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Ambassador Jeff Bleich: Why trust matters in democracy and how we get it back

Jeff Bleich was US Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

A distinguished legal and political professional, he is the Chair of the Fulbright Scholarship Board and now heads up the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University in Australia

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Jeff for a chat about why the Trump Impeachment is bigger than the trial itself, how Mike Bloomberg could end up President, his friendship with President Obama, the attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to dominate global technology standards, why trust is central to democracy, why autocrats can never crush the human spirit and why the most recent hacking by Russian agents could impact the upcoming 2020 US election. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Jeff Bleich, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, glad to be here Misha. Thank you for inviting me.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, pleasure’s all mine. Now, a good place I thought to start might be US politics. Now, a little bit about yourself. You obviously were ambassador-

Jeff Bleich:                    A good place [crosstalk 00:00:18]-

Misha Zelinsky:             A good place to start, or an interesting place to start, at least, maybe not good. You of course were ambassador to Australia, but you’ve also been a political candidate. I’m curious about what you experienced as the main differences. That’s a big question, but if you could maybe just give us that kind of an insight to the differences in those two roles.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, they’re very different. I mean, I think when you’re a diplomat, particularly in a country that generally is on good terms with the United States, it’s not that people necessarily agree with you, but they’re not immediately hostile to you. They want to know what you have to say. Whereas when you’re a political candidate, half the state or half the country wants to kill you every day. It’s a little different in that sense. I thought it was more policy-oriented when you’re an ambassador. The expectation is that you put politics aside and it’s really focus on, how do we solve problems between our nations and also how can our nations work together to address problems around the world? Whereas when you’re a political candidate, it is 90% politics.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I think the third big difference is money. Just money is a very corrosive factor in politics today. Whereas when you’re US ambassador, a thousand roles will keep you away from ever touching anyone’s money, even your own. That keeps a lot of stress out of your life, and has you focused really on issues. They’re dramatically different roles.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I can imagine the role of money is certainly important one. Now, speaking of politics, I mean, whilst we can’t predict what’s going to happen as we record this, the US president is currently being impeached. I think we can probably figure out the likely outcomes. It’s unlikely that the Republican Senate will seek to convict and remove the president. But how concerned are you about, I suppose, the underlying aspects of the impeachment itself in respect to the politicization of foreign interference and how do you see that playing into the 2020 election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well I’m worried about the impeachment in a number of different ways. One thing is the fact that not enough people are paying attention to it. They’re treating it as though it’s a game and they already know the score, and so why should they watch? When in fact, this is an important statement about our values as a country and what we think matters and what we think doesn’t matter. If there were a moment when the public should be paying attention, regardless of their predisposition, I think now is one of them, so that matters.

Jeff Bleich:                    Another thing that matters to me about it is that there’s… the allegations go to the core of our democracy and if they don’t lead to some kind of sanction this time around, we’re setting a precedent for the future. The president’s accused of having used his position, the power of his office in order to obtain a personal benefit at the expense of our national interest. Namely, the personal benefit is getting dirt on a political opponent, and the national interest was congressionally approved funds being delivered to Ukraine in order for it to mount a defense against one of our adversaries. I mean, a very significant question. I used to teach constitutional law and that kind of an abuse was really the answer to my final exam question as to what’s impeachable conduct. It’s a serious offense if the Senate determines that he did engage in that behavior.

Jeff Bleich:                    What concerns me most is that so far no one has been prepared, on the Republican side, to stand up and say, “If this is true, he did a bad thing. I may not be prepared to remove him from office for it, but this is bad and it shouldn’t be done by any president under any circumstances.” The fact that you’re not hearing Republicans at least define the debate that way, the fact that the president’s defense says, “This is a perfect phone call.” The fact that the chief of staff to the president says, “We do this stuff all the time.” This should concern every American just about whether or not our system is reacting to issues that the framers considered core issues about our security.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I guess the last thing is your question, politicization. I don’t think interference is being politicized, but I think it’s being under-appreciated because we’re so focused on the impeachment, we’re not focusing on how serious this event was in terms of Russian interference and then other ways in which foreign governments could affect the outcome of one of our elections. Long answer. Sorry.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, that’s excellent, and I think it’s really enlightening. But I’m keen to return to the subject of foreign interference while I was just with US politics. One final point in parallel to the impeachment, which is an enormous story. We’ve got another big story which is the upcoming Iowa caucuses. How do you see the Democratic primary playing out? I might press you for a prediction though I won’t hold you to it. I’ve given up the prediction game after 2016, and also 2019 in Australia. But how do you see the Democratic primary playing out? But also how do you see the left right divide playing out in the primary system itself, but then more generally in the general election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well, we’ve narrowed the field of Democrats down from about 32 candidates to six. The six are Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg. Those are really the six who remain viable. I’d say some of the energy of the party is behind people with a very strong left bend who are moving for radical changes on some large scale programs. That would really be the Sanders and Warren camp. Then the other four who I think reflect more of the numbers within Democratic party are reformers, but they’re more pragmatic reformers. They’re not looking for a radical solution, radical change.

Jeff Bleich:                    I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, and I think a lot will depend on Iowa. If you think about the last few elections, everyone thought that Donald Trump’s candidacy was sort of a… they thought it was a joke candidacy for some people or they thought that he was doing it basically to raise his profile for his businesses. They didn’t think he actually thought he would win. But Iowa and other early primary showed where the energy was, and it was clearly with the people who were anti-establishment, and so it ended up being Cruz and Trump at the end.

Jeff Bleich:                    If you look at the last election for Democrats, Hillary was supposed to be in… it was supposed to be easy for her. In fact, she had to go off 50 States against Bernie Sanders because the energy was really with an anti-establishment vote. I would expect a lot of anti-establishment energy to be in the Democratic primary, but there is also going to be a lot of pro-Obama anti-Trump energy, which is focused more on a moderate. Those two are going to have to battle it out in Iowa. I think depending… it’s going to be very close at the top. But whether you win by 1% or lose by 2% can make a huge difference in how the narrative plays out and the momentum.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think this will be a defining moment for the Democrats and will really winnow the field potentially smaller. I’ll give you one prediction which is, if Sanders and Warren came out on top for example and Biden and Buttigieg were in third and fourth, there would probably be a lot of interest in Michael Bloomberg suddenly as someone who could have the resources to mount a strong campaign first against the hard left but also against Donald Trump. If on the other hand, Biden and Buttigieg came in first and second, then I think there you’re less likely to see Bloomberg emerging in the field because there’s a sense that there’s already a couple of candidates in that lane. I think most likely you’re probably going to see one moderate and one hard left candidate coming out in one, two, and everyone else bunched pretty tightly behind them, the other two. We’re in for a bit long bumpy ride.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think, irrespective of the outcome even if it comes down to a battle between say Sanders and Biden or Warren and Buttigieg, can the party bring itself together in a general election to… because I think one of the outcomes of the 2016 election was that some of the Sanders people stayed home and refused to campaign or vote for Clinton. I think that certainly impacted on her candidacy more generally.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I would expect it’ll be different this time, and I take some confidence in that from the midterm elections where Democrats turned out in numbers that they’ve never turned out in before, and they were pretty unanimous in their efforts to unseat house Republicans. I think this time around, Democrats do know how to come back together again. People thought that the Hillary Barack divide was so great that they’d never come together, they came together very well. My sense is that this time around, as well, it’s not a theoretical possibility that Donald Trump could be the president and advance policies that we disagree with as Democrats. I think it’s a certainty that he would be president if we don’t come together. I think Democrats will come together in much better fashion than they did last time around both because they know the consequences and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to do it before.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay, and just, well, I think that hopefully you’re right about that. Turning to your career as ambassador, you mentioned president Obama before, he of course appointed you as ambassador, but interesting factor about your career is that you tried to recruit him when he was a precocious young law student. I’m kind of curious about that story. Was it obvious that he was special then given you tried to recruit him or?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh yeah. No, no. The story was that we were trying to recruit him to clerk for the judge that I clerked for on the court just before the Supreme court. Then I was going on next year, and the judge said, I heard about a guy over at Harvard Law School, who’s the president of Law Review, Barack Obama. I said, “Yeah, he sounds great. I don’t really know him, but everyone says he’s terrific, but he doesn’t really want to clerk. I think he’s going to do something else.”

