominating others, that has tended to not only affect American prosperity by closing off certain parts of Asia, but also has been a direct security threat to America. And so it’s important to recognize that without the United States in Asia, there is no balance of power. So part of this absolutely as you’ve asked, is a hard power question that as the balance of power, the relative balance of power has shifted over the last 20 years because of astronomical Chinese economic growth, which they’ve then poured it into the acquisition of military assets, which have been meant to coerce neighboring states, but also make it harder for the United States to remain in and protect power into the Western Pacific. Again, this is something that the U.S. has to play catch up with along with its allies and partners. So I don’t know, I think that’s like three parts of your 15 part question.

Misha:                          Well, we’ll get through the rest. We’ll get through the remaining 12 parts. That was the taste a bit. You’ve talked to sort of the long history of this issue. Of course an author, you’ve written a book, Lessons of Tragedy. I think it’s caused a bit of buzz in Canberra. I understand, I saw a tweet about Martin Parkinson referencing that … Who’s Secretary Prime Minister in cabinet saying everyone should read these book. So it’s available in all good bookstores. You can give it a plug now if you want. But the Lessons of Tragedy, it seems, it’s kind of like a counterintuitive sort of title in that it’s sort of meant to be uplifting, but at the same time with a counterintuitive title. What do you mean by this, firstly? And then we’ll dig into, the message within it.

Charles Edel:                 So you’ve nailed the paradox within my book. First of all, that it’s a bestseller that has sold like two books, such as a lot of someone who’s trained as an academic. But the point here is I think then my coauthor Hal Brands and I wrote an optimistic if sobering book, but the title is The Lessons of Tragedy, which doesn’t look or sound particularly optimistic. And the basic argument, which we can unpack a little bit, Misha if you want, is that we have lost our ability to think tragically about how bad things could happen. And I don’t mean personal tragedies, I don’t even mean societal tragedies.

Charles Edel:                 When we say tragedy, the ones that we’re talking about in this book are full-scale bucklings of the international order, complete with great power, not competition, but war and massive human suffering unfolding globally. And because we have lost the ability to think that that is actually a possibility and one that we argue is becoming more possible by the day because we are so far from the last time this happened, 75 plus years, we’re 30 years out from the last time America and its allies had a serious geopolitical, no less ideological challenger.

Charles Edel:                 The logic of what we have done for so long seems to make less sense. And it’s making less sense just as the warning signs are beginning to flair in multiple directions. So again, I don’t think that this is simply a pessimistic book because the point is, and the reason we use the lessons of tragedy, the reason we can’t hold up the book here in the studio, but it’s got two ancient Greek warriors on the cover, is because when we think about the Athenians and amazingly creative people and amazingly powerful people. People who created the world’s first democratic system in many ways that we still honor today. A prosperous people whose empire kind of span the known world. There’s this paradox because they were seemingly obsessed with the concept of tragedy every year they made their citizens go watch those plays that you and I either read or forgot to read or never chose to read in high school-[crosstalk 00:11:12] that too.

Charles Edel:                 But the point was the Athenians even in their achievements wanted to keep council with their worst fears. And they did that by putting them up on stage, but they used it communally as a prompt to think about how bad things could spin out of control, what the repercussions of that would be and to prompt the discussions and debates within their society about how to take some profoundly unnatural actions in peacetime.

Misha:                          And so in your book you sort of talk about the consequences of forgetting, and you go through a historic take on a number of different configurations. But the question I have is what is the … Do you think we are forgetting lessons? I mean we, the most probably direct lesson of tragedy would be the World War II. A lot of that generation is now sadly passing on. Is that lesson now being forgotten and that hard work that was done to build a more peaceful world order after World War II and that sort of never again, is that now fading into obscurity? Is that your concern or is it something else?

Charles Edel:                 Yes, I mean straight up. Yes. Because again, I just said this, that the logic of what America and other democratic states did. Made sense at the time when you were directly on the heels of coming out of World War II, right? So the idea was essentially preventative, right? That you would pay some costs and now so you didn’t have to pay enormous costs later that you would tend the garden, that you would look what were happening so that you didn’t have to wait till after things had collapsed. But again, there are some pretty natural questions that have come up in American political debate, in Australian debate too, although they take on different hues in the American context, there are questions like, why should America station military hardware and men and women around the world? Why should Americans care about far away places like the South China Sea and Ukraine? Why should Americans care to open their economy to others who don’t open theirs? And they’ve come at the short, medium and sometimes even longterm costs to American workers in certain industries.

Charles Edel:                 They’re really good answers for those because it tends to be, what happens when America has not played that role, and we’ve run that experiment twice during the 20th century. But as the distance has grown and as the visceral experience seems to have drained the logic of why we have done those things. Seems to have faded from memory, and it’s fading at the worst possible time.

Misha:                          So how do you make the argument for that? I mean people talk about, it’s popular in maybe wonky circles, the liberal world order, but then it’s almost a cliche, what does it actually mean and what’s involved in defending that and how do you make that case? Because to your point, once upon a time, President Kennedy pay any price, bear any burden and doesn’t seem to have that same level of guarantee. And as a result, that lack of confidence in that U.S. guarantee democracy sort of is retreating off the back of it. So I mean, how do you talk about it in a way that makes sense to people?

Charles Edel:                 Well look, this book, it represents an experiment to see if the language of Greek tragedy might be helpful here. And I, you know, we can talk about whether it’s more helpful or less helpful because simply saying things like the international liberal order or the rules based order or the American led order convinces no one of anything. And let me point out too that I’m as guilty as anyone else on this because when I was working in government, we would say we have to do this to defend the rules based system.

Charles Edel:                 And if you explain that to anyone who doesn’t work in the narrow circles of national security, that means what exactly? And the point is that the rules based order sounds really abstract and really theoretical, but it has real world effects because when it goes away, we’re actually talking about things like preventing states from coercing other states, like making sure that their rules for freedom of navigation, like making sure that their rules that other states can interfere in other states, businesses. Like making sure that there’s a global trading order that we all play by the rules and play fairly by them. So again, if you say rules-based order, got it. It’s short hand and it encompasses a lot, but I think we have to get better in our vocabulary, all of us, about what this actually means and why it affects normal citizens.

Charles Edel:                 Because when it goes away, when you have the reversion to yes, great power war, I mean people understand what that is, but when you have the reversion to not a rules based order, but a spheres of influence world, where the biggest dogs rule the most important areas. What does that mean? Well, it means that states can only trade with certain states based on the political conditions that the big dogs set. It means that states bump up against each other militarily and things become more fraught and are less stable than they might seem. That’s the alternative to this system. So again, this book is an attempt, one attempt to say, well, what does this mean? Why is it worth preserving? And are there better ways that we can talk about? But it’s not the only attempt, and it shouldn’t be.

Misha:                          And so you’ve talked to them about great power competition, largely that’s the United States relationship with China. In your book, you sort of touch on the similarities between the 1930s where we had a great depression, rise of extremist ideologies in Europe, which then led to world war II. I mean, is that, are there parallels that you see now when you look at the global financial crosses followed by we’re seeing populism, sweeping around the world, authoritarianism returning to Europe, authoritarians being elected around the world. Are there parallels or should we be careful about drawing parallels that are too close?

Charles Edel:                 Yes to both your questions. There are parallels and we should be careful about overdrawing analogies and only looking at one set of analogies. So in terms of the 1930s, the parallels are there and they’re real. Populists on the march, democracies in disarray, revisionist powers. So powers who want to change the status of power and how much they have kind of poking, prodding, nibbling around the edges.

Charles Edel:                 Some proxy wars breaking out on the side where states tests new found technologies. Take a look at Syria for instance. Take a look in Ukraine. The analogies are real. But it’s not the only analogy that we can think about. So actually, my coauthor, Hal Brands and I from this book, we wrote another article a while ago where we asked, look, is this the darkening storm, right? That we see coming towards us. Or is this the darkness before the light? And so we looked at the 1930s, but we also looked at the 1970s where you had a similar set of withdrawal by America after the Vietnam War. A real questioning of America’s international role. You had violence on the streets more so than we see today. And the question is, is that a better analogy because of course-

Misha:                          The collapse of the Bretton Woods system.

Charles Edel:                 Well, that’s exactly right. Right, because capitalism itself looked to under strain. But of course if you look at the 70s and then you look at the 1980s, in some way American power comes roaring back because the structural drivers of longterm strength of the American economy, the demographic profile of the United States, some of the policy decisions that were taken by both the Carter administrations, it’s kind of strange to say. And the Reagan administration teed up a more assertive set of policies that kind of made sure that American power was reinvigorated. And so the truth of the matter is that both of those analogies work, but in different strokes. And so if I would argue that if the right policy choices are made to reinvest in American power to grow the kind of, the economic prosperity of America to begin to play smarter bets on the strategic sense to make sure that the American people, which you can begin to see are tipping away from, we are living in a placid environment.

Charles Edel:                 To me this augers a very different future than the 1930s, but that’s only if those policy decisions are made because if they’re not, then we could very well see it tipping to a much darker future.

Misha:                          And so, this question of the U.S. China Relationship looms large in Australia, We’ll get to I suppose how Australia navigates that. But I’m curious, what’s changed in the United site’s perception of China because it seems that it’s been what was sort of a strategic, sort of a closeness has now become a strategic rivalry and that it’s almost like the U.S. suddenly woke up to this challenge overnight. How has that relationship changed? And why?

Charles Edel:                 So it’s a great question, right? That the China debate in Australia, no less in America seems to have changed so quickly that it’s really been confounding. And why has it changed so profoundly and moved so quickly? That’s a great question.

Charles Edel:                 And I would say that obviously it’s different in Australia as it is in America, but for the U.S., the engagement thesis that if you engage, if you choose to engage with China and Chinese leaders and CCP leaders, they will norm themselves to the rules of the international system and they will grow more prosperous and more secure for it.

Misha:                          And then more democratic.

Charles Edel:                 And more democratic ultimately. So that was the basis for the past 30 years of American engagement with China. And I think what’s happened and what’s happened seemingly quickly, although it’s been building for a long time, is that there’s a new emerging consensus that, that was potentially the right bet to have placed at the time, but hasn’t held up. And the thesis, that engagement, would as you say, democratize China.

Charles Edel:                 That has clearly not happened because it’s moved in the opposite direction. They would make them a more stabilizing force. Well that hasn’t happened either. And that would make them make economic choices that would reform an open up their economy as Dung Joe Ping seem to indicate was the future direction for them. While under Xi Jinping they’ve gone in the exact opposite direction. So there’s been this question of … Look in America, you always have your hawks right, who have always said you need to hedge against China’s rise. Certainly the more troubling aspects of it. But you also had the business community and the NGO community cheering on engagement. Well over the last two to three, if not three to five years. China has lost both of those constituencies within the U.S. because of the actions that they have taken on stealing IP, on forcing tech transfers on not living up to the deals and the agreements that they agreed to play by in 2000 when they joined the World Trade Organization.

Charles Edel:                 And frankly, if you look at the repressive turn within China by the CCP under Xi Jinping, all of those advocating for more people to people ties, for more civil society groups, for more a rule of law groups, have been kicked out of China at this point. So they’re not cheering on, no one’s cheering on this hard and turn, but it’s a realization that what had worked in the past is actually not going to work in the future. So a new set of assumptions need to undergird what you as policy is moving forward.

Misha:                          I think one of the interesting questions about this, and you sort of talk to the Chinese Communist Party, it’s important I think to separate the Chinese people from their government. And I think everyone doesn’t want to be defined by the government of the country at any particular one time.

Charles Edel:                 As an American. That’s true. I can say that. It’s true.

Misha:                          So the domestic policies. So we can talk … We’ll get to the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party. But the domestic policies, I mean, what we’re seeing in Hong Kong, how troubling do you think that is for rules based order. This was a thriving liberal rule of law country well, part of China that was handed over from British colonial rule to China. What we’re seeing now is demonstrations in the streets as China’s increasingly trying to crush that liberalism there. How worried should we be about the Hong Kong situation?

Charles Edel:                 Well, two things. I think, first of all, we should be profoundly inspired by what is happening. Every day when I turn on the news, when I read, it is, you know, sometimes in democratic societies it’s hard to get people to focus, to be inspired by things.

Charles Edel:                 You have a seven point two million person population in Hong Kong. Now for basically three months, continuously out on the street protesting with protests as large as 2 million people out there.

Misha:                          It’s incredibly brave.

Charles Edel:                 It’s incredibly brave and under threat of force. Beatings by a CCP linked organizations. The threat of potential invasion. And I think it’s very clear to me the most powerful statement that I’ve read in some ways is that the Chinese artists, the dissident artists, Ai Weiwei, who was of course … For producing dissident art was in prison, was tortured, was beaten in Beijing. He wrote a fabulous op-ed in the New York Times saying that the young people who are out on the streets who have information to what China is and to what the rest of the world offers, they’ve made their choice and they made a long time ago. And we should be inspired by that because they have the information and they are saying what they want.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact, this is a test case for whether or not people choosing their own system of government can be crushed by authoritarians. So on the one hand, this is where we can get into the ins and outs of U.S. policy at some point. One of the most counterproductive statements that came out of Washington and that actually is setting the bar really, really high these days, was saying that this was a clash of civilizations. The U.S. was now embarked upon between the U.S. and China with racial overtones because the first time the U.S. has faced this against a non-Caucasian people, which is first of all, fundamentally and historically inaccurate, comma, see World War II in the Pacific. But too, as you point out, this is not about the Chinese people and Western people and they’re different. All people want the same thing. And if you don’t believe that, simply look at what’s happening in Hong Kong.

Charles Edel:                 So I wanted to take a step back from your question about how worried we should be because this is truly inspiring stuff potentially when we can’t even see people who live in an open democratic systems coming out to vote. And you have millions of people on the ground demonstrating for this. Now the flip side of your question, how worried should we should be? We should be pretty worried here. I think in unmistakable terms Beijing is making noises that they are willing to, if not crushed this in the way that they crushed a similar uprising in Tienanmen Square 30 years ago with five to 10,000 deaths at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army against their own citizens. If not quite that comma or not that yet. Well, we’ll go after protesters. We’ll use terrorism. We’ll hire the triad thugs employed by the Chinese to beat people.

Charles Edel:                 There’s a video that I was watching out this morning where you can see the Hong Kong police on the second they switch off duties switching into both black and white shirts. There’s footage of this right. So that they could both insight the protesters and then beat them down afterwards. So this is amazingly troubling, but even more so for that. And I’ll take one step back here, Misha. It’s Hong Kong has always been a special place. And the Chinese knew this. This is what they negotiated with the British in the 1994 SAS courts when the British handed it back over to them. That it would be one country but two systems, semi-autonomous region. And the point was that this was supposed to be a model that for 50 years Beijing would not interfere in or force any decisions on Hong Kong. Well, that is clearly not true.

Charles Edel:                 And the people of Taiwan are watching this extremely carefully. In fact, Tsai Ing-wen the president of Taiwan who is doing not so well in the polls leading up to this coming January’s elections, in reaction to what’s happened in Hong Kong has seen her fortunes rise. Because we now know that when the Chinese say, and again, I’ll be careful with my words, when the Chinese government says, “One country, two systems.” They don’t mean it. And so there’s a real credibility problem at this point, that no matter what Beijing and the Chinese leaderships offer, be it one country, two systems, be it peaceful conditions in a harmonious rise, be it not militarizing the south China Sea, be it joining the WTO and agreeing to play by the rules. That there’s a real credibility problem that’s emerging.

Misha:                          And so you just touched on the South China Sea. Of course, China constructed some fake islands and then promise not to militarize those to President Obama. And then of course militarize them. How concerning firstly is that annexation and what does it mean for the area? Having that annexation occur and then, and secondly, what message is China trying to send by doing that?

Charles Edel:                 They’re trying to send the message that we are the most powerful country in the region and we can intimidate and coerce other countries and that those that don’t agree to our political demands, no less our diplomatic demands, i.e, hierarchical system with China. At the middle, we talked about a sphere of influence. This is what we’re talking about are going to be leaned on very hard. And that’s been the experience of the Philippines. That’s been the experience of the Vietnamese even this week. You know, the South China Sea is the rocks, reefs, and atolls. The really, really plentiful fishing grounds that you have in there that feed, you know, like 10, 15% of some of these countries populations, the natural resources that are potentially under the ground, gas and oil that have, you know amazing wealth that they might offer to the countries around.

