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Richard Marles: Going Big – Navigating Australia’s foreign policy in a post COVID-19 world.

Richard Marles is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about how COVID-19 has accelerated history’s timeline, the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, why the US is still a force for a good, how Australia’s record defence procurement program can rebuild our manufacturing sector, the choices facing Australia as it seeks to carve out an independent foreign policy,  why sovereign capability is the new black, how Australia must do more with its key pacific partners, and why – in order to figure out our place in the world – Australia must play big.

 

Misha Zelinsky:

All right, Richard Marles, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Richard Marles:

It’s great to be here, Misha. Looking forward to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, look. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to start any conversation these days without the C-word. COVID-19, now. This is a foreign policy podcast. You’re obviously Labor’s defence shadow. To your mind, what do you think is the single biggest … ? So many changes have come from COVID-19, but what do you think is the biggest single foreign policy challenge that’s come from the crisis?

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good question. I suppose what I think is ultimately, I think it’s an accelerant if I was to identify anything. I think that the sort of trends that we had seen out there probably go faster, but part of the world we’re in was one that was much more difficult to predict and obviously challenging for Australia. We use lines like this was the most challenging set of strategic circumstances that we had faced since the second World War, and we were saying that before COVID-19 took hold.

Richard Marles:

I think this has made that much more so. Kind of multiple times so, and so the breadth of possibilities for us and the unknowns for us, all of those, are much bigger, and ultimately where you get to is not being able to answer more questions about COVID-19 means, but you do realize these are really challenging strategic circumstances for us as a nation, and so the need for us to be able to take care of ourselves has probably never been as important, or as important as the second World War.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s right, and certainly you can feel the way that things, the compression of history, and the pulling forward of things.

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good term.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things you just mentioned is looking after ourselves, now. I think a lot of Australians were shocked by some of the shortages that we saw in terms of PPE, health and safety equipment. Sovereign capability’s now become a bit of a new theme. Something that I’m very interested in. But given the exposure to just in time supply chains, and given the sense now that we don’t necessarily produce enough of the things that we need, in a defence context, what are the must haves for Australia? What are the things that we really need to produce here, to your mind?

Richard Marles:

Again, this is a really good example of where it’s changed thinking, or perhaps really clarified thinking. If you’d said to me back this time last year that the making of surgical masks was a thing that was essential to Australian security, I would’ve laughed, and yet earlier this year we had members of the Australian Army at a factory in Sheffield, I think, helping to churn out masks because we didn’t have enough of them.

Richard Marles:

If something as kind of simple, really, as a surgical mask, can be seen or become central to our own security, then what else? And it raises a whole lot of questions about that. From a defence point of view, I think the traditional answer to this question is that in an environment where the kind of platforms that you are part of are incredibly complex, and you take the joint strike fighter as an example. This is a fighter plane which has been made in and by numerous countries, and there are absolutely global supply chains in place there, the notion that going back to the second World War where we saw the making of fighter aircraft as part of our sovereign capability, that’s kind of not going to be the case now, but where people have got to in their thinking now is we at least may be able to maintain and sustain the platforms that we use here in Australia.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly that. I think, though, there does need to be something of an audit of all the defence capabilities that we have, inputs that we have, and then over and above that traditional setting we clearly do need to be able to sustain and maintain the equipment that we use, but our best certain things in addition to that or as part of that that are absolutely critical. And I’d have to format some of that, but I think a much broader assessment of what’s in that basket, we will come to see as being what defines sovereign capability going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously there’s the what of sovereign capability, i.e. the things that you get. What are the things that we need to have here, what are the things we need to store? But in terms of, also, the wear, the Henry Jackson Society did a study which showed that of the Five Isles nations that Australia was most exposed of all nations to the Chinese Communist Party in terms of key production areas. They identified 535 areas including 30 that were critical to future economic innovations. Should we care about the regime that supplies the goods as well as the goods themselves?

Richard Marles:

That’s a good question. Answered not specifically in relation to China but in the abstract, of course we need to be thinking about the places from which we import material and the places that we in effect do business with, and historically that’s been the case, and we do that. We do that right now. We would say, in relation to Iran and North Korea for example, that our ability to do business with those countries is significantly curtailed. In that spectrum, where’s China fit? I mean, we’re not … in a defence context, obviously, there’s not a lot of interaction in terms of defence supply chains, and I can understand that.

Richard Marles:

I think it is important, while China raises a whole lot of challenges in terms of Australia, it is a country with whom we’ve had a relationship for going back to the Wippen government. I don’t put China in the same category as countries like Iran or North Korea. I certainly don’t put China in the same category as the Soviet Union. I don’t think that’s who we’re talking about, and I think that the economic relationship that we have with China is appropriate. Now, in saying that, we want to make sure as a country that we have a diverse set of trading relationships around the world.

Richard Marles:

That’s just prudent. It’s, in a sense, the equivalent of having a balanced financial portfolio. We need to have a diverse set of trading relationships, and particularly as a country which is reliant on trade. But I do think that we have had an ongoing trading relationship with China, I think that is fair enough, and I’m comfortable with that going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of, you talked about the speeding up of history, so to speak, and a contested Indo-Pacific is something that is going to be an inevitable feature of Australia’s foreign policy settings now. In terms of defence procurement and new kit, Australia, we’ve made this sort of commitment, I think it’s a bipartisan commitment, to 2% of GDP, which is around give or take 40 billion a year. Do you think given the challenges that we’re seeing and the speed of which this is going, is it enough in terms of a broad commitment?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s important that we determine our spending in relation to defence based on the strategic challenges that we face. That’s kind of, when you think about it, a matter of logic. If a country’s strategic circumstances are very predictable and certain, and it can’t get away without spending a lot, countries which find themselves in a precarious position spend more, but the rational act here is to be spending in proportion to what our strategic circumstances dictate, and I said, too, earlier, that what I know is they’ve become a whole lot more complicated rather than more simple as a result of COVID, but even prior to COVID they were as complex as they’ve been for a long time.

Richard Marles:

That’s got to be the guide in terms of what we’re doing. The second point is that, whilst 2% of GDP is a good benchmark, I do think that ultimately what’s important in terms of defence spending is that you have an absolute amount. In other words, that it’s not a functional GDP, because you need certainty in relation to programs over a very long period of time, which, if spending kind of fluctuates as a function of how GDP fluctuates, it’s going to make it hard to deliver those programs.

Richard Marles:

You look at submarines for example. This is a program which is going to be delivered over decades. There needs to be a predictable funding stream over that period of time, so I guess I make that point in the context where we’re in a recession for the first time in the better part of 30 years. If you measure defence spending as a proportion of GDP, that has implications there, and I think we need to be mindful of that, and the final point I make is that it’s really important that our defence force is dense, by which I mean there is a risk in having a wholeness about your defence force if you don’t have the wherewithal to ultimately use the critical platforms that you have.

Richard Marles:

We are purchasing, and I think appropriately so, some pretty significant platforms in terms of the naval ship building program, but also Lam400 and we mentioned earlier the joint strike fighter. Across the three services, you’re seeing an appropriate modernization of equipment, but it’s really important that we have the brunt behind that to make sure that we can use all of those, that we’ve got enough people, for example, that if we have the better part of 100 fighter planes we can use 100 fighter planes. If you’ve got 100 fighter planes, but you’ve only got the personnel to actually, effectively, operate a small part of that, then you don’t have 100 fighter planes because you can’t use them.

Richard Marles:

That’s what I mean in terms of there being, we’ve got to guard against the highness in the way in which we have a defence force, and a number of serious observers have made that observation about where we’re at at the moment, so we need to make sure that in terms of our spending we’re the opposite of that, which is why I say we need to have an ADF which is robust and dense, the opposite of being hollow, and I think that’s a very important thought in terms of how we set our budget. Ultimately, we face a really challenging world.

Richard Marles:

We face a challenging world where we have an assertive China, which is doing what great powers do, so I don’t really even say this with judgment. China is seeking to shape the world around it, but that does raise challenges for us, and our alliance with the United States is profoundly important and I think is as important as it has ever been going forward, and from where I sit, the more we have America engaged in East Asia, the better, but it’s also true to say that we have an American president who would regard unpredictability as being a virtue, and I can understand that, but it makes life difficult for allies.

Richard Marles:

And so I think with all, you put those things together, and what that means is we’ve got to make sure we’re in a position to be able to look after ourselves and that’s why our defence spending at this moment in time really matters.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and I want to dig into the questions about US-China relations and what it means for Australian policy, but before we get off procurement, getting the amount of money that we’re spending on new kit, they’re big programs we’re talking about here, can we do more? In terms of innovation policy, what’s the role that the defence procurement program can play in sort of driving Australia up the innovation chain? And how can we make it to make a more complex Australian economy in terms of its manufacturing and innovation capability?