Jeff Bleich:                    The judge said, “Well, give him a call.” I called him up and I came back afterwards and went into the judge’s chambers and I had Obama’s resume with me. The good news is that he’s even better on the phone then he was on paper. I mean, he’s really, really special, and smart, funny, interesting. From Chicago, where the judge is from, you’d love him. The bad news is, he really doesn’t want to clerk. He wants to do something good for society. The judge said, “Well, give me his resume.”

Jeff Bleich:                    He takes it, comes back into my office a while later and he’s holding Obama’s resume. He looks at me, he goes, “Now this, this is the kind of guy I ought to be hiring.” I’m like, “You mean instead of me?” He goes, exactly, call him again. I called him again and tried to recruit him. I never did, but we formed a friendship and one thing led to another after that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Before we dig into the, maybe specific of the policies, what is it about the US Australia relationship that in your mind makes it so special and why is trust within that relationship so important?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, I think you put your finger on it, it’s about trust. There are a lot of alliances in the world that are transactional and so they’re about, “If you do this thing for me now, I will do something for you later.” But our alliance is beyond that, it’s a true partnership. It’s like a marriage. Where you’re not asking every time, “What do I get in return?” You know that the relationship itself makes both of you stronger and better and you’re always looking for ways to be helpful to each other. That’s the foundation on which our trust was based.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think the other thing is it’s very values-based. We’ve got, not just a similar set of political values in terms of free speech, and freedom of religion, and free markets, and free movement of people, and just that we think there’s also a can do ethic that’s unique to us. Australians say, “Should be right mate,” and we say, “It’ll be okay buddy,” but it’s the same message. We’re very optimistic people. We believe we can make the world a better place and then we work together and do it. Based on that, based on having been through a lot of tough situations that we volunteered for together, there’s a trust that allows us to do things that really no two other countries in the world can do together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, one of the big themes of your time as ambassador, certainly an ongoing theme, is the relationship between the US and China, but it’s very impactful on Australia’s geo-strategic positioning. One of the big signature policy initiatives of the Obama administration was the Asia Pivot. I mean, in your mind was this successful or do you think, in hindsight, the administration could have been a little tougher. I mean at the time the hope was the engagement process that China would become a responsible actor and that it will gradually liberalize. We obviously haven’t seen that now. I mean was, in hindsight 2020, or could the administration being tougher in the circumstances?

Jeff Bleich:                    I think that they were successful in a number of different ways. First, it was about integrating the region in a way where the major powers could all come to the table together and have honest conversations, not just about economics or about national security or one issue or another, but really about everything. Up until then there had been five or six different fora, but I think we really helped cement the East Asia summit as an opportunity for everyone to come together and have a honest and frank conversation about issues that mattered to the region and to fully integrate the US into those conversations. That I thought was significant on a diplomatic front.

Jeff Bleich:                    On the security front. Again, I think it was very successful with the rotational deployment of Marines up in Darwin, [some airfield dispersals and a number of other things that have happened since. Most significantly moving from a 50-50 split of our Navy between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to a 60-40 split where now we have our Navy assets and a real integration of our joint forces with partners throughout the region, including the Talisman Saber exercise, which is now the largest joint military exercise we do anywhere in the world, and we do it off the coast of Australia.

Jeff Bleich:                    In terms of diplomatic, military, and then economic, our main focus at the time was TPP because that was a very effective strategy of integrating our economies and, to some extent, counterbalancing any other economy which was going to try to unfairly leverage its power in the region, and China was clearly in people’s minds at the time. I don’t think that that was a failure at all. In fact, TPP, it was only with the election of president Trump where he unsigned TPP.

Jeff Bleich:                    If I were going to be critical of that decision, I thought it was a wrong decision myself, but the execution of it was even worse because at that point China did not want the US to be part of TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and president Trump had an opportunity to say, “Well, we will unsign it, but only if China you do the following seven things.” He didn’t, he just unsigned it without any preconditions or concessions by China, and then two years later began a trade dispute.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think at the time we were doing a pretty good job of holding the line on trade because of TPP. I think we were doing a good job of holding the line on Chinese espionage in the commercial sector after the Sunnylands Conference between President Xi and President Obama. I think we integrated ourselves more deeply into the region. I think the Pivot was successful and could have been more successful if we continued some of those efforts over the past couple of years.

Misha Zelinsky:             You sort of touched on that, I guess, the change in tone from the Trump administration, from the Obama administration. Earlier you talked about the fact that at least the ANZUS Alliance is not transactional, but president Trump would appear at least to be more transactional in the way he approaches foreign policy, often the way that seen to, at least from the outside, look like punishing friends and rewarding enemies. I mean, how would that challenge diplomats in the background in your experience?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well I think it’s very difficult to in the current system that we have with those principles. Because look, the way you treat family members is different from the way you treat business partners. Business partners, it can be purely transactional. It’s only if there’s something in it for you that you’re going to engage in business with them. Whereas with family members, you’re always finding a way to make things work, sometimes soothing over awkward situations as opposed to ignoring them completely or being too confrontational. You behave with family members, you behave with allies and partners in a different way than you would behave with others where it’s just purely a business or geopolitical relationship.

Jeff Bleich:                    We have allies and partners who continue to behave that way with us, expect us to do the same, people raised in the diplomatic corps understand the difference and then occasionally these directives come in which are at odds at those and it throws everyone else’s calculation off. We’re trying to solve problems by predicting each other’s behavior. When you’ve got an unpredictable actor, it makes everyone alter their calculation sometimes missing chances to agree and sometimes creating conflict where it was never necessary. That’s, I think, what diplomats are struggling with is the inconsistency and the unpredictability of policy in areas where we need to find an agreement because we’ve got much bigger things to work on together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, absolutely. Working together, kind of curious I mean, you were of course ambassador during Obama’s essentially his first term and the latter half of the then Rudd Gillard government. What was it like being an ambassador during a period where the labor government was essentially at war with itself regrettably? I mean, was that something that was awkward to manage?

Jeff Bleich:                    No. Nice things about being ambassador, and I should’ve mentioned this earlier, is it’s not zero sum, it’s not someone wins, someone loses, always this is a long-term relationship and you’re looking for opportunities to do good things together and so you develop friendships all across the political spectrum. I got along with all of the prime ministers with whom I worked and worked with the different factions within labor as well as the different factions within the coalition, and [crosstalk 00:22:40]-

Misha Zelinsky:             There’s no factions mate.

Jeff Bleich:                    Right. No factions at all. No, I think the… But I served with, If you count Kevin Rudd twice, I served with four prime ministers because I served with Prime Minister Rudd, then Prime Minister Gillard, then Prime Minister Rudd, and Prime Minister Abbott during the time I was there and found ways to work together with all of them, and really didn’t get drawn into their conflicts with one another. But it was helpful because I did get insights about their conflicts with one another and was able to make better predictions about how we could focus our energies on things that would get support across the aisle there as opposed to putting too much energy into things that we thought are hopeless at the moment. That’s part of why you want to have those relationships.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very diplomatically put ambassador, but that’s a period of time we try not to remember to fondly. But so, turning to, I suppose your post ambassadorial career, you focus a lot on foreign interference.

