Australia ‘louder than we should have been’ in criticising China, former Asio chief says

Sharp critique from Duncan Lewis comes as Chinese foreign minister embarks on ‘extraordinary’ Pacific island nation tour

Australia’s former intelligence chief Duncan Lewis says Australia has been “rather louder than we should have been” in public criticism of China when a better approach, given escalating regional tensions, should have been “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

Lewis has told the Australian National University’s national security podcast Australia had been at the forefront of China criticism “when we might well have been better to have been one back and one wide”.

The sharp critique from the respected former military officer, diplomat and director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation under the Abbott and Turnbull governments comes as China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is due to visit Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Fiji between 26 May and 4 June, on a tour of the region that has been labelled “extraordinary and unprecedented” by Pacific experts.

With China flexing its muscle in the region, the incoming Labor government has opened its tenure by immediately intensifying its Pacific outreach. Australia’s new foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong will travel to Fiji on Thursday after returning from Tokyo on Wednesday, where she took part in a meeting of the quadrilateral security dialogue.

The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, has sent a “congratulatory message” to Australia’s new prime minister. But Anthony Albanese has been clear any rapprochement between Canberra and Beijing will be difficult because “China has changed”.

In a wide-ranging discussion about security threats and how the new Albanese Labor government might respond to them, Lewis welcomed the Aukus partnership between Australia, the UK and the US, although he feared Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines was “20 years too late”.

Lewis was also critical of the way the security deal was executed. There was a botched multibillion-dollar submarine procurement, and significant collateral damage to Australia’s diplomatic relationship with France.

“Let’s call it a blunder, to pay the French $5.5bn for a submarine not developed and not delivered,” the former intelligence chief said. Relations would recover in time “but it will take a fair amount of time and we need to work hard on it”.

Given the dangerous security conditions in the world and in our immediate region, Lewis said he was concerned that Australia had bought “nothing much that goes bang” in terms of defence capability for a considerable period of time. He said he carried some responsibility for the lapse as a former secretary of the Department of Defence.

Two Australian Collins-class submarines in front of the UK’s nuclear-powered HMS Astute
Two Australian Collins-class submarines in front of the UK’s nuclear-powered HMS Astute. Australia is examining the options for a nuclear-powered submarine program under the Aukus pact. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/EPA

He said the new Labor government needed to set about acquiring a social licence from the Australian community for a significant increase in defence expenditure because “if we think that 2% or 3% of GDP is going to pay for nuclear-powered boats and for the defence capability that I believe we are going to require in the not too distant future, we’re kidding ourselves – it will require a much larger sum of money.

“There will need to be serious work done on the social licence to enable government to spend more on defence, because at a time when we have great debt, spending more on defence is obviously going to impact standard of living and essentially the kind of the personal prosperity of Australians,” Lewis said.

While spending more on defence to get some “quick wins” and ensure Australia did not run out of strategic lead time, Lewis said it was also important to be mindful about how security threats were communicated to citizens in a domestic context.

Lewis said governments needed to be truthful about threats both foreign and domestic, but “there does need to be in terms of our domestic security settings a degree of humanity in the way we apply it, because it’s very easy to start vilifying and marginalising some of our minority communities”.

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He said Australia had difficulty in the past getting the balance right with the Islamic community “and it worried me as I was leaving the public service that we were at risk of heading down a similar sort of path with regard to the Chinese minority here in Australia – that there would be a vilification that foreign interference in this country was something associated with the Chinese minority community”.

Asked by Prof Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College, how Australia’s national security community could convey the seriousness of the contemporary threat without playing into the politics of fear, Lewis borrowed from US president Teddy Roosevelt’s exhortation to “talk softly, but carry a big stick”.

He said measured language from the political class would not “detract in any way from the need for us to work on our defence preparedness as a matter of urgency”.

Lewis said the new government would be able to reset relations with the EU because Labor had a more ambitious climate policy. That fact would “change the tone” of the relationship, he said.

When he was the ambassador to the EU, “I had the unenviable job, as diplomats do, from time to time to share the bad news with the European Union, that we had changed our policy away from some of the climate change initiatives that were looking so promising at the time. That’s now changed.”

Lewis said diplomats would be quick to walk through “the doors of the EU to explain that Australia now has a different series of settings with regard to [climate change] policy, that will be more agreeable to the European Union”.

While Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton declared repeatedly that Labor was not up to the challenge of safeguarding Australia’s security – partisan posturing that earned the government a rebuke from Canberra’s national security establishment – Lewis said when it came to security policy in Australia “there is generally more continuity than discontinuity as governments change – the arguments tend to be in the margins”.

The change of government might also allow a reset with some countries in the region, along with “better, more free flowing discussions to take place” because the dialogue would not start with protagonists “in opposite corners”.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

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