Richard Marles:

Defence industry, I think, plays a really important role there, and has done with a number of countries. If you have a place like Israel, they will say that so much of their being a country where innovation is very central to their economic character that at the heart of that is defence industry, and the kind of innovation that you see in defence industry, and partly that’s because defence equipment is about as high tech equipment as you get. It is literally at the very cutting edge of innovation and science, so if you’re in the business of making high end defence capability, then what you are is in the defence of making high end manufactured product, and for a first world nation that’s central to the ability to engage in manufacturing.

Richard Marles:

Successful first world economies that have export manufacturing as part of their economy do so at the highest end of the value chain, and defence industry can play an important role in getting you there. Having said that, it’s important that we understand how you get defence industry. When you look at countries that do it, they didn’t start off doing it because they thought, “Well, if we do a defence industry, that will lead the rest of the economy.” They’ve done it because they’ve had a strategic reason to be engaged in it.

Richard Marles:

Israel is a very obvious example, given the threats that have surrounded it for most of its existence, but you can take a country like Sweden which has a really strong defence-industrial base through a company like Saab, and at the heart of that is strategic decisions as well. Sweden was not a part of NATO, was really right there next to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, and so needed to be in a position where it was able to look after itself, and needed to have a capacity to do defence manufacturing within its borders.

Richard Marles:

If Sweden hadn’t been a part of NATO, I’m not sure, for example, that Saab would exist in quite the way that it exists today, so strategic circumstances and strategic decisions that countries make which end up leading to successful defence industries, and then the benefit that can have for the general economy becomes a spinoff. One of my criticisms about where the government is at is that thinking through the ecosystem of defence industry hasn’t been their strong suit, and so there’s never really been a proper strategic rationale which has been put forward by the government for why we would have a defence industry.

Richard Marles:

There has been, I think most observers would say, that this government, having seen the car industry leave our shores on its watch, was looking for some answer to industry policy, and so has leapt upon defence industry as a proxy for a general industry policy. Well, okay, if that’s what they’ve done, is there an example anywhere in the world where that’s worked? And I think there is one. Strong defence industries come about through a strategic decision about having them in the first place.

Richard Marles:

I actually think there is a strategic rationale for us having a defence industry but you just never hear this government seem to articulate it. I think at the heart of what would be a strategic purpose for us having a defence industry is the fact that defence exports and defence partnerships around industry really go to a core of a nation’s interests and trusts. If you think of the situation we’re now in with France, with the building of our submarines, that has dramatically changed and upgraded our bilateral relationship.

Richard Marles:

France now is critically important as a bilateral partner to us as a nation because they’re involved in the building of our submarines. Well, actually, there’s the opportunity for us, in terms of the way in which we engage in defence industry, to start partnering with a whole lot of countries within our region, and if we did that I think defence industry could play a really important role in helping Australia be taken more seriously within the region and within the world, and that’s really important for us for a whole range of reasons, in terms of our shaping our strategic circumstances, and putting us in a much better position.

Richard Marles:

And I think defence industry, we can do it, and can play a really important role there, but you need to actually make that argument. And it’s not just that you need to make the argument to the Australian people. I think you need to make that argument to the defence establishment, and I frankly think this government haven’t even thought about the argument let alone made it, and so as a result you’re kind of seeing all of the hoopla that surrounded their claims around defence industry when Christopher Pine was defence industry minister, and in defence that’s all just gone by the wayside now. There is just a barren silence, and there is a real question about whether defence industry is actually made to, by this government, now, or not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Turning to US-China relations, at the moment it just seems a day doesn’t go past without some kind of an escalation between both sides, and certainly rhetoric, and also in diplomatic action, and Australia has likewise found itself in a similar situation. How should Australia handle these increasingly tense relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and the principal trading relationship on one hand, and as you said our absolute critical security alliance that’s our longstanding relationship there? How do we navigate and triangulate this, or can we?

Richard Marles:

Well, look, it’s a really good question. I suppose the starting point is I think the world feels a lot safer and more secure and more predictable when China and America are talking with each other, so it’s in our interest that that relationship be as best as it can be, and if it’s in our interests for the relationship between America and China to be in the best possible shape, then it actually stands to reason that it’s in our interests for our own relationship with China to be in the best possible shape, and so we do need to think about that, and that actually requires the adults in the room when it comes to this government playing a part in determining Australian foreign policy, and right now the adults, such as they are, I think are pretty silent.

Richard Marles:

We don’t hear a lot from our foreign ministry about a pretty fundamental issue in terms of our relationship with China. We don’t hear that much from our prime minister, to be honest, either, and the space tends to get filled by all the fringe developments on the part of our government ranks, and I don’t think that helps, and I think the second point is we need to have a kind of underlying philosophy. What are the guiding principles that we seek to put in place in terms of our relationship with China?

Richard Marles:

The guiding principles in terms of our relationship with the United States are clear. They’re our alliance partner. We have shared values, and we often use that phrase. That really means we’re both democracies, we both respect the rule of law at home, but importantly we both seek to create a global rules based to order, and we’ve been parties in seeking to do that really since the aftermath of the second World War, and we see that global rules based order where issues and contest is determined by rules rather than power as being central to a stable and prosperous global environment, which really is the way you would characterize the environment in East Asia for most of the period since the second World War, with the obvious kind of exceptions of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Richard Marles:

But those aside, we have seen a high degree of stability in that period, which has allowed East Asia to be a part of the world which has been an economic powerhouse, and that’s been of enormous advantage to Australia. But they are the shared values, and so what we’re about in our relationship with the United States is clear. What is the guiding principle behind our relationship with China? What are we trying to do here? And so I think the first thing is we don’t really ever get an answer to that question from this government. I think getting a government minister to try and have a crack at even answering that, you’d be hard pressed, and so often it feels to me like what you get is you get to irreconcilable propositions, or two propositions which they don’t seek to reconcile is perhaps the way to put it.

Richard Marles:

Yes, China’s a great country to deal with. On the other hand, China creates anxiety as the government would describe it. I would say that that’s not particularly helpful in terms of having a way forward. For me, and it’s just my view, but what I think matters is the theories of view, but my view, I think the starting point is in our relationship with China that actually we make clear we’re in alliance with the United States, and that that is fundamental to our worldview and to our national security, but from the place of being in an alliance with the United States, we value the relationship with China and we seek to build the best relationship that we can.

Richard Marles:

One which is robust enough that we’re able to express our national interests when that differs from Chinese action. One where we can raise questions of human rights but we do so in a manner which also acknowledges human rights achievements, and there are human rights achievements in China which we should acknowledge. It is important to speak on behalf of the Uyghurs, for example. It’s also important, if we’re being fair, to acknowledge that China is responsible for the single biggest delineation out of poverty in human history. It’s important to say both sides of that equation.

Richard Marles:

And we also need to submit ourselves to judgment. Part of the global order is that, and what we seek to do since the second World War with something like the human rights commission, is to place stock in the international community’s judgment of individual countries, and that means we’re not immune from that judgment. In a sense, we come to this with humility, but we will participate in judgment, and it’s important that we do that, and from that place we do seek to do all of those things but build the relationship and trade is the critical part of that.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that can be done, but it does actually require articulating some kind of underlying set of principles which both try to do, and then it requires doing decent diplomacy. I mean, there needs to be personal relationships between senior figures in the Australian government and senior figures in the Chinese government. I don’t actually think there is one. I mean, I literally don’t think there is a single relationship that exists between a senior member of this government and a member of the Chinese government. I find that astonishing, and I find it astonishing in the context of how significant the relationship is, both in terms of its challenges and its opportunities, for our nation.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly under previous governments there were personal relationships which were able to mediate the difficult moments, but right now there is just nothing, and I think that’s a real issue. I think we’ve got to do our foreign relations with the nation a whole lot better. I think we’ve got to have a set of guiding principles. I think we’ve got to do our diplomacy well. This isn’t rocket science; this is just saying we’ve got to actually do foreign policy like a grownup nation that we should be, and I think that would go a long way to helping us navigate what is the difficult terrain.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, it goes without saying that currently, we’re not in the good books of the Chinese Communist Party, and you talked a lot about striking the balance there. The business community basically goes into a tizz every time the relationships gets into any choppy water, saying essentially we should just acquiesce for the benefit of letting the good times roll on. In terms of the decisions that sort of earn the ire, if you look at foreign interference laws, if you look at decisions relating to Huawei and 5G, if you look around calling out of misinformation, if you look at South China Sea in terms of the adherence to international law, perhaps even more recently around Hong Kong although we tend to not really talk a great deal to be honest about domestic affairs in China as a country.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which of these things would you say that we’ve got it wrong on? Because an issue is approached, we’ve taken a decision, and it’s a sovereign decision of Australia which has seemed to earn the ire of the Chinese Community Party, so it’s very difficult to understand how you can navigate it in a way that protects sovereignty without stirring them up in that sense.