Jeff Bleich:                    One of my favorite stories with President Obama Yeah.] I’ve been gone for a few months and I had a… came back to see President Obama, we were in the Oval Office. He said, “You’ve got a lot going on down there. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been there for a few weeks and they sacked the opposition leader Malcolm Turbull a few months later sacked the prime minister. Prime minister Gillard has now called a special election and it looks like it’s going to be a minority coalition because this will be the first minority coalition government in last 70 years.” The president he goes, “What the hell are you doing down there Jeff? These people are our friends,” so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good. Just, since you’ve left your role as ambassador, you’ve focused a lot on foreign interference. You’ve set up the Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance at Flinders University, which is… First, it’s a hell of a title.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh thank. It’s a lot of words but they all have meaning, and the only word-

Misha Zelinsky:             Lets talk about that.

Jeff Bleich:                    … I would have taken out, the Jeff Bleich Center. That was a very nice thing that Flinders did where they put my name on it. But I was honored and surprised. But it’s given me extra incentive to make sure it does its job. I figure it’s a statement of confidence that even with a name like Bleich it can still be successful, so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             What are you hoping for the center, and firstly what are its aims? And secondly, why have you set up in Australia?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, the aim is really to focus on a set of challenges that are unique to democracies that are created by digital technology that asymmetrically hurt democracies versus authoritarian governments and how we can work together as countries with our closest partners to figure out solutions to these. Whether it just be ways in which we will combat them within our own countries, how we can combat them together, or how we can form treaties around the world that would help all nations that share our values and care about democracy and freedom to resist this movement towards digital abuse and authoritarianism. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a US alliance studies in digital technology, security, and governance and it’s all of those things. I’m happy to talk about specific examples if that’s helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, maybe if we… I mean, I think the most famous example of hacking or a successful hacking effort is the 2016 foreign interference into the US election. But I’m interested in talking to you about this new concept where they’re talking about political warfare in the so-called gray zones. Can you explain what those are and how they’re impacting on democracies?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, well you may use different terms for it in Australia. What do you mean by that, and then I’ll say if I mean the same thing?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, this attempt to bump up against institutions and corrupt the discourse or target certain people or basically try to royal democracies using their openness against them in a way that makes it more difficult for democracies to operate properly because they’re getting this static put through them in various different ways due to the interconnectedness of the world versus the closeness, I suppose, the autocratic systems and that challenge is presenting to us in the democratic free world.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. That was the most diabolical] Russian interference in the 2016 election. Look, hacking into DMC files and releasing those in a selective way to help one party versus the other. All bad. But at least you knew it was happening. What was going on with what you’re describing is this attempt to pit Americans against each other, to break down our trust in one another, and to dirty the information field in such a way that we didn’t know what to believe by the time we got to election day. That was the concept.

Jeff Bleich:                    They would use chat bots and others to identify extreme positions and then promote them aggressively to create the sense that the entire left and the entire right believed a particularly fringe idea and that that’s what they stood for. Or to find hot buttons that they knew would inflame a particular group and get them to start criticizing each other through really nasty terms that would just make it difficult for people to dial back and have a civil conversation about issues later.

Jeff Bleich:                    The whole idea of just putting [stories about nothing, but create just ridiculous false narratives was designed to make it so that people didn’t know what to trust. You had a bunch of people wondering, is Hillary Clinton, while she’s running for president in the United States, still finding time in the evenings to go run a child sex ring out of the basement of a in suburban Maryland? It seems absurd, but if people see it enough, they start to wonder, “Well maybe there’s some truth to it.” Enough so the one person actually showed up with a assault weapon to open fire on it. I mean, it’s these things that sound silly actually have dire and very dangerous real world consequences.

Jeff Bleich:                    The impact of all that was that at some point, if people don’t know what the truth is, they don’t know what to believe, they don’t know who to believe because we’ve broken down trust, then they either believe whatever accords with their own biases or they believe nothing at all and they just kind of abdicate to government to do whatever it was going to do. Both of those are absolutely destructive to democracy.

Jeff Bleich:                    Democracy is about all of us understanding the facts, being able to make our own informed choices, and being able to select representatives who will in fact represent our views on those. Once people don’t know what the facts are and they don’t know who to trust, and they can’t make effective choices in their elections, we stop looking like a democracy anymore.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’ve absolutely nailed the problem. What’s the solution? I mean, how do we actually deal with this question of trust information sources and digital communications? Because this openness that we have now, you can’t control your information, at least in Western democratic context. You can’t control information in your borders anymore, and you don’t have gatekeeping on information. Actually, how do we reverse this problem given that it’s so corrosive?

Jeff Bleich:                    Part of it is sophistication and hygiene. I think people start to learn after a while. I keep hearing from this particular website or this particular author, never turned out to be true, and in fact turns out that they’re wrong and dangerous. Over time, the public starts walking away from people like that. I think you’re probably going to come up with greater criticism of groups like that in the sense that people on the right will start criticizing far right views as damaging to their own brand and people in the moderate left will do the same thing to extreme and irresponsible new sources on the left. There’s human nature.

Jeff Bleich:                    We really depend on timely, reliable, accurate information in every aspect of our lives. At some point when we’re not getting in, we react and start behaving differently. I’m counting, to some extent, on human nature. I think the second thing that you count on is technology getting better and better at being able to detect lies and out them. One of the advantages of AI frankly, is in things that are demonstrably false. Well, we’ll be able to identify those in real time and start educating people to take a pause, check this site, and get the accurate information. At some point I think they’ll be able to.

Jeff Bleich:                    The problem of… I think Mark Twain said, “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on.” This goes back 100 years, but it’s at hyperspeed right now in the internet age. But we have some technological tools that will help us with that. I think you’re going to start to see crowdsourced information in the news, which will help people with that same challenge. I don’t despair that we’ve outfought ourselves and we can never fight back to accuracy again. I think we’ve always managed to do it in the past and I think we’ll do it again this time. It’s just going to be a challenging effort given the acceleration of technology issues.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of US social media companies in this, in being responsible actors given so many people now get their news from social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera. They have algorithms that essentially favor outrage, which then favors extremism, and then there’s a problem with fake accounts. I mean, what is their role in, I suppose, safeguarding democracy?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, they’re all certain to encounter a backlash which is referred to as the tech lash because of people’s frustration with the failure of these platforms to actually address the negative consequences. They insist that they are platforms that they’re not news sources, they’re not responsible for the news and that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as journalists, but at the same time, they’re now appreciating that in order for their brand to be respected and for people to actually trust their platforms, they need to do more fact-checking.

Jeff Bleich:                    Facebook has brought in, I think, journalists from the Washington Post to hire a number of other journalists checking on pieces that appear on their website and to either take down things that are demonstrably false or at least put up warnings in advance that there are questions about the accuracy of certain facts stated in the piece. You see Google and Twitter saying that they are not going to run political ads they contained false information. There’s a movement, in fact, I think they’d said take down all political ads simply because they didn’t want to be in a position where they had to make those fine determinations.

Jeff Bleich:                    But they’re all stepping up in different ways to address it in response to consumer demand and other political parties. That’s healthy. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just turning to the global challenge here, I mean, one of the things I think Australia and the US are in lock step on is this, I mean, it’s been described a sort of a Chinese communist party, techno-nationalism, the so called China 2025 plan where the regime wants to dominate a whole host of critical technologies including AI which you touched on earlier. I mean, do you think this is a new bipartisan position in the US and does the president, president Trump, have a point in the way he’s addressing this challenge?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I think there’s bipartisan support. In fact, if anything, the Democrats may be even stronger in their concerns about it. Perhaps in part because of the experience from 2016 where they were the victims of foreign interference and their appreciation that what they did is child’s play compared to what can be done in the future. The techno-nationalism that you’re describing really comes down in many ways to the architecture of the internet of things. If it’s connected through 5G systems that are controlled by China, there’s a real risk that those could be used to establish an effective surveillance state that would keep Chinese citizens and countries that are in the Chinese supply chain and orbit and strategic area in line.

Jeff Bleich:                    It would be used also as a check on efforts by the West to impose their own human rights values on China or other countries, and could also be used as an economic tool to advantage China over other countries. You could easily see a balkanization around the world of some countries that have surveillance States that use the internet of things in an authoritarian manner. Then other countries which are working to ensure that we maintain our freedoms. In those cases you have two completely different economic systems in competition again and really a digital iron curtain could fall if we don’t address this now.

