Dennis Richardson was chief of ASIO and ambassador to Washington before heading the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and then Defence. Here, he talks about China, Trump and Australia’s foreign policy. By Hamish McDonald.

Dennis Richardson: keeper of Canberra’s secrets

Hamish McDonald You wrote your university thesis on E. L. Piesse, the between-wars foreign policy thinker, who in 1920 urged diplomacy to keep Japan friendly to the West but by 1935 was urging Australia to rearm against the Japanese threat. If Piesse were reincarnated as Australia’s current director of national intelligence, looking at China, would he be the Piesse of 1920 or the Piesse of 1935?

Dennis Richardson Probably at this point in time he would be the Piesse of 1920. Bearing in mind that his views evolved and changed.

HM You think with the right diplomatic engagement China can be steered away from the kind of confrontation that developed later [with Japan]?

DR It would be naive to think Australia had the capacity to steer China. I think more in terms of influence. I am very critical of what China has done in the South China Sea. However, other elements of Chinese regional policy are quite positive. It would be premature and perhaps self-fulfilling to see China at this point in entirely negative terms as Piesse plainly saw Japan in the 1930s.

HM Yet the new United States National Security Strategy sees the engagement started by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1972 at a turning point. There’s talk of divorce, not engagement. Are we at an inflection point?

DR That’s an open question. Trump has a particular approach to things. On the trade front, there is an arguable case for some of what Trump’s done, although the way he’s gone about it is questionable. As for inflection points, you normally discover an inflection point after it has happened, unless it’s something dramatic, like the bringing down of the Berlin Wall. There are more similarities between Obama and Trump, in terms of policy, than what a lot of people understand. Obama, against the backdrop of George W. Bush and Iraq 2003, had a clear sense of what he believed to be the limits of US power. Trump does, too, but he comes at it from an entirely different direction. What they have said about Afghanistan is not a lot different. What Trump has said about US allies in Europe is not dissimilar to what Clinton, Bush and Obama were seeking. He’s been cruder in his language, but his goal is the same: to get the Europeans to step up in their own defence.

HM You were in ASIO at another inflection point: 9/11. Can you give a sense of what it was like in the immediate aftermath?

DR It simply got very busy. ASIO at that point was an organisation of around 500 people, broadly working 9 to 5. We had to shift to 24/7 operations, while doubling in size over four years. Counterterrorism moved from the periphery of government policy to the centre.

HM At ASIO, then in Washington, you had to deal with some Australians caught up in US renditions and detention. It’s said you had to push hard to locate them. Do you feel you got the full story, under the intelligence exchange system?

DR You are naive if you ever think you’ve got the full story. It always comes inside limits on what they’ll share and who they’ll share it with. There were periods of time where they were less than fulsome in what they would share with us about a couple of Australians. But we got past that.

HM And the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on “enhanced interrogation” of detainees – did that surprise you?

DR It didn’t surprise me. When you have an attack out of the blue one morning and over 3000 people get killed, governments respond in certain ways, and, in retrospect, you might see some of that reaction being over the top.

HM John Howard and Peter Cosgrove [as defence chief] tailored Australia’s contribution to the 2003 Iraq war to project strong political support, but what some Americans felt was a minimal military input. It suggests a lot of reservations here about the whole exercise.

DR Australian governments have always done that. The notion that Australian governments simply follow the US in whatever way doesn’t withstand scrutiny. In respect of Iraq, your observation about Howard’s measured approach is spot on.

HM If Trump got into some kind of war with Iran, say in the Persian Gulf, would that be something we could stay out of?

DR It would depend entirely on the circumstances. We support the Iran nuclear agreement. We were disappointed to see Trump withdraw from that. If there were to be a war in the Persian Gulf, it would depend upon the circumstances.

HM Given we rely so heavily on US space networks and real-time intelligence for our own operations, does this interdependency mean we lose control over our own forces?

DR We’ve always had ultimate say over what our forces do or don’t do. For instance, when our air force was operating over Syria, we always had the option of a red card. Sometimes when we operate with the Americans we have slightly different rules of engagement. And the joint facilities here are joint facilities: full knowledge and concurrence are the words that underpin those arrangements. They don’t compromise our independence.

HM Do they make us party to American operations, such as drone strikes that might be directed from Pine Gap?

DR I don’t think you’ll find drone strikes are controlled out of Pine Gap. That is a misunderstanding of Pine Gap. Having said that, I don’t have a problem with drone strikes where they get high-value terrorists.

HM Some think our foreign policy is set too much by a defence-intelligence complex, not enough by diplomatic, Treasury and aid agencies. Having sat in both camps as secretary, how do you feel about that?

DR I wouldn’t take one cent away from the Defence budget, and have queried whether 2 per cent of GDP is enough for the capability we will require. But our diplomatic footprint is not big enough and should grow. We also need to pause the reduction of our aid budget and think about it in strategic terms as much as humanitarian ones.

HM There are some American calls, particularly out of Hawaii, that Australia could stand up more to China in the South China Sea.

DR We are firm and consistent − the Chinese hate uncertainty and inconsistency –and if you are, over time it will be accepted as a reality. With the South China Sea, Australia does precisely what it should be doing. We have regular over-flights and passages. Historically Australia has not sailed within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands, on the grounds that they belong to someone. But where we and other countries should sail within 12 nautical miles is the artificial features that China has created. It is black and white in the Law of the Sea that you cannot create territorial sea through artificial features. Apart from that Australia has been robust and pretty balanced in the way we’ve gone about the relationship with China and by and large it’s pretty good, though we’ve had a bit of a downer over the past 12 months. And I wouldn’t allow voices out of Honolulu to determine our approaches. They do not always speak for the administration in Washington.

HM You came in for some criticism for approving the Chinese lease on the port of Darwin. Now we have controversies over Chinese acquisitions of infrastructure. Are we jumping at shadows, or do we need to worry about back doors being opened into vital networks?

DR You’ve got to do it on a case-by-case basis. I didn’t have a problem with Darwin. Some of the criticism has been a lesson in how if you want to continue to assert a falsehood over time, people will believe it. It doesn’t allow the Chinese to pick up sensitive emissions from our warships, which are always switched off in port, or give the Chinese navy any more access. With power grids, we said no to one, yes to another. It was not contradictory: not all power systems are created equally. At times we do jump at shadows. At times we are right to say no. But the notion that the Chinese should have no involvement at all in any of Australia’s major infrastructure is an overreaction.

HM In your last year in Defence, the government chose the French contender for the Future Submarine Program, which puts conventional power into a vessel first designed for nuclear power. Is the navy trying to keep the option open of moving to nuclear propulsion?

DR At no point in any discussion that I was involved in, in Defence or within government, was there ever a question of, “Gee, we’ll go with the French. They also do nuclear submarines and we could move from one to the other.” But I hope the Future Submarine is the last conventional-powered submarine that Australia has, and beyond it we will have nuclear-powered, but not nuclear-armed, submarines. But that will be a big decision, requiring the then government to get the body politic and community onside. And from the decision, it would probably be 20 to 25 years before you had one.

Dennis Richardson was interviewed by Hamish McDonald at a recent “Thinking in Public” symposium, programmed by Schwartz Media, at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. This is an edited transcript.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 13, 2018 as "War and Piesse".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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