Richard Marles:

I guess the answer to that question is what I’ve given. I don’t think we’re doing our diplomacy very well. I don’t think we’ve got those relationships in place.

Misha Zelinsky:

But do you think you can make those decisions, but do them in a way that doesn’t, I suppose, upset the Chinese in the same way? Or … ?

Richard Marles:

I think you can build balance in a relationship so that there’s at least a chance that you can move forward in a context where we exercise our own voice. Now, let me be clear. It’s really important that we exercise our own voice. That is not something that can be compromised, but it needs to be the voice of the nation, and that’s what I’ve said before. We have a significant interest in the South China Sea. Most of our trade goes through the South China Sea. The UN convention on the law of the sea, which if you like is the rules of the road for that part of the world, for the high seas which includes that part of the world, is fundamentally important to us as an island trading nation.

Richard Marles:

And so we need to be able to exercise our voice in respect of our national interests when it comes to what’s going on in the high seas around the world, and in asserting the UN convention on the law of sea, specifically in the South China Sea. We must do that. As I said earlier, I think as a nation which seeks to contribute to a civilized world, it’s important that we are exercising our voice in relation to human rights issues such as Uyghurs, noting that we need to do it in a way where we submit ourselves to the same judgment, and where we acknowledge other treatments.

Richard Marles:

But that architecture only works if countries are willing to speak out on behalf of people around the world who it seems as being the subject of difficulty, and that certainly would understate for what was going on for the Uighur population in China. We need to be able to do those things and they’re not matters on which you should compromise. Having said that, we’ve seen government members write articles which use ham fisted analogies between China and the rise of Nazi Germany. Well, I mean, I don’t think that’s helpful at all. I don’t remotely think that that’s what China is.

Richard Marles:

And then I can understand why China gets upset about it. You have George Christians en up here using astonishing language in the context of COVID-19, which is not helping, and we don’t have a foreign minister or a prime minister who is articulating a clear voice on behalf of the nation in respect of what we need to be saying in terms of our national interests, what we should be saying in respect of China, while these voices are going on, and so they occupy the space in a way that those things are gratuitous, and I don’t think it is possible to defend those sorts of comments, and we’re talking about a relationship which matters deeply which is the basis on which a whole lot of people in Australia is employed, and that is a reasonable thing to be thinking about as well.

Richard Marles:

And then underlying all of that is a complete absence of any personal relationships which can help navigate through difficult waters. There are going to be difficult waters with China. China does raise challenges. No one’s suggesting that it doesn’t, and it is really important that we’re able to exercise our national voice in respect of those challenges. All the more reason, then, to get our diplomacy right, and to be doing it in a more smart way. Now, it is possible that we could have the best diplomacy in place, the best personal relationships that exist, but the need to say these things means that China would still act in the same way.

Richard Marles:

But wouldn’t it be nice to try that experiment? To actually see how it would go if we did diplomacy well. And I frankly think on a governmental level, I should say, I don’t think that this government is actually doing it, and let me also just be a little bit clear in terms of clarifying this. I think our professional diplomats do an excellent job, and I think our professional diplomats in Beijing do an excellent job, and I know a number of them, and they’re very highly regarded.

Richard Marles:

But at the end of the day, at a political level, you need critical relationships with countries that are critical to us, and right now this government has been an abject failure, really, in developing those relationships, and I’m not sure why anyone would think that that’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you talked about doing diplomacy well, so turning to the other side of the coin, President Trump, the US has become somewhat more of a capricious actor under Trump and has more of a go it alone, it’s even been actively hostile, to be honest, to alliances, or even multilateral institutions. What’s the implications for a middle power like Australia, and how can we shore up some of these things? For example, would you support Australia joining an expanded G7, something like a G10 with South Korea and other countries joining? Do you see a way that Australia can play a balancing role against US capriciousness, in that sense?

Richard Marles:

Well, I’d be careful about using that tone in respect to the US. I mean, firstly, I still fundamentally believe that the US is a force for enormous good within the world, and I think that our relationship with the United States, which has been there for a long time, is very deep. It is not just with one person and never has been. It’s at a commercial level, at a military level, at a scientific level, at a cultural level. It is very deep, and that depth is really important right now, and actually that relationship has been and in many ways continues to be highly predictable. I think the one thing with President Trump, as I said earlier, is he would see his own unpredictability as a virtue.

Richard Marles:

And I think that that makes life challenging for an ally. We would obviously prefer to have a more predictable line of sight about what the president’s actions are going to be, but that’s not who he is and so that’s just where it’s at, but I think it is really important that we understand, that we not completely judge America by one person. I mean, the president is clearly relevant, highly relevant, to the running of America, but America is a big place and it’s a very deep relationship and it’s a relationship that will be in place, say, five years from now, irrespective of who wins the presidential election this year.

Richard Marles:

But in a world post-Donald Trump, whenever that world is, we will still be in a very strong alliance with the United States, and they still maintain all the core values that we hold, and I think that’s really important in terms of how we view our relationship with America going forward. I think it’s about putting it all in context and understanding that, and I still come back to the point

Richard Marles:

I think what we need to be doing is making sure that we are able to take care of ourselves to the extent that we can, that we need to have more of an eye on that, and perhaps the other thing is that we need to contribute to the burden of strategic thought within our region. We need not just to be a dependable, solid ally, but a country which has ideas and views about our region which actually I think America is hungry to receive for us.

Richard Marles:

I think sometimes we underplay what we can contribute in that sense. It’s probably all a long way of saying I think now’s the time for Australian leadership, and I think leadership within our region, but leadership within the alliance as well, and I think that’s probably the best way of making sure that we keep the alliance in the best possible shape at this moment in time.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of Australian leadership, then, do you think that we should seek a seat at the table at some of these major diplomatic groupings? Obviously, under Rudd, Labor was very set true in creating the G20 for the GFC response which is still an important institution, but should we be seeking to deepen and expand our influence in things like an expanded G7 or something like that?

Richard Marles:

I think the more tables we’re at, the better, to be honest, and I think that would obviously be a fantastic opportunity for Australia were that to eventuate, and the G20 is a really important forum for Australia, and Australia helping to shape, for example, the East Asian Summit, is really important. Australia’s pivotal role back during the Horton Keen governments in the creation of APEC is important.

Richard Marles:

I think these are important bodies for us to be a part of, and I think the reasoning goes a bit like this. We have a real premium on being taken seriously. That might seem like an obvious and trite thing to say, but it really stems from the fact that, along with New Zealand, our two countries have pretty unique sets of strategic circumstances. Yes, we’re in an alliance with the United States, but that’s a country much bigger than our own with a capital on the Atlantic Sea board, and how in the northern hemisphere, and how they see the world is very different to the way we see it as a country of 25 million people in the southern hemisphere in the East Asian timezone.

Richard Marles:

We’re not part of, to use a Labor party analogy, in a sense, we’re not part of a faction. We’re not a European country in the European Union. We’re not an African country in the African Union. We have to navigate our way, in a large part, on our own, and that means we actually need to play bigger rather than smaller when it comes to foreign policy because we have to figure this stuff out for ourselves. Sharing the burden of strategic thought about our circumstances, we can do it with New Zealand, but beyond New Zealand and ourselves we really need to be figuring this out for ourselves, and that means we need to play big.

Richard Marles:

Play big is not just about a kind of misplaced sense of the extent to which we can shape the world. It’s actually about so that we learn. Being at these tables helps us to learn and to understand the way the world works, and we have a premium on that more than most, and if we’re going to be able to navigate our own way through, then actually we’ve got to be out there being in these forums, understanding the way the world’s going to work so that we can part our path because there’s not really going to be anybody else getting us there. Now, that’s actually very different to being a European nation, which can talk to other European nations, or as I said, an African nation which can share notes with those other countries in the African Union.

Richard Marles:

We’ve really got to work this stuff out for ourselves, so in many ways I’ll often say that we’ve got a bigger premium on playing big and on being taken seriously than almost any other country in the world, and I genuinely think that’s right, and so being present in these places, making sure that we are there at the G20, I think taking our place on the UN security council periodically; these are really important things for us to do because they help us understand how the world’s working, and we really need to understand it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and so we’ve talked a lot about, I suppose, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Southeast Asia, but drawing it right down to our backyard, our real backyard, and I know you’re someone who talks a lot about this, but the Pacific. You know, I mean, to put it bluntly, we’ve had the step up here from the government, but it somewhere we’ve dropped the ball, because China’s now actively contesting the region. It’s traditionally an area where it’s been Australia’s domain in terms of its diplomatic relationships. Do you think we have dropped the ball here, and are we doing enough?

