Australia ‘louder than we should have been’ in criticising China says former Asio chief | Australian security and counter-terrorism

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 that Australia had been at the forefront of China criticism in recent years “when we might 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 the 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 labeled “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 participated in a meeting of the quadrilateral security dialogue.

The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, 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 new Aukus partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, 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 multi-billion 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”.

Given the world’s dangerous security conditions and our immediate region, Lewis said he was concerned that Australia had bought “nothing much that goes bang” in defense capability for a considerable period. 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. 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 license from the Australian community for a significant increase in defense expenditure because “if we think that 2% or 3% of GDP is going to pay for nuclear-powered boats and for the defense 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 license to enable the government to spend more on defense because at a time when we have great debt, spending more on defense is going to impact the standard of living and essentially the kind of the personal prosperity of Australians,” Lewis said.

While spending more on defense 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 of 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 marginalizing 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 about 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 fUS 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 defense preparedness as a matter of urgency”.

Lewis said the new government could reset relations with the European Union because Labor had a more ambitious climate policy. He said 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 quickly walk through “the doors of the EU to explain that Australia now has a different series of settings about [climate change] policy that will be more agreeable to the European Union”.

While Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton declared repeatedly 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”.

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

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.