Misha Zelinsky:             Essentially, yeah, this question of a digital iron curtain or a decoupling, how do you see… One of the things that I think is interesting or is puzzling in the debate at the moment, there seems to have been this split in the West even, about how to approach the question of 5G, particularly Chinese technology via Huawei. How do you see the British approach as a Five Eyes partner in the Five Eyes security alliance? How do you see their approach to Huawei where they’ve essentially not sought to introduce, or at this stage don’t want to introduce, a blanket ban in the way that Australia and the United States and New Zealand have?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well the UK didn’t follow an initial advice from the intelligence communities of other countries and even some of their own intelligence community, and went ahead with infrastructure that included Huawei equipment, but it was supposed to also have a monitoring system. The monitoring system has proven not to be workable, but now they’re stuck with a very big investment and being asked to tear it all out and start again is a major challenge for the country. Their softer position, I think, decisions that were made several years ago and ones that I think there is some apprehension about today.

Jeff Bleich:                    It also explains why it’s so important at this point to make these decisions strategically, and thoughtfully, and deliberately. Because once you’ve made the decision, you start going down a rabbit hole at a relatively fast pace and it’s much harder to climb back out afterward.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just on that, I mean, this debate it was not just contingent in Five Eyes, countries, Germany, and to a broader extent the broader European Union, are debating this question of 5G technology and the role of Huawei. Where do you think the debate will end up in Germany? Because again, they’re taking what would appear to be, at least, a bet each way at this point.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, I mean, a lot of others is that they don’t want to needlessly antagonize China. What they would like, and I think what we all like is to find a way in which we could have a robust trade relationship with all countries in the world, including in our digital space, but also have some assurances that it won’t be used to undermine our security or economic wellbeing down the road that we chose one system versus another. I think they want to, in that respect, and that’s why they’ve made a number of statements about keeping an open mind. But the fact that they have not embraced 5G technology and that Nokia and Ericsson and other European 5G manufacturers have been ramping up their efforts suggests to me that Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             This question about human rights and values and but also technology, I mean, how do you see that playing out? I mean, the Human Rights Watch group recently came in and essentially warned of a techno-dystopia emerging of Chinese technology and an autocratic regime comes to dominate global affairs. I mean, how concerned are you about something like that and what can democracies do about being more assertive in values about human values and their role in technology?

Jeff Bleich:                    Look, I mean, we’re at this point, and I think there’s a desire around the world for us to remain interdependent. It’s a good way of reducing the risk of conflict. The last thing we will want to move on is a failure to be creative on digital governance. I think, and China just as much as the United States is looking to increase the quality of life, and the length of life, and the wellbeing of its people and to do the same for its allies and friends around the world.

Jeff Bleich:                    We don’t have to go into a dystopian world. It’s not inevitable. It’s going to be a matter of choices. But we’re starting to make the decisions now. We’ll either make it much more likely that we’ll go into a dystopian future or much easier for us to avoid it. That’s why we have failed to take heed of warnings in areas like climate change and we’re paying a huge price for it right now. We don’t want to make the same mistake here on the digital space in terms of having security and governance in front of mind as we’re making these critical decisions.

Misha Zelinsky:             Given that we’re heading into an important election season in the United States, I think one of the things that would disturb a lot of people, the 2016 election, the Mueller Report, even the impeachment currently underway with arguable presidential interference into a potential rival candidate. How concerned are you about these reports of new Russian hacking into some of the electoral infrastructure of the US and has that got enough attention in your opinion?

Jeff Bleich:                    No, it hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Look, I’ve been saying for a while, whatever Russia did last time, they’re not just going to do that this time. They may figure, “Okay, we’ve taught the rest of the world how to do that. They’ll do it for us.” They’re going to do something different. We know that in the last election, Russia had hacked into voter rolls for 40 different States in the United States. It was only when they were called out by our intelligence agencies at the highest level and advised that we have countermeasures that would be much more painful to them that they backed off on what appeared to be a deliberate plan to hack into certain kinds of voting machines in order to change the outcome of elections.

Jeff Bleich:                    We also know that our voting machines are vulnerable and really can… in some cases, you could change a person’s vote and there’s no paper backup to ensure that people could audit it and determine whether or not a machine had been compromised. We have real vulnerabilities and it should be something that is front of mind for Americans and a major focus of law enforcement around the world and for our media to prepare people for demanding from their electoral officials paperback, every single vote, and an audit of every voting location. I mean, that should be standard. I am very worried about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             We use high tech paper and pencil in Australia, so it’s more difficult to hack at least. It’s one of the advantages of a low tech system but…

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, although it may be that you’re using scanners and other things, so hopefully you’re also doing audits afterwards to make sure that the scanners haven’t been compromised.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, one would hope, I mean, it’s certainly something that I think it requires enormous vigilance. The last question before we go to the really last hokey question. You’re someone who describes himself as an optimist. When I look at the world, it’s divided now into opened and closed. It used to be believed that openness would always prevail. Bill Clinton famously said, “Those who think they can control the internet, it’s like nailing jello to a wall. Good luck with that.” But it almost feels now that open systems assailed from all different directions and the closed systems don’t have these same vulnerabilities. How can that be reversed and how can openness become a virtue and not be a bit of a crutch as it currently is?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well look, I think we originally imagined digital technology proliferating openness and to some extent it did. If you look at the Arab Spring, that was really a reflection of the fact that social media was able to create an environment in which disorganized rebels could overthrow a dictator. I think the lesson that we learned from that period is that, we got a little bit out over our skis. We were so confident that digital technology could only be used for good that we forgot that dictators are watching the same thing. They were thinking, “Look, if the disorganized rebel can use this tool in order to accomplish this. Imagine what we can do with all the power of the government, and military force, and money, and organization behind us. Just think how much we could weaponize digital information.”

Jeff Bleich:                    They’ve demonstrated that over the last few years and it has strengthened the hand of authoritarians. But that doesn’t mean that this tool will only be used for bad going forward. I think we’ve gotten a wake up call that this technology really can promote open societies and bring us closer together as people, and reduce friction between countries, and increase our understanding of what is true, and allow us to solve massive global problems in a way and at a scale that we never would have been able to in the past. Whether that is contagions moving around the world, or whether it is climate change, or whether it is this issue itself, the digital structure itself.

Jeff Bleich:                    We’ll be able to do things that we could never have accomplished without this technology. I remain an optimist. I think there’s work to be done, but at the wake up call that we needed and now we just need the political will to put some real muscle behind it so that we can make tomorrow better than it’s been.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you take some confidence out of the courage you’ve seen in people of Hong Kong and the recent Taiwan elections where despite all the threats and pressure that have been placed upon people in those areas, that they still have voted for self-determination and freedom. I think that should give us all confidence, but how do you see that particular way that that’s played out for the CCP regime of 2019 into 2020?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, absolutely. You see it in Turkey, you see in Hong Kong, you see it around the world, and it’s because frankly, there’s an innate instinct in us as a species, as people. We want freedom, we want… Why on earth does a person stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Why does someone throw a minefield in the demilitarized zone? Why did people lose their lives trying to cross the Berlin Wall. It’s that impulse where at some level people say, “I would rather die than live without freedom,” and they are willing to do extraordinary things to accomplish it. I take great comfort from that impulse, that instinct in all of us that you see manifested in some of these elections and in individual acts of courage and heroism.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely. I think that’s a beautiful place to finish at. Now, of course I have one of my trademarks, clunky segues into the final question, which is… it’s a little, maybe a bit easier for you given your time in Australia. Sometimes this stumps some of my guests who can’t really name three Australians beyond Crocodile Dundee, but three Aussies alive or dead at ambassador Bleich’s place for a barbecue. Who’s coming and why?

