For Griffith University’s A Better Future for All series, in partnership with HOTA, Home of the Arts, Kerry O’Brien welcomed Dr Michael Fullilove AM, one of Australia’s most well-respected and in-demand international commentators, to discuss Australia’s place in world affairs during a deeply turbulent time, and under a new government. With tensions between superpowers escalating, how should Australia position itself with the US and China, and even within our own region? And given the Russian invasion into Ukraine, and tensions between Russia and NATO countries, is a more active role in Europe advisable for us? 

Watch this insightful and vital look into where Australia might be headed on the increasingly troubled political stage.

Kerry O’Brien: Can Russia really be beaten without other countries doing anything other than – I mean I know about the sanctions – other than supplying the weapons in hoping that that the Ukrainians can continue to do what they have done?

Dr Michael Fullilove AM: It depends what you mean by “can Russia be defeated?”. I mean, I would say already it’s been a huge strategic failure on Mr. Putin’s behalf, and if Russia were a democracy it would be unsustainable, un-survive-able for him. Um, let’s see I think the world has shown much more steel than I had hoped, to be honest. I think – Europeans -There’s been a quickening of the connections between democracies and like-minded countries around the world, I think all around the world, all of us have seen that our futures and our destiny is wrapped up in Ukraine’s. So, I’m not prepared to jump to some inevitable eventuality that that Ukraine will be defeated. Let’s see, let’s continue to provide all the support we can let’s support them in material ways, with military ways, let’s give them everything we can give them every opportunity to defend themselves.

O’Brien: I mean, what does a victory against Russia look like if Russia ends up having been able to annex at least part of the East? What does that look like? Does that look like a victory for Putin? Is he able to retire with that and regroup? Or is that a loss for Ukraine? Is that the loss that the world can’t afford? What does defeat look like for Putin, other than being forced to withdraw all forces? I mean that is the obvious term, ‘defeat