The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI, was conceived as a body to provide the government with the advice it wanted to hear.
It was commissioned by Prime Minister John Howard in August 2001 to undertake ‘policy-relevant research and analysis to better inform government decisions and public understanding of strategic and defence issues.’ It was set up against a background of LNP hysteria relating to an increasing number of refugees arriving by boat. In 1999, 86 boats with 3722 asylum seekers arrived and in 2000, 51 boats with 2939 asylum seekers.
The LNP government was coming under criticism for its handling of boat people including their indefinite incarceration in remote concentration camps. In turn the government was critical of the RAN for humanely dealing with refugees in unsafe boats at sea. In 1999/2000 it deployed members of the AFP overseas in a disruption program aimed at people smuggling operations in a number of countries including Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
In August 1999, Paul Barrett, the talented Secretary of Defence, was dismissed by the Minister, John Moore and his successor, Allan Hawke was dismissed in 2002 with two years of his contract left to run, apparently because Howard did not think much of either of them. They did not provide the advice he wanted to hear. The way was open for ASPI to strengthen its defence and foreign affairs credentials with the LNP.
From the outset ASPI was a highly politicised right wing ‘think tank’. Initially funded by the government it came over time to accept funding from the US Government and significantly from the US arms industry. It supported Australian involvement in the US war against Iraq and Afghanistan, defending the war in Afghanistan right up to the precipitate US withdrawal last year.
ASPI has taken it upon itself to promote the purchase of American weapons including most recently US nuclear submarines, a purchase which defies military logic and common sense. By any measure they will not be ready for delivery until at least 2045. The acquisition was proposed under the new AUKUS arrangement which has the stated aim of strengthen Australian defence arrangements in the face of alleged Chinese expansion.
In fact, the nuclear submarine deal is a smoke screen for the stationing of US nuclear submarines in Australia. Australia will not get nuclear submarines, if for no other reason than the technology will be obsolete by the projected date of delivery. It was never a serious proposition even if the LNP, ASPI and the right wing MSM took it seriously. It has been a cynical American ploy swallowed by a gullible Australia.
Under AUKUS the United States seeks to militarise the north of Australia to further threaten China. However, from the measures proposed it seems the US may have more than threat in mind, namely preparing the north of Australia for launching an attack. None of this has been put to the Australian people. This is not in Australia’s interests. It only serves American interests. China would be bound to retaliate in force. Australia would be the primary target.
ASPI has been a cheer leader for increased US pressure on China. The narrative built over the past seven years, to hide US fear of China as a significant trade competitor and rival power challenging US hegemony, is that China constitutes a military threat. No doubt it is becoming so as it seeks to counter the US military threat.
America is an increasingly fractured and recalcitrant state as it observes its power being drained by collapsing social cohesion. ASPI needs to ask, why place value in an ally which will not control the arbitrary use of arms by its citizens when those arms could bring about the very thing owners claim for bearing them – the breakdown of law and order, which could in turn lead to civil war. Not so far-fetched when you look at Trump, his supporters and those seeking to replace him.
The LNP and ASPI are quick to point to shared values as justification for our one-sided alliance with the US. This year alone there have been 223 instances of mass shooting in the US. Black Americans comprise the majority of US citizens in prison and by far the greatest number of people killed by US law enforcement agencies. Where are the shared values?
China has its own poor record on human rights, bolstered by Xi Jinping’s new nationalism. The Yugurs are treated appallingly, allegedly for reasons of ‘national security’. The US has pushed this as a line of attack on China but took it further with claims of genocide. This claim is contentious and yet to be proved, unlike the genocide carried out against Sri Lankan Tamils by the ruling Sinhalese, unremarked and allowed to continue by the US.
ASPI has not argued a case for even handedness in our dealings with China and the US and yet China because of its geography, economy and trade remains far more important to Australia than the US. The only reason the US remains important to Australia is because of the security threats it has created over the past sixty years.
ASPI followed the US down the Taiwan rabbit hole and took a gullible Australian government with it. As foreign affairs and defence adviser of choice for both Morrison and Dutton, ASPI neutered both departments. We are yet to be told how involved it was with the ill-fated AUKUS negotiations.
Taiwan and China had arrived at a workable relationship with $US 250 billion in two-way trade, tourism, business investment and education. China gave the US the opportunity to stir with its ill-conceived island developments in the South China Sea and stir it did. The US has pulled out all stops to portray China as keen to take Taiwan by force causing ASPI to howl at the mere mention of Taiwan.
The LNP made a mess of diplomatic relations with China, France and the Pacific. It had deceitful relations with France, treated Pacific Island countries with racist disdain and used a megaphone to abuse China; making matters worse for itself and better for the US. ASPI supported this travesty of diplomacy, perhaps it was the architect of it. In any case it was on the rails waving its hat at the start of any contrived confrontation.
Following the local anger and diplomatic mess created by the Morrison/ASPI forays into the Pacific on the back of climate denial, China decided to take advantage with less than mixed success. It received a polite knock back on a grand plan to lead a Pacific alliance of the willing.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong in two forays into the Pacific over the same number of weeks has shown both ASPI and the Chinese how diplomacy should be conducted. No megaphone and no presumption.
ASPI has reached its use by date. It should no longer receive Australian taxpayer funding, nor Australian government patronage. Dutton has supporters inside the organisation, he did a captains pick for the new head of ASPI. The government must rely on the advice of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence. They must be given the resources and leadership to fulfil their statutory functions. ASPI should not receive funding to run trouble through Dutton for the Albanese government.
ASPI is a political organisation with loyalty to the LNP, if they want it to survive, they should fund it.
Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.
This article first appeared in Pearls & Irritations.