Xi

Ambassador Curtis Chin

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

TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis Chin:                           … and enjoy American-Australia hospitality.

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

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

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

Curtis Chin:                           Nicole Kidman is Australian for sure …

Misha Zelinsky:                  She’s absolutely Aussie.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Take care, mate.

Peter Jennings

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

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

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky                    Peter Jennings welcome to Diplomates.

Peter Jennings:                  Thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Once overseas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Jennings:                  That’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  … suppression and killing of domestic citizens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  False balance almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, anyone you like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaker 2:                              You were just listening to Diplomates, A Geopolitical Chinwag. For more episodes, visit www.diplomates.show or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or through any of your favorite podcasts channels.

Announcer:                           This podcast is brought to you by Minimal Productions.