Richard Marles:

I think over the journey it’s been as big a blind spot in terms of our strategic framework, in terms of our national security, as any. I welcome the step up, but the step up needs to be more than rhetoric. It’s got to be real and it’s got to be noticed by countries in the Pacific, and it’s got to be reflected in a fairly changed attitude from people in Australia. A point I’ve made a number of times is there’s 10 countries in the world who would probably identify their critical, number one bilateral relationship as not being with the United States or not being with China but with us, but go out there and ask anyone to name the 10 countries.

Richard Marles:

And it’s just something about our kind of psyche. You would think if you’re a practitioner in this space you would realize countries off in an instant, because the countries which see us as being completely central to their world necessarily has to define a space in which we is important as any, and yet by and large we tend not to think about this nearly enough in the way that we should. There is huge opportunity, I think, for us to play better and more impactfully within the Pacific in a way which will change positively the lives of those who live in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

But we’ve really got to commit to that, and we can’t do this on the basis of being worried about what others might do in the Pacific in the sense that, if our reason for engaging with the Pacific is because of what someone else might do, then we’re getting it wrong in the start. Our call to action in the Pacific, I think, should be really clear. The millennium development goals, which were a relative measure of progress around a range of social indicators between the years 2000 and 2015, had the Pacific performing worse than any region on the planet.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that has something to do with us, that that is, as you say, the region most proximate to us. It’s the part of the world where we can make the most difference. What that says is that, at a point in time, if we don’t change that trajectory, then the pacific will end up the least developed part of the globe, and that’s patently unacceptable. That will be reflected in maternal mortality rates, in short life expectancy, in low education, and a rage of other social indicators.

Richard Marles:

That would be the clearing call. We ought to be listening to that and saying that’s not acceptable in a part of the world where we have an ability to have a big impact, and so let’s really unpack the issues around that and try and affect meaningful change in relation to that, and that’s the way we will become the natural partner of choice for the countries of the pacific, by demonstrating to them that central to our interest is not any other country, but them. But that does require us to, I think, have a significant sea change in the way that we think about this, and ultimately that goes to who we are as a people.

Richard Marles:

That becomes a statement about how we see the significance of Australia as a polity in the world, positively impacting the world, and so I feel that Australian leadership, which is so central in terms of helping shape our strategic circumstances on the big questions that we’ve been talking about, the relationship with the United States, the challenges that are posed by China. Australian leadership is critical in terms of, as best we can, shape those strategic circumstances, but that Australian leadership in my view begins in the Pacific. That’s where we find it, and so it really does require us to think very deeply about it, and I do think there has been more attention in relation to the Pacific over the last couple years, but I don’t think nearly enough to turn around what I think has been a blind spot for this country for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky:

You spoke in a very positive context there, but I mean, there is a flip side there where there’s some systems competition underway. How concerned are you about things like debt book diplomacy, and China seeking to basically rope in the Pacific nations into the BRI program, and the prospect there of critical assets falling into control potentially of a more assertive China? Is that something we should be worried about? You know, there was a talk about Vanuatu potentially being a base for Chinese military assets. How worried should we be about that kind of sort of hard projection of power into our region?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s in Australia’s national interest for us to be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific. I think that’s the point here, and I think we get there by focusing on the countries of the pacific themselves, and I think if we get worried about what other countries are doing, and certainly if we start lecturing the Pacific about who they can have relationships with, then we’re not on a pathway to success here. Success lies in us focusing on the relationship that we have with the Pacific and getting it right, and that at its heart is about making sure that we place the interests and the fortunes of the people of the Pacific at the center of what we seek to be doing in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

Now, we can do all that, and we are in a position where we can be a natural partner of choice, and I feel very confident about that, but I also don’t think that that’s inevitable. I don’t think that that happens by us just being here, and I think it does in large measure define circumstances at the moment but I don’t think it necessarily always will, but I think it’s within our power if we get our relationship right with the Pacific to make sure that that is the enduring characterization of our relationship to the Pacific, and that’s in our national interest, but that’s in the interest of the people in the Pacific, and it’s what we should do.

Richard Marles:

It’s who we should be as a people. But I know that if we are really focused on the plight of those in the Pacific, and in a sense the outrageousness of in some places life expectancy for them ending in their 50s, and that we really seek with our heart but with the best brain that we can bring into this equation as well to change that, then that’s all that’s going to matter. The rest is actually going to take care of itself. It really will.

Richard Marles:

But that’s the place that we’ve got to get to, and you know, what frustrates me at times is that … let me sort of declare, I love the pacific and I’ve completely fallen in love with it, but it frustrates me that not enough of us understand it and see its importance, but also see the cultural wonder that represents, and I’ve opened up hearts to how incredible a part of the world it is, and how lucky we are to really live as part of it, and to have the opportunity that we have to contribute to it.

Richard Marles:

That’s where we’ve got to go. There’s kind of an emotional connection which I think that we’ve got to get to. It’s interesting comparing us with New Zealand in respect of this. New Zealand do, I think, identify in a deeper way with the Pacific, for a whole lot of reasons that make sense. I mean, Auckland is a much more Pacific city than any city that exists in Australia. New Zealand is part of Polynesia, so you can see why it happens, and maybe it is a tall order to ask Australia to sort of have that same cultural connection, but actually we have a lot more presence in the Pacific than New Zealand. Much, much more.

Richard Marles:

And if we could back it up with just a bit of that kind of connection then I think that working alongside New Zealand would go a long way to securing the kind of interests that we need to in terms of the relationships that we should be building with the countries of the Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a huge responsibility.

Richard Marles:

It is.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s great to hear you talk about it so passionately. Switching gears slightly, I think the profound change, and we could do a whole podcast about this so you’ll probably have to do this at a reasonably brief level, but I mean, open and closed systems. Open and closed systems, and political warfare, this seems to be, I think, the preeminent challenge of the 21st century, and one of the things that worries me as someone, and I think you obviously share my view of the world in this sense, is that we’re both passionate about democracies, passionate about open societies, but autocracies seem to be gaining our openness in a way that is very difficult for us to resist, and at the same time closing themselves off to, I suppose, the virtues of openness that we would see in terms of interacting with open societies.

Misha Zelinsky:

How can open societies prevail, and how can they beat closed systems, and do you think they can?

Richard Marles:

Well, I certainly hope that human progress and prosperity lies with human rights and with democratic thoughts and democratic freedoms, because that’s what I passionately believe in. I think over the long run innovative thought both in terms of the evolution of society in a social sense, but also in a technological sense, in terms of size, have performed better in open societies where there is freedom of expression and freedom of debate, and I think that that is still going to be the case going forward. I do think that there are real challenges in relation to the evolution of technology which present themselves, and I understand the point that you’re making that in closed systems there might be ways in which closed systems can deal with the development of technology around IT.

Richard Marles:

But ultimately I think this has got a fair way around and I do passionately believe in the power of government of the people by the people for the people. I think putting the people central to the equation is still the best recipe going forward, and so I don’t take democracy for granted. I think it is something that needs to be continually worked at, but I am as strong a believer in it at this point in my life and at this point in time as I have ever been, and I think that is still fundamentally critical to the future of a more civilized world.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, a very uplifting place than the more formal part of the proceedings. I know that you’ve been dying to get to this part and the audience can’t wait to hear your answer about my trademark clunky segue to my incredibly hokey and lame part of the show, the fun part of the show. Now, you’re a very worldly man, Richard. Who are the three people, foreign guests, that would come alive or dead that would be brought along to a barbecue with you up there in Dulong? It might be difficult to get them there even if they are alive, with the COVID restrictions made, but it’s fantasy football so we can do our best.

Misha Zelinsky:

But who are they and why, mate?

Richard Marles:

Okay, so I’m answering this in a political way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you are a politician, mate. I can’t-

Richard Marles:

Exactly. There’d be a sporting version of this where I would love to meet Ty Woods, and I’d probably like to meet Bobby Jones, and you could kind of throw in Shane Warne. Also I kind of-

Misha Zelinsky:

We’re going to get together, mate. If Warnie is coming I’m definitely coming over, so yeah.

Richard Marles:

I also think, though, I mean, they’re all I’m sure great people. I love their efforts on the sporting field and I kind of have a bit of a rule. I don’t know whether you want to get to know your sporting heroes. I just enjoy what they do on the sporting field.

Misha Zelinsky:

Exactly. You’ve always got to be careful meeting your heroes, they do say.