Charles Edel:                 This is a disputed territory, right? That six different countries lay claim to, but what the Chinese have done and said this is ours based on historical claims. When that was invalidated by an international court at The Hague. The American policy decision, I can talk about that because I was in government, was to give that a little time and space so that things might cool off and then we can kind of peacefully work with things. But that’s not what happened. That was the bet that was placed. But the Chinese lorded their claims over and have continued not only with their naval vessels, not only with their enormous coast guard vessels, but increasingly with a maritime militia, right. With thousands of fishing boats that are equipped and resourced by the central government to go out and intimidate coerce and use acts of violence against Philippine fishermen, Vietnamese fishermen and others.

Charles Edel:                 This is a really large challenge. Now what does this mean, is what you asked? That’s the message I think that it sent. That it’s ours and good luck contending with us because there’ll be violence meted out against you or the threat of violence or even economic pressure applied to your economies if you dare push back against us.

Charles Edel:                 In terms of what that means. Well, the South China Sea as enormous waterway, is in some ways the most vital one of maybe two of the most vital waterways in the world. When we think about the amount of commerce that passes through this, when we think of kind of commercial trading routes and freedom of the seas, freedom to transit through these unimpeded in international waterways has been a long standing precept and bedrock principle of that nebulous thing, that rules-based order. And so when countries have the ability to unilaterally close this down, what does that mean?

Charles Edel:                 Well, that has enormous ramifications for commodities, for insurance pricing, for global prosperity. And what we are seeing here is a test about when the Chinese move to assert their de facto control over this waterway, whether or not they’re allowed to have it or not.

Misha:                          And so what’s interesting is that China tends to prefer to deal with foreign countries on a bilateral basis, not a multilateral basis. And that you sort of talked about the coercive behavior, the bullying. What about the question of interference and the sort of more insidious ways that China tries to influence, it’s neighbors either through hacking or through the BRI, the belt and road initiative where there’s soft money coming in, in the form of loans that can’t be paid back, which China then seizes control of particular assets. I mean, how worrying is that like up against some sort of the bullying and the brute force that we’re seeing that you just described.

Charles Edel:                 It’s worrying, but not all of these things are equally worrying and we have to think about that and kind of smart ways because BRI has troubling aspects to it, but there are also attractive aspects to that. So I don’t want to paint with a blanket here but in the new report that I wrote with John Lee an Australian colleague about kind of what does the future of the U.S., Australian look like as things heat up here in this region. We said, let’s be clear that it is Beijing’s intentions to undermine the alliances, the American alliances in the region. But the way that they go about doing this takes many different forms.

Charles Edel:                 So one form is coercion, violence, force, or the threat of those. But there’s another series of tools that they have, inducements, right, that the reward is going to be well worth it even if you have to at times give up your independent political decision making.

Charles Edel:                 And alternatively, occasionally building alternative institutional arrangements some of which are very much warranted, but others of which are meant to lock in Beijing’s advantages. So there’s a number of different toolkits that I think they go about this.

Charles Edel:                 Now you asked how worried particularly on the influence and interference. And the answer is I think quite worried because for a democratic state and talking about Australia, but this applies to the United States, it applies to New Zealand, certainly and others. We are open systems. That is how we are designed. It is a source in many ways of our great strength, right? We have con testability anyone can enter into them, anyone can influence or talk to their leaders because our leaders work for us. Not the other way around. That is our strength, but it also creates some vulnerabilities because we’re not the only ones that get to talk to our leaders or influence them or pay them or put them on corporate boards or suggest that maybe there’s a different way, an alternative way of thinking about things.

Charles Edel:                 So I have to say, having been in Australia for the past two years, it’s been fascinating to watch this debate here because the debate has gotten so hot here and so quickly. And I have to say one of the ways when I go back to Washington and I’m always asked, “Well, how has the influence and interference debate playing out in Australia?” That I think that the debate has evolved in very helpful ways here, is that we have to delineate that which we find acceptable in an open society and that which we find unacceptable. And I think that the broad parameters of that strategy are being conducted and carried about pretty well in the public debate here. We can debate certain policies, but the broad contours of that debate are, look, if we’re competing in terms of brand, in terms of cultural affinity, game on. We don’t box countries out.

Charles Edel:                 If you want to make an argument for why a communist linden a state is better, go for it. If you want to make an argument for why democracies don’t deliver goods as well as again, game on. That’s okay and that’s allowable, but anything, and this is what I see in the debate here, that is coercive, corrupting or clandestine is not okay. And we’re going to legislate against that and we’re going to make sure that we prosecuted against that as well.

Misha:                          Bringing this to Australia now directly, I mean the trade war, now is heating up increasingly between the United States and China and Australia, I think rightly concerned about being caught in the crossfire there and being pulled between us security relationship with the United States and other alliances. And then of course, how important trade relationship with China and the disruption potentially caused by these trade wars. I mean, you can understand the concern that-

Charles Edel:                 Absolutely.

Misha:                          That brings to Australia. How do we have a productive discussion about this? Because often, criticism of China or Chinese government behavior is often said, “Well, don’t upset the apple cart.” And then on the other hand the United States will ask Australia to be more assertive in the South China Sea, and China’s sort of square that circle is a very, very difficult thing for policymakers. So then how do you see that as a representative or a citizen of the United States observing this debate?

Charles Edel:                 So three things that I would say in response to that. The first is, and I think you’ve rightly caged this, that the way that you often hear the debate framed here, but frankly around Southeast Asia as well, is there are two partners and their partners of choice for different things, for security and for trade.

Charles Edel:                 But of course, trade is not prosperity. It’s one component, part of it and a very important part. But so too is investment. So too, is job creation and again, I actually think it’s, it’s a very character black and white debate here that yes Australia has enormous trade flows with China its most important trading partner, 33% of your outbound exports go up north to Beijing when they’re let off the docks and into the Chinese markets. That’s a big if. But again, the United States is the number one investor into Australia in terms of foreign direct investment. And by the way, that’s also true of Australian commerce into America. And there’s more investment put into America by Australian firms than there is into China, into the Middle East or then into Latin America. When we think of job creation, when we think of aggregate prosperity and taxable dollars put into your economy and for your government, there’s no comparison.

Charles Edel:                 I mean the amount of FDI that the U.S. puts in and by the U.S., I simply mean the private sector is out weights China’s by a degree of 10 to 1. Now, I’m not making the argument that therefore choose A or B, you want to choose both to some degree, but it’s a false dichotomy in some ways to say, it trade equals prosperity because that’s not actually what the real numbers look like.

Charles Edel:                 Second Point if you don’t mind me. I’m getting rolling here.

Misha:                          Keep going.

Charles Edel:                 Is that in this report that John and I put out, we say that the economic edge of this debate is going to evolve because of changing circumstances, but it’s going to evolve probably differently in the United States as opposed to Australia. So in the United States, the word on the cusp of everyone’s lips is decoupling whether or not the United States and the Chinese economies are going to pull apart, dis-aggregate because they’re deeply intertwined.

Charles Edel:                 And of course then the next question is, well, are we talking about smart decoupling or dumb decoupling? And we’re at the beginning of that debate, but I actually think it’s almost inevitable that, that’s going to happen to some degree because there are certain sectors that the United States and China frankly needs to and wants to protect.

Misha:                          Tech for example, telecommunications.

Charles Edel:                 Exactly, that’s right. I mean, [crosstalk 00:39:25] if you ask anyone in China, I lived in China for a number of years, would you allow the United States or would you allow an Australian Telco to build your internet architecture? You couldn’t even get those words out before you got laughed out of the room because the answer is obviously no. Which then begs the question, why is this debate happening here? Although frankly, this debate is happening here only to a minor degree because Australia was the first mover on the Huawei question.

Charles Edel:                 But again, if that’s the question and the debate in America, the question and the debate in Australia, I imagine needs to be a different set of questions. It’s how do you smartly diversify your trading partners? You’re not going to stop trading with China. You might want to think about which things you’re selling to them and which things you’re allowing them to invest in. Critical infrastructure. We talked about dual use technologies or another, but in terms of agricultural food stuffs, in terms of wine, those are things that you will want to continue selling. And the question though becomes if Australia is the most developed economy, is the country of advanced economies that is most dependent on the China market of all advanced democracies in the world. That has the potential to create real political leverage where at least a case of the slows on other issues like security that we were talking about.

Charles Edel:                 So the question becomes not selling them things, but how do you decrease that political leverage? And the answer is very obvious. It’s diversification of trading partners. In fact, you’re a government commissioned, Pierre [Vargace 00:40:58] to write a report on India. Yeah, that’s like a 400 page report with 120 recommendations about how Australia and India grow links. But it’s not only India, right? I mean his report was only India. The answer is Southeast Asia as well, which we know is going to represent kind of the hot emerging market in the years to come. So the diversification question should be one that should be sought not only by business people, but also by the government. And frankly, the political risk conversation in the corporate sector here, is immature because all the time businesses do you know, cost benefit analysis, do risk allocations but very infrequently are political factors put in terms of those.

Charles Edel:                 But if we look at what’s happened even over the last six months with coal, with wheat, with wine staying on the docks. Not for any real official reason, but just because I don’t know what exactly, because the Chinese government is displeased, that Australia’s decided to stand up for its own sovereign interests.

Misha:                          The Canadians had a similar experience with canola oil.

Charles Edel:                 And continue to have one. That is a decision that needs to be factored into corporate decisions because it’s a risk factor. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but you have to weight things perhaps differently than they’ve been weighted before.

Charles Edel:                 The final point I would make is how can we assert ourselves? Well you don’t do it dumbly. It’s actually called diplomacy right. Because when we assert our interests, there’s this kind of false narrative, this false binary that China reacts in one of two ways, thermo nuclear war or nothing.

Charles Edel:                 And that’s just false.

Misha:                          Right.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact, if we look at smaller states and how they have reacted to instances of Chinese economic coercion, South Korea for instance we can look at India, not a smaller state particularly, but Vietnam certainly. In all those instances you did not have war. We can go through the examples of them, but the point is when they pushed back, it reframed the terms of the debate more conducive to their interests. And in some places like in South Korea, like with Vietnam, Beijing had to not admit mistakes, but reset the frame of the debate.

Misha:                          And what about the role of multilaterals? I mean that with countries working together, as I said, China prefers that bilateral deal. We’ll deal with the on one-on-one basis. And they tried to pick countries off one-on-one. Can Australia work more closely with regional partners on a multilateral basis to deal with or make the Chinese government play by the rules, of the rules base order, if we can fall back on that cliche.

Charles Edel:                 Yes. They can, I mean, there’s great strength in numbers, but only if those numbers are brought to bear. And there’s another false narrative that I would say is out there that, China doesn’t care about this stuff. I mean, look at its national power. What does it matter if it gets criticized, and on certain aspects that’s true. But on other aspects, Chinese government goes through great lengths to avoid being criticized, to avoid being seen as the bully. If you look at the politics, for instance, of ASEAN on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 10 members. The preferred approach is always to play it off as you have said one on one, because it’s easier to pick members off ASEAN as a consensus based group. So if you want to make sure that they have no joint statements, that the South China Sea needs to remain open and is not China’s. All you have to do is pick off Cambodia, which is very easy to do these days or Lau.

Charles Edel:                 But you can also look at the enormous lengths that the Chinese have gone to scuttle individual statements or anything that has a whiff of collective resolve. So when we move the gaze away from ASEAN, but about Australia’s relationships with its neighbors, with Japan, with ASEAN, with India, the more that can be done collectively not to escalate tensions, but simply to say, these are the rules that we’re willing to engage on. The more effect I would argue that it probably has.

Misha:                          And so, one of the things I wanted to get your perspective on is this question of a democracy. Democracy is under … Probably the first time it’s been challenged in a generation as certainly since the supposed end of history with the collapse of Soviet Union, is democracy is still the best system because Vladimir Putin’s basically said, “It looks all over, dust your hands, see you later.”

Misha:                          I mean, firstly, is that a legitimate position and why can he say something like that? And then secondly, has the U.S. … Does the U.S. still believe in the projection of democracy around the world?

Charles Edel:                 So first part of the question is why did Vladimir Putin make this statement? And was he right? So like someone who’s trying to murder the system, you shouldn’t really believe them and why they take it. However, why did he say, well, because-

Misha:                          Well it’s not something he could have said, I think 10 years ago with any level credibility.

Charles Edel:                 Right, because it has more credibility now. That the democratic system … Look, democracies have always been predicated on two things, right? The Winston Churchill quote, that it’s the best system of government except for all the rest or the reverse of that rather. Right?

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 But also, and fundamentally, democratic systems are based on, it delivers the best type of goods for its citizens, and responsive to their needs. And we can say that democracy, liberal democracy, liberal capitalistic democracy has had some real growing pains and real stumbling problems, particularly over the last 10 years. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it doesn’t look like a perfect model. When we look at globalization and what it has delivered, enormous goods, right? Globalization took millions of people, billions of people if we look at China’s case out of poverty, but also affected people unevenly. And particularly in advanced Western democracies, left a lot of people behind. So are there problems with it? Yes. The best part of our system is that it has the ability to self correct and honestly self-correct, but we’re not there yet.

Charles Edel:                 And that’s why I think, why you see so much populism and kind of push back against this. So is there some truth in what Putin has said that the system is underdressed? Yes. I mean if you just looked at the numbers, right. The number of democracies in the world hit a high point in 2000 and I believe six and has been on an ebb tide ever since.

Charles Edel:                 Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian states has increased, so we are really seeing a contest of systems emerge about what is better, able to offer prosperity to people around the world and there’s one system that makes an argument that is simply political control and order and non democratic choice that will lead its way to prosperity and the other stuff doesn’t matter quite as much. I would say kind of circling back to Hong Kong, I’m not sure if that argument has a lot of staying power because even when people become prosperous, they don’t stop caring about that other stuff. This is why Hong Kong is such a great challenge. No less Taiwan for Beijing because it puts lie I think to the fundamental argument that they have.

Charles Edel:                 But to say that democracy is great and then all of our citizens are being taken care of, I think is fundamentally to misread what’s happened around the world and in Western elections over the last 5 to 10 years.

Misha:                          I think what’s interesting there, and you did right off and say, it wasn’t as though people got to 1989 and then they read a bunch of Jeffersonian literature and read a bunch of Marx’s and said, “You know what, Jefferson’s a much more beautiful argument.” They looked at was delivering for people and a communist Soviet Union. Russia at the time was not able to deliver for people on a living standard basis, so people yearn for that. What’s interesting in this last decade, is essentially plan … There’s been this enormous prosperity in this sort of autocratic capitalists approach to the world that has been led by China.

Misha:                          And so young people, I mean when you look a lot of the polling, increasingly young people are sort of questioning whether or not democracy is the best system up against other systems and how worried should we be about that? Or is that just young people being contrarian with?

Charles Edel:                 Well, so it’s a little bit of both. We should be concerned and as young people being contrarian, but it’s also young people being offered a false choice in those polls. And then an abstract question, do you like democracy or not? How necessary is it? Look, when you look at those polls that have come out in Australia, the Lowy institutes, but a really good polling numbers on this in America, you’ve seen a lot of this poll into all around the Western world. The numbers are to the question, how important, how necessary do you find it as a young person? If we slice and dice the demographics. How important is it that you live in a democracy? And the answer is mah. It’s kind of important, but it’s not the most important thing.

Charles Edel:                 And the numbers are falling too. Now that is deeply disturbing to a lot of people, particularly to older people. But I actually think that with this one, I’m not as pessimistic as the polls might put out there. Although on the policy discussions I have bigger questions so I’ll return to that in a second.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 But if you actually spend any time talking with young people, high school students, university students, this is a great virtue of my job because I lecture to university students. I get to talk with high school students all the time. And if you don’t ask them, how important is democracy to you? But if you rather say, how important is it that you live in a place that respects individuals? How important is it that you live in a country where human rights, protection and promotion is important? How important is it that you don’t have your own government scanning your face, deciding every action that you make or don’t make fits into a credit system and the government that gets to decide if you’re a trustworthy or an untrustworthy citizen. How important is that when you go to university that you get to learn new ideas and when you find things that are appealing or unappealing and you protest them peacefully, that you’re not bulldozed by violence?

Charles Edel:                 Well, the conversation shifts really markedly and very quickly.

Misha:                          From the abstract to the practical.

Charles Edel:                 From the abstract to the practical. And when you ask young people, how important is it that you live in a society like that? It’s not like 50% and falling, it’s more like 90% and rising.

Misha:                          I mean, people, it’s often politicians mixed into the question about democracy and what they see on TV and how politicians, act versus the actual system itself compared to what an autocratic system truly is, or is there an element of that do you think?

Charles Edel:                 Well, there is a little bit of that. But it’s also because, you know, I think we’ve gotten lazy that you kind of referenced 1989 you know, with Jeffersonian versus Marx’s thinking, but really it was Francis Fukuyama who wrote the end of history, i.e. history was over, there was no more argument in history. Liberal Democratic capitalism had one game over argument over. And because the Soviet Union had gone the way of the Dodo at that time or the Tasmanian Tiger right there, extinct too.

