China a friend, not an ally: Richardson
Outgoing Defence secretary Dennis Richardson has cautioned Australia against drifting away from the United States simply to draw closer to China.
The veteran public servant and diplomat, on the last day of his 48-year career, acknowledged both the rise of China and arrival of Donald Trump raised questions about the value and relevance of the US alliance.
“I think Australia’s relationship with China and the United States will continue to be able to be summarised simply – friends with both, allies with one,” Mr Richardson told the National Press Club in Canberra on Friday.
“Any notion that the growth in our relationship with China requires a recalibration of our relationship with the US is, in my view, inconsistent with the facts and lacks logic or purpose.”
Of course, it was always open to Australia and the United States to reassess the value of their alliance.
“But any debate and reassessment should flow from clear-eyed analysis and judgment, not the emotional reaction to one person,” he said.
The retiring Defence boss also warned of the deeply divided state of US politics and its affect on some media “too influenced by Americana.”
“It is essential that we do not allow the poison evident in US domestic politics to infect our attitude to the alliance.”
And while Australia should strengthen ties with Beijing, “complexities” weighed on the relationship between the nations, and China was not an ally.
“It is no secret that China is very active in intelligence activities directed against us – it is more than cyber,” Mr Richardson said.
“The Chinese government keeps a watchful eye inside Australian Chinese communities and effectively controls some Chinese language media in Australia.”
Mr Richardson said it would be wrong to suggest the Chinese government were the worst offenders, or that they were the first ones to have interfered in such a way.
“They do engage in some activities in their communities which I think would be considered unreasonable by most Australians.”
Australia also holds significant concerns about Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, and is looking to the country to do more on North Korea.
“Positives are rightly emphasised but it would be foolish to pretend that the negatives do not exist or to attempt to diminish their significance.”
Mr Richardson said the United States and China are strategic rivals and there will continue to be points of real tension between the two nations for many decades to come.
“Misunderstandings could lead to miscalculation. But both seek to manage their relationship reasonably sensibly and work hard to avoid military conflict with the breadth of dialogue arrangements designed, in part, to minimise this.”