Jeff Bleich:                    Let’s see, who’s coming to my barbecue? Well, everyone who’s left off this list will be angry. Let me pick just three iconic Australians. One of them would be Paul Keating, I just think he’s brilliant and his insights are invaluable. I think I’d pick Lindsay Fox because he is what every billionaire should aspire to be. Just generous, thoughtful, down to earth, and make your money the right way, fairly and honestly. Then the third one, probably Lisa Wilkinson, because after her long career in journalism and the courage she’s shown, she knows the dirt on everyone and she would tell it. So there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             So you have a journalist, a prime minister, and a billionaire at an ambassador’s barbecue. Sounds like a pretty good party.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Sounds… get a couple meat pies and some sausages. It’s a perfect night.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much ambassador Jeff Bleich and good luck in the upcoming primary season for the Democrats.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, thanks so much, Misha, and thanks for having me on Diplomates.

 

Peter Jennings

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. As a leading global expert on defence and security policy, Peter has held senior roles in the Department of Defence and was a key advisor to Prime Minister John Howard.

Peter joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the US-China rivalry, how Australia should manage its changing relationship with the Chinese government, the importance of cyber-security in future 5G networks, how democracies should respond to threats posed by hostile state actors, and the rise of right-wing terrorism at home and abroad.

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky                    Peter Jennings welcome to Diplomates.

Peter Jennings:                  Thank you very much.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, it’s always difficult to know where to start, and it seems foreign affairs is a big space, but naturally when you talk about Australia’s foreign affairs policy, you think about big powers and the influence upon on them on Australia. United States and China is obviously on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You recently wrote an article saying that 2019 was a turning point in the world’s relationship with China. Can you just tell us about that a bit?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, we’ve seen this coming for some few years. And I think historians will look back and say 2012 was a very significant year because that was when Xi Jinping came to power. And really the importance of that was I think she decided for his own leadership and for the country that the time of sort of hiding China’s power was was passed, and he was going to take China out more assertively onto the world stage. And we’ve been watching that ever since, including in areas like, for example, China’s military annexation of the South China Sea, which really happened between 2014 and 2016.

Peter Jennings:                  So I think 2019 becomes important because we’re now seeing a lot of countries in the developed democracies start to push back against China, seeking to gain too much influence in their societies. And one of those really big decisions has been around whether or not countries will allow Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei into the 5G network. Now, it all sounds a bit complicated measure, I guess. But 5G is going to become the most critical backbone of national infrastructure in every country. Everything is going to run over it from driverless vehicles, to new medical technology, to electricity, to gas. It’s going to be absolutely vital.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The so-called Internet of Things, right?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, that’s right. And quite a few countries, Australia included, have decided that it’s just not safe. It’s not secure to allow Chinese companies, Chinese telcos to actually run that critical infrastructure. And so I think Australia was quite literally the first country to formally decided that it was not going to allow Chinese companies into 5G. And then Japan and New Zealand, interestingly enough, and the United States followed suit. You’ve now got the Americans, and the Canadians, and the Brits, and a few others considering what they will do. I think that we’ll look back on 2019 as the year where a much more observable divide started to become clear in the world, which was China on the one hand, and the developed democracies on the other. And this is very significant.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Just going back to the question of Huawei, because this has caused a lot of angst for the Chinese government, why is it that our security agencies in particular and others within the Five Eyes network in particular taking such an issue with it, a Chinese telco. I mean, something, so, well, it’s just a company. They make good stuff. They do it cheaper than some of their competitors. Why is it a concern for them to be developing the 5G network?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, because capitalism in China is different. There is no such thing as a Chinese company, particularly a large Chinese company doing business overseas. There’s no such thing as that type of company being able to operate independent from the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party. So Huawei has had such success internationally precisely because it’s had the backing of the party, the funding from Chinese banks to go out around the world and to produce at remarkably low cost, sometimes lower than the cost of production, telecommunications infrastructure for many countries.

Peter Jennings:                  Why this is significant is because I think Huawei’s close connections to the Chinese Communist Party means that it’s really not in a position to say no if Chinese state intelligence comes knocking and says to Huawei, “Hey, we’d like you to facilitate our access to a particular communication system. Or we’d like you to make it possible to help us put some malware into a piece of critical infrastructure.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  Once overseas.

Peter Jennings:                  One that’s overseas indeed. And Huawei, of course, denies as you would expect it to. They say, “No, we operate independent of the Chinese state.” But back in 2017, the Communist Party passed a law called the National Security Law, which says that every individual and every company in China must support the work of the intelligence services if they’re asked to do so. And that was, I think, a clear factor behind the Australian government’s decision. In fact, the government said, “Look, we’re not going to let any company bid into 5G if we have concerns that it might at times follow the bidding of a foreign government. And so I think that’s why there’s been this concern, because if you’re designing the technology in China, and you’re manufacturing key parts of the technology in China, and you have the Chinese Ministry of State Security looking over your shoulder, that is the best possible intelligence gathering partnership that you could imagine if you believe that China might have an interest in tapping into your information technology.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting because there’s sort of a global race now on in 5G. And it’s one thing for Australia to say we’re not going to have Huawei here. But is there a issue globally with through the Belt and Road Initiative and the way that China is rolling out its network in other parts of the world, across Africa, parts of Asia, central Asia particular about the contest between standards and which standards are adopted, because if the Chinese standard is adopted, does that have implications for security globally as well?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we’re going to see a world that’s divided into essentially two types of 5G networks. And they will be Chinese supply will be one type, and there will be Western supplied will be another. Yet I think it’s a great shame that the developed democracies have not found it possible in the last decade to sort of create an industrial situation where an obvious 5G supplier can become a champion for the democracies in providing those 5G networks. But what I am pretty sure about is that the market will meet that need if enough governments conclude that they’re not going to allow Chinese suppliers into their networks. And of course we are talking about technology that in the first place came from companies like Ericsson and Nokia. And so I think that the technology is there.

Peter Jennings:                  And unfortunately, for a number of developing countries across Africa, for example, Huawei has been able put a price case for adopting their technology, which has been impossible to ignore. But the question we should be asking ourselves is why is it so cheap? Why has China of all countries found it to be strategically valuable to try and lock down as much IT infrastructure around the world as they possibly can and actually do so at uncompetitive prices?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, it’s because they see a strategic value for themselves to own global telecommunications. And I think that it’s never too late to kind of push back against that type of strategic positioning. And that’s what the democracies have to do now.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So you sort of touched there on Chinese want to dominate strategic industries. There’s so-called the 2025 plan that China announced just recently. It caused a lot of alarm, the United States in particular, with China saying, “We’re going to dominate these 10 key industries.” Firstly, is it a concern that China wants to do that? And secondly, if it is a concern, how should worldview respond to that. Is this the beginning, are we seeing the beginnings of a cold war, or is this something that’s perhaps not as considered because they’re looking to tech up?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we are at risk of finding ourselves in a new type of cold war with China, and quite frankly we’re probably in an industrial cold war, you might say, because China’s objectives both in the 2025 plan and in earlier five-year plans that they’ve produced will often become the sort of box-checking list for Chinese intelligence agencies to actually see, “Well, what technology can we go out and steal, or legally acquire, or force from Western companies that want to do business in China if we’re having trouble developing that technology ourselves?”

Peter Jennings:                  And the 2025 plan is a very good indicator of where Chinese intelligence activities are pointed in terms of industrial espionage to steal the technology that they can’t develop themselves. That’s been a pattern of Chinese behavior for years. I think on top of that, we’d have to also acknowledge a reality, which is that China is building its own in-house capabilities very quickly and becoming extremely good in some areas like artificial intelligence, for example.

