Peter Jennings (ASPI): Canada + Australia in the Indo-Pacific

Q: In what ways has Australia’s defence policy changed in the new strategic outlook? How has China responded?

Peter Jennings: Australia has a tradition of producing what we call “defence white papers” every five years or so. is essentially a policy update that will change the current direction of Australian defence thinking in significant ways—increased spending on military equipment, for example. Strategically, we are going to prioritize our immediate region— the Indo-Pacific. For the past few decades our defence force has maintained a very close operational focus on the Middle East, but I think this is relative history which won’t last for very much longer.

The language of the Strategic Update is cautious and, in some ways, coded. There’s no question that the language employed is a result of actions taken by a more assertive China. Government thinking was largely influenced by China’s increased militarization of the South China Sea. Since 2015, China’s military capacity has hastily extended into Southeast Asia, up to the coast of Indonesia. This is the strategic picture our government must consider.

The update has shifted the focus towards our present defence force, with an emphasis on what can be done in the near-term to increase the range and hitting power of the Australian armed forces through a significant acquisition of anti-surface and anti-air missiles. We are also identifying opportunities for domestic production of those weapons here in Australia. We will be acquiring new submarines as well, the first of which will hit the water in 2035, with construction on some models extending into 2050. That is the future defence force.

The update has been well received by most of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. This is largely because there appears to be an unspoken census in the region that China is the number one problem. A strong Australia, capable of contributing to regional security is desirable in the Indo-Pacific. I think it was well received by the Pentagon. I’m unsure whether the White House has the attention span to focus on it too much, but relationship remains reliable and in good order despite .

I don’t know if the defence update was particularly subject to criticism from China. That is partly because there is so much Australia is doing right now that China has criticized. I think the PLA would look at this and think “That is quite a sophisticated little organization.” The ADF is only 60,000 people strong. However, it is a very high-tech force and the Chinese find that quite interesting. At a political level, there is practically nothing our government can say or do at the moment that has not received disapproval from the CCP.


Q: China has warned Canada that it will face consequences for it’s so called interference in Hong Kong. What kind of pressure, if any, has Australia faced for its stance on the new security law? Do you see any parallels between our relationship with China?

 Peter Jennings: China has increasingly employed what has been termed “Wolf warrior diplomacy”, a style exercise to create an image of a more assertive, confident, and intervening China on the global stage.

There are some close similarities but also some differences between the bilateral relationships Canada and Australia share with China. Canada is nowhere near as dependent on China as Australia is for trade. Canada does have a Chinese Canadian population as part of its diaspora, but I don’t think it is anywhere near the size of our own . That’s a factor, as are our geographies. Any country that pushes back or expresses disapproval of the treatment of Uyghurs or of the national security law in Honk Kong will receive the brunt of Chinese criticism. They may also find themselves subjected to various types of coercion via trade measures, which China will not hesitate to use as an instrument of its broader foreign policy.

As a democracy that advocates for human rights and the international rule of law, Canada will increasingly find itself on the sharp end of Beijing’s criticism. Australia is a model for this in a way. If Canada does what it should do, i.e. ensuring its 5G network is not vulnerable to high risk vendors from China, then this too will be badly received in Beijing. Democracies around the world shave to stiffen their spines and realize that this is the world that we are in for the moment. We can’t let ourselves be too spooked by the tough talk that comes out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Global Times, or any of the other instruments utilized by the CCP to express its displeasure.

We are aware of the case of the two Michaels currently being detained in China on espionage charges. Right now, an Australian named Yang Hengjun is on death row in China on drug smuggling charges. I make no judgement about the accuracy of the charges, but we oppose the death penalty here in Australia so that is an issue. Frankly what we have seen is a type of hostage taking. It is designed to quell the behavior of our government when dealing with China and to create another source of leverage or coercion that the CCP can use to exert pressure on us.

You cannot safely criticize the CCP, particularly inside China and get away with it. Australia will continue to look after Yang’s situation, but this is the China we are dealing with now. And as was seen with the , China is quite openly prepared to use coercive treatments such as these to make political points against countries.


Q: What steps has Australia taken to address CCP influence on Australia’s China policy, political parties, and universities?

Peter Jennings: We’ve been working on this issue for about 4-5 years now. It could be argued that Australia used to be complacent about Chinese infiltration and influence. Some may observe we’ve now swung hard in the other direction, though I don’t necessarily agree with that.

