National Security

Transcript | Speech to the Global Information Conference | 11 June 2024

June 11, 2024

Speaking Truth in the New Strategic Contest 

Speech to the Global Information Conference - Phoenix Challenge

Tuesday 11 June 2024 

Good morning, and thank you for hosting me here at the Global Information Conference.

It is now a common refrain in national security circles that Australia is facing the most complex and serious strategic circumstances since the end of the Second World War.

The Defence Strategic Review released last year describes how the 10-year warning time for conflict that has underpinned our Defence planning for decades has now evaporated.

It describes how intense China-United States competition is the defining feature of our region and our time, and that China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War.

But what does this actually mean for Australia?

At his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue last month, the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles framed this strategic competition around the need to uphold the global rules-based order.

He was quick to dispense with notions of an ideological contest, saying:

“Commentators have framed this competition in different ways: East vs West; North vs South; democracy vs autocracy. These frames obscure more than clarify.”

Instead, he described strategic competition as if it was simply a contest of power.

He implied that our objective was only the preservation of the international order, as if we should be indifferent about which power is dominant in our region as long as the rules of the road are upheld.

As he argued:

“...we should seek, through our own national capabilities and regional architecture, to build a sustainable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in which no one country in our region is militarily dominant.”

Richard Marles is not wrong to see virtue in the rules-based order.

Of course it is something regional powers with global interests, like Australia, along with smaller states, have an interest in upholding.

And he is also right that, in this, Australia finds common cause with countries who do not necessarily share our commitment to democracy, including in our own region.

But let’s engage in a brief thought experiment.

Imagine for a moment that we were able to somehow maintain the rules-based order despite a decisive shift in the balance of power between a democratic America and an authoritarian China.

How durable do we think that order would be? How long would it last? My prediction is not very long at all.

China’s former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi helpfully belled the cat when he told his Singaporean counterpart at an ASEAN regional forum in 2010 that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact” after being challenged about China’s activities in the South China Sea.

The truth is the character of states matters too, not just their size.

And no matter the robust architecture of international systems, we have little hope of restraining a dominant major power within it if it doesn’t wish to be.

If the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech reflects the underlying beliefs informing the Albanese government’s policy, we should be concerned.

In some respects, it echoes Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s speech to the National Press Club in April last year, with its emphasis on the rules-based order and balance of power.

But at least the Foreign Minister explicitly acknowledged, albeit briefly, Xi Jinping’s ambition and his ideology when she quoted his goal of making China “a great modern socialist country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century.”

And she recognised China under Xi seeks to do so using all elements of its national power, including by “reducing the space for disagreement or dissent.”

We risk making a dangerous category error if we tell ourselves that ideology of the great powers of our region does not matter.

In doing so, we ignore our best-informed contemporary thinkers and the lessons of history.

And we can never hope to formulate an effective strategy in response if we are making such fundamental conceptual errors.

If we collectively fail to recognise and take seriously the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, it would not be the first time we did so.

In the Cold War there were many who dismissed the seriousness of the Soviet threat by downplaying the ideological component of the contest with the West.

It was not until George Kennan’s Long Telegram in 1946, almost thirty years after the Russian Revolution, that the US system confronted the reality of Soviet Communism and its ambition.

As Kennan analysed, the Soviet Union had expansionist goals, underpinned by a deep and genuine ideological hostility to capitalism and democracy:

“Everything must be done to advance relative strength of USSR as factor in international society. Conversely, no opportunity most be missed to reduce strength and influence, collectively as well as individually, of capitalist powers.”

The historian John Lewis Gaddis captured the significance of the telegram in his biography of Kennan: “No other document, whether written by him or anyone else, had the instantaneous influence that this one did.”

And yet throughout the Cold War there were still those who sought to downplay or minimise the challenge posed to democracies by the Soviet Union.

They thought that a détente between the powers was sustainable over the long term, and that this was a goal shared by our adversaries.

The international relations scholar Samuel Huntington, completing a Net-Assessment for the Carter Administration in 1977, rejected this view: “Soviet leaders do not easily comprehend the idea of a pluralist world or a balance of power. Their domestic experience encourages them to see an international pecking order. The Soviet response to American dominance has been a political struggle to overthrow the pecking order and to establish a new subordination, not a new balance. ‘Parity’ is not, from this viewpoint, a cornerstone concept for capping the arms race. It is a tactical slogan for an assault on the post-1945 world strategic edifice.”

But it was really only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that questions of the extent and seriousness of Soviet ideology could be answered.

Historian Stephen Kotkin, having spent more time than most in the Soviet archives, was once asked for his central finding. “They were communists”, he apparently replied.

