Q+A: Peter Jennings interviewed by Corin Dann
Q+A: Peter Jennings interviewed by Corin Dann
Defence Expert warns of Chinese influence in NZ, Australia
An Australian expert on defence and national security says both Australia and New Zealand should not be naïve when it comes to their ties with global superpower China.
Speaking on TVNZ 1’s Q+A Peter Jennings, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Corin Dann that a law passed across the Tasman this week to prevent foreign interference by foreign governments had been passed with China in mind.
“I think there’s no question in my mind that China is front and centre of the problem and we’ve seen that,” he said.
He said large financial donations to political parties to attempt to shape how MPs think and talk about a political issue was a key way to influence.
“I think New Zealand is facing similar pressures,” Mr Jennings said. “ I’m aware of very similar patterns of activity taking place in Canada, in the UK and European countries.”
“It is in our interests to be close with China as well, but I think it’s certainly not in Australia’s interests or New Zealand’s interested to be naïve about China. And increasingly, we have to understand that there are massive downsides as well as upsides to a relationship with a massive power.”
Interviewed by Corin Dann
CORIN Is this law change a pushback from Australia against Chinese influence?
PETER It certainly has been
read that way, and while our government is at pains to say
that, of course, this applies to any foreign government or
any foreign entity attempting to shape Australian politics,
I think there's no question in my mind that China is front
and centre of the current problem, and we’ve seen
CORIN And what are they doing? What are they actually doing?
PETER Well, we have seen this in a number of ways. One has been very substantial financial donations to the major political parties. I'm talking about in the hundreds of thousands, indeed in aggregate, in millions of dollars. I think we are also seeing attempts to shape how members of parliament may think and talk about particular issues which are of interest to Beijing. So we had, probably, a notorious case this year with the New South Wales Labor MP Sam Dastyari, who on the one hand was attempting to negotiate major donations from Chinese businessmen into the Labor party, and at the same time was prepared to hold a press conference where he spoke, essentially, using the talking points on Beijing's position on the South China Sea. Now, all of that ultimately led to Dastyari's resignation from the Australian parliament. But I think, more broadly, the concern is that his was not an isolated example. And really, this legislation attempts to make more open something which people have been concerned about has been happening covertly in Australian politics, both at the federal level and in our state governments as well.
CORIN Right. Now, do you believe that New Zealand is also vulnerable to this political influence from the likes of China, and should we also be tightening our laws?
PETER Yes, I think New Zealand is facing similar pressures, and it is probably worth saying that, in fact, it's not just Australia and New Zealand. I’m aware of very similar patterns of activity taking place in Canada, in the UK and European countries. And really, it reflects, I think, a global attempt on the part of Beijing to want to try to overtly and covertly promote its political interests around the world. So New Zealand can't assume that it's isolated from this. In fact, New Zealand should assume that these pressures are in your political system too. How your government deals with it, of course – that's a matter for New Zealand and New Zealanders. But it seems to me that it would be smart if the New Zealand political system and the Australian political system tried to at least align their approaches to dealing with foreign interference, because I think that's an important thing that we can do to give confidence to how we manage the bilateral Australia-New Zealand relationship.
CORIN And do you think there will be consequences— Would there be consequences if New Zealand didn't toughen its rules in terms of the Australia-New Zealand relationship?
PETER I think there's a risk of that. You know, the truth of the matter is that Australia and New Zealand have been, in some respects, drifting apart in terms of how the two countries think about strategic issues. That’s appropriate. We each have different strategic geographies. We have different ways of looking at the world; I’m not concerned about that. But it is a critical bilateral relationship for both of us. And in that sense, I think the more open we can be about how we deal with threats to our societies, and the more confident we can be that we are each dealing with these threats in sensible and appropriate ways, that’s good for Canberra-Wellington relations.
CORIN There are those, of course, who push back. Sir Don McKinnon, who is the chair— he's involved with the China Council here in New Zealand, but of course, an international diplomat, or has been – he would argue that we have spy agencies here; we have authorities here that would deal with anything that was untoward, that it is in our interests to be getting— to understand China better, to be closer with China, because it has helped us both economically and culturally.
PETER Yes, it is in our interests to be close with China as well, but I think it's certainly not in Australia’s interests or New Zealand’s interests to be naive about China. And increasingly, we have to understand that there are downsides as well as upsides to a relationship with a massive power, which is increasingly becoming a dictatorial political system – sort of, in fact, reverting back to the China that we thought was sort of slowly disappearing because of its economic growth. The other point I'd make about that comment from Mr McKinnon is simply to say it's one thing for officials to feel confident that they're appropriately dealing with the system, but I think in both our countries, it's important that governments take their public along with them, and that means that there's a need for governments to explain what they're doing to deal with these sorts of challenges and to make sure that communities understand and support those explanations. I don't see so much of that.
CORIN Sorry to interrupt again. What China is doing – is it any more than just soft power, in the sense that we are not talking about military action from them? I mean, what's the difference between what they're doing and what Australia and New Zealand would do in the Pacific?
PETER I think there's a spectrum of things which are happening. Some of it is open – soft power, as you describe it; some of it is good old-fashioned covert espionage. And again, you know, China is very active on that front in both our countries.
CORIN But we are guilty of
that too, right? Australia and New Zealand spy.
PETER Sure, but there are some things that we don't do. We're not engaged in wholesale intellectual property theft by means of cyber hacking. That's a very major feature of Chinese activity – not just in Australia but in the United States and all around the world. I think it's fair to say that there are differences in how our countries use their espionage activities. It's not to say that we don't do that. That’s certainly true. But we have to be mindful that it's not actually being successfully used against us. I think that's really the thing to focus on.
CORIN Just one last question – has there been a backlash in Australia from China? And if so, what do you do about that? I mean, are you seeing any diplomatic relations being strained?
PETER There has certainly been, I think, in the Chinese media. The English language Global Times, for example, there's been some quite strong editorialising against Australia. And of course, the Chinese embassy here has very stridently denied that they are engaging in any covert activities which would be inappropriate. I guess you'd have to say, ‘Well, of course they'd say that.' Broadly, though, the relationship goes on. We continue to trade. Chinese tourists are amongst the largest group of tourists visiting the country. There are very large numbers of Chinese students at Australian universities. And really, what that points to is that it's in China's interests as much as our own to keep a steady relationship. I think what the Australian government has simply done is say to China, 'Well, this far and no further,' as far as covert influencing attempts on our political processes go. And China has not publicly welcomed that Australian view, but I think they must understand that that's the only appropriate thing for an Australian government to do.
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