Firstly, we have modernized our espionage and anti-interference laws which had not been modified since the 1960s. There is now a process whereby covert influencing operations, once identified, can be held legally accountable. Secondly, we have created what is known as the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme—a process whereby individuals and organizations must declare received funding from foreign sources. Particularly if that funding is used to shape and influence policy outcomes in Australia. At ASPI, we receive some funding from the United States, the Netherlands, the foreign and commonwealth office in the United Kingdom. We register those activities on the foreign influence transparency scheme. Now we are extending these practices more broadly to include universities and research institutions.

Governments have, with great reluctance, put controls on the ability of political parties to receive foreign donations. We haven’t successfully managed this issue in universities. The Australian university system is heavily dependent on funding from foreign students’ fees. A significant number of those foreign students—several hundreds of thousands, are from China. This has done a lot to compromise the willingness of our universities to protect freedom of speech. There have been some ugly incidents that would indicate our universities, if presented with a principle or a dollar, will go for the dollar every time.

There has been an explosion of research connections between Australian universities and Chinese institutions, which has grown in the hundreds over the five years. This has become a serious concern to the federal government and to our intelligence agencies. There is concern over the extent to which research is providing a vector for intellectual policy theft, espionage, and research designed to benefit the Chinese military intelligence establishment. Some universities acknowledge the problem and are adapting their business models, while others are in utter denial.


Q: Australia was the first country in the Five Eyes to ban Huawei, there is now discussion about possibly banning other Chinese companies. What is the rationale or desired outcome behind these measures? As an ally, is Canada expected to follow suit?

Peter Jennings: In 2018 Australia decided to exclude companies they referred to as “high risk” vendors from bidding into our 5G network. China was not specifically named, however a “high risk” constitutes a company that could be subject to control by a foreign government so it can use of technology for the purposes of espionage or inflicting damage to critical infrastructure.

This decision ultimately excluded Huawei from our 5G network. A major impetus behind the government’s decision was China’s 2017 national security law, which stated that individuals and companies must assist the national security services if they are asked to and that they must hide that they have cooperated with the Chinese security services. Huawei is not subject to that Chinese law, but there is a very strong presumption at the government level that this is untrue. 

Far be it for me, an Australia, to tell the Canadians what to do. Canada needs to come to its own decision regarding the security of its network. However, I cannot see how Canada could, in the light of what the other Five Eye countries have done, conclude how it is capable of managing this situation with Huawei inside the 5G network. I very much hope that Canada will take the decision to exclude those companies. I think Canada takes a stand it will create opportunities for closer collaboration through the Five Eyes countries. What started as a vehicle for intelligence collaboration is broadening into a vehicle for policy collaboration. It would be very nice if Canada could continue to be a part of that grouping.


Q: What kind of role is Canada expected to play with its allies to address and possibly help stabilize growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific? How could we be a better ally in the region?

Peter Jennings: Canada is a valuable player in the Indo-Pacific because it is a successful multicultural democracy. Canada takes human rights as well as its international role in the world seriously. To have Canada playing this kind role, diplomatically and politically, in the Indo-Pacific is very welcome from an Australian perspective. I would like to see Canada do more, particularly in the Pacific in terms of military presence and cooperation with countries in the region. The Pacific is definitely a region of growing strategic importance.

This likely won’t lead to a massive reorientation of Canadian military thinking anytime soon, but I would just make the point that as a valuable partner, anything that Canada does in and with the region in terms of military collaboration is important. Where I think we should be doing a better job is talking to each other more effectively on issues like China. This is where the Five Eyes need to stick together. We must share internal thinking about how we are going to deal with the problem of this assertive, authoritarian state. What Beijing has been very effectively able to do is split coalitions. This weakens all of us and I think a more focused engagement that puts more substance into our bilateral relationships in a security sense would be valuable.

I have been an advocate for closer bilateral relations with Canada for many years now going back to the time when I was in the defence department. I think there is always a risk involving Australia and Canada. We think we are so alike. We feel we have a familial type of relationship, but we do not actually do enough to push each other to be better, more effective partners. My message is, let’s not be comfortable or content with just reaching for familial metaphors about how we can do things together. We need to work harder to be better and more effective partners.


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