It is a warning others are making today.
John Garnaut, the former China correspondent turned advisor to the Turnbull

government, delivered a seminal lecture for public servants in 2017.
It was entitled: ‘Engineers of the Soul: what Australia needs to know about

ideology in Xi Jinping's China’.

It’s about 5,000 words long – just like the Long Telegram.

It was initially delivered in a private forum, but like the Long Telegram, it was quickly shared across the Australian and US governments at the time, before being later published for a wider audience.

Like Kennan and Russia, Garnaut lived in, studied, and reported on China.

Kennan’s great insight was to study closely the words of Soviet leaders including Stalin, and to take them seriously, instead of finding complicated ways to explain why they did not mean what they said.

Garnaut does the same with Xi Jinping.

And like the Long Telegram, his analysis of China under Xi had an electric impact on those who read it for the first time.

It landed at a point at which the Turnbull government was reassessing its approach to the bilateral relationship.

Just as the Long Telegram fundamentally reshaped US thinking towards the Soviet Union, Garnaut’s speech set off a wave of reforms to harden Australia’s democracy against foreign interference and espionage from the Chinese Communist Party.

Among many critical observations, Garnaut points out that Xi Jinping has “reinvigorated ideology to an extent we have not seen since the Cultural Revolution.”

And he rightly observes:

“The key point about Communist Party ideology - the unbroken thread that runs from Lenin through Stalin, Mao and Xi - is that the party is and always has defined itself as being in perpetual struggle with the “hostile” forces of Western liberalism.”

Garnaut could comfortably claim to have written the Long Telegram for the 21st century – and not just for Australia either, given it quickly found its way to the desk of President Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and was widely circulated in the US national security community.

Since then, others have echoed Garnaut’s lessons to take the ideology of the CCP seriously.

In 2019, my colleague Andrew Hastie called us to be:

“...intellectually honest and take the Chinese leadership at its word. We are dealing with a fundamentally different vision for the world. Xi Jinping has made his vision of the future abundantly clear since becoming President in 2013. His speeches show that the tough choices ahead will be shaped, at least on the PRC side, by ideology – communist ideology, or in his words, by "Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought."

Even Dr Kevin Rudd, our former Prime Minister and now US Ambassador, in a series of articles for Foreign Affairs as part of his thesis on Xi Jinping Thought, implores us to take the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party seriously:

“Under Xi, ideology drives policy more often than the other way around. He is a true believer in Marxism-Leninism; his rise represents the return to the world stage of Ideological Man. This Marxist-Nationalist ideological framework drives Beijing’s return to party control over politics and society with contracting space for private dissent and personal freedoms. It also drives Beijing’s born-again statist approach to economic management, and its increasingly assertive foreign and security policies aimed at changing the international status quo.”

And as the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, points out, this matters more for Australia than perhaps almost anyone else today:

“The one member of the Quad for whom the core issue is the character of the Chinese system is Australia. Indeed, Australia is perhaps the only member of the Quad whose anxieties about China would likely disappear if China were a democracy.”

Sadly, that prospect seems remote from where we stand today, although authoritarian regimes always appear strong until they are not.

And it is well beyond the ambition or ability of Australia’s foreign policy to influence that.

All we can do is recognise China for what it is today under the CCP, and respond accordingly.

Australia has witnessed China’s bullying firsthand.

We all remember the failed campaign of economic and diplomatic coercion undertaken by Beijing in 2020 after the Australian Government made a series of decisions in Australia’s national interest, including excluding Huawei from our 5G network and calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.

But China’s bullying has continued even after both countries have been quick to claim bilateral relations have stabilised after a change of government in Australia, as several serious safety incidents between the People’s Liberation Army and the Australian Defence Force attest.

Not all of the PRC’s coercion is as visible as this.

Beijing is also willing to use the full suite of grey-zone tactics against us that fall short of war but still pose a fundamental challenge to our liberal democratic system.

Of these tactics, information warfare holds a particular prominence in China’s military psyche.

Professor Kerry Gershaneck describes how:

“PLA officers become acquainted with employing the Three Warfares [Public Opinion/Media Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Legal Warfare or Lawfare] early in their careers, and as they rise in rank they study the concept in depth in various texts on military strategy....Through study of history and war games, senior CCP officials and PLA commanders learn to employ Media Warfare in conjunction with Psychological Operations and Lawfare to manipulate an adversary’s cognitive process both prior to and during a conflict by targeting national and theatre command structures and forward deployed units.”

Former Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, recently explained on The 7.30 Report that Chinese doctrine talks about the use of cognitive weapons as part of its multi-prong approach to warfare.

He described these weapons as:

“warfare over attitude, warfare over will and warfare over perceptions, particularly using technology enabled AI-driven deep fakes, disinformation, propaganda and the like.”

Last month the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report describing how the CCP is “leveraging its propaganda system to build a toolkit to enable information campaigns”, seeking to dominate the information environment to present its preferred narratives to the world to strengthen its grip on power and legitimise its activities.

The report goes on to describe a vast global information-gathering architecture that feeds an eye-watering amount of data into China’s centralised propaganda system.

This comes as China is restructuring its military by creating a new information warfare department to centralise and elevate its information warfare functions in recognition of the increasing importance of information power in modern military strategy.

In April, the Financial Times reported that:

“The shift of information warfare to the direct command of the Central Military Commission — the top Communist party and state organ that controls the People’s Liberation Army — would hand Chinese leader Xi Jinping even more direct control over the military.”

And we don’t need to speculate about why this is happening.

The Chinese Government itself is crystal clear about its goals.

Last month ASPI cited an article published recently in the PLA’s official newspaper which stated:

“victory in modern warfare is dictated by information dominance. Modern conflicts are competitions between systems and structures, where control over information equates to control over the initiative in war.”

The ASPI article reflects:

“the PLA no longer sees information warfare as a tactical or operational resource but as a strategic outcome, in which military operations support goals in the information domain.”

To summarise: we know that foreign interference and espionage conducted by China is Australia’s primary security threat.

We know that the cognitive domain is the central battleground for this threat.

We know that information warfare is a foundational part of China’s military doctrine, and that the CCP has built a sprawling global architecture which seeks to bend the information environment to its will.

So, what can we do in the face of this threat?

How can a country like Australia ever compete in the information space with a massive, centralised authoritarian regime like the CCP, which isn’t bound by the same principles of transparency, accountability and contestability that underpin our liberal democracy?

I’ve spoken elsewhere at length of the steps we need to take to harden our information space to defend against these threats, so I won’t repeat it in detail today.

In short it is about completing the work John Garnaut kicked off in 2017, except this time for the digital world.

The Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media handed down a bipartisan report in August last year with 17 recommendations for how to do this.

Countries have the right to set the terms by which foreign companies operate on their shores, and this is particularly important for companies headquartered in authoritarian countries that could pose a domestic national security risk, like TikTok.

Taking these steps is crucial to secure our democracy in what is an increasingly challenging strategic environment.

But we also need to look beyond our shores if we are going to shift the dial in any meaningful way.

Accepting we need to engage in the information domain can be uncomfortable realisation for democracies.

The perception is this is a dark art involving propaganda and subterfuge.

But we have a global responsibility to not cede control of the information environment to China and other authoritarian states, particularly in our near region.

And there are ways of doing so successfully and consistent with our values.

You would be forgiven for thinking the sheer scale of the CCP’s information apparatus means it is impervious.

But to assume this is to underestimate our comparative strengths as a liberal democracy.

Freedom, truth, and transparency.
These principles are the bedrock on which our democracy is founded.

In the words of American public intellectual Nassim Nicholas Taleb, our democracies are anti-fragile, in that they get stronger when tested.

Autocracies are the opposite.

They are fragile because only a monopoly on truth and information can preserve their grip on power.

Transparency exposes corruption and failures, eroding the regime’s control.

Freedom and contestability are anathema because they threaten the regime’s unchallenged authority, which is crucial for suppressing political dissent which can quickly spiral out of control – as the fall of the Berlin Wall showed us.

We do not fear truth. Authoritarian states do.

Successfully exploiting this fact must be central to any strategy to combat the CCP’s growing influence in our region.

Former US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger and former Congressman Mike Gallagher think the answer is clear, at least for America.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, they argue that:

“Washington must adopt a similar attitude today and try harder to disseminate truthful information within China itself and to make it possible for Chinese citizens to communicate securely with one another. Tearing down—or at least blowing holes in—the “Great Firewall” of China must become as central to Washington’s approach today as removing the Berlin Wall was for Reagan’s. Beijing is waging a bitter information war against the United States—which is losing, despite its natural advantages. Xi and his inner circle see themselves as fighting an existential ideological campaign against the West, as Xi’s words from an official publication in 2014 make clear:

‘The battle for “mind control” happens on a smokeless battlefield. It happens inside the domain of ideology. Whoever controls this battlefield can win hearts. They will have the initiative throughout the competition and combat. . . .When it comes to combat in the ideology domain, we don’t have any room for compromise or retreat. We must achieve total victory.’”

As a middle power, Australia’s role in this strategic contest is necessarily distinct from the United States.

We are not in the business of global democracy promotion, and we do not have the ability to drive political reform in China.

Nor do we seek confrontation.

We do seek to protect our own interests, and ensure our values are upheld in our near region, where our equities and relationships are strongest.

So, what does this look like in practice?
At its mostly basic level, it means telling the truth.

Beijing’s elite-capture model in the Pacific is both corrosive to those democracies and, if fully understood, would be deeply unpopular among their citizens.

The CCP’s signature brand of debt-trap diplomacy should be concerning to governments and citizens alike.

Their legitimate aspirations for development are hijacked in a ruthless pursuit of Beijing’s strategic objectives at the expense of other countries’ sovereignty.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of these kinds of activities.

ASPI reported that, in March of this year, the Chinese embassy in Fiji shamelessly attempted to influence the Pacific information environment by pushing its preferred narratives and criticising Australian media reporting on Chinese policing behaviours and links to organised crime in Fiji.

This follows extensive reporting on China’s coordinated information operations targeting the Solomon Islands, which sought to spread false narratives and suppress information inconvenient to China – including ahead of the Solomon Islands’ elections earlier this year.

And we know that China seeks policing and security agreements as a beachhead for more malign influence on the region.

Our challenge is to communicate our knowledge of China’s activities into our region and beyond.

In this new era of strategic contest, we should not be shy about calling out China’s bad behaviour, especially when it is coercive, covert or corrupting.

Doing so serves to nullify these clandestine tactics, and equips individuals and governments with the information they need to make up their own minds about how they should seek to engage with China in their own best interests.

Some of the ways we can do this are obvious.

We need to have strong government-to-government channels through which to share information, including intelligence where appropriate.

We need to leverage our robust domestic media system to share its insights with the broader region.

For example, the ABC’s presence in the Pacific can be a trusted-source of news and information about the region in a media environment aggressively targeted – and in some cases compromised – by the PRC.

But we also need to think about new ways of doing things.

The US and its allies significantly influenced the information domain in the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the rapid declassification of intelligence about Vladimir Putin’s true intentions.

It robbed him of the false casus-belli he was seeking to manufacture, and rallied allies to Ukraine’s aid much more quickly than would have otherwise happened.

We could make greater use of intelligence diplomacy.

The Office of National Intelligence (ONI) sits at the centre of our National Intelligence Community, and draws on cutting-edge intelligence capabilities across our agencies to deliver insights to our most senior decision-makers.

ONI’s comprehensive access to classified intelligence as well as its unique open source capabilities mean it is has unparalleled situational awareness of what is happening globally and in our near region.

But this expertise is, in my view, underutilised.

ONI’s US counterpart, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, publishes an ‘Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community’ to provide declassified assessments about global trends to inform the public conversation about security issues.

ONI could publish its own unclassified annual assessment of security and intelligence trends but focused on our own region.

This assessment should provide specific examples of foreign interference, cyber-attacks, corruption and coercion.

It could be accompanied by an annual speech by the Director General of Intelligence, much like the now annual fixture of the threat assessment provided by the Director General of Security.

We need to take these concepts out of the abstract and into the real.

If we take the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party seriously, we must regard attempts to expand their influence in our region as hostile and unwelcome.

And we must take concrete steps to frustrate them in our region.

These kinds of disclosures serve to shine a light on the false narratives perpetuated by Beijing, which can both deter China from undertaking coercive activities targeting countries in our region, and equip those countries to recognise and respond to these activities when they do occur.

We are in a pivotal moment in our history.

Australia finds itself at the nexus of a global strategic competition – both geographically and ideologically – and the decisions we make today will determine the future for generations to come.

It is incumbent on us as a liberal democracy to acknowledge what is at stake, and to take steps, in conjunction with our allies, to secure it.

We need to recognise that truth and transparency are our greatest weapons in the information war, and these values provide us with an asymmetric advantage we critically need to exploit in the face of China’s vast information apparatus.

This advantage can be multiplied to global effect when we act in concert with our allies.

We have been slow to realise this, and even slower to capitalise on it. But it isn’t too late.

If, collectively, we make a conscious effort to pushback against these activities which are antithetical to our values and interests, and which jeopardise the stability of our region, we secure a free and open Indo Pacific through the critical decades ahead.

The worst thing we can do is stand idly by while Beijing accelerates its campaign of grey zone activities unchecked.

Pottinger and Gallagher argue:

“As the CCP seeks to set the terms of global discourse, what it wants more than anything from the United States and the rest of the West is silence— silence about China’s human rights abuses, silence about its aggression toward Taiwan, and silence about the West’s own deeply held beliefs, which contrast irreconcilably with the party’s. It is no surprise, then, that so much of the CCP’s strategy on the smokeless battlefield is about drowning out speech it doesn’t like—both inside and outside China. It is American silence —not candor —that is truly provocative, for it signals to the CCP that China is advancing and the United States is retreating.”

Let us ensure Australia is not silent.

Our future – and the future of our region – depends on it.

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