Richard Marles:

Let me answer the question in a political way, though. None of them are alive. Abraham Lincoln for sure is definitely my great political hero, but I would love to have him at a barbecue because by all accounts he was a raconteur. He was funny. He was self-deprecating. He had a kind of certain melancholy, but a warm kind of charm about him which I would love to experience firsthand, and he is the great man.

Richard Marles:

Churchill would be there as well. I mean, Churchill, whatever else, he would be fun. There would certainly be no shortage of drinks if he was there, and you get the sense that a guy who routinely was in the bath, as I understand it, sipping alcohol throughout the entirety of the second World War, not that he was in the bath throughout the entirety, but he was there on many days, I mean, that is pretty amazing. He is going to be fun at a dinner party, and again, it is the defining moment of modern history and he is the central character to it, and if anyone won the second World War, I mean obviously not one person, but the person who had the most influence on it was Winston Churchill, so it would be great to have him there.

Richard Marles:

And the third goes back a bit deeper in history. I think it would be fascinating to speak to Queen Elizabeth the First. She really, I think, is probably the great English monarch, and when you think about how does the British Empire come to its preeminence, I think the seeds are there in her reign, and she comes to power, you know, father is Henry the Eighth. There is a kind of tussle for power which she was probably unlikely to win and yet does.

Richard Marles:

I doubt there has been anyone in history who has been more underestimated in terms of their ability to do the job. People were desperate for her to find a partner because they felt that there needed to be a male presence around, and she resolutely refused to that, and then becomes the greatest of them all. That’s somebody I reckon would be fascinating to meet. Her kind of desire to plot her own path and do what she was going to go, and not conform to what just about every voice around her wanted her to do, that would be a force of nature I’d like to meet.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s three good ones, there, mate. Kicking the ass of slave owners, kicking the ass of the Nazis, and kicking the ass of the Irish and the Scots, mate, so it’s a good list. Well, look, we’ll leave it there. Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fantastic chat, and we’ll catch up soon.

Richard Marles:

Thanks, Misha.

 

Tarun Chhabra – The China Card: How progressives should deal with an assertive Chinese Communist Party

Tarun Chhabra is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and also with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. His current research focuses on U.S. grand strategy, U.S.-China relations, and U.S. alliances. Tarun is a global expert on the implications of China’s growing political and international influence.

 

A Harvard, Oxford and Stanford graduate, Tarun has served on the White House National Security Council and worked in the Pentagon as a speech writer.

 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Tarun for a chinwag and asked whether the US and China are already in a Cold War, how the US political system is responding to the China challenge, why democracies must work together to resist political warfare efforts from autocrats, why technology is so critical to geostrategy and how the left should – in Tarun’s words – ‘play the China card’.

Misha Zelinsky:

Tarun, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you on, mate.

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks for having me, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I’ll just say, for the purposes of the recording, you are in Washington D.C., I’m in Sydney. We’re doing this via Zoom. So, appreciate having you on and giving us your time.

Tarun Chhabra:

Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I thought a good place to start, it’s a big conversation we could have, but we’re talking a lot about the US China relationship globally. Curious about your take on what it’s caused a hardening of US attitudes to China. I mean, previously the view was that China was very much an engagement strategy, there’d be a peaceful rise. And now very much it’s seen, certainly by the Trump administration, that China is a strategic rival. Curious for your take on that journey, over the last five years in particular.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, thanks, Misha. So, I think there’s several components to it. The first, in my view, has been a reckoning with China’s integration into WTO policy that was introduced here in the nineties, and when it was introduced, as you may recall, the promise was really that we would export goods and no jobs, quote unquote. And that was kind of a bipartisan commitment to the American people. And then fast forward to where we are now and you have economists who estimate that anywhere between 2 and 4 million jobs were lost, mainly in manufacturing, in the United States, over that period, attributable to giving China permanent normal trading relations with the United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so I think that has really driven a lot of it, and it’s not just the jobs lost, but it’s what happened in the communities that were built around a lot of those companies manufacturing, particularly in the Midwest, and, as we all saw in 2016, this was a top line message by then-candidate Trump.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think the second is the more assertive nature of Chinese authoritarian regime. There’s some debate about how much of this is really about Xi Jinping and how much of it is really about the character of the party, Xi just being the latest manifestation in the trajectory of the party. But, you know, in my view, China’s willingness to be somewhat flexible in the way it operates, I’ve called it kind of a authoritarianism abroad, is in some ways more challenging than I think the ideological challenge posed by the Soviet Union, where the model was to adopt exactly the regime type in Moscow, in many cases. And the ability to co-opt elites, the ability to corrupt institutions, I think, in many ways is a more daunting challenge.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we add to that the technology of mass surveillance it’s now available where China is a leading exporter of safe cities, surveillance technology where the demand in many cases is there for a variety of reasons, but once you have it, it’s going to be very hard to let it go. And you layer onto that, China exporting it’s 5G infrastructure through Huawei.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I think the totality of the challenge has become clear, and then as Australia has seen, China’s willingness to weaponize dependents on the Chinese economy, has become more and more clear.

Tarun Chhabra:

You all have seen it, the Norwegians have seen it, certainly Korea and Japan have seen it, and just in the last week we’ve seen now threats against the UK after its recent turn at reconsidering its Huawei contracts for 5G now that the threat that any sort of cooperation, even on the nuclear side around transportation, would be threatened as a result. So, that kind of weaponization of interdependence, censoring free speech, in many cases, has all kind of come to a head. And I think we’re seeing the kind of apotheosis of it now in the COVID era, but you can look back at their record and see that this was long coming.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you just touched on COVID, you’ve sort of detailed all the different areas of competition there, the strategic competition. Be it, technological, economic, cultural system of governance based competition. How do you see, because clearly the tensions are much higher now post COVID-19 outbreak, firstly, how do you expect those to play out? And secondly, who or which country’s system’s more likely to benefit most from the disruption?

Misha Zelinsky:

Because, I mean, from an outsider observers’ point of view, we’ve seen that this is the first time that a global challenge hasn’t been centrally led by the United States, and Donald Trump has deliberately chosen not to do that.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, and that’s a pity. I think there was a lot of debate early on in the crisis here. Some arguing that China was really poised to take a leading role in the global order in the midst of COVID. Some people suggested this was kind of a Suez moment, even. And it’s certainly possible that that could’ve happened in some ways, but as you know, China’s conduct over the last couple of months has totally alienated many populations and governments, where there might have been a real opportunity, actually, for them to claim the mantle of leadership and show some even fleeting beneficence, but there’s really been no sign of that.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, over the long term I think the key question really is how are economies emerge from this crisis. We continue not to really have a lot of fidelity on real growth and the record in the Chinese economy, to some degree, so it’s often kind of hard to predict that trajectory right now. But we certainly have our challenges right now. So, I think the ball’s really in the air right now and there’s some key decisions we, the United States, need to make, many of our allies need to make, and that China’s going to make, that could really make a big difference as to how we all emerge from this crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, turning to the domestic political debate on the China question. You’ve made the argument that the left should play the China card, in your words. Firstly, what do you mean by that? And why should the left do that? Because it’s a vexed question for progressives on how to handle the rise of China, more so, perhaps, than it is for those that are more of the right.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah. So, I had a chance to work on this argument with a couple of co-authors, and our view is that in general there’s been reluctance, often a well-grounded reluctance, for the left to frame arguments in terms of geopolitical competition. And I think that comes from a concern that when you do that you might lose control, basically, of the narrative and the politics that are related, in that you may risk both militarizing competition, spending more money on defense than you might’ve wanted to otherwise, and that you risk inflaming xenophobia.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, those are kind of the key concerns from some folks on the left. And we see that now in some of the debate around how the democratic presidential nominee now, Vice President Biden, should handle China in the course of the campaign.

Tarun Chhabra:

But our view has been that, and I guess that kind of turns onto some degree what your assumptions are about the default politics, at least in the United States, and our view is that there’s kind of a default libertarianism, and that historically the United States has tended to be more unequal, more divided, at times, when there has not been a geopolitical competitor. And manages to make hard decisions and actually do things that progressives generally want, in terms of national investment and civil rights, when geopolitical competition requires it. We can dislike that, but we think it’s an empirical reality.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, our argument is that progressives should embrace this strain, because many of the things that the United States needs to do, when it comes to investment in education and infrastructure, to really adopt major reforms, whether it comes to policing, which we’re talking about now, and other things on civil rights and restoration of our democratic fabric. All of that we might be able to do and build a bipartisan coalition for, if we talk about these things based on concern about competition with China.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we look to some, basically a change of heart on the part of some conservatives, particularly when it comes to economic thinking, where you have conservatives now who are saying, “Maybe the United States does need an industrial policy in order to compete with China in certain sectors,” which is really counter to conservative orthodoxy. And one would hope that we could build a coalition that would really broaden the scope of domestic renewal and reform.

