Rory Medcalf

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

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

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

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

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

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

Very well, thanks Misha. Great to be on.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

As Bill Clinton said.

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow.

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Please do.

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Rory Medcalf:

Thank you.