Misha:                          Oh, local reference, well done, bonus points.

Charles Edel:                 Thank you. I love Tasmania. I can make that reference now. But because they had gone that way, democracy didn’t have to compete against anything else. It didn’t have to make the arguments. So I actually think that our political leaders have gotten pretty lazy about talking about why democracy matters in practical terms, why it’s better than the alternative because there is an alternative and it is back with a lot of strength behind it.

Misha:                          Well, it’s interesting to touch on that. So what’s troubling I think as well is not just the challenge to the liberal world order, to democracies, but the increasing coordination we’re seeing by autocratic nations. Can you expand a little bit about that level coordination that we’re seeing between countries like Russia and China, but in the Middle East as well with Iran and what the challenge that represents. And secondly, should democracies be working closer together to offset that?

Charles Edel:                 There is growing coordination, if not out, and out, alliances between the world’s largest autocracies with the intent of undermining the system and growing both of their power and weakening democratic powers. And is there more that democracies can do to coordinate their actions? Yes, absolutely. It’s necessary. But the question becomes what will prompt us to do so? Because again, just looking at the numbers if you begin to look at you know, you’ll often hear that America’s in decline and some of our leaders statements will make you think that that is invariably coming true.

Charles Edel:                 However, if you look at it, and this goes back to our conversation about the 30s versus the 70s, if you look at aggregate U.S. GDP in 2016, it was about 22% of world output. That is not that far off the high point post war in the early 1970s. When you add in partner and allies, we’re talking about more than 60% of global GDP and military outlays that is far greater than any competitor has.

Charles Edel:                 The question is not necessarily one of resources. It’s willingness to use them. And again, a reason that how, and I decided to write this book is because for a democratic society, which always has more than just security on its mind, it has to, it has to be responsive to its own citizens. To get it to act in ways that can forestall things getting worse, particularly in the security and prosperity realms, but also in the values realm. What will prompt them to do so? And if you look at history, the answers are not great. Because it’s generally after something horrible happens. Generally after something blows up that we decide, whoa, we weren’t paying enough attention. It’s time to ramp up big time. And I simply say, as a historian, no less someone who’s interested in policy and occasionally works on it. That cannot be a good enough answer because we can’t wait for things to get horrible in order to develop the right set of policies.

Charles Edel:                 So the question becomes, what can we as democratic societies do on our own, but collectively together that stop the trends that we see happening in the world right now.

Misha:                          And in your book you talked about these historic political analysis and that, it had said gets discussed a bit, the Thucydides Trap. The one great power being displaced by a new great power, often or inevitably it’s a trap. The trap being the-

Charles Edel:                 It’s a trap Jim. No, sorry, go on.

Misha:                          Inevitably, those two great powers go to war and there are numerous examples in history of that happening. When we look at it in the U.S., China context is very easy to say, “Well that’s the inevitable conflict there.” But are you an optimist or pessimist about whether or not that can be avoided? Can we avoid the trap and how do we avoid the trap?

Charles Edel:                 Yeah, yeah we can avoid the trap based on decisions that we make, but it’s not clear that we’ll make those decisions. But let me step back and put my cards on the table because we have to kind of dig into what assumptions and am I carrying into this. So if you bring the assumption to bear that rising powers jostling for their place in the sun are inevitably going to create some friction. And anything that kind of the status quo power does will inevitably create spirals of escalation. That they do something you push back and voila, you were in World War III with nuclear weapons, right? That is one frame of reference. That is the Thucydides Trap. That is the World War I frame of reference. Then the policy outcome is pretty clear. Don’t push back because who the hell wants to be a World War III?

Charles Edel:                 However, if you take a different analogy that pushing back doesn’t necessarily, as long as it has done smartly, creates spirals of escalation but rather deters problematic behavior and stabilizes very problematic situations, albeit in ways that feel uncomfortable, i.e. the Cold War. That’s a different set of policy outcomes that you’re lied to. So again, this is the situation we find ourselves in is different than both of those historical analogies, but depends which way you read things. And if you read pushback as inherently destabilizing or one that feels uneasy, none of us like the world that we’re moving towards, but it also can stabilize uneasy situations. That aligns your policy choices.

Misha:                          Well, this has been very illuminating. Now Charles, I couldn’t talk about this all day, but you’ve got a job to do kids to teach. I’ve got … I can’t entertain my five listeners forever but-

Charles Edel:                 Well, I think I knocked it down to three. Right, because we knocked Melbourne out of the conversation.

Misha:                          Well, that’s right. So that’s, right. So you’ve got two sales, I’ve got two listeners. We’re very popular bunch. There’s four between us, but I’m now, heavy duty conversation. Now we’re going to lighten it up with my super fun, happy, amazing question. Super non clunky segue into a barbecue, Charlie Edel’s three Aussie’s alive or dead who’s coming and why?

Charles Edel:                 Very easy choices. One, Ned Kelly and or Peter Carey, because I love his, a historical fiction version. The True History of the Kelly Gang. Just a great read.

Misha:                          Okay.

Charles Edel:                 Two-

Misha:                          Isn’t it Kelly in the suit or not?

Charles Edel:                 The armored suit?

Misha:                          Yeah.

Charles Edel:                 Well I hope if he is, he’s not standing too close to the barbecue that won’t work out so well for him. Two, because we’ve been having this high-minded abstract talk, which I hope is not only abstract, we have to invite Hedly Bull, academic, Aussie born, lived in England who talked about issues of order versus issues of disorder. That all the time the international environment is these two forces contending and that the rules, those who seek to create an order prompt rules and discussions.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact he’s informed a lot of my own thinking. So a great Aussie, who I’d love to have more conversations with over a sizzle.

Charles Edel:                 And then third, without a doubt, Rebel Wilson, because she has to be in any conversation I think. And by any conversation, I mean I would be quiet and just listen to what it is that she had to say.

Misha:                          So we’ve got, well an outlaw, a comedian and an academic and a barbecue.

Charles Edel:                 Yeah. A fill in the blank on the joke, I guess.

Misha:                          Well that would be one to be in attendance at. But thank you so much for joining us and Charlie, and I hope everyone enjoyed the episode.

Charles Edel:                 Well, thanks very much for having me on Misha. I appreciate it.

Misha:                          Cheers, mate.


Ambassador Curtis Chin

Ambassador Curtis Chin served as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.  In doing so, he became only the fourth US ambassador of Chinese heritage. As one of the world’s foremost experts on the Asia-Pacific region, Curtis now serves as the Asia Fellow of the nonpartisan Milken Institute and works with a range of startups and impact funds in Asia. Curtis joined Misha Zelinsky for a chat about the US-China trade war, what a deal looks like for both countries, the future of global trade and governance, and how the world should respond to countries that want to break the rules.


Misha Zelinsky:                  Curtis Chin, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Curtis Chin:                           Hey, doing well. Great to be with you.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And I should just reference for the audience, that we’re doing this through a web chat interface, so you’re currently in Bangkok, which is three hours behind Sydney time. So thank you for joining us. You’re an American in Thailand, but thank you for joining us as an international guest.

Curtis Chin:                           Delighted to be with you. I think though with so many of us, it’s one city one day, another city the next day, but very clearly, I spend most of time here in Asia, really Southeast Asia. And I’m with the Milken Institute out of Singapore, but yeah, from the US, but back and forth between the US and Asia-Pacific. So great to be with you today, chatting about Asia-Pacific, sharing some thoughts on Australia, the rest of the region, and some of the big stories of these weeks, and probably the whole year, which is the front and foremost, China and the US.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. I think that’s actually a good place to start. So you’re obviously an Asia-Pacific expert, you spend a lot of time in the Asian region. Big news at the moment, and certainly the last six to twelve months has been this question of trade, and certainly this trade tensions between China and the United States, and what increasingly now looking like a trade war. So I suppose the first question is, is this a trade war and what should the world make of the sort of these trade tensions between the United States and China?

Curtis Chin:                           First let me go back to your comment that I’m an expert, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s an expert in terms of what’s going on right now between the US and China. I mean, it really is unprecedented. You know, I was very lucky to serve primarily in Republican administrations, but I was lucky to serve also in the Obama administration as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. And I’d say for a long time Republicans and Democrats … and no one’s really been a big fan of tariffs. So today we’re at a situation where back and forth, whether you call it a trade war, or let’s say a tariffs war, we’re seeing the United States and China continue to raise tariffs on each other’s products. For me in the short run, clearly not a good thing. In the long run my hope is that both sides will come up with a way that will lead to a more balanced, more sustainable relationship between China and the US.

Curtis Chin:                           But also if both sides succeed in moving this forward, it will be to the benefit of the entire region, of all of Asia-Pacific, including Australia. When you think about countries that in my view, have become so dependent on China as a source of purchases of their commodities, Australia comes to mind, but also as a place where you move supply chains because labor costs have been cheaper there. So you’ve seen this movement over the what? Last decades, but that needs to change. One, it’s already changing even before these tariffs back and forth, because the cost of production in China is getting more expensive. But also I could say quite frankly, that as we think about China’s behavior, what might have been acceptable two or three decades ago … I mean, clearly China was a poor country, is not acceptable today. Bluntly we might say it’s time for China to grow up and take on some of the responsibilities that come with being again, a great economic power.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting you said there, you touched on that for a long time the bipartisan consensus in the United States, certainly globally too, is that free trade is good, tariffs are bad, interventionism is bad. What’s interesting is … I suppose firstly, and I’m keen to get your take on this, a lot of people will say that this is a Trump thing, but it’s actually, interestingly, perhaps the only thing that both sides of the United States, of the aisle politically agree on, which is that sometimes the war on trade is popular and bipartisan, because you saw Trump tweeting as he does, about tariffs that he’s going to put on, and being encouraged by the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, saying he was doing the right thing and to keep going. So it’s interesting the US in a very quick way, in a bipartisan way, to have a more assertive approach to Chinese trade in the United States. So I’m curious to get your take on what that journey is and how the United States has gotten itself to this point.

Curtis Chin:                           Well, you know I think your points, it’s clearly not just a Trump thing, I think President Trump to his great credit, has really captured kind of the moment, the feeling, the frustration of not just Americans, but people all around the world who have tried to engage with China. Clearly the world has benefited from less expensive products made in China because of traditionally what have been lower labor cost. And in may ways it was a gamble, with purchasing products from China, with making products in China, lead also to a more economically, politically liberal nation. That gamble has not paid off. We’re seeing a China today that is much more strict in term of how it treats its own people, in terms of its crackdowns on Christians and Muslims, in terms of its behavior on human rights. And it shouldn’t take away from the successes that China has achieved in lifting really, hundreds of millions out of poverty. But again, I think to one of my earlier points, China also has to evolve, China has to grow up.

Curtis Chin:                           And so Trump has in a way, come into this moment, really perhaps, he was the president for this moment, and even China in the past has said this trade imbalance between the United States and China is not sustainable, because ultimately it will lead to a pushback, and we’re seeing that, not just in the United States, but really throughout the Southeast Asia region in particular. Again, I’m based mainly in Southeast Asia, and when I speak to chairmen, CEOs, senior leadership of Southeast Asian businesses, you also find tremendous support, tremendous sympathy for the points that Donald Trump is making. I was out actually recently with the chairman of a Southeast Asian company, he stepped down as CEO from his role, and what he said to me was very interesting, he said that in many ways, they would all love to go on record and say what Trump is saying, but China has been a vindictive nation, that we’ve seen records recently, of where they’ve punished companies for doing things that went against China’s foreign policy.

Curtis Chin:                           One specific example would be South Korea. In South Korea, there’s a big conglomerate called Lotte, big South Korean company, respected company. The South Korean government, to protect its own people, made the decision to install kind of like a missile defense system. The land that was used was once owned by Lotte. So what happened? China sought to punish Lotte in terms of its business transactions in China. So just one very real example of how the Chinese government behaves against individual companies. President Trump to his great credit is saying, “We the United States will speak up on these issues,” because in many ways I think his language was, “China has been ripping off the US and too much of the world. We need to rebalance that.” And that rebalancing also will be to the benefit of China itself. I’m sure China is not happy with it being kind of like the country that’s increasingly kicked around in rhetoric not just in the US, but in public and in private, in parts of Asia.

Curtis Chin:                           That’s not good for China. China really should be embraced for what it has done in terms of lifting millions out of poverty, but its treatment of foreign businesses, both in China and outside of China really has to stop. And so where I would say that I think the Trump administration needs to evolve, is they’ve identified very clearly and spoken out very clearly on the issue, but I think they have to evolve in a way that also brings in their many natural allies to come together, to help China move forward in this situation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. One of the things I’m curious about, Trump sort of is always promoting himself as the great deal maker, but the question of tariffs is obviously that it sort of punishes the country that’s taking their export for some sort of practice, but at the same time it obviously lifts prices for households. Now, a figure I saw was that if they end up putting up this 25% tariff on all Chinese imported goods into the United States, we’re talking about $2,500 a year per household increase in the cost of living. The thing I’m curious about is does this have implications for Trump in the domestic policy sense, and also to your mind, what does a deal look like? Trump focuses a lot on trade deficits, but what does a deal look, and what does victory look like in this situation, because the grievance is clear, but it’s not as clear one who wins, households in the United States get punished, and secondly what does a deal look like in the minds of Trump or other experts?

Curtis Chin:                           Yeah. A number of interesting points you raise. First, when you have tariffs … and I’m no fan of tariffs. Tariffs openly I hope, are means to a more balanced relationship between the United States and China. The other is that question, who pays for a tariff? So let’s say you’re selling a product, a tariff is imposed, one question will be, “Can that tariff be passed on to the end consumer?” Right, then of course the consumer will most ultimately pay. Will that company though first try to absorb it because they’re afraid of losing the business? It’s a little bit more complicated than what people say. But I also underscores, there are always winners and losers when it comes to tariffs. Another tricky point. We talk about the impact of tariffs on the American consumer, but I remember I did one interview where someone said to me, “But don’t you benefit from cheap products at Walmart?” Though again, it’s a big American store. Of course we do, but clearly I can only afford those cheap products if I have a job, and have I lost my job because of all those cheap products?

Curtis Chin:                           It’s really kind of a balance that we need to seek, and then likewise, when people raise the point of American consumers ultimately in the short term pay, I wonder if people will pose that same interpretation to China, or is it just China cares less about its consumers, and they’re thinking that the US will worry about its consumers but China will not, as it tit for tat, tries then tariffs the other way around? So I think we need to look at the individual winners and losers. I think the Chinese are now trying to target agricultural areas, big support areas for President Trump. As we think about the politics of trade also, President Trump of course, is running for reelection. Election is next year, next November. That’s a lot of months before that election, to get a deal done. So we’ll see how it plays out with this timing. Your second point, what will a deal look like?

Curtis Chin:                           My fear is that ultimately there will be a face-saving deal, where each side claims victory, but really nothing changes. And so that goes to you, what is success? For me success isn’t simply that Chinese buy a lot more US exports. Clearly that’s a short-term win. But it doesn’t address the longterm issue that many countries … maybe the US is at the forefront, but many countries are facing with regards to China, which is theft of intellectual property, which is forced technology transfers, which are non-tariff trade barriers. It’s a range of things that companies, whether they’re Australian, or American, or from somewhere in Southeast Asia are facing. For me a real success would be if some of these things change. You know there was some talk that actually, that the Chinese as part of the negotiation process, had agreed to some of this, because perhaps they saw that it was in their interest too.

Curtis Chin:                           On this war, who knows the backstory and all these reports and tweets? But then you saw, most recently, leading up to the latest announcement by President Trump, about really, a move to impose tariffs on all Chinese exports, was this point that China reneged, that China moved backwards in terms of edits on the agreement that the negotiators had already agreed to. So only the people involved will know the truth to that, but I can tell you as business person who’s worked in Beijing, who’s worked in Hong Kong, and now worked throughout Southeast Asia, business people from all kinds of companies, American, Australian and others, have seen that same reality, where something that you thought was negotiated with a Chinese counterpart, all of a sudden doesn’t seem so negotiated as the process moves forward. So I would not be surprised that there is quite a bit of truth to that comment, to that tweet from President Trump, “The Chinese reneged, the Chinese moved backwards.” And so again, that needs to change.

Curtis Chin:                           So again when we talk about what is victory, victory ideally is a victory for both sides. That both sides, China and the United States, to go back to their really important domestic constituencies, and say “We’ve come to an agreement, we moved these things forward.” But then ultimately that victory will be a more sustained trading relationship between the United States and China. One of the point I always want to make though, is that we looked at some of the drivers of where we are today. Clearly for decades the Chinese have in a way, been gaming the system, taking advantage of the system, something that might have been tolerated when they really were a much poorer nation and a less militaristic nation than they are today. So that has to evolve. But I think one thing that we need to think more about more, and hopefully media can talk about more, is that in the world today, exports are both of goods and services.

Curtis Chin:                           So we talk a lot about things that were made, or grown, and exported, but we also need to think about the services. United States, developing nations, are also trying to move this way, but the United States has moved to develop the economy, where a lot of things we produce are services, are intellectual property, are things that again, are of great value, of greater value added than something simple that might have been made 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. As we talk about the balance between nations in terms of what they import or export, I think we should ideally spend also more time talking about both goods and services, versus the focus on the easy number to understand, which is how many widgets or bushels of this has a nation purchased. Out of all this I think back about our evolving sense of trade, of Asia. Ultimately, and I say to people, “Things have moved forward, it’s a positive thing. Trade has been a wonderful thing.”

Curtis Chin:                           But the reality also is that in this more globalized world, this globalized economy of ours, many people have not done so well. So Trump has captured that moment, and spoken to people about what can he do to fight for them. But I see that across this world of ours, and across Europe, but very much across here and Asia, where in the Philippines, they had a recent election also, a very populist leader, India is going to an election, Indonesian had its own election, where leaders have to respond to their vast number of citizens who maybe don’t see that they’ve become better off as part of this globalized economy.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And we’ve certainly seen that with Brexit as well. I think you’re right. I mean, the question of trade and who benefits, and it might … it looks good in a headline number, but often say trade destroys and distributes unevenly. And I think there’s a lot of people that have been left behind or dislocated, and it’s expressing itself in this politics in a worrying sort of way. So I think certainly a lot to think about there for policymakers. One thing I’m curious about is, and you sort of talked a lot about the trade relationship, that seems to me now that the United States very much considers itself or it sees China now as very much a strategic competitor.

Curtis Chin:                           I think in every US administration, every country around the world, even your government hopefully, is working to give its citizens a better life. And so I think what we’ve seen is this continuing movement to a richer world, but also a more unequal world. And so you’ve seen so much talk about inequality kind of bubbling up over these last, really two decades, and I think we’ve reached that point where people are trying to look for what are the drivers of this inequality, how do we address that? And so very clearly, the two biggest economies in the world, China and the US, ought to be very much part of that conversation. You raised an intriguing question when you talk about China and the US, China versus the US. For me taking a step back, in many ways I see things also as not just China versus the US, but a US-driven system versus an alternative that China is pushing when it comes to concepts of competition, economics, of trade, and governance.

Curtis Chin:                           In general, I think no country wants to chose and say, “I’m on the US’s side or on the China side,” but I would say to nations, I would say to the people of Australia and elsewhere, “It really it’s up to you to decide which system is better for your own people.” For me, clearly I’m biased, I am for a system of free markets, free trade, and free speech. This is not what China is for, right? But often people will say, “But I got to follow the money, I got to pay the bills, I got to do what I need to do. It’s China that is the big customer.” And so that’s what people think to think through. It’s a very difficult question sometimes. I spoke recently at a Bloomberg event in Singapore on this whole same issue of China and the US, and I was struck by one of our fellow panelist, a friend … he’s actually from the Democrat side versus Republican side, but clearly we’re both Americans. Kirk Wagar, the former US ambassador to Singapore.

Curtis Chin:                           It was very interesting when he made a comment, and that comment was basically, “Western businesses, when they deal with China, the big question for them is, ‘Do you have to sell your soul, or to what degree do you sell your soul?’” So I’m paraphrasing his comment, but that’s that challenge of you’re going to make so much money hopefully dealing with China, the reality is many companies lose money dealing with China. But in pursuit of that market, or in Pursuit of that cheaper production base, do you simply look the other way on all the terrible things that China is doing? Maybe case number one, we see these days are these reports coming out of Xinjiang, this Northwest part of China, of where they put, by some accounts, one million to two million people into camps. Some would say concentration camps, of all the terrible connotations that raises from World War II. But they put people there simply because they’re Muslim.

Curtis Chin:                           That clearly, I would hope the world would speak out about. But we’ve seen how Muslim nations, many nations have looked the other way. “It’s China’s right,” I think one Saudi leader said, “as to how they deal with what China perceives as a terrorism threat.” But for me, maybe I’m not getting any business in the near term in China, because I want to speak up on behalf of all Chinese people, whether they’re Muslim, or Tibetan, or Han Chinese. You know I’m ethnic. People can’t see me on your podcast, but I think my great-grandfather went to the US way back in the late 1880s to help build the railways or something. I’m ethnic Chinese, but for me it shouldn’t be about your ethnicity, really even your nationality, but people should willing speak up on behalf of those that really need speaking up on behalf. So clearly the Muslims, the Tibetans, but even Christians. We’re seeing reports that the Chinese have been particularly aggressive in tearing down Christian churches, which they don’t recognize. These are all not great things.

Curtis Chin:                           But what if you want to do business in China? Do you say nothing because you’re going to make some money? That’s a very difficult question for people who again, who have to pay the bills. But for me, you can’t, in my mind, simply chose to say nothing because you want the money. There is some balance and each individual, each company needs to think through what is that … and in the long run, my hope is that all Chinese people will appreciate this notion that every single individual has value. There I go sounding like an American.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s okay. It’s good to be of your people. But it’s so curious, you were touching quite a bit there about the rule of law, I think largely, I mean. And the United States is larger] since World War II certainly, in this so-called rules-based global order. China’s really bumping up against that now, and one of the things I’m sort of curious to take on, I mean, where are the areas that you think that the United States is prepared to turn the other way? So for example, if you take South China Sea where Barack Obama, President Obama sort of didn’t do a great deal as the Chinese government sort of constructed these artificial islands in the South China sea, and then militarizes on, has in effect sort of annexed a part of the South China sea.

Misha Zelinsky:                  How do you see things of that nature when it comes to getting the Chinese government to obey and respect maritime law in that instance, where the international courts very clearly ruled against China, and it essentially ignored them? How do make your earlier point that China, and they need to be a responsible grown up actor? How do you actually enforce that with the Chinese government?

Curtis Chin:                           I think the reality here, even when I go back thinking about that question you asked, the reality is it cannot just be China and the US deciding. What are the regional bodies, global bodies that can play really, a shaping role? I mean, the reality is that at the end of the day, and sadly this goes back to a statement, even when you think about Chinese history that, “Power grows out of a barrel of a gun,” Mao famously said in the civil war in China. And the reality is that when you look at some our regional institutions like ASEAN the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, they act by consensus. Many of those nations have a stake in the South China Sea, and the Philippines even calls it the West Philippines Sea, but China has been very aggressive in building up … I don’t know, we call them [islandets00:25:55], or little islands, or fake islands, I don’t know. And then despite saying they wouldn’t, moving into to militarize them.

Curtis Chin:                           But China’s got the guns, and maybe other countries don’t have the guns, or they want Chinese investment. So lets deal with that. But to your point, I would hope that a nation let’s say like Australia, can step up. It’s what we call like freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation, trips to the South China Sea. That nations throughout the region can seek to come together to engage with China. The Chinese strategy has always been one of like picking off countries, some would argue that ASEAN already has in a way, been nullified because China has bought out Laos and Cambodia. And for a associations that acts by consensus, if Cambodia has in the past said, “Well, no, no. We’re not going to issue a joint statement because we Cambodia, don’t agree,” it blocks efforts. So hopefully that will evolve and all. Your question also raised this point about systems, and organizations, and governance.

Curtis Chin:                           One I know very well, is this whole issue of how will we support and fill the financing gap? How will we support the building of infrastructure in the region when there’s been a big gap? The region’s infrastructure needs and how they will be financed. So four years, nearly two under Obama, nearly two under Bush, I served as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. For those who don’t know, that’s kind of like an Asia-Pacific base, Philippines headquartered version of the World Bank, primarily focused on ending poverty in this region, mainly through building infrastructure, a lot of core infrastructure, roads, power, water systems, sanitation. Really doing good things there. But how do you build those infrastructure projects? So World Bank, Asian Development Bank, they’re all in this region. For the last couple of years we’ve seen Chinese rivals.

Curtis Chin:                           And so we’ve first and foremost seen the rise of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We’ve seen something called the New Development Bank, some people call it the BRICS bank after Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the key players there. That one’s based out of Shanghai. We’re see moves by bilateral financial institutions like the Chinese development banks, or that will be just working with one country, versus these multilateral banks. We’re seeing a lot of new players challenging that old, what they call this old Bretton Woods type institutions to finance and move Asia forward. In many ways that’s a good thing, hopefully it makes some of those old bodies, like my old colleagues at the ADB, a little bit more hungry, innovative, focused on acting quicker to serve the needs of this region. But it’s a bad thing if what it is, it’s also a push to the bottom, who will get the money out the fastest. When I was on the board of the Asian Development Bank, I visited a nation whose engagement with the ministry of finance, is they seek to get funding for key infrastructure projects.

Curtis Chin:                           ADB, I think to its great credit, like the World Bank and others, we’ll try to push for certain, what we call safeguards, so that if you put in an infrastructure project, the environment would be in some ways be protected. There’d be … the lingo today is ESG, so there’d be like environmental, social, governance safeguards put in place. These are all good things, but then it makes a project take a little bit longer to develop. So if you’re a country just in search of financing, what if all of a sudden there are Chinese-backed banks? There’s nothing else. “We don’t care about those ESG, those safeguard standards, we trust you as the borrowing country to decide what’s right for your own people.” You can see there will be sympathy for that, “You decide what’s right for your own country in term of protecting the environment based on your own spot in that kind of development line.” But then the Chinese might say, “But if we do the financing for you, maybe Chinese state-owned enterprises were going to do a lot of the work, maybe it will come with 500 to 1,000 Chinese employees and workers.”

Curtis Chin:                           So I think any nation, they decide. It’s their money, they ultimately have to pay it back, but read the fine print. So don’t think that because maybe the Chinese aren’t insisting on certain safeguards that others might, that it doesn’t come with other things that they might well insist upon. And so that’s how it should be. As long as it’s transparent, these institutions are accountable, that’s how it should be. Let the market compete. What the big problem is though, and we’re beginning to see it even in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, this is a big infrastructure funding push, is that what if decisions aren’t made fairly? What if corruption is involved? What if money changes hands? And case in point has been what we’ve seen has happened in Malaysia. In the last year or so, Malaysia brought back its longtime prime minister, probably the oldest prime minister in the world, Mahathir came back in with … was swept his party back into government, overturning the rule of, I think for decades, of what is not the opposition party.

Curtis Chin:                           And when Mahathir came back in as leader of Malaysia, he raised questions, it certainly raised eyebrows in China, but he raised question about some of the big infrastructure deals that were signed by his predecessor Najib, with the Chinese government. And to his great credit, forced renegotiation. And so one that’s come up most recently is … I think is calling it like an East Rail, a project … Really so much money in his huge infrastructure projects. Mahathir was ultimately able to shave the cost of the product or project. Not exactly apples and oranges because the project did change somewhat, but shaved the cost of that project by a third. And so it makes you wonder where was that extra third, you were talking really tens of millions of dollars, where was that money going? Into Chinese pockets? Into construction company pockets? Into Malaysian pockets? And then a question for the region, for countries that haven’t had this kind of democratic revolution bringing back an old prime minister, focused now on corruption.

Curtis Chin:                           What about all of those countries with deals other than the One Belt, One Road initiative, that haven’t had a Mahathir, to try to renegotiate and bring those costs down by a third? Where has that money gone? And so these are some of the questions that I think individual citizens may well raise when they see deals signed with China. But sadly in so many nations, those citizens are ignored, because the deal is done with leaders, and those leaders know for good and for bad, where that money has gone or will be going. So yes, China can be a constructive force in this region, but for that to happen in this changing world of ours, China too must evolve. And so bringing this all kind of full circle to how we began talking about China and the US, clearly we see this rivalry between the Chinese and the US government at this time. Hopefully it’s not a rivalry between the peoples of these nations, where people just want a better life for themselves.

Curtis Chin:                           But it’s also a rivalry, I believe, between different systems. So this Chinese system is one again, of subsidizing their own companies. To what degree is that acceptable or should it be acceptable, and then how do you have a level playing field when you’re up against a state-owned enterprise that’s completely subsidized by the second largest economy in the world? And I think these are important questions, that again are just not US versus China questions, and hopefully they’re questions that are also being asked within China. But we’re seeing now in some of the reports that are coming out of China, few and far between, where China itself is cracking down on its own Chinese economists and their own people who would dare challenge what Xi Jinping is pushing through right now. As I think a Chinese American, as somewhat Asian American, someone who’s living in both the US and Asia, I in particular want China to move forward and to succeed just like every other nation, but China must evolve, and my hope is that it’ll be done peacefully versus all the turmoil that China has gone through this last century.

Curtis Chin:                           My hope is that that does not come back. In a weird way, that may be what Xi Jinping fears, but is he putting in place a system which might encourage or increase the odds of that coming back. A case in point, Xi Jinping, president of China, pushed through a way for him to serve as really president for life. So in a way governance has moved backwards in China. Xi Jinping has a lot of rivals within China that maybe aren’t so happy with how he’s done things. This US-China back and forth, this trade war really emerged under his watch. So there’s a lot of questions within China about he’s doing things, but those people are increasingly kind of squashed. In the old days, if you were a senior Chinese leader, maybe you’d wait out whoever the president was, you’d wait five years, you’d wait 10 years, but that has now changed. Maybe there is no waiting out Xi Jinping.

Curtis Chin:                           And so are people moving sadly, back to that old system? Are they trying to bring him down, stab him in the back? Things that are not good, because that’s how China has evolved. It’s evolved backwards, and it’s gone back to the system where actually it’s almost like there’s a new emperor in town, that emperor is Xi Jinping. And what happened to emperors in the past? They either died or were overthrown. So that’s not a good thing for China, and I think no one should welcome turmoil in China. And so again it’s in China’s own interest to rethink about how it treats not just the US, but how it treats all its neighbors. The Chinese version of rule of law is not one that I would hope the world seeks to emulate. We look right now at an imprisoned … out on parole I think, the technical term is, but an imprisoned Huawei, this big Chinese tech company CFO in Canada under the Canadian version of rule of law.

Curtis Chin:                           I think that Huawei executive has just moved from one of her multimillion dollar houses in Vancouver to another multimillion dollar house in Vancouver while she goes through the Canadian legal process as will she be extradited to the United States regarding charges of was she really directly involved in her company’s trying to avoid sanctions on Iran, create shell companies, all these things. Right? So the rule of law is proceeding. Meanwhile in China, and I dare say it’s not coincidentally, but connected, China has retried one Canadian, I think sentenced him to death. China is now putting I think two Canadian citizens under arrest, alleging that they’re spies. There was one, I think social media post, that’s never all …. as you know never sure how accurate some of these posts are, but this particular social media post contrasted the treatment of those Canadians under the Chinese version of the rule of law, versus the Huawei CFO, her name is Meng, CFO Meng, among under the Canadian rule of law.

Curtis Chin:                           And so I say to countries, I say to people, “As you think about the systems that are really contending now, a Chinese way of doing things, a Western way of things, what is better for you?” And so my hope is that this notion of East versus West isn’t one of really of East versus West, it’s really what’s right for a nation. And as I think about even one person … I did an interview when someone said to me on air, “Well, isn’t this stealing of property by the Chinese cultural?” And I had to push back, one because I’m ethnic Chinese. But when you think about what does that mean, culture, because very clearly when I go to a dynamic place like Singapore, or a dynamic place like Hong Kong, or Taiwan, mainly Chinese people, ethnic Han Chinese people, I don’t see them ripping off and stealing other countries’ or other companies’, other countries companies’ intellectual property like you do in China.

Curtis Chin:                           So if it’s cultural, it’s because of a business climate that the communist Chinese have created, it’s not because people are ethnic Chinese or Caucasian or whatever. And I think that’s how we need to look at things in order to move things forward. And again, I keep coming to this point that moving things forward are also in the interest of the Chinese people. And so it’s always intriguing where people say that, “How long will you as a citizens stand for tariffs?” If indeed those higher costs are passed on to them. But then we can throw that same question at the Chinese, how often will Chinese citizens stomach and tolerate all that their leaders do, then impose this higher cost and burdens on them, whether it’s the money they spend, the lives they live, or what they can say? And unlike in a democracy, where the Chinese citizens say, “No, we want to change things. We’ll have different leaders,” how do people change things in China? Their track record has not been good when it’s been a system where the Chinese people have no way to peacefully speak up. And that’s the challenge for our world today.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So the question I have … So you sort of talked a lot about this sort of the competing models and the hope that I suppose, over time the theory always was that China would gradually adopt Western norms of global leadership and rules-based order. The thing that is curious in all this is that the United States has always been the underwriter of these systems and has always had great confidence in these systems. One of the great strengths of the United States model of global leadership has been its alliance system. Now, people have thought about Trump’s approach to the strategic rivalry with China, but one of the things I’d like input is Trump’s administration approach to United States’ friends in a way that has attacked NATO allies, it has attacked allies in Asia region, such as South Korea for not pulling their weight, etc. How can the United States’ friend believe in the system that United States has underpinned and expect China to adopt a system that perhaps the United States itself seems to be walking away from somewhat.

Curtis Chin:                           I don’t know if the answer is walking from a system that we’ve all benefited from, this global trading system, but very clearly, the United States is saying it needs to be change and fixed. One case and point I look at is think about all these global bodies, and that’s where my hope … We talk about West versus East, but I hope some of these global bodies are really seen as global bodies, because I think part of the challenge is we say it’s a Western system or, “I’m from the East. I don’t want that system.” But I would argue that things like human rights, free speech, worship whatever you want, your religion, or whatever your faith is, isn’t a Western concept, but then I hope would be more universal concepts. So going back to your point, so one of the institutions that I think needs to evolve, one example would be the World Trade Organization, and I think even the WTO leadership has said, “Yeah. We need to change too.” And it’s the Trump administration that is pushing for some of these changes.

Curtis Chin:                           One example would be under WTO rules right now, that China is still treated as a developing nation. So maybe it’s allowed to do certain things, can it have more state-owned enterprises, more support for state-owned enterprises, but then a developed nation can’t? So doesn’t that need to change? For me it’s kind of ridiculous also that this second largest economy in the world that is China, some would say largest economy based on purchasing power parity, that this nation still borrows money from the World Bank, still borrows money from the Asian Development Bank, because they say, “Oh, we’re a poor country.” So again it goes back I think, to these metrics, but very clearly, China has resources that other nations do not have. China again, amazing, has put like this little rover on I think, the far side of the moon, and yet it still borrows money from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank because it says, “Oh, we’re a poor country, we need these subsidized loans to help us fight poverty.”

Curtis Chin:                           And so I think these institutions need to change, WTO, ADB, World Bank, and how they treat a nation like China. And what’s great about these rules-based organizations also, it would be that, it’s not just about China. If it were another nation in that same kind of role as they move up, they also should in a sense, graduate from these kinds of assistance like grants and subsidized loans. And so I think, we think about this China and the US, I think that’s part of the challenge that right now because of this tariffs war, it’s seen as China versus the US. But in many ways, there will be many allies in the battle if they could speak freely, and also many more allies in a sense, if the Trump administration to your point, I think were more adept in how it handles its long time allies and friends. The US relationship with Australia, with Thailand, with Singapore, with the Philippines, these are relationships that will continue to evolve, but really are foundations for moving things forward in a way that will I think, benefit the countries involved, but also benefit this region, this Indo-Pacific region as well as the world.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So one question I want to ask you, are you a member or do you have an involvement in the International Republican Institute, the IRI which is responsible for promoting democracy globally? There’s a sister organization to Democrats version of them. Traditionally people have always thought that China would grow rich and then it would grow democratic. What we’ve seen as it’s grown richer, unfortunately it’s become more autocratic. You touched on the fact that Xi has made himself emperor for life. With your sort of background in what makes democracy great and how democracies flourish, do you hold any sort of hope … is there anything to hope for people that want to see China become more democratic, or is that just a lost hope now to your mind?

Curtis Chin:                           Are both the International Republican Institute and this National Democratic Institute, they’re both come under this umbrella, National Endowment for Democracy, which really comes out of … started to work way back when I began my career, like an intern under Ronald Reagan. But something that Ronald Reagan sought to encourage, was the spread of democracy. So these are nonpartisan groups, even though one sounds Republican one sounds Democrat. And their job really is to encourage democracy, but I think more importantly and this goes to the heart of your question, to encourage institutions, and systems, and processes that allow democracy to flourish. I’m usually always like the most hopeful person in the room, even though like the room’s falling apart. And so I’m always hopeful that things will be moving forward. But I think it’s important that we talk about democracy, that we realize that democracy is not just elections, democracy is about balance, it’s about systems, checks and balances, it’s about institutions.

Curtis Chin:                           And so like the work of both IRI, NDI, would be things like encouraging political parties, it doesn’t matter which party you are, but encouraging political parties to think through the use of research, degree that is allowed or easily done in a given country, so that they can better understand what citizens are worried about, what they’re concerned about, and then think through how they can best address those concerns. It’s about how do you strengthen a democratic process? Where people don’t like whoever is running, there’s a chance to get rid of that person. So yes, I’m hopeful for China in the long run, but clearly what we see in these last what? Five years, is a China that’s become much more economically assertive and militarily aggressive in the Indo-Pacific region. And so what will happen over time? The reality is that it won’t just be China and the US contending, it will be the other rising powers in this increasing … what they call multipolar world.

Curtis Chin:                           They will also have to contend with a rising China. One day we’ll see India come into its own, we will see Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia come into its own. How will China engage with an India, with an Indonesia, with a stronger ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asia Nations? How will they deal with this? Probably one of their biggest headaches is their friend, North Korea. At the end of the day, I believe, here I’m being hopeful again, I believe that Korea will be united one day, but clearly when it unites, the reality will most likely be a democratic, in a way, westward-oriented democracy, versus the model that China and North Korea itself now present to the world. That’s really what holds back these two nations from coming together, North Korea and South Korea, is China. China would probably prefer kind of a somewhat unstable North Korea on it’s border than a united westward-looking Korea.

Curtis Chin:                           And so China has a lot of headaches to contend with, this trade war is really just one of them. And as you think about the calendar of this year, China has so many worries to contend with. An anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen, I say massacre, Chinese doesn’t like that word, incident, I would say. But when we think about the June 4 anniversary coming up, when you think about labor unrest in China, Xi Jinping is in a difficult situation, and maybe in some ways much less secure and stable than he would like the world to think he is. And so this trade war at a time of an already slowing but still growing Chinese economy, is not good for him either. And so maybe he will pursue the route of again, trying to unite the Chinese people in a very nationalistic way. You’re seeing some of the rhetoric coming out of China, “China will never back down.” Very nationalistic, trying to unite his own people against an enemy, when the reality that maybe his biggest challenge is what’s happening at home, in his country.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Thanks. I could probably talk to you about this all day I think, it’s so may fascinating different areas we could go to, but of course you’re a busy man, you’ve got things to do. So as I always do, very clunkily segue to the fun part of the show. I get a lot of good feedback on this really lame question that I ask everyone. But of course you’re an American guest on our show, just curious about the three Australians that are coming to Ambassador Curtis Chin’s barbecue and why? And I should disclose, earlier he said, “What if I can’t think of three Australians?” I said, “Well, just do your best.”

Curtis Chin:                           Yeah. What if I can’t think of three Australian? But yeah, I kind of laughed when you asked me that question earlier, because in the United States when we think of Australians, they’re like people we’ve taken from Australia like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, but I think … wasn’t Keith actually born in New Zealand? But again, I think they live in Tennessee right now. So I’m going to cheat and only give you two, but because they live in Tennessee, I bet they have some of the best barbecue in the United States. So I’d certainly love to have them because then maybe we wouldn’t talk politics, or we wouldn’t talk about China and the US, and we’d just have a great time …

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, it’s funny you should say that …

Curtis Chin:                           … and enjoy American-Australia hospitality.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s funny you should say talking about Americans stealing Australians, because Australia is very famous for stealing New Zealanders like Russell Crowe. So it’s sort of … it’s all just [crosstalk 00:52:52].

Curtis Chin:                           That’s right. I think Keith Urban, I think he’s really a New Zealander. I don’t know what he is, but …

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’m not sure, but that’s a cute …

Curtis Chin:                           Nicole Kidman is Australian for sure …

Misha Zelinsky:                  She’s absolutely Aussie.

Curtis Chin:                           … and maybe they both Americans, I don’t know. But let me close by just saying that US-Australian relationship is a great one, it’s a solid one. I think United States, we can learn from Australia. I mean, look at your economy, you haven’t had a recession in a long time. A lot though has been driven by China, and so also how will Australia deal with this evolving economic world. Australia also, I think for a while, kept changing its prime ministers, I don’t know. It seems like there was a new one all the time, but maybe that’s also a broader point for all of us, that no matter who’s in charge things will be okay if we leave it to our people to run things, just American, Australia, Chinese whoever. They just want to move things forward, but maybe it’s the politics that gets in the way of everything. And sometimes when government does nothing, maybe things just move on forward.

Misha Zelinsky:                  A very positive message of hope to finish on there, Curtis. Thank you so much for joining Diplomates, mate.

Curtis Chin:                           All right, my pleasure. Take care.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Take care, mate.

Elaine Pearson

Elaine Pearson is the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch.

As a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school, Elaine is a global expert in human rights law and has worked all over world – including stints at the United Nations and various NGOs.

Elaine joined Misha Zelinsky for a fascinating chat about the intersection of democracy and human rights, the fate of Hakeem Al Arabi currently detained in Thailand, China’s use of hostage diplomacy and its muslim reeducation camps, whether autrocrats are winning the global PR battle and what role Australia has as a middle power in global diplomacy. 


Misha Zelinsky:                  Elaine Pearson, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you for joining us.

Elaine Pearson:                  Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So, you’re the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, so a lot of places we could start, but it seems a good place for us to start the conversation might be the news related to the young soccer player, Hakeem, who’s now been detained in Thailand. Maybe you could just give us a bit of background about that before we start to discuss it?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, sure. I mean Hakeem al-Araibi went on a belated honeymoon to Thailand in November with his wife. He’s originally from Bahrain. He got refugee status in Australia in 2017, and when he got off the plane in Thailand, he didn’t even make it to Bangkok, or anywhere, because a squad of police were waiting for him. And what had happened was that there was an Interpol red notice out for him, which was actually a massive screw up. Interpol should’ve never issued the red notice because he’s a refugee, but he was sentenced in absentia in Bahrain for a crime that he says that he didn’t commit, to 10 years in prison, for supposedly vandalizing a police station. So since that time, Bahrain has basically issued an extradition request. Interpol got rid of the red notice, because as I said, it should never have been issued. And he’s sitting now in Bangkok jail, awaiting, basically the trial for extradition proceedings to be carried out.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And of course he is a refugee in Australia, subsequent to the Arab Spring in Bahrain. And so he came to Australia when?

Elaine Pearson:                  He came to Australia in 2014.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right. And he’s a permanent resident, but not a citizen?

Elaine Pearson:                  He is a permanent resident. Actually, he was days away from being able to apply for his citizenship. And at the moment, there are moves underway to file those papers and make him a citizen, because we feel that that might strengthen his hand in dealing with the Thai authorities. But in any case, whether he’s a permanent resident or a citizen, he should be returned to Australia. He should not be returned to a country that he fled persecution from, and was found to be a refugee from.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So he was just days away from applying to be an Australian citizen?

Elaine Pearson:                  That’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Wow, that’s really scary for him. So, a little bit about, why has this captured the attention of so much, so why is it such a big deal for someone to be arrested in an airport the way that he has, to be sent to face charges? I mean, is that something that you’d be worried about or is it not a big deal? I mean …

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, I think it’s a really shocking case, and I think it’s very scary for people who flee their home countries, think that they’re then safe in a country like Australia. He then subsequently spoke out against a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, who’s a president of the Asian Football Federation, and it’s because of his criticisms of the Bahrain government that he feels like he is being punished. That’s really what this is about, and that’s why this case, I think, will have really global ramifications, because it means that if he was sent back to Bahrain, anyone who’s been found to be a refugee who comes an authoritarian country, will have to think twice before taking holidays to third countries, because of the risk that something like this potentially could happen to them.

Elaine Pearson:                  As far as Thailand’s concern, unfortunately, Thailand has a really horrible track record of collaborating with countries like China, Bahrain, in the past, Cambodia, Vietnam, and basically sending back their citizens on the result of these extradition requests, and many cases, these people have been activists who, yes, may have been convicted on national security charges, but I think there’s very big concerns about how those people were convicted, and whether those people actually committed these crimes or whether these are people who were thrown in jail, basically for peaceful acts of free expression.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And what about Bahrain’s record in human rights? I mean, it’s not a country that’s really got strong rule of law despite their guarantees, as I understand it, coming from the leader of the country. It’s a place that if you had fled from it, you would have valid concerns, would that be right?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, yeah. I mean, Human Rights Watch has reported on the torture in Bahrain’s prisons. We issued a big report just a few years ago. There were five deaths in custody as a result of torture in, one year alone. So this is a country that has a really big problem with basically torturing dissidents, in order to get forced confessions out of them. So the claim by the Bahraini government that, we have an independent judiciary, he should just come back here and face charges. Look, in the last time that Thailand send someone back to Bahrain, the person was beaten so badly, before he even got off the plane at Bahrain’s airport, that he had to be hospitalized. So that’s why we’re so worried about the fate of Hakeem, if he was returned to Bahrain. And he says that he was tortured before, so we have no reason to believe that it would be any different this time, if he’s sent back.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And, one of the things I’m never clear about, I mean, I think you hear about Australian’s being detained, well what’s the role of the government here? Because we’ve got people … you’ve got similar emissaries like [Fozzy 00:05:03] going over there to intervene, and we’ve had the soccer unions getting involved, and the player’s association. What’s the role of the government here, because I think people think, well, the diplomats will come in and save it, but how easy is that? I mean, is that more difficult than it seems, once you actually been in custody in another country?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, it can be quite difficult. I mean, our government tends to adopt a sort of quiet diplomacy approach. Often when these cases come up, they’re dealt with very quietly, behind closed doors, with our government believing that that’s the best way of resolving these matters. But in this case it’s a bit different, and part of it is because there was a massive screw up on the part of the Australian Federal Police, who actually notified the Thai police about the Interpol red flag.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So that came from the AFP?

Elaine Pearson:                  That came from the AFP. I think it’s an automated systems, but in any case, they should have obviously checked his status and realized that he was a refugee. And I think because of the intense pressure from the media on this case, from FIFA, from the football groups, actually the Australian government has taken a much more robust and public stance, and I think that’s really important. But there are many other cases actually, where the Australian government is dealing with similar cases of people being wrongfully detained abroad, where they haven’t had such a strong response. I mean, there was James Ricketson, for instance, last year in Cambodia, he was eventually released but he was also someone who was tried and convicted on espionage charges, and unfortunately spent many months in a Cambodian prison.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, just before we act, because I’m keen to talk about some of the detainments, how is Hakeem? I mean, how is he coping? This would be a terribly … I mean, I can only imagine what he’s sort of fearing in terms of being in a Thai prison, in of itself. And then the prospect of being sent somewhere where you fled political persecution, I mean how is he doing, given the circumstances?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, he’s not doing that great. I mean, the conditions, as you can imagine in Bangkok jail, are not particularly good. He’s been a bit sick in recent weeks, he’s sharing a cell, I think, with about 35 other people. He’s also extremely worried about his wife. I’m in pretty much daily contact with his wife, who’s here in Australia, but you know, she’s also terrified about what’s going to happen to her husband, and she was with him when he was arrested, but has not been able to have direct communication with him since, because he’s not allowed to have telephone calls.

Elaine Pearson:                  So, they are now allowed to pass messages to one another, but obviously, he is extremely scared that he’s going to be sent back, and he’s really worried about spending the next few months in prison. The next court date is not until late April. April in Thailand is incredibly hot. I mean, it’s hot enough … I’ve lived in Bangkok, in an apartment without air conditioning. You can just imagine if you’re in a jail cell with 35 other people, how uncomfortable that is going to be. And clearly he shouldn’t be there. He should be back in Australia with his wife, and playing football with his team.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And, how hopeful are we that we can get a positive resolution for him?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, it’s unknown. I mean, I think the great thing about this case is there has been so much support and pressure coming from the Australian government, also from the international diplomatic community. They turned out in force at his extradition hearing, last week. But I think, in any case there’s big questions around, why the Thai government seems to be prioritizing and entertaining this extradition request from Bahrain, and why it would be prioritizing that relationship, over its relationship with Australia. Because clearly, Thailand and Australia also have a very long relationship.

Elaine Pearson:                  Australia has provided a lot of security training, development aid, over the years. Obviously, a lot of Australian tourists [crosstalk 00:08:52] Thailand every year. So, it makes you wonder what incentives the Bahraini government has offered, or why, basically, Thailand is doing this. The Thai government’s now saying, they put out a statement recently where they said, this is a matter between Australia and Bahrain, and Australia and Bahrain should sort it out, and we just want to win, win result for everyone, which obviously is kind of ridiculous, because there can’t be a win, win result. Someone’s going to have to lose here.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s why effectively, you can only be in one country at a time. So-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Indeed. Well, I mean, keep up the good work and no doubt, I think a lot of Australian’s obviously sending a lot well wishes, but you talked a lot about the high profile this case has but of course there are other Australians being detained around the world. Is it getting increasingly dangerous to travel the world as an Australian, or any sort of citizen from a Western democracy, into perhaps places that are more autocratic? I mean, because there are a number that you can think of.

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, I mean I have to say it just somehow seem that way a little bit. I mean, in recent months there have been a number of these high profile cases. China in particular, there’s the case of the Australian writer, Yang, who was detained just a few weeks ago in China. Obviously, there’s been a number of Canadians, including some really high profile Canadians who’ve been detained in China. I don’t know if it’s actually increasing, but I guess in a globalized world, people are traveling more and more, and I think we are seeing authoritarian governments basically becoming more aggressive, in the stance that they’re taking. And particularly if they see people as potentially a threat to national security, because they’ve spoken out, that this is one way of, I guess, lashing out at those people. So I think, the people who are particularly at risk, are people who are dual citizens or who have come originally from authoritarian governments, and if they’re visiting that country again.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. So you’ve raised a Chinese example, and one of the things that people discussed, is the Chinese detainments of both the Canadians, and obviously the young Australian … Yang, the blogger, came hot on the back of a decisions made in relation to, Huawei’s banning from participation in telecommunication networks, in Australia and other countries, but also the arrest of the CFO of Huawei in Canada. That kind of sort of retribution, arguably from China, or and a payback of detainment of people, where they’re effectively holding people hostage, how concerned should we be about that?

Elaine Pearson:                  We should be very concerned about it. I mean, I think this kind of hostage diplomacy … I mean, in some sense, it’s not new tactics from China. We have seen them use these tactics before. There was the case of Stern Hu, which Australians might remember, an executive from Rio Tinto, who was detained I think for nine years, in China, over allegations of bribery and I think sharing state secrets. But while all of that was unfolding, obviously Rio Tinto was also having it’s issues with the Chinese government. But, now it seems like the Chinese government is becoming increasingly bold, and even more blatant, in the way that it’s going after people.

Elaine Pearson:                  And it is unusual, I think, that it has chosen to go after Yang at this point in time. We don’t really know why, but I think we’re very concerned that he’s someone that they’ve been saying is being held in residential detention. That doesn’t mean house arrest. That means he’s being held in an unauthorized place of detention, where sometimes quite frankly, the conditions can even be worse than in regular jails and prisons in China. And he could be held up to three months, in residential detention and that could be extended for another three months. So potentially, we’re looking at six months without him even having access to legal representation, family and friends, and so on.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Which is terrifying when you think about it. So, comparing and contrasting, because Hakeem, who’s currently detained, it’s a global story, national story set in Australia, but a global story because of the football component. You’ve got a situation with another Australian, in another country. Why is there so little attention, comparatively, and now of course it’s been reported, but not nearly to the extent as it captured public imagination, and are we doing enough as firstly, from a discourse point of view, but is the government doing enough, and why is it different when you can contrast Thailand and China, is it the countries involved, or something else?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, I guess Thailand is a lot more open, so obviously, people have been able to go to Thailand. Thailand’s media has a lot of foreign correspondents being able to report on Hakeem’s case. Foreign correspondents have actually been able to go to the jail and talk to Hakeem. Thailand hasn’t prevented that from happening. Whereas in China, we don’t even know exactly where it is that Yang is being held. There’s very little information, it’s very difficult for journalists that work in China to get information about this case. So they are different, I guess, in that way. But obviously, yes, I mean we think also the way to address these cases is to bring more pressure to bear on the Chinese government.

Elaine Pearson:                  And I think many governments, including Australia, have been very reluctant to criticize China about human rights abuses, about detentions of human rights lawyers in China, but also of our own citizens, of Australians, are precisely because the Chinese government has so much clout, and it’s so powerful. And so at the end of the day, I think that’s also a big reason why we haven’t seen the prime minister speaking publicly about letters that he’s written to the Chinese government, in the way that he has spoken publicly about letters that he’s written to the Thai government, on Hakeem’s case.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It does make you wonder, because I mean, I always think of Hillary Clinton’s off the record comments about arguing with China, that it’s hard to argue with your banker, given the debt situation and underwriting of the US economy. And for Australia perhaps it’s hard to argue with that best customer, and when you look at the trade relationship, but should the government be doing more, irrespective of … is it possible to ignore those kinds of realities, or did they have to be managed in that way? Because some people will say, well, there’s no real … words are bought in diplomacy, and you’ve got to sort of talk quietly, but is that beneficial in these situations, or is it better to, for lack of a better phrase, blow it up in the media?

Elaine Pearson:                  I don’t think a quiet diplomacy is enough. And look, quite frankly, until Hakeem’s case was blown up in the media, the Australian government had not been as responsive on this case. It was really the public attention that this case brought, the fact that football associations we’re getting so involved, that really upped the ante in terms of the Australian government’s response. But no, I mean I think, look, where, China is concerned, it’s not like a very strong robust, response from Australia will necessarily win Yang’s freedom, but I think the danger of not speaking out, is that China will become more and more emboldened, to take these actions, because there’s no repercussions. And so, I think it’s actually really important that Australia have a more robust policy of speaking up on human rights issues, so that it doesn’t come as a shock to the Chinese government when the Australian government does speak up in cases like this.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Good. You’ve actually just touched on the next thing I want to talk about, which is a human rights record in China. And, you’re right, we don’t talk about it much at all. So, one thing that I’d be … and I know Human Rights Watch has done some work in this area, about the situation related to the Uighurs in the Xingang province. Are you able to get a little bit of background about that, and then we can perhaps talk about that issue in a little more detail? Exactly what’s going on there, in respect to the camps?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah. I mean, the situation of Uighurs in China, has always been dire in some respects. They’re in a far western province of China. Uighurs and Turkic Muslims have always been somewhat viewed with suspicion, by the Chinese government, but the repression really has been turned up a notch in recent years with the establishment of these political reeducation camps. And so now you’re looking at a situation where you have more than a million people, according to the UN, detained in these political reeducation camps. These are arbitrary detentions, so there’s no court. You can’t protest your detention. You don’t know how long you will be there, and living life in the camps, it’s very militarized. They’re forced to sing Chinese songs, they’re forced to pledge their allegiance to the Chinese state, and it’s really about eradicating any sense of Muslim identity or Uighur identity, and effectively trying to brainwash these people to become loyal Chinese subjects.

Misha Zelinsky:                  I mean, that’s terrifying. I mean, a million people in a reeducation camp, to be forced to pledge allegiance and give up their religions. I mean, these are the sort of things we haven’t seen, globally, for a very, very long time. Why are we not talking about this? I mean, again, we’re talking, and we should be talking about one Australian detained, in a Thai prison, but a million people detained in reeducation camps in a large country, is really quite scary. So why isn’t that not anymore attention?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, it’s a very good question, and I mean certainly, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty and a bunch of organizations, are really trying to up the profile of what’s happening, and try and get governments to address this issue. So at the moment, we just launched the campaign, we wanted the March session of the Human Rights Council, governments to issue a resolution which would force the Chinese government to allow a fact finding mission, to come to China to look at the situation in Xinjiang, particularly with regard to the political reeducation camps.

Elaine Pearson:                  The problem is because the Chinese government is also a member of the Human Rights Council, a lot of governments and it’s … it tends to retaliate against governments. Frankly, a lot of governments don’t want to take on China, and so they don’t want to support resolutions like this because they’re worried that the Chinese government will retaliate, financially. A lot of countries in the world, involved with the belt and road initiative, and frankly that’s been a very effective way for the Chinese government to buy the collaboration and complicity from a lot of governments.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. Just before we turn to that, because I think that’s really a fascinating topic, about Chinese assertiveness in the region. The other thing I’d love to get your take on, because you talked about Chinese, this urge to control its population. They’re very autocratic regime, obviously, very controlling of the media, but this latest thing, and maybe you could talk a little about this concept of social credit. And when I first read about it, the notion that you can … they’ll basically be scoring everyone for everything that they do. Jaywalking, whether or not you pay your bills on time, if you’re polite to people and then everyone has this score. It’s sort of almost like an Orwellian nightmare, or for your younger listeners, it’s something from a Black Mirror episode, and literally was an episode of Black Mirror. So, I mean-

Elaine Pearson:                  It was.

Misha Zelinsky:                  … Tell us a little bit about that because, that is legitimately scary.

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah. I mean, the social credit system has been rolled out in China over the last few years. I think they expect it to be fully operationalized by 2020, and it’s basically a big data system that collects a whole lot of information, and scoops it up. So it could be all sorts of things as to whether you parking fines, court orders, what kind of shopping you do, where you go out, who you’re associating with, what kinds of comments you’re making on social media. And it basically uses that information to give you a score, and it determines whether you are a trustworthy member of Chinese society, in which case you will be entitled to all sorts of benefits from the Chinese state.

Elaine Pearson:                  Or if you’re in the untrustworthy a category, then you might actually have trouble in booking flights, or booking a fast trains to get around. And you know, it also has repercussions in terms of your social credit score for applying for government jobs, or if you want to send your kids to a good government school. So it is extremely scary, that the Chinese government has embarked on the system. I think it’s part of the broader efforts of the Chinese government to have this mass surveillance state. And unfortunately, because China is becoming increasingly totalitarian, there’s no real way for Chinese citizens to really object to this, because if they do, they likely to bend themselves, find themselves in jail.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Or with a low score.

Elaine Pearson:                  Or low score, indeed.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, in terms of, so if the ability to protest these things internally in China is difficult, and we’ve seen in the past with Tiananmen Square, where attempts have been made, that the dissidents have been brutally crushed, but also the hunting down of people that blog online, or tweet online, and the great firewall of China, I mean so, it really falls to other countries to call out this sort of behavior. So, can you talk a little bit about the way that China tends to sort of bully it’s neighbors, or coerce its neighbors, into silence? And we’ve talked about trade and that kind of bilateral nature, but you know things like the BRI with diplomacy, where China lends money for projects of questionable value, and then when they can’t pay it back, they either take the asset or reach some sort of accommodative arrangement with you. I mean, how worried are you about that as an organization, when you look at human rights, globally, and in China?

Elaine Pearson:                  Oh yeah, I mean we’re extremely worried about it. I think we’re seeing that happen all over the Asia Pacific. I think now, Australia for many, was the biggest donor to Papa New Guinea, but now that’s been dwarfed by China. But most of the money that the Chinese government is giving to the PNG government, is not aid, it’s loans, and it’s for infrastructure projects. And so I think there are real questions about what happens when that money has to be repaid. But the fact that China has this ongoing, with so many different countries around the world, it means that it is also effectively able to buy the silence of these countries when it comes to raising human rights violations. So when we were talking a bit about Xinjiang, this is happening to a million Muslims, you would think that Muslim majority countries would be concerned about this, because this is happening to their brothers and sisters. And in China, they’re not even allowed to say Salaam alaikum anymore. They have to say nǐ hǎo, because if they say that, they might get sent to a political reeducation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Elaine Pearson:                  But we’re not seeing the criticism coming from these governments, because many of these governments are also indebted to China. I was just in Indonesia a few weeks ago to talk to the Indonesian government about this, because we saw the Indonesian government really show a bit of leadership on the Rohingya issue, ethnic Rohingyas and Muslims. And as you might remember, many of them had to flee to Bangladesh because of the Myanmar militaries mess campaign of rape, murder and arson. And in that case you saw countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, really taking a stand and calling on the Myanmar government for accountability. But, Myanmar and China, I guess, are two very different beasts, precisely because of China’s economic clout. And so actually it’s been much, much more difficult to get governments to speak up about what’s happening in China right now.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, thinking about the way that typically human rights has been led by liberal democracies, are you concerned about, and is the organization concerned about this sort of increasing divide where, so leaving aside China, but increasingly divided between countries that are democratic and countries that are either autocratic, or democratic in name only, we’re starting to see increasing divides emerge, when you look at the countries that have recognized the new president of Venezuela, they’ve tended to fall along the lines of countries that are broadly democratic, or countries that are broadly autocratic. What is the role of that, in the human rights discourse, and how important is democracy to civil liberty?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah look, I think that’s a great question. And I think democracy is really important to civil liberties. I don’t think you can have … it’s very hard to see how you could protect basic civil rights of free speech, freedom of association, free press, if you don’t have a democratic system or a way in which you can raise … basically call for your rights. I think we’re very concerned about the sort of sweeping populist, autocratic movement around the world, and I think we’re seeing democracies, even the established ones, are really fraying at the edges.

Elaine Pearson:                  And the rise of these populist leaders, they’re coming to power because I think they see the world as a complicated, difficult place. They were able to really tap into the fears of a lot of people, and they’re basically scapegoating minorities, and here it might be asylum seekers, in other places it’s migrants or Muslims. In other countries, it might be LGBTI people. And I think the other thing that they do is they really erode away the checks and balances that we need in place in order to defend our basic civil liberties. And so, it’s eroding away a free press, an independent judiciary, a vigorous civil society. And we’re seeing that happen all around the world.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And, so you just touched on media there, which I think is a really important one, because media model is collapsing of the exact same time we’re seeing these problems emerge. I mean, and then there’s a further complication, I think around sort of social media, and then you kind of got this post truth, this fake news phenomenon, so what’s real, what’s not? Do you find that it’s kind of almost like a propaganda, it’s like a almost an autocratic propaganda playground, because you can always contest what’s true and what isn’t, what’s real, what’s not, and increasingly it’s very difficult to source what actually is the case. And so, quality reporting from areas that are subject to human rights abuse is becoming increasingly difficult, if you can obtain it at all. Do you find that to be the case?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, I think it is becoming a bit of a propaganda war now, in some ways. And I think in the past, Human Rights Watch use to diligently do it’s reports, put its reports out there and then we would kind of think, well, the facts speak for themselves. But frankly, that’s not enough anymore. So it’s also about getting visuals. It’s about using video. It’s about effectively using social media to get your message out there, because otherwise, I think there’s also so many counter narratives around the world. But I also think, we are seeing that certain sources of information that are considered accurate, that are considered independent, are actually even more important in this world today, that’s being dominated by fake news and by spin.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Because there’s that saying which is, a lie gets around the world before truth even has time to get out of bed and put on his pants, or something – I probably butchered the quote, the quote. But that’s even more true now with social media and the way things can quickly be spread. I mean, do you think in this battle, are the autocrats winning this PR battle? I mean, I think increasing you look at polling and even in advanced democracies, in Australia, you taking the example where, young people had to be convinced that democracy is the best model, which is quite scary. I mean, do you think we’re winning or we’re losing this fight, in very broad terms?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, I mean it’s hard to say. I mean I think, look, working for human rights organization, you have to be an optimist. You can’t be a pessimists because we work on pretty depressing subjects. So, I mean I think the good thing … I think we were at a really low point, particularly after Trump won the US election, and I think at that point it did seem like, you know, all of these autocratic leaders, also in Europe, were basically coming to power and how we going to stop this? But that’s not true.

Elaine Pearson:                  I mean we have seen some positive stories in Malaysia, in the Maldives recently, where they’ve been able to oust authoritarian governments through having democratic elections. And even looking at the US midterms, I mean, I think that’s another example that gives us hope. But ultimately, it is up to people to vote for the type of leaders that they want. And I think, the Philippines is an extremely concerning example, where Duterte didn’t even hide about extrajudicial killings. He openly flaunted that he wanted to kill people who were involved in the drug trade, and-

Misha Zelinsky:                  He made it a virtue as a part of his platform-

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah. And unfortunately he maintained a lot of popular support, despite those positions. So, I think now we seeing, in the Philippines, some of the independent media that were really reporting quite strongly on the war on drugs, also facing a lot of problems from the Duterte government. So I think it’s a matter of being vigilant, everywhere. And I think it’s also about ensuring that the way in which we fight back against these autocratic governments, might be trying to get more people to come out and protest, getting people to understand the impact that this has on their rights, and I think we are starting to see that around the world. I mean, even in places like Poland, I think the fact that you had the judges protesting and saying, no, we’re still going to come to work, you can’t just dismiss us, was actually really moving. And in Hungary too, you’ve seen massive protests against Orban. So it’s not like people are just suddenly sitting back and accepting, suddenly, these more repressive governments.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s a really interesting point. And it’s good to hear some positive news sometimes, because we do often focus on the negative. But yeah, again, we’ve sort of talked a little about the contest between democracies and autocrats, and the old divide of … the old cold war divide, but what’s the role of values projection in foreign policy? Because, I mean we talk a lot about hard power, and things in a national security frame, about cyber security and military and alliances. But what’s the role of values projection in it, and also, how much is it dependent on western credibility, and has some of that eroded over time, that we can’t really talk about these things as confidently as we once did?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, I mean, I think there’s definitely some truth to that, that if you’re going to talk about respect for international law, and get other countries to agree to that, then you also need to apply those same principles at home. And we have seen basically hypocritical governments, from the US to Australia, on a number of these issues. But I think the role of values in diplomacy is incredibly important. And even if you read the foreign policy white paper that came out, it talks about the need for an international rules based order, and how Australia’s interests will best be protected in a region that respects the rule of law. Well, if you want a region that respects the rule of law, then it is about also promoting those values, because you’ve got the Chinese government at the other end, throwing all its cash around, in a lot of these countries in this region.

Elaine Pearson:                  And so I think, it is really important for democratic countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea. It’s not simply, I guess, the place of Western governments to be speaking out for these things, certainly at Human Rights Watch, we’ve been investing more in middle power countries, not just western countries, because we think that they’re really crucial to the global fight to press for human rights. So it depends, a really good case example, the Japanese government gives massive aid all around the region, yet never has really raised human rights concerns. It never comes with any conditionality attached. So we’ve certainly been working with a Japanese MPs, to talk about the importance of making sure, at least in the aid packages, that there is some human rights benchmarks, or human rights monitoring that they’re doing, and trying to get the Japanese government to be a little bit more outspoken on some rights issues.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Okay. So you mentioned Australia, so circling back to us again, which we sort of started, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. What is Australia’s role in maintaining … we’ve said, and it’s very clear that Australia benefits, middle size economy, we’re down at the bottom of the world. We benefit from a liberal rules based order. What’s our role in maintaining that? Do we have a role? I mean, how does a middle power navigate this sort of uncertain times, where there’s these sort of emerging tensions between titans, globally?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, so look, I mean I think, it’s about standing up. Consider having a consistent principal position on human rights, and standing up for those values, and those principles, wherever they under threat. And this doesn’t mean megaphone diplomacy, or … I hate that term because the whole idea that you would shout at someone through a megaphone, obviously is never going to be effective.

Misha Zelinsky:                  We do it at the unions, but …

Elaine Pearson:                  But maybe not, maybe not in senior meetings between prime ministers and foreign ministers. And it doesn’t mean lecturing other countries, but it also means finding ways to support civil societies, support human rights defenders, to support the lawyers and people in those countries, who frankly are under attack for their views. And so it might be simple things like, you know, inviting them to embassy functions, providing support to organizations who really need that work to document human rights abuses. But I think it’s also calling governments out, when people are unfairly prosecuted, or when political prisoners go to jail, and showing governments that the Australian government cares about these values.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, I mean, I think Ozzie’s often wonder, when we look at the world, we think, do we really matter? We’ve got our alliances, and they kind of taking care of us and the world and we just sort of ride along. Does our opinion matter in this space? Are we seen as a serious player in the human rights space? I mean, how much should we care about this, and what’s our influence, in a realistic sense?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yes, it totally matters. I mean, I think particularly now, given that the traditional countries that spoke up very strongly about human rights, for better or for worse, the US and the UK, they’re pretty absent now. The US is completely absent on a Trump. The UK is totally preoccupied by Brexit. That leaves the EU. Canada has been pretty good, in raising these issues, but I think that really sort of opens the space for middle power countries like Australia, and particularly in the Asia Pacific region. I mean, Australia is a really important player. It has important trade and security relationships with a lot of these countries.

Elaine Pearson:                  It’s provided a lot of aid over the years, and so our voice does matter. But I think it’s not just about Australia speaking up on its own, it’s actually about Australia working in coalition with a bunch of other governments, and especially if you’re dealing with a very strong, powerful country like China, it’s not going to be effective if it’s just Australia raising its concerns on its own. But in a case like Yang, I think it’s effectively trying to get joint demarches by embassies, getting other embassies to also speak up, and speaking with a united voice on these issues.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, I think it’s been a really fascinating chatting, and we could talk all day about this, well I certainly could. I bore people to death with my podcast. But, so the last question I ask everybody, so Ozzie’s get asked … so the mirror version, but foreign guests get asked which Australians they’d invite to a barbecue, so three foreigners at a barbecue at Elaine Pearson’s house. Who are they, and why?

Elaine Pearson:                  Three foreigners at a barbecue? Well, I think I would have to say Kofi Annan, because yeah, I have long been a fan of Kofi Annan. But at the other end of the spectrum, I would probably love to have Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister there, and he had her insights as a young female leader of the country. And then, maybe because this is a podcast, Ira Glass, who does, “This American Life”, I just feel like I’ve listened to his voice for so many years, I would love to have him around for barbie.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Very good. A podcaster, a politician, and a diplomat. It would be a great time to be a fly on the wall there. I’d like to record that barbecue, it would be a very fascinating-

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, maybe I’d let you come along too.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s kind of implicit in the Diplomates title I’m coming, but no, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It’s been a fascinating chat. Appreciate it.

Elaine Pearson:                  Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And we are done.


Governor Kim Beazley

Kim Beazley is the Western Australian Governor.  Governor might be his current job, but he was also the Australian Ambassador to the United States, Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Deputy PM of Australia and also served as Defence Minister – quite a CV!

Governor Beazley joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about Trump, Putin, China and how Australia can navigate the global rivalries that are fast emerging between our strategic allies and our regional trading partners.

We apologise for the quality of this audio. It was done in Government House in Perth, which is currently under extensive renovation. 




Misha Zelinsky:                  Governor Kim Beazley, thank you for joining me on Diplomates. Now, I should note that we’re doing this in the rather salubrious surrounds of the Government House in Western Australia so thank you for having me along. Very lovely digs you have here.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, Governor, I thought it would be useful to start off here. You’re former ambassador to the United States. The U.S. under Trump, it seems to be picking fights with its friends in the European Union, it’s broken deals with the Iran Deal. Of course Australia was not immune in respect to the discussions around migration. The United States has been a very long term friend with Australia. Can we still count on the United States as a friend?

Kim Beazley:                         I’m going to separate Australia out from the rest. We’re unique. I suppose you could also include Israel in that uniqueness. We are not criticized by the U.S. in any way shape or form. That all the old verities were there and the language between us and the United States, all the old undertakings, all the old promises, they all still feature in the rhetoric of, not only the officials of the United States, but also President Trump. So it’s as though, excuse me, we’ve been frozen in aspic. The Australian relationship is carved out from the roiling of the rest of the U.S. relationships in the Western alliance. Most notable with NATO, but also, really, too, with Japan and South Korea and experiences that they have had. So there is no reason to say, in anything that has happened to this point, that Australia has been … had its relationship changed.

Kim Beazley:                         But the circumstances in which we conduct our own diplomacy in the region and further afield, yeah, that has been impacted. But that’s in a sense for us to work out how to handle it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So we’ve had, recently the foreign minister come out and say that the relationship perhaps is changing. We’ve had the Shadow Foreign Minister in Penny Wong also talk about perhaps a new paradigm emerging. The U.S. president seems to be very focused on deals. He says that NATO’s a bad deal. The Iran deal was a bad deal. Various trade relations are bad deals. Could ANZUS ever be a bad deal, do you think? In that context?

Kim Beazley:                         I think the problem that we have with the President and others, is related to how he sees the world. And basically, American statespersons have run the United States since World War II on the basis of the post World War II settlement. Liberal internationalism, multilateralism, rules of the road in so far as the global commons is concerned, open trading relationships as far as the WTO is concerned. It’s at the heart of the liberal internationalist project of the United States. Trump is the polar opposite. He is a nationalist. He is a unilateralist. He has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. He is an admirer of authoritarian rule. He sees essentially the paradigms that I described earlier on as essentially excuses for looting the United States. And in that position for a lengthy period of time.

Kim Beazley:                         He takes umbrage, therefore, at anything he thinks in past relationships with allies, in particular, as indicating that they’re users as a reason for him to bring them under a scalpel. And then he looks to Russia, probably in a quite unique way and we don’t know fully the reasons for that, but irrespective of his attitude to Russia, he is essentially not about an international order of liberal principles. He is about an international order of survival of the fittest, competitive and that order is ruled, not by rules, but by force de rigueur and the creation of facts.

Kim Beazley:                         Now that’s him. But his officials don’t agree with that. So you have these absurdities. You have the visit this month in July to Europe, Brussels, one or two other European capitals and then Helsinki with Putin, in which he exhibits all the, with NATO, all the facets of their changed ideological direction. But then the communique comes out. And there’s not a dime of difference between the communique from this NATO and any of the communiques in the past. And American officials are writing that.

Kim Beazley:                         He comes out with the picture I presented of nationalist unilateralism and his Defense Secretary, Mattis, personally writes the national defense strategy which is an enormous re-endorsement of the saliency of the American alliances.

Kim Beazley:                         So you’ve got the President out there with new directions. You’ve got the rest of his administration talking up the old storm, and most of Congress as well, doing the same. So this is, to say the least, a confusing time for Australian ministers.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Given the depth of relationship, I think it’s interesting because as you say the relationship is deep at a political level, it’s also deep at an institutional level. It sent us, for want of a better word, seems to be holding for now but given the extraordinary powers the president has, over foreign affairs in particular, can the relationship survive four years, potentially eight years of Trump? Can they potentially, given the importance of the U.S. relationship to Australia and it is, how do we maintain that relationship in the context of unilateralism and nationalism from a Trump administration?

Kim Beazley:                         If this was being pursued in an intelligent systematic way, based on our, what you’d call full court press of officials, and U.S. policy was proceeding with structure down the line that we’ve been talking about, the answer would be no to that question. But the essence of Trump’s administrative style is beyond the expression of an attitude. It’s impossible to develop a body. And so no one can really predict what’s going to come out of all of this, beyond volatility. And certainly there will be volatility and that volatility may produce crisis, particularly when they interact with other changes in the system.

Kim Beazley:                         See, I would say that Australia has more to think about in the much more rapidly changing distribution of power in our region, than simply Mr. Trump. And we do have to look very seriously at recasting the defense policy that we have.

Kim Beazley:                         And one of the things that Trump is doing, I think, inadvertently helpfully, and I put the helpfully in quotation marks because it’s not his intention, is that he’s forcing us to rethink the way we do force structure. And we put up global rules out there and global order up there and the relationships in the region as an equal force structure determinant with the defense of our approaches. That was a mistake when we did it and it’s now completely unsustainable. So we have to-

Misha Zelinsky:                  You mean the reliance on the U.S. underpinning security in the region?

Kim Beazley:                         Not reliance on the U.S. so much as the character of the region.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Kim Beazley:                         And the character of the region did not really reflect what we assumed of it and the fact that Mr. Trump is not actually prepared to pursue his side of some of the underpinnings means that what we should have done anyway, we absolutely have to do. We have to go to Plan B.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so let’s talk a little bit about Plan B. You mentioned the shifting of power and I think, effectively, that’s a shifting to a more multi-polar world with the rise of China and the reset of Russia. And you’ve got Putin and Xi actively challenging some of these structures that we have and the alliance system, it’s not being helped by perhaps uncertainty around the U.S.’s position on those alliances. But in the region, with Australia and our relationship with China, we’ve seen [inaudible 00:10:11] assertiveness in the region from China militarily. How concerned should we be about China under the Xi regime.

Kim Beazley:                         There’s no reason that we have to engage with China. We have to calculate what the Chinese are likely to do in the future. We have to see how they interact with other powers in the region, including the United States. But I’ll just say this about President Xi, he has shifted China a long way from the vision of Deng Xiaoping. And there’s a big area of risk here that people just simply don’t talk about and that is, how does he keep his legitimacy going now that they’ve essentially moved away from collective leadership? It moved away from the trend towards constitutionalism. It reinserted the Party processes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s right he was saying he’s a big reformer.

Kim Beazley:                         Yeah and everything. And they’ve done that. So you now have a totally different picture emerging from China. How does he keep legitimacy for what is a lifetime of leadership instead of the 10 years normally accorded. Well, he’ll run into trouble. All governments do run into trouble. The Chinese are not exempt from that. And when he does, people are going to start looking at him from a nationalist point of view and say things like, you made a big deal of re-incorporation of Taiwan. You made a big deal of enforcing our position in the South China and East China Seas. Why is nothing changed? Are you really the defender of the nation?

Kim Beazley:                         Now that’s not a question that would normally have been asked of any of his predecessors as president. It will be asked of him some time in the next 10 years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  What sort of event would ask that question?

Kim Beazley:                         The Chinese people are engaged. Yes, there’s oppression. Yes, there’s a failure to recognize rights, but there’s two things. One, they’re very courageous. Two, they’re very opinionated. And generally they’ve found out this, which is not a good thing, necessarily for the rest of us. They’ve found that if you go after the Communist Party from the right, you frighten them. If you go after them from the left, the super libertarian and the rest of it, you’re easily oppressed. And so-

Misha Zelinsky:                  So nationalism is the big threat to the regime.

Kim Beazley:                         Nationalism, you can always get them

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting.

Kim Beazley:                         And nationalism gets bound up in what we’ve just been talking about. So there’s that. There’s not just Trump out there on the landscape. There’s also these other changes and where on earth are we going to end up with North Korea is a further factor in this.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s right.

Kim Beazley:                         So what do we need to do? Well, we don’t need to move away from the United States for the very simple reason. In this more volatile region, where we have effectively a total focus on technological skills as our defense, staying ahead of the game technologically, we now only have one alternative and that is relationship with the United States. They are the only people really in the game, in technological enhancements, in capacity in weapons systems, military tactics, all the things that are associated with the next generation of military technologies.

Kim Beazley:                         The only other people in the game are the Russians and the Chinese. The Europeans are on the outskirts. So for us, if we want to survive in this zone, in the long term, we have no choice but to associate with the United States if we want to be anything.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Let’s talk about the United States, China, and the South China Sea. You’ve got the Chinese being very provocative, building manmade islands, taking ownership of other islands and then now militarizing those islands despite promises not to do so. The Americans are very keen for us to engage in the Freedom of Navigation exercises which is to go within the 12 nautical mile range of those sites. Australia has yet to do that. Should we be doing that? Should we be participating in those types of Freedom of Navigation exercises?

Kim Beazley:                         Well that’s a matter for the government. The government is quite clear on what it believes the legalities of the situation are. Also quite clear on what they believe the Chinese are already doing or not doing. Also quite clear on what the rights are of the states that have got counterclaims and the rest of the world in terms of movement of shipping, both civil and military through those areas. So there’s nothing you can complain about, I think, sensibly about Australian government policy and it’s quite reasonable for them to be presenting those policies to the Chinese in argument and discussion.

Kim Beazley:                         Before I became governor and was then less reticent about putting my views across about what government should be doing, what I used to say-

PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:15:04]

Kim Beazley:                         My views across about what the government should be doing. What I used to say was by and large, I think we should do these things on our own. That we have our own view about the legalities here and how these legalities ought to be pursued and we were pursuing it. The marginal zone about where we ought to operate in this regard is about island like features that are being created but do not attract island like legal rights. So that is when you take a rock and turn it into a base, that sort of thing, even when you’ve done that, that attracts no automatic rights to a territorial sea around it.

Kim Beazley:                         Most of what has been done has been turning features which do count as islands into bases. And the position of the Australian government over the years has always been that they treat those entities as though there was an owner because there is than owner. The question about who the owner is is to our mind not settled. But then we would observe the limits that would have been observed if an owner was in place.

Misha Zelinsky:                  How do we grapple with, as a democracy in Australia that we favor these rule based order, where you have contested claims in the South China Sea, they go to court, they’re ruling in one particular which is against China in that particular instance, and that has not subsequently been observed. If it does start to unstitch the entire system when countries don’t observe the outcomes of the great system, or the referee so to speak.

Kim Beazley:                         Well our view of course is they should. And hardly anyone can ever enforce its views on the rest of the globe. You basically have to simply influence folk or try to influence folk. Whether you do actually anything practical about it or not, at least when there is a discussion of these issues, you don’t back away from the principles that you evolved. So any argument that takes place you take the view of the legalities which we have supported for a very long period of time.

Kim Beazley:                         It’s not an embarrassment, I don’t think, for a country like Australia if the views we express are not entertained by others with whom we’re talking. We can’t force them to do anything. And in those circumstances, the best we can do is to articulate those concerns, keep doing so, give support to other people who are doing it who may be more directly effected than we are, and learning the maturity and toughness that comes with somebody or some nation that is prepared to stand up for what it believes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’d just like to just quickly talk about China’s relationship with some of the other players in the region. Some of the smaller countries of the Asian nations and also the Pacific in terms of this One Belt, One Road initiative. And we’ve seen initially it’s talked about one of the largest investment in human history to reestablish that trade route through sea and land.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But we’re also now seeing the so called debt book diplomacy where countries have signed dup for projects they don’t necessarily need at terms that aren’t that particularly favorable. Then when they can’t make the payment, that asset’s taken back. Most troubling-ly the example of Vanuatu it looked like there may have been a military lock base or Naval base being built there potentially. How concerned should we be about that the way that China’s asserting itself through trade or through debt in a region?

Kim Beazley:                         I think China might be concerned out it, not just us. International politics is pretty fluid. Reputational issues are very important. You start developing our reputation for using debt to essentially take over parts of other countries, if you start building installations which are of very little value to the country in which they’re built but a substantial value to yourself, if you start projects which can’t be paid for by their own intrinsic merits, or you can’t complete to the satisfaction of the folk concerned, you’re going to suffer immense reputational damage. And people will deal with it.

Kim Beazley:                         This is particularly so in the experience of countries in Africa, but also in Southeast Asia and South Asia. A lot of these things are self correcting. And China’s going to have to learn from that. and will learn from that as people respond. When you actually look at the completion rights of these projects, and then look at some others who engage the infrastructure of the region like the Japanese, at a much lower level the Japanese have a much higher success rate. And what the Japanese actually produce is something usually useful to the countries concern.

Kim Beazley:                         They don’t talk about belts and roads and endless highway of Japanese economic activity, but to all intensive purposes, when you look at the infrastructure projects they’re engaged in, they’re similarly geographically aligned to those which the Chinese do but with smaller amounts invested and better outcomes for the people that are concerned. It’s not just there, it’s Americans, it’s a lot of other people engaged in this.

Kim Beazley:                         But it is an opportunity for many countries, and there will be from time to time an intersection between what is fiscally sustainable and what is actually locally necessary. And that’s certainly, China’s a powerful country, it helps advance their influence. At the moment you’d say that the most impactful in political terms of these Chinese strategies is not so much on the region we inhabit but in Central Asia. And who loses out? In Central Asia, to those Chinese infrastructure initiatives, what? Russia.

Kim Beazley:                         So Russia has this relationship with China which sees Russia’s interests and influence effectively being subsumed.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting. So you think that … A lot of people are now seeing it perhaps it’s a Cold War sort of prison, but a lot of people are seeing it as an alignment of interests between Russia and China. But you’re suggesting perhaps there are tensions that will emerge at Eurasian crossover region as China seeks to build up it’s sphere influence. Because Putin’s very concerned about spheres of influence.

Kim Beazley:                         Look, there’s no conflict of interest between the two except perhaps in the challenge to what they think is objectionable features of the rules based order. But the truth is there’s no symmetry there either. Putin just totally rejects it, the Chinese don’t. The are may feature of rules based order which they absolutely agree with. There’s no symmetry between the two of them on that.

Kim Beazley:                         It’s convenient to have that relationship with China, but there are contradiction elements of it too. The Russians built up a lot of influence and Vietnam and a lot of influence in India and South Asia. And the performance of the Chinese is causing all of our lives to be quizzical about them. And there’s no activity which when analyzed in detail to engage in which Russia does not look to complete in theory.

Kim Beazley:                         Putin may have had a triumph with his conversations with Trump and made the American president look ridiculous or as a satrap. And all of the allies of the United Stares might have been embarrassed by it. But where does it get Putin? Has it got him a relief of sanctions? Has it got him a non-engagement with the NATO powers along his border? Has it got him an American recognition of where he stands in Ukraine? Has it got him anything that actually matters to him?

Kim Beazley:                         And when you look at Russia’s situation, an economy the size of Australia with about four or five times that number of people to look after as Australia with about two and a half times out spending on defense, there’s a few people in Russia who are beginning to start to say to Mr. Putin, “Enough already.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  With a very low life expectancy evidently as well.

Kim Beazley:                         Yeah. Except the Russians are pretty courageous people.

Misha Zelinsky:                  They’re stoic.

Kim Beazley:                         They’re stoic as you say, they’re cynical. They like the fact that they’ve seen him stand up proud, take over property and the rest of it. They also want to be fed. And at some point of time, where Putin stands at the moment means they’re not going to be. So he needs those changes. If I was a Russian I’d be saying of the old lad, I’d be saying, “Oh yeah, you did real well. You poisoned our relationship with the United States, you’ve interfered in their politics in a way beyond any interference they’ve done in ours, you’ve got yourself in your mind a president elected at your own behalf. What’s on my table as a result of that please?” And the answer of course is nothing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yes, well that’s interesting. So you talked about economics there, and I think in the old Cold War we had two separate systems that a lot of people now point to the economics being this, perhaps the destiny in terms of security. You have people that look at China’s projections in our region and then say well there’s no way the that US can compare against China’s GDP therefor game over. Some analysts will say that. Others will point to the quad. Now I’m curious to ask you about which is the alliance of Japan, India, the United States, Australia which is very nice and do you see that as a potential counterbalance in our region in terms of economic response and in security response?

Kim Beazley:                         No, I just see it as a useful engagement. We are moving. China’s not the only country rising economically. You’ll see the same set of statistics that you just quoted applied to India, show India in the second half of this century we’ll all be thoroughly dead, taking over that leadership position from China. And you’ll see a straight line projections are all terrific except there are human realities that intervene.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And India has a demographic advantage as well.

Kim Beazley:                         Yeah. That’s right. And at the moment there’s a writing America off which also doesn’t have population problems. It’s economy is going to expand. The relativities that work towards China are not based on collapsing the American position. It’s a the American position advances, US is now starting to compete in new technologies, having let it go to some degree. And they’ve just put humongous amounts of money into it. Another great triumph for Putin. Gets out the and boast about a bunch of hypersonic missiles and related technologies which he doesn’t possess. And threaten to incorporate nuclear weapons within technical strategies which he hasn’t arrived at. He may arrive at that.

Kim Beazley:                         But with his 78 billion a year that spends on defense, he just massively tweaked the tail of somebody spending 715 billion. Brilliant move. You really scored with that one. So what do the Americans say? Oh well, we better got on with the hypersonic, we better get on with a different technical nuclear weapon usable in the battlefields. We’d better get on with the lasers, we’d better get on with the Artificial Intelligence and the rest of it. He’s just invited competition for an outfit spending ten times what he’s spending on defense. Fled losers.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Which is exactly what happened in the 80s with Reagan handcrafting the Soviet Union.

Kim Beazley:                         Exactly. And we need to take a look at that. There’s an awful lot of what the Americans are doing with their massive new defense spending that I think is a bit unwise. They’re focused too much on platforms and personnel and not enough on the new technologies. Though they’re spending a lot on the new technologies. I think the objective of the 350 ship Navy works against the rapid incorporation within the platforms they do have which is about 280 of them, of some of the new technologies which they brought forward very substantially particularly in related to direct energy weapons like lasers.

Kim Beazley:                         Their demand to put another 100,000 men or whatever it is in the Army works against the Army’s clear preference for next generation technologies on the battlefield. So there’s that tension going on. But the amounts of money is so huge that they may well be able to sustain the apparently contradictory priorities.

Kim Beazley:                         So there’s all of that going on at the moment which gives absolutely no attention or focus here at all.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And Australia benefits from that because we use a lot of the same combat systems as the United States, is that right?

Kim Beazley:                         And also we are very adept in sitting down with the Americans and converting those technologies into things that are usable in our environment. And I notice for the recent meeting of OSMET that the American Defense Secretary was pointing out our membership of the industrial recognized, industrial and inventive capabilities that the US will want to partner with. So we have got the possibility of engaging a lot of these technologies given that we can’t any longer do that ourselves. Or count on getting it from anywhere else. At least we are now heavily engaged with the Americans on that front. And we have at our defense …

PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:30:04]

Kim Beazley:                         … the Americans on that front, and we have at our defense, science and technology organization exactly the sort of capabilities that we need to ensure that we prioritize those technologies rightly and incorporate them effectively. We’re on the verge of a [walk 00:30:18] in the next generation systems, but only on the verge of that because of the continuing relationship with the Americans and nothing Trump has done threatens that. Trump creates a difficult international environment for us. He has not created a difficult military development environment for us.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s very assuring. Just to bring it, we’ve talked a lot about international defense policy. I’m curious to get your views on some of the things that are happening at home in a foreign policy context. We’ve had Chinese interference in our domestic affairs, and all the debates between the so-called China Hawks or the Panda Huggers, how seriously should we be concerned about Chinese interference in our democracy with various financial interference into major parties, and how hard should we be pushing back on that?

Kim Beazley:                         Most countries, and this country is now included, but wasn’t, most countries extract themselves from the contribution of other countries and involvement in domestic politics. It doesn’t necessarily work regarding the subject of illegal penetration on the scale that you saw from the United States and Russia, but there are some protections there and the protections have come in here. I think we have to be very careful here in how we handle this. We do not want to make the many Chinese Australians uncomfortable in their own country.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Absolutely.

Kim Beazley:                         It is important that they feel welcome, that they are Australians like the rest of us. We have a blessed tendency in this country not to refer to ourselves as Italian Australians or Irish Australians or Chinese Australians or Indian Australians. The Americans do that.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yes.

Kim Beazley:                         We don’t.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yep.

Kim Beazley:                         We just talk about Australians and then we may get in the conversation go down the line to look at ethnic origins, but we assume that in the end they get absorbed by the great Australian, lovely cultural system.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Absolutely.

Kim Beazley:                         We’ve got to think about that. That means that when we have a disagreement with the Chinese, and we will from time to time and we do look at the sorts of issues that come up here, we need to be polite. We need to be firm, but we also need to be polite, and we need to avoid humiliation wherever we can. The debate that we had on these various issues at the time of Sam Dastyyari put out of the show late last year. I’m not defending him. I’m suggesting that he shouldn’t have gone, but it spiraled out of that into mutual insults, and there certainly is enough to go around in the political process about engagements of the past, in a way which I could understand why Chinese government would start to look at you sideways.

Kim Beazley:                         See, you’ve got to be sensib;e about it. The Americans are the biggest investor in this. The Chinese are our biggest trading partner. Chinese Australians are critical contributors to the stability of this country and its success. We need to bear all those things in mind and grab some maturity in handling it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  No, that’s interesting because I think there’s some difficulty in how to handle the relationship. You mentioned earlier about reputational concerns that the Chinese have, but also there is a, there seems to be a tension between calling out behavior from the Chinese, be it in island building in the South China Sea, or perhaps in meddling in democracy, but it seems to be the tone that is a concern rather than the … How would we be better to manage that?

Kim Beazley:                         Adopt a reasonable tone. You can make these points without getting hysterical. The points need to be made and you want to be able to incorporate those issues in your conversations without necessarily creating massive damage to your country while you do it. One of the problems is this, and this just doesn’t apply and this issue applies in any issue, if you go out of the top and you create a situation where you were tricked and you left worse off than before when you went over the top in your response. The point is, the object of your attention is no longer the issue. You are the issue.

Kim Beazley:                         Now, how do you deal with that? Well it’s a maturity and it also means too that there are a lot of areas of politics when you’re a nation like us, which is not all powerful, you need to actually learn to manage your words and manage your approaches. We’ve done it in the past. We now have to do it full time.

Misha Zelinsky:                  I was just curious just to peek a little bit about the tension that exists, and it’s kind of the elephant in the room where we say we don’t have to choose between our secured relationship with the United States and our trade relationship with China. Can you see, what are the potential triggers where a choice may need to be made? There’s a whole, Hilary Clinton famously said you can’t argue with your banker. How do we argue with our best customer at the same time as wanting to perhaps stick with our best friend in the United States?

Kim Beazley:                         A good start is not to ask the question, and to actually look at how governments handle issues and not the commentary. Commentary has to ask the questions because there’s nothing else to say. The government doesn’t operate like that.. We decided that it was in our interest to proceed with membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is a big deal, a far bigger deal than any of the things that we’ve been talking about so far.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The Americans didn’t want us to do it.

Kim Beazley:                         The Americans did not want us to do it, but we decided, particularly with the south east Asians who are very important to us, [inaudible 00:36:45] to us, wanted us to get involved. We decided to get involved, so what do we do then? We go around saying, “Well, we’ve chosen between the US and China and we’ve chosen China.” That would be the height of immaturity, stupidity, and factually wrong. We chose to be a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That’s what we chose. What we did with the Americans was to say to them, “Look, we think that we need to get into this.” I used to say to them, “You look at China through the prism of the geographic relationship, through Confucian societies, Indochina.” We look at China from a north south perspective. We go through a whole variety of other cultures before we arrive at the Confucian ones. They are important to us and we take some guidance from them. We take the view that we need to listen to what they want us to do and they said that they would feel much more comfortable in that bank if we are there, so we’re going to do it.

Kim Beazley:                         What we will do is we will firstly say that we’re going to try and make the government’s terms as close to the Asian Development Bank as we possibly can, and we are going to keep you advised on each step that we take. That’s how you handle those issues. We didn’t running around asking silly questions about whether or not we’re choosing between China and the US. You do what is in your national interest. That’s what you do.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting, so I would like to actually ask you a questions following on from that because you’ve talked a lot about the economic rise of China and the choices there. Australia has been at every war with the United States, certainly the twentieth century and twenty first century. Is that relationship too strong? Should we be more independent given that what we know now with the Iraq war and the subsequent knock on effects of that? Is there a situation where we can perhaps not necessarily go all the way with LBJ so to speak?

Kim Beazley:                         You make your own decisions. Every one of the wars you referred to we made our own decisions. There was always a factor in those decisions about, at least since World War II, about the character of the relationship we have with the United States is one of the issues that we thought through, but it was not the only issue. We thought through those issues from the perspective of our own national interest, particularly recently, our involvements in Afghanistan and our involvement in Iraq, not the original one. I would say that these are issues which we’ll have to keep on thinking about all the time. You always need to think about it from the point of view of understanding that we’re already deeply embedded in the American system, through the job facilities of which we’ve added another couple over the course of the last decade, in relation to another area of contest that need space, and therefore we’ll always making a substantial contribution to them. We need to work out whether or not we want to make more.

Kim Beazley:                         Tony Abbot, as I recollect at the time of his last latest engagement in Iraq was hardly influenced by American concerns at all. He was influenced by and trying to influence the Americans toward committing themselves because he believed that it would be fatal for the rest of us if that caliphate got underway and successfully ensconced itself in Syria or Iraq. I would have said that our engagement, and I was looking at it from the point of view of the point made in Washington while it was being discussed, not at my level. It was being discussed at other levels, but I was at least in there. It was virtually nothing to do with the alliance and virtually everything to do with the situation on the ground and our concern that the Iraqi government should survive.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That was in response to the ISIS sort of take over over parts of Syria and of Iraq, but the original decision in 2003, I’d like to ask, would you have handled that differently?

Kim Beazley:                         Yes I would have.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yep.

Kim Beazley:                         To be honest, I’m not quite sure where I would have ended up at the very, very last minute, but I can tell you what I would have been doing in the period of time when the British and the Americans and the rest of the world really was looking at what ought to be done about Saddam Hussein, and I’d be doing my damnedest to try to persuade the Americans not to do what they did because if you look at our speeches at the time, you will see that we knew exactly what was going to happen as a result of all of this. We understood of course that the Americans after 9/11, they’re pretty much a winded society, and there’s a lot of motivation around about punish one, educate a hundred.

Kim Beazley:                         We saw at the time that this was not a sensible way of doing that and that you were likely to get yourself into serious trouble if you persisted with it. I suspect that possibly at the end of the day, as the whites in their eyes time had been arrived at, probably would have redeployed the ships that were in the gulf anyway. That would have been a very last minute point, and that was after you’ve exhausted every capacity to persuade them not to. It would be a bit absurd had the ships sailing around there not engaged in what subsequently emerged.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Have been not perhaps as a starting player in the coalition of the willing, so to speak.

Kim Beazley:                         It would be a concluding point, not a starting point.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s a good place for us to finish up. Just as a final question we ask all of our guests on Diplomates, which is, and you’re a former ambassador, so with international guests like to ask them which Australians they’d invite to lunch, but as a former ambassador I might ask you three Americans to lunch with the governor, who are they and why?

Kim Beazley:                         Well, I would love to have ex-President Obama as one of those to lunch. I’d love to have Hilary Clinton, and I would be fascinated to have added to them Jim Mattis.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Oh wow. That would be an interesting group.

Kim Beazley:                         To see what they’ve got to say about contemporary affairs. I’ve got a huge amount of time for all of them and I think that they would make, because all three of them make excellent dinner companions.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That would be a lovely, to be a fly on the wall that would be great, but look, Governor Beazley, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fantastic conversation and all the best with the new year.

Kim Beazley:                         Thank you.