Peter Jennings:                  But a lot of that, at least to begin with, has been done on the off-back of intellectual property theft. And we have to wise up to that. We have to understand that our businesses and our universities are being attacked regularly by Chinese intelligence, precisely to try and sweep up all of the interesting tech that we might be producing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was described by a prominent member of the US security agencies or defense establishment that this Chinese property theft was the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. So there’s the obvious grounds that you want the commercial benefit of white people. What does it mean in a contest between perhaps democracies and the traditional sort of alliance structure versus a Chinese government-led approach to it, which is being tech advantaged? Does that lead to being defense or offense capability advantaged as well?

Peter Jennings:                  Look, it’s a tricky one. I think that democracies are always going to be less efficient than autocracies in terms of their ability to harness industry or to protect intellectual property because we are sort of messier systems that actually place a lot of value on giving people freedom from being directed to do things be a government, and happily so. That’s entirely the right kind of system, from my point of view. But it is a weakness compared to the ability of the Chinese state to simply direct industry, for example, to say, “Right. This is a particular type of technology we want. Got to develop it or steal it,” and to compel individuals to actually support the work of China’s intelligence apparatus.

Peter Jennings:                  So in some senses I think we’re behind the play and probably always will be against what a powerful authoritarian government can do. But on the other hand, there is still a sense that democracies produce I think better types of innovation. So it remains the case that it’s the democracies, the Americans, the Europeans, even Australia in some niche areas of technology which are producing the best types of stealth technology, the best types of artificial intelligence technology. How long we can rely on that sort of innovative advantage, I don’t know. But my sense is that, and an authoritarian state like the People’s Republic of China is going to struggle at that very fine edge of the best innovation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting, though, that, I mean, you sort of said Western governments struggle. There is a precedent for this in that the Americans were caught flat-footed in the ’50s and ’60s when the Russians sort of had the so-called Sputnik moment, where they launched a satellite into space. And then Kennedy of course said, “We’re going to go to the moon.” And they did shortly thereafter.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So if the political world is there, so do you think perhaps going back to your 2019 example, the United States now very clearly, and Pence said that in a speech not too long ago, very clearly now sees Chinese or China as a strategic rival, could that be sort of the impetus to drive that level of sort of innovation and perhaps government-led innovation rather than relying on the private sector just to do it entirely?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, I think there is now probably more consensus in the United States around the risks presented by China than I’ve ever seen. And there is some ironies in that, Misha, when you think about it because it’s not a country that’s known for consensus under the leadership of Donald Trump. And indeed I think the one point of weakness I see in Washington is how personally Trump might be signed up to this consensus view. There’s quite a fear amongst a lot of people in Europe and well indeed in the United States that feel that Trump might try to cut a deal over trade with Xi Jinping. And that could lead to turning a blind eye on some of the intellectual property protection that I think is really the core of America’s concerns about China.

Peter Jennings:                  But putting Trump to one side across the national security community, across mainstream Republicans and Democrats, Congress, the American System will generally, there is now a very strong view that the number one strategic problem the Americans face is a powerful China, especially a China which is becoming more authoritarian. And this is something that will have consequences for America’s allies and for how America kind of operates in the world in coming years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So it’s interesting. One of the things I think often gets raised, and it’s quite difficult in the Australian political context at times where I think you see globally in that this pushback you’re seeing, critics of that pushback will say, “Well, this is really xenophobia. This is kind of the Anglosphere not being comfortable with the rising East, or being replaced, or being strategically rivaled by another country that wants to do well.” Is this, do you think that that argument has merit, or is this something specific to the Chinese government and the way it conducts itself? I’m just curious about your thoughts around that question?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, I think it’s a great way to muddy the waters in a strategic discussion for some people, and we see them in Australia, that are determined to say that this is ultimately a debate about race. And therefore if you are expressing concerns about China, that must mean that in some way you’re going to be a xenophobe. The point I’d like to make is that it is not racist to be concerned about the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. And I think we’re going to have to work very hard to be clear in the language we use. For example, we often say China as a kind of a shorthand, when most of the time, what I’m really talking about is the role of the Communist Party.

Peter Jennings:                  I do believe that this is almost a debating tactic that a lot of PRCs supporters use. I have seen what a democratic China looks like, and it’s called Taiwan. So I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the people of the mainland of China could operate very effectively in a democratic system. And in fact in many ways, it’s the nature of the party status, it’s called, the Communist Party, which is the biggest risk factor that we have to deal with. So I completely reject any sense that this is racist or xenophobic—it’s not. It’s about what types of political systems do we want to live under and how much pressure in a country like Australia should we be prepared to accept from the Communist Party of China in trying to dictate how the Asia-Pacific is going to run.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so bringing it back to Australia, I mean, some of the things that I think have shifted the debate here, I mean, has been China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its claim of it as being strategic interest. Does that matter? Should we be concerned about this sort of the building of islands in the South China Sea and the increase creep of what China considers to be its spheres of influence? Is that something we should be concerned about or is it up, as the Chinese would contend, “It’s called South China Seas. So leave it to us”?

Peter Jennings:                  Look, I think we should be concerned. The last time the world was at war, at least in the Pacific was in dealing with the maritime ambitions of a Japan, which was determined to try to control its trade roots all the way down into the South China and through Southeast Asia. So we’re talking about a strategically vital bit of territory. The South China Sea is itself about the size of the Mediterranean. So it’s not a small area. And the fact that a country like China has come in the space of about 24 months, annexed it in much the same way that the Russians annexed the Crimea, I think it’s something that the entire world should really be outraged about. And this is I think very much a problem for Australia.

Peter Jennings:                  So perhaps another dimension to add just to that point, though, is that was the wake-up call. I think for a lot of people that might’ve said, “Well, we’ve never seen China behave in a hostile military way. Frankly, that’s a bit of a myth, but it’s a line that you often hear. But I think this has become a wake-up call for people to realize that in Xi Jinping and in the People’s Republic, what we have is a country which is now trying to militarily dominate the region. And for countries like Australia, Japan, and most others, that’s simply unacceptable.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So the question then becomes, how should Australia respond to this? Because you had traditionally maritime disputes that dealt with, through maritime law international courts, a ruling came down very clearly that did not rule in favor of China and its claim in the South China Sea. Basically got ignored. And increasingly what we’re now seeing is kind of payback from the Chinese government or countries that displease it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Really good example recently is the Canadian arrests of the prominent Huawei CFO. And now you’re seeing these hostage diplomacy with those several individuals arrested in China, and then of course the banning of Canola oil or Canola seeds is imports from the Canadian economy. So, I mean, how concerned should we be about that kind of belligerent approach to independent foreign policy decision-making?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, firstly, I mean, the first point to make is so much for Huawei’s claim that they operate completely independently from the Communist Party because the party has been savage in its application of bullying tactics towards Canada over the arrest of Mrs. Meng. And, again, I think that begins to be a bit of an eye-opener, that we are dealing with a country that is quite prepared to go beyond legal barriers to promote its interests where we can.

Peter Jennings:                  My view is, to sort of answer the broader part of the question, how do we deal with this, I think firstly we’ve got to be very clear-minded in terms of our own thinking about what is strategically important to Australia. I’m perfectly happy, for example, for us to have a very successful trading relationship with China. That doesn’t bother me in the least. We win from that. The Chinese win from that. I’m much more concerned, though, about seeing Chinese ownership of Australian critical infrastructure.

Peter Jennings:                  So, for example, the fact that China owns of the electricity and gas distribution and transmission assets in Australia today is not something that I feel comfortable about from a strategic point of view. So where those types of issues come up, I think we’ve got to be very clear about where our strategic interests lie. And we should then be prepared to push back against Chinese opportunism either of an economic sort or indeed of a military type that we’ve seen in the South China Sea.

Peter Jennings:                  Then the second element to that is what can we do with allies and like-minded friends? And I think frankly the world has really failed to actually think about what is a type of concerted response that’s necessary to stop Chinese takeover of the South China Sea and a more assertive and outward-looking Chinese military posture. We’ve allowed China to kind of like split and stop the Southeast Asian countries from being able to develop sort of a shared position on the South China Sea.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, they want to do it on an individual basis.