Tarun Chhabra:

On the question about xenophobia, which is a really important one. Our view there is that if progressives simply seed the ground to conservatives in the United States, and it’s only one side that really owns the debate, that in many ways the risk is even greater that xenophobic sentiments get inflamed. And our view is that progressives should be able to own this debate and ensure that that does not happen, build credibility with the American public, that they are more than capable and, probably, even more capable in many cases of taking on China as a geopolitical competitor, and that we can do it while uniting the country and not dividing it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’re sort of talking there about the means and the ends, but one of the things that has become quite challenging in this debate with people, is whether or not democracies are capable now of delivering for people on domestic agendas, and China now holds up its model, and the Chinese communist party holds up its model, saying, “Our system has lifted X hundred million people out of poverty. The United States is incapable of providing healthcare to its people.” How can democracy and progressives unite those arguments to make sure that systemically people have faith in that argument?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think that really is the case. Misha, you just stated the case for progressive reform and why we should be talking about it in terms related to competition with China. As progressives are going to continue to make the arguments we have been making for a long time about why democracy needs to work for all of our citizens, and not just those at the top. But the reality is that those arguments have not worked, certainly in the United States, for decades, which is why we find ourselves in this situation.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, if what it takes to get those who’ve opposed these kinds of reforms on board, is to say the alternative is China championing its model around the world and showing that that system just works for more people than democracy. If that’s what it takes to get them on board then we should be willing to make that argument.

Misha Zelinsky:

And also I think it’s important to critique the regime and critique the regime for the behaviors that it displays, be it repression of people at home, be it breaking its word in the South China Sea, be it through coercive trade behavior. I think it’s very important, to your point, that it would be a nonsense to not be able to critique the Chinese Communist Party, because of the fact that it is Chinese, and rather it’s a critique of the behavior. And I think it’s very important for progressives to own that. So I completely agree with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one of the things, it may not be relevant in the China piece, but it’s certainly a question to the bipartisan piece in US politics. Your thesis that requires there’s a willing partner, so perhaps, you’ve provided some examples where you’ll get a policy outcome, Democrats might be doing it for a leftist ideal, Republicans are doing it for a conservative ideal, but the outcome is the outcome and it’s good for the system, but is the Republican party in it’s current iteration capable of reaching that kind of consensus?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think about the way that foreign policy’s been politicized, either during the 2016 election, the collusion and interference, or even during the impeachment. I mean, what’s your view there? Do you have a hopeful case for that or a slightly more pessimistic case?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s a split right now within the Republican party. There’s broad consensus at a the top level about the need to confront China on a lot of issues, and that sentiment is shared also by a lot of Democrats. Where I think on the right in the United States the breakdown happens, is you still do have a lot of folks who are faithful to conservative orthodoxy and believe that government is always the enemy, and really should not have a role, particularly in economic issues.

Tarun Chhabra:

And my view is that this kind of ignores a lot of history about innovation and technology development, in the United States in particular. If you read a book like Margaret O’Mara’s about the birth of Silicon Valley, the role of the US government and just the Defense Department is enormous, and even if you look at through the 1980s the largest employer was Lockheed Martin, it was not Apple or others, even at that stage.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think that debate is roiling right now within the Republican Party, and it’s only roiling because of China, it’s only roiling because they see that we don’t have a US competitor who can integrate a 5G network, and that we have to look abroad and we have to build a coalition now. And the reason that happened is that as China was ramping up support for its own industry, just to take 5G for example, and providing finance from its policy bank so that Huawei would be adopted around the world, US and other Western companies were basically withering on the vine in the face of that massive subsidy, essentially.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think that debate continues. I’m hopeful, though, that there are enough people in the Republican Party who could join progressives in the kind of agenda that we’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be the whole party, but there needs to be a caucus and a coalition.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, turning to the Democratic Party, curious to your take on where it currently sits on the China question. Because I think some people seem to take the view, I mean, there’s a lot of bipartisanship when it comes to this strategic competition piece, but a lot of people seem to think Trump’s issues with behaviors that have been undertaken, for all the ones you have listed, by the Chinese Communist Party are correct, but his mechanism of dealing with it are incorrect.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, I mean, I’m kind of curious for your take on that. So, for example, had Hillary Clinton have won the election, which she’d have been just as tough, even if a little more, I suppose, conventional in her approach.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think a turn was inevitable. And even if you go back and look at the last couple years of the Obama administration, particularly the last year, worked on artificial intelligence, on semi conductors, there was really a turn that was already happening. Would a Clinton administration have looked just like a Trump administration on China policy? No. I don’t think that we would’ve seen the trade war unfold as it has.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s a key question that often goes under-noticed about assumptions that we make about the Chinese economy. And so, in some ways, you could argue that what Trump has done is, while it appears to be discontinuous with some of his predecessors because of the tariffs. On the other hand, the underlying theory of the case for Trump is that we would go from phase one, which was about, basically, purchases, and mainly of agriculture in the United States, to phase two where we would get the Chinese to implement meaningful structural reform of their economy.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, essentially, his argument and his administration’s argument was, “We can get China to change. We can get them to change the way they subsidize their businesses, we can get them to change the way they’ve done forced technology transfer and IP theft for decades.” And I think that’s just a wrong assumption. And I think the better assumption, really, is that they’re not going to change any time soon, because it’s worked too well for them. And the key question for us is what are we going to do in terms of domestic investment and cooperation with our allies to respond to it?

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, I think a change was coming, but frankly that assumption needed to really change, and it hasn’t under the Trump administration.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. So, one of the things I’m curious about, is one of the critiques, in tends to come from progressive people in politics, but it also from the business community, certainly in Australia, is it possible to be more cooperative with the Chinese Communist Party?

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, some people say, “Well, if only the US was nicer in the way it approached matters,” or, “If Australia didn’t make comments about a COVID-19 investigation,” or, “If we allowed China to invest in our 5G network that the relationship would be fine.” Essentially, that the offense caused is always on the European side or the American side or the other Asian nation sides that are in the South China Sea debate.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, is it possible to cooperate, or do you think that’s a forced construct?

Tarun Chhabra:

Well, I think that the way that it’s sometimes framed is not productive. So I think that the traditional framing of this kind of interdependence fostering more stable relations, I think doesn’t hold up now. We’ve seen that’s not the way that Beijing sees this. The way Beijing sees it is dependence fostering ways to enhance their coercive power.

Tarun Chhabra:

And, in some ways, I think we need to think about interdependence needing to line up with some symmetry of interest. And to the degree that those interests diverge, I think too much interdependence actually makes the relationship much more unstable.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, yes, there certainly will be areas where we’ll find opportunities and we’ll need to cooperate with the Chinese. We’re not going to be able to deal with climate change unless there’s some sort of more meaningful action by China. We could’ve seen a world in which pandemic response was done in a more cooperative fashion, and we’re not yet at the vaccine stage so we’ll see how this goes. But it’s not looking like that’s going to be a particularly enterprise at this stage, given the way this is unfolding right now.

Tarun Chhabra:

But I think what we need to think about is what are the mechanisms by which we get to some sort of cooperation. And I think too often when we say cooperation we think that means there’ll be some sort of comedy. I think, instead, we may get “cooperation” when we think about a much broader toolkit, including deterrents, stop doing things, and some degree of coercion in some cases, to get China to cooperate on a certain set of issues.So I think we need to kind of disentangle and sift through what we mean by cooperation in particular spheres.

Tarun Chhabra:

The one thing I think we really have to be careful about, and I think we saw this a little bit during the Obama administration, was when there were areas where we felt we needed or wanted Chinese cooperation on transnational issues, whether that was climate change or nonproliferation issues. But often Beijing saw that as an opportunity for leverage, an opportunity to get us to do other things, or at least be silent when they were doing other things.

Tarun Chhabra:

So if you look at that period toward the end of the Obama administration, we saw the entire human rights bar of lawyers in China totally dissimilated. We saw the beginnings of what was beginning to happen in Xinjiang right now. So this turn I think really began…

Misha Zelinsky:

You mean with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is that what you mean?