Peter Jennings:                  Yep. And that’s a very obvious Chinese tactic is, “We’ll deal with the countries bilaterally.” And through the sort of, the bullying that you see, where they can hint that maybe your exports are not going to be received, or that they can stop students from coming, or they can stop tourists, it’s led to a whole bunch of countries that really should know better just kind of looking the other way in the interest of maintaining economic relations with China.

Peter Jennings:                  Now, I just think that that’s going to continue to be a problem for us; we’re going to see more and more examples of this come up. We governments will have to make hard decisions between making money on the one hand but looking after national security on the other. And this is going to be hard for whatever party’s in power in this country for years to come.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s a tricky question, though, when 30% of our trade is with China. It used to be 50% was with Britain. Then it was 25% with Japan. We’ve never had a situation like this before. I mean, do you think, is there a case to be made for trade diversity, diversification of Australia’s trading relationships, not withstanding we should continue to trade with China obviously. I mean, there’s a lot of mutual benefit there for everyone.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But that threat now that they … Well, it’s not really a threat. You’re seeing it being used against the Canadians and others. Is there a case for Australia to look to other avenues for its export relationships in order to limit the impact of those kind of things, for example, the coal that we’re seeing now being held up in Chinese ports for various reasons?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we desperately need to try and diversify our sources of wealth creation. And there’s an interesting question to ask. And our successors will look back and say, “How was it that policymakers over a generation allowed such a level of dependency to be created on a country which is so alien to the values and political system that we operate in?”

Peter Jennings:                  And indeed I think that we made some really quite terrible policy mistakes along that journey. So, for example, there was a time when there was a very aggressive sort of push inside the Australian public service to say, “Well, we are an Asian country.” And part of that demonstration of being an Asian country meant that we were reducing our ties with Europe. And we weren’t bothering to build ties in Latin America, say, or Africa.

Peter Jennings:                  And so if you look at the shape of Australia’s international relations, it is heavily skewed, particularly on the economic front to a handful of countries in North Asia. And I think that by definition that’s risky. So developing alternative markets, rediscovering Europe, looking, if you take a 30- or 40-year-perspective at what 900 million African consumers can do for the Australian economy, looking at Latin America, which is almost a closed book as far as Australia is concerned, I think there’s lots of things we can do to reduce our dependence on one country, namely China.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. We’ve sort of talked a bit there about the trading relationship. The question, then, is also about moral leadership and the difference between … The Western liberal democracies, they’ve always seen themselves to be custodians of morality globally. The Chinese government has got a pretty questionable record of human rights violations. There’s a million Uyghurs locked up in detention, which gets very little discussion. Is this scenario where countries like Australia, first, we should call out this behavior, but also use it as a way to assert morality as a values-based projection of Australian leadership globally?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. So I think we talk quite a big game about individual human rights. We say in the 2017 foreign policy whitepaper that we have a foreign policy ultimately based on values. And yet I really don’t see much in the way of a practical demonstration of that. I think what we have is a foreign policy that’s ultimately shaped around pragmatism and trying to facilitate making money. Not that I’m opposed to making money, but I do think that I personally would like to see a stronger Australian foreign policy approach, which emphasized individual human rights as articulated in the UN charter as being something which really should be a sort of a guiding point for how we think about our role in the world.

Peter Jennings:                  We’re always going to be dealing with countries that perhaps have a poorer record on human rights than we do. And I would not say that it’s smart to kind of like boycott those in those countries and say we will have nothing to do with them, because if we were to do that, we’d have a pretty lonely existence talking maybe to New Zealand, and that would be about it. That’s not sensible. But nor should we shy away from the reality that, for example, in China we appear to have over a million people in Xinjiang Province, the Uyghurs, now in essentially reeducation camps. This is just unacceptable. And to sort of just kind of like meekly accept a Beijing line that what this is is sort of like school education is just fatuous. So, yes, I think a strong stand on individual human rights is a natural part of what should be a principled Australian approach of standing up for our strategic interest.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so one of the important things about values of democracy is the integrity of elections. Increasingly globally we’ve seen a lot of foreign interference from hostile state actors. You’ve got very well-documented Russian interference in the 2016 election. There’s hints of Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Recently we had a hack of our Parliament but also our major political parties by a sophisticated state actor, which it could only be a few. How concerned should we be about this type of sort of hostile attempts to interfere with democratic institutions by foreign state actors that are not democracies?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, we can’t afford to imagine that it somehow doesn’t relate to us. I think we do have to be concerned about it. I think the Russians and the Chinese probably have different objectives when it comes to the types of interference that they’ve engaged in. When I look at Russia’s actions in the US and in some European elections, I think broadly I would say that there’s a kind of a wrecking objective, which is to create a sense that the democracies frankly are as bad as we are. So what does it matter? How could anyone kind of put a democracy forward as being in some way inherently superior to the type of system that exists in Moscow under Putin?

Peter Jennings:                  I think the Chinese probably have a different set of objectives than that, which would be to engage in doing their best to try to produce outcomes in elections, which suit Beijing’s interests more than other outcomes. And here something that I think is going to become a bigger issue in Australia than we’ve seen at the moment is whether or not there is a sort of attempts on the part of the mainland to influence the voting behavior of Australians of Chinese ethnicity.

Peter Jennings:                  One thing we know is that for a certain group within that community of Australians with Chinese ethnicity, there’s this strong reliance on getting their information from Chinese language newspapers, which in this country are almost all owned by mainland interests. And there’s a strong capacity to shape how voters might behave through WeChat and other forms of Chinese language social media that is pretty much impenetrable to non-Chinese speakers.

Peter Jennings:                  And I think this is something that we’re going to have to look at very closely just to make sure that Chinese Australians are not having their democratic choices interfered with by people from the mainland that have an interest in trying to shape election outcomes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So what’s the future, then? You kind of sort of touched on it earlier, talking about this splitting of standards, but what’s the future? I mean, the West, and the Internet have always been priding themselves on the openness of the systems, the openness of the political process, the transparency. The openness of the Internet is fundamentally information should be liberally and freely available, and that will conquer all.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You know, I’ve got a very deliberate situation where autocratic regimes are having closed systems. So we got a contest now not so much between nations as much as we have one between an open and closed system, and the Russians very deliberately recently have attempted to basically disconnect the Internet, if I can put it in very … I’m not a … In the words of our former prime minister, I’m not a tech head, but they are deliberately unplugging themselves from the rest of the world because they don’t want their domestic population to be influenced by information flows from the open Internet, and whereas we have a pretty much a hands-off approach. How do you see that future? Can Western liberal democracies remain open and remain their integrity, or if they close themselves, almost lose something that’s inherent to them as well? So it’s a really difficult one to grasp.

Peter Jennings:                  It sure is. And I don’t have a solution for you. I mean, I find both ends of the spectrum pretty scary. It’s obvious that what we’re seeing in China and quite a number of more authoritarian regimes is that in fact the Internet and everything that comes with the Internet of Things and 5G technology is a tremendous mechanism for authoritarian control of populations. It means that you can control what people know. You can see and understand what people are reading to a degree that no one could’ve anticipated when George Orwell was writing 1984. And that’s deeply scary.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. I mean, you can change history in a way. If you just Google Tiananmen Square in China, it’ll just tell you that Tiananmen Square is a lovely place to visit, and you’ll never know that there was a horrible-

Peter Jennings:                  That’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  … suppression and killing of domestic citizens.

Peter Jennings:                  In fact, most Chinese under 30, mainland Chinese, would have almost no knowledge of what happened in Tiananmen. On the other hand, you come into the democracies and you’ve got a sort of almost like a Wild West of badness at the extreme edges of the Internet.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Nothing’s true. Everything’s true. Your opinion is as good as my fact.

Peter Jennings:                  That’s exactly right. And I had the experience after the Christchurch shooting of writing a newspaper article about the murderer and doing some research was literally within about 10 seconds of starting to see what was on the Net, watching this guy’s shooting video inside the mosques, which is just dreadful. Normal citizens of our countries have not up until the last 10 years had such open access to such violent imagery. It’s the sort of thing that combat veterans might be aware of, but almost no one else. And that scares the living daylights out of me as well. I just think that that sheer openness of our system is one which is almost causing a sort of brutalizing of how people think about how they should interact with the fellow citizens.

Peter Jennings:                  So I don’t know what the solution is to this, other than we should probably spend less time on social media, all of us for our mental health. But at the end of the day, if I have to choose between those alternatives, I think there’s more to be said for an open system that’s less controlled than what we see emerging in China and indeed a few other authoritarian states.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So you’ve touched on the incident in Christchurch and the horrible events there. You wrote in that article about the dangers of right-wing extremism, and effectively you’ve said we’ve paid a lot of attention to the threat of Islamic extremism, but this threat of right-wing extremism, which is bubbled away in the dark corners of the Internet, as you say, and in plain sight in some instances with social media and other extremists in the political discourse. How concerned should we be about right-wing extremism?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we should. It has always been there, frankly. Before 9/11 probably that had been more of a focus of our intelligence agencies than Islamic extremism. But I do know that in the UK and in a number of European countries, there’s actually deep concern in police and intelligence services about the rise of the extreme violent right. And it’s here in Australia too. So that Internet that we’ve just been talking about is a way of actually connecting all of these groups. It’s a way of making people like that feel that they are actually part of a global social network and able to sort of radicalize each other.

Peter Jennings:                  And I think we are going to have to find ways to put more control and observation over that in order to prevent further attacks of the type that we saw in Christchurch. People have said to some extent correctly that New Zealand’s more open gun laws than Australia made it easier for Tarrant to access those weapons legally, which he did. But we would be fooling ourselves if we were to pretend that something like that couldn’t happen in Australia.

Peter Jennings:                  There’s intelligence research available publicly that says it’s about a quarter of a million long-arms weapons, so that’s to say rifles, and shotguns, and some military-style semiautomatic weapons that are illicitly out in the Australian population. So if someone’s desperate enough to acquire those types of weapons, they will be able to do so. And we know that there are Australians that have at least tendencies towards that kind of extremist ideology that presents a threat.

Peter Jennings:                  So, yeah, I do think this is a new problem. And I think we’re going to have to work amongst the Five Eyes intelligence partners, European partners to sort of collectively get a stronger grip over this extremist far-right movement to make sure that it never is anything more than just an absolute fringe part of our politics.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The thing about the incident, right, is that you could stand up in a crowded room and say something ridiculous. And most people would just call you out as being a nut. If you come and say the moon landing was fake or some other conspiracy theory of that nature, most people are going to just … But on the Internet, very quickly you can find people that agree with you and perhaps sell you something even more crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So how do you grapple with the fact that it’s not just Australians coordinating with Australians, but it’s Australians coordinating with these right-wing groups globally and these global extremists that seem to export that into our domestic discourse?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. Well, it’s true, and I think in the case of Tarrant, most of his radicalization took place in Europe and actually reading European-sourced sort of radical commentary. And I don’t say that to try and say it has nothing to do with Australia. Very clearly it did. He’s an Australian citizen. But now you can be a part, you can be a nut in rural New South Wales and be part of a global group of like-minded nuts. And what’s the solution? Well, probably working more closely with European countries where I think has been a bigger and sharper problem for a number of years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And more embedded in their political discourse as well, right?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. Well, there’s a history there, of course, and these countries are under pressure. And at the end of the day, those of us who aren’t nuts, we’ve got to kind of like I think reenergize the sensible center, if I could put it that way, to remind people that there are better alternatives. And mostly those alternatives are around robust democracy of the type that we have in Australia, thankfully. But, again, one of the regrettable points of the Internet is that it mutes sort of balanced, sensible, centered-type views, and it amplifies extremist radical views. And I think-

Misha Zelinsky:                  False balance almost.

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, that’s right. And it’s we’ve just got to look at how we educate our kids and do a whole range of things that kind of damps down those extremes and sort of puts more emphasis on the sensible center.

Misha Zelinsky:                  One of the things I think a lot of people are concerned about just recently with, and you’ve talked about gun laws and the amount of … Everyone likes to think that there are no guns in Australia. It’s not true. But how concerned are you, some of the things about these things about attempts that would seem to infiltrate Australia’s political systems by far-right groups in the United States and the gun law be attempted? Because the world looks to Australia as the kind of the prime example of how you can go from having guns to not. How concerned are you about that attempt? Because I think that surprised a lot of people.

Peter Jennings:                  Well, it was appallingly misjudged. And I think it’s to the eternal criticism of those fools that felt that it was a smart ideal to go to Washington, D.C. to talk to the NRA to ask for money. It’s not a defense to say that they got a bit sloshed and started talking, because they certainly were sober enough when they were planning their trip, and they knew pretty clearly what they were doing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was a hell of a bender otherwise.

Peter Jennings:                  Otherwise it was a hell of a bender. But I think something that’s not been clear from those Al Jazeera programs is did the NRA or the Koch brothers at any stage ever think that it was a smart idea to offer money to these people? I don’t know that they did. And maybe that tells you that even those, that that American institution has got more sense than we might give them credit for for not handing over money to those folks.

Peter Jennings:                  I was part of the Howard government in the days when Martin Bryant was engaged in that appalling killing spree in Port Arthur in Tasmania. I recall very directly the pressure that Howard was under to compromise on the gun laws that he brought in. And I think that it was one of his best moments as prime minister to actually stick with it because it was actually quite a strong lobby that didn’t want to see as tough arrange of controls over automatic weapons that Howard put in place.

Peter Jennings:                  But we are, 20 years later, we are surely a better country for that decision having taken place. And I don’t, except at the fringes of Australian politics, I don’t see many people saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sort of go easy on the gun laws to make ownership of semiautomatic weapons more accessible?” So I thought that you really would have to say that the attempts of those individuals that went to the US to ask for money was about as ill-considered a political move as I’ve seen in my fairly lengthy career now of watching politics in Canberra.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So I always look for a segue on this, but it’s going super clunky on this one, but now I have a very lame hokey title called Diplomates. And I like to finish the interviews saying, well, three international guests got asked, who would you bring of three Aussies to a barbecue? But you get go pick three international guests. So who are three international guests coming to a Peter Jennings’ place for a barbecue?

Peter Jennings:                  Ooh, gosh, that’s an interesting one. Can they be political figures or could they be-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, anyone you like.

Peter Jennings:                  Anyone I like. Who would I like to talk to? Well, I’ll tell you three people who I absolutely admire. One of them I know reasonably well, that’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former president of Indonesia, who I actually as a young defense official escorted through Canberra on a trip, probably 25 years ago when he was a general, very fine individual. I admire him greatly. So I’d have him, Jim Mattis, former US Secretary of Defense, who I think was a fine general, someone who knew Australian fighting forces very well and who did for at least two years probably one of the toughest jobs in Washington, D.C., which was to be the defense advisor to Donald Trump as commander-in-chief.

Misha Zelinsky:                  He’s got some stories to tell, no doubt?

Peter Jennings:                  And he did, and a man that’s sort of much admired in Australian defense system. And I feel as though I should come up with a sort of quirky and different choice for you for-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Only if you feel quirky and different, man-

Peter Jennings:                  Quirky or different. I honestly don’t know. Seeing as I spend so much of my time traveling overseas, I think the person I’d most like to be able to see at a relaxed thing like a barbecue would be my wife, actually, who hears lots of stories about all of these fine people what I’m able to meet. So I’ll go for those two guys of great high standing and my own wife.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Most importantly, you’ve definitely got the right answer in the last one. But, look, thanks so much for your time.

Peter Jennings:                  [crosstalk 00:45:33].

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s been a great chat, and I really appreciate it.

Peter Jennings:                  Thanks, Misha. It’s my pleasure to talk.

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