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly. The internment of more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities there. But Beijing, I think believing in order to get them to cooperate on climate, in order to get them to go with the Iran deal, that they could essentially buy America’s silence, and that of many other countries, as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, what we have to do, I think, is to be very clear that we’re not going to be trading these things off. We’re going to have to separate these issues. And if China doesn’t want to take meaningful steps on climate to the degree that we really need to do it, which is another issue that progressives are leaders on and rightly care about a lot, we’re going to need to think about ways to put pressure on the regime to get them to do the right thing on climate.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we’ve done this in micro fashion where the US embassy was advertising the air quality in Beijing, but we need to make the case to the Chinese people about the delta between what China’s doing now on climate and where that’s going to go, what that’s going to mean for China’s coastal cities, for example. We should be leading the charge on making that case clear on why China needs to do more.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you sort of touched on the debate internment, I’m curious about where you see the debate currently playing out in the Democratic Party, and then firstly how did it play out in the primaries? Because clearly President Trump wants to make this an election issue, and he’s targeting the presumptive candidate in Biden on this. So, what do you see the politics of that, firstly within the Democratic Party, and how do you see this playing out in the general?

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think you’re seeing, just as we’ve discussed, some of the debate in the Republican Party. We’ve got debate within the Democratic Party too, and it’s unfolding on the op-ed pages now of the Washington Post and the New York Times, and one line of the debate is whether Vice President Biden should make a tough position on China a central tenent of his campaign. He has decided to do so, I think for good reasons.

Tarun Chhabra:

But you have some democrats, and some of the lean democrat, basically arguing that that is dangerous. The basis for their argument ranges from, “That will induce xenophobia,” that’s certainly one. Another is that this shouldn’t be the subject of democratic and political debate. I find this one a little bit hard to understand because it’s such a critical issue I think it should be front and center for democratic deliberation. But, essentially, that it’s too sensitive or it will box in a Biden administration. Again, I find that one hard to understand.

Tarun Chhabra:

And then again others who say that this will lead to a militarization frame and, again, defense spending or commitments to US force aboard that they find unsustainable, or potentially risking conflict.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I think that’s a healthy debate to have, we should have it. It’s certainly a healthy debate in terms of thinking about where we should be investing in longterm competition with China and the degree to which I know we should be focusing on technology and economics as kind of the locusts of competition, to some degree.

Tarun Chhabra:

But I think the Vice President seems to have made a decision already on this question, and so we’ll see to what degree. I think those who have not liked that message find ways to, as we were talking about earlier, latch onto the argument to support some of the progressive causes that they do support. So I hope that we can mend some of that and build a coalition within the Democratic Party, but then also with republicans as well, on some of the reforms and investments that we desperately need.

Misha Zelinsky:

Any fair minded observer would assume that strategic competition at a minimum, irrespective of whichever party is in control of the White House or the houses of congress, is here to stay. But are we at the point now, some people have said that it’s a new Cold War, some people have said it’s like a 1.5 Cold War, it’s not the Cold War 2.0. But Vice President gave a speech a little over a year or two ago, essentially some people concluded that that was the beginning of a new Cold War. What’s your view? Are we in one? Is it inevitable that there will be one?

Tarun Chhabra:

You know, this is it a Cold War, is it not a Cold War, has become I think kind of a shibboleth for a separate debate about to what degree we should pursue competition and to what degree we should try to maintain some degree of engagement. So in the Cold War question per se I think we should be looking to the Cold War for some lessons because it was the last time we, the United States, was engaged in strategic competition with another great power. So there are things that we can learn from the Cold War that are applicable. But it’s obviously different in many other ways because we didn’t have the degree of commerce that we do have with China, nor did US allies have that degree of commerce with the Soviet Union, as they do today. So we have to account for that, obviously.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I think in general I don’t have the allergy that I think a lot of people have to talking about the Cold War in this context because there are really important lessons. Just in the last few months, because I mainly now work on technology competition, the lessons from some Cold War export controls still remain, I think, pretty valid. The alliance management challenges that we face today, together with our allies, I think some of those remain relevant as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

But again, I think in some ways, as we were discussing earlier, some aspects of competition with China are going to be more intense than they were with the Soviet Union, and I think that’s particularly the case on the ideological front, for some of the reasons we talked about. Whether it’s China being more flexible, or the technology and surveillance component to this competition.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, again, I think, “Is it a Cold War, or is it not a Cold War?” I think is less helpful than, “What lessons can be learn from the Cold War, and what’s different about this competition?”

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’ve talked a lot about competition, and one of the phrases now that’s in vogue is this concept of decoupling, and essentially which is to what degree should countries be sovereign in the supply chain integrity. Particularly when you talk about technology, and China’s notorious for its IP theft, in some instances. Well, certainly in its aggressive approach to IP transfers and its trade practices. But how can the US and other democracies structure their economies and their technological investments to compete with a much more monolithic structure in the Chinese state. But, at the same time, it’s more of a hybrid than what we saw with the Soviet Union, which didn’t have the same economic firepower that the West had in the previous Cold War.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah. So, yeah, in the current context obviously concerns about the medical supply chain and pandemic resilience are driving some push toward decoupling/reshoring. We’ve also had, in the US, an ongoing review by the Pentagon about defense supply chains and concerns there about resilience in the event of, not just conflict, but some sort of spat that results in China cutting off certain supply chains as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, that’s certainly there and those concerns are going to persist. But I think that we often don’t pay enough attention to is that the biggest driver of decoupling is China. It’s China’s own decoupling drive. So, if you look at China’s ambitions when it comes to artificial intelligence, or you look at the main 2025 plan, if you look at their 2035 standards plan, and you can say some of this, or at least that push for decoupling by China’s being driven, to some degree, by export controls that we’ve put in place, as well, certainly have been accelerated, that’s probably fair to say.

Tarun Chhabra:

But that’s the major driver here. Is China’s own, what they call, indigenization drive, when it comes to key technologies. China does not want to be intradependent with the United States or other countries when it comes to key technologies, in particular.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think we need to, to some degree, really focus on China’s drive toward decoupling, and figure out what we, the United States, and we as an alliance, want to do in this window, which I think really is a window because it’s a window in which the CCP has clearly stated their intentions, they’re clearly making massive investments in talent in technological and industrial capacity. But they still don’t have the ability to achieve all of those, I’d say somewhere on the order of 10 to 20 years.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, what do we want to do in that window? What are our strategic objectives? And can we come up with a plan as an alliance to handle that? And I think some of the navel-gazing over, “Shall we decouple or shall we not?” I think is beside the point. It’s really not fully comprehending where China is headed and how we have to respond to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a role for allied supply chains? Some people have written about this concept that… Because I think people have framed this debate now as essentially you either produce domestically, or you rely on global supply chains, which are, a vast majority product currently, and certainly industrial production, occurs in the PRC. Is there a role for allied supply chains or trusted partners in that context?

Tarun Chhabra:

Absolutely. I think there has to be. There will be some industries that the United States will want to reshore to the United States, and I think that’s going to be the case, I think, with a lot of counties when it comes to medical supply chains, because I think the degree to which we’re totally dependent on some emergency supplies, I think, wasn’t clear. Especially to a lot of politicians and legislators until the COVID pandemic.

Tarun Chhabra:

So some of that will be reshored to the United States, and many counties I think will be doing the same thing. But more broadly on technology issues, if you look at the semiconductor industry, for example, the United States cannot do this, and should not do it, alone. There is news of a new fab potentially built by TSMC, Taiwan’s major semiconductor manufacturing company, moving to Arizona. But if you look at the broader supply chains around semiconductors, in Japan and Korea, the Netherlands, are all key players here. And I think we not only do we need to accept that reality and embrace it, but also think about ways of embedding allied supply chains as also strengthening alliance ties, which I think are going to be critical because we need them not just when it comes to technology, but we need them on a broader array of economic issues, and we need them on defending human rights and protecting free speech.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so I think the deeper that these ties can be the better. So we should think about this in the context of a broader alliance management and really focus on in particular sectors where, again, Beijing’s ambitions intent are very clear, what is our long term plan? And particularly, what is our plan in this window before China can actually achieve in a domestic capacity?

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you sort of touched a lot there on working together. One of the distinctions, perhaps distinction might the wrong way of putting it, but one of the certain characteristics of the Trump presidency has been, I suppose, apart from the Chinese Community Party, pulling autocrats closer and pushing away friends and allies, in what’s traditionally been a position of US leadership in multilateral institutions. Do you think it’s possible that we’re going to see a world that no longer has coordinating institutions? We’ve seen attacks on the World Health Organization, certainly the UN is not nearly as effective in settling disputes as it was. China has made it clear it doesn’t respect rulings from The Hague. How do you see the role of coordinating institutions in this more ideologically competitive world?

Tarun Chhabra:

We need them and I think that the way that the US should be thinking about these institutions is that they’re another forum in which the US has got to compete, hopefully together, with its allies against China. Because that’s certainly the way that China sees them. So the WHO is a good example here, particularly as COVID impacts developing countries, and countries that don’t have the health systems that the United States or Australia and many other allied countries have, we desperately need a functioning WHO. But we need one that is independent and that has integrity and is not pushed around by China.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I think the right way to handle the early days of this crisis would’ve been to be actively engaged with the WHO doing a lot of the diplomacy with international organizations, that we’ve been doing across parties for decades, where you are vigorously engaged and ensuring that no one is pushing their particular country’s interests over our own. And I think there could’ve been a different path for the WHO in this if there had been much more vigorous engagement with the WHO, pushing them not to do what they did, which was parrot some lines out of Beijing about human-to-human transmission, for example, or how well Beijing was doing in the early days. And as we’ve seen with some great investigative reporting over the last just week or so, there was a lot of concern internally at the WHO and I think a lot of them were probably looking for allies, who didn’t necessarily want to do what China was pushing them to do.

Tarun Chhabra:

I just bring that up because that’s obviously a very live example, but this is across the board. And I think, to some degree in the United States, particularly on the right, there’s this ideological baggage from the 1990s when multilateral organizations were seen to be purely a constraint on American power, and really not doing much else. Obviously the historical legacy then ambivalence toward multilateralism goes back even further with the United States, through to the 20th Century. But I think that period of the 1990s, this kind of ideological antagonism toward international institutions was really hardened. And you would think that it would be updated in the context of competition with China, because China’s seen this is an opening, where the US pulls out, China goes in, and exercises a very different kind of influence. And our allies’, obviously very frustrated by it, understandably.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I would hope that whatever happens in 2016 that we have much more vigorous engagement with multilateral institutions and that we build coalitions again with out allies to push back on some of the more malign Chinese influence in these places.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you talked a lot about allies, democracies working together. An idea that’s certainly getting some currency now. It seems that around the world, gradually, most democratic nations are starting to realize that there’s a competition here between systems, between the Chinese Communist Party’s model of autocratic technocracy and technological monolithic approach to things at home, and then increasingly that domestic tension between trading with China and being friendly with China is very difficult to manage. Do you see any currency in this idea being pushed of a so called D10, which has come out of this… Britain somewhat belatedly has now decided they don’t want Huawei participating, it would seem, in their 5G roll out. And, I’m kind of curious, they’ve been now pushing this idea of D10, of the world’s top 10 democracies coordinating actions together. Is there a role for that, or is that too overt?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s definitely room for that sort of mechanism. I generally think that we’re going to have to be flexible in the kinds of arrangements that we have, and that there may be a variety of coalitions of democracies on different issues. And that might make it easier for some countries that are reluctant to be seen as participating in a “anti-China coalition.” But if we meet together where we, in one format, focus on 5G issues, and we meet in a different one to focus on semiconductors, and we meet in another context to push back on China’s done to the human rights regime globally. I think that’s all healthy, and we should be doing it.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think that’s the right way of thinking about the problem. But in terms of whether that’s going to be the sole institution or not, I’m less sure. And I’m guess I’m trying to be realistic about it because we’ve seen this with the quad, and you know this better than anybody else, getting the various countries to show up to a quad meeting and selling the agenda, can often be challenging because of the perception that by doing that it’s explicitly some sort of anti-China coalition, so…

Misha Zelinsky:

Containing Japan, India, Australia, and United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly, exactly. Whereas if you are meeting in multiple fora and just engaging in your business there may be less concern about that. I think the issue is less about whether there is this one discreet forum and more about whether we build a worldview, build a consensus about what the basic things are that we need to be doing together.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I guess I’m maybe too hopeful, but I see signs, particularly because China’s behaved so badly during the COVID crisis, of that turn really happening now. We see it building constituencies in parliament, we have this new interparliamentary working group on China issues, we push back to some of China’s behavior, kind of developing more of a domestic political valence. So I think the opportunities to do this are actually much better than they were. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if Xi Jinping had decided to hide and bide a little bit longer, if they’d not gone on the offensive they’d gone on, over the last several years and particularly over the COVID outbreak. I think we could really be up the creek.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I hope we can see some of the momentum and channel it into some productive and affirmative cooperation among allies.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I share your views there. Certainly for those that are critics of the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve certainly been validating, all of those critics over the last few years, certainly. So, just on that topic, the real big challenge, and I’m curious to get your take on this, it’s been autocracies and democracies, but it’s also between open and closed systems. I’m very much curious about how, what was different about the Cold War was that the systems work in competition, but they were separate. When we have this co-dependence, this interrelationship, and what it’s done is created a number of areas where foreign interference can occur and so called gray zone interference because there are so many different leverage points that exist and so many touch points that exist between both systems. But there’s no reciprocity. And what I mean by that, of course, is autocratic regimes, due to the openness of the democratic can meddle through the various different ways, through information or through finance or through trade, or what have you, in a way that you just can’t do. You can’t even Google the Tienanmen Square massacre if you’re in mainland China.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, how can open systems prevail in that context? Because traditionally the view is openness would win. You know, Bill Clinton said, “Good luck controlling the internet,” famously. Like nailing jello to a wall, I think he said. But it seems that they are winning at this point in that struggle.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think in the trajectory of that doesn’t look bright, in that sense that with the export of a lot of Chinese technology now, surveillance technology, and potentially the synergy between that and having Huawei as your 5G network, would suggest that the potential for control, kind of visual authoritarianism as it’s been called, has only intensified and is being exported around the world.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think we have to focus on our strengths as open societies. We’ve got to be able to show through example what our society’s about, and that’s what’s so troubling about what’s happening in the United States right now, as we certainly are not demonstrating anything by example right now, whether it’s in the administration’s response to the protest movement, or the response to COVID. But I think we can, again, and I don’t think necessarily that authoritarian societies, or the CCP even, has fully thought through what all the implications are of following through on their ambitions for surveillance.

Tarun Chhabra:

One could imagine a lot of situations in which those systems could go wrong and they could go sideways, in a lot of ways that could generate a lot of public discontent and potentially unrest. Just imagine a social credit system, basically blocking an entire class of people from accessing vital services, for example. So one could imagine a lot of ways in which it could go sideways, that I don’t think they’ve fully thought through.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I guess I don’t see this as a binary where the question has been decided. I think it’s going to be a competitive experiment here where the authoritarian vision for technology and surveillance is being adopted widely in many cases now, but we haven’t really seen it fully roll out, and seen all the potential vulnerabilities that are inherent to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a case for democracies to be more assertive in their responses to interference efforts? So, over the last few years it’s tended to be one-way traffic, even if it’s from the Russians meddling with the United States election, or with Brexit and other European elections, or if it’s with the Chinese Communist Party interfering with various democracies around the world, including Australia. Is there a case for more assertive foreign policy approach to responding to that?

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, I think there has to be. It was reported that the administration in the United States took some measures against internet research agency in Russia, probably led by US cyber command to kind of disable for a period of time in response to some of the political interference. And I think that’s been, General Nakasone who runs cyber command, and I know security agencies talked about this as a policy of “persistent engagement.” And I think that is the kind of way that we’re going to need to engage some of these operations.

Tarun Chhabra:

I would be surprised if we didn’t see similar reactions to some of the Chinese disinformation around COVID, and then potentially some of the protests even, as well. Because I think for those who’ve been seeing Chinese information operations around Taiwan, around countries in their region, I think many of us have believed it was only a matter of time before that started coming to the United States as well, and hitting other allies. I think it’s happening now, and I don’t think it’s going to be going anywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we could talk about this for a very long time, but I know that your time is short, so I’ll, as ever, make my very clunky segue to the final question. The much beloved, stupid question that I ask all my guests about barbecues and who you’d have and why. It’s always interesting to me, so I ask it. But, you know, Australia and the United States clearly have a very long and deep relationship, and I was wondering who the three Australians, alive or dead, would be at a barbecue at Tarun’s. They all can’t be Crocodile Dundee, mate, I’m sure you’ll be madly googling.

Tarun Chhabra:

All right, let me see. Well, you know, when I was just out of college I had a chance to work at the UN on a commission, I was a junior staffer for this commission of very important people. And one of them was Gareth Evans, actually, so I’m very fond of Gareth, so I’d put…

Misha Zelinsky:

Our former Australian foreign minister in the Labor government.

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly, exactly. So Gareth is always a great barbecue dinner companion, so I’d put Gareth there. Thinking a lot about the protest movement going on right now, I recall I had a grade school teacher who taught us about civil rights movements around the world, and so I’ve always admired your civil rights leader, Faith Bandler, who was involved in your 1967 referendum, and a key player there. And I’m a big fan of Australian wine, so maybe we could add Max Schubert, your master wine maker.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s how you know who’s bringing the booze, I suppose, to the barbecue. All right, well, mate, thank you so much for your time, Tarun, and look forward to catching up with you in the future, mate.

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks, Misha, for having me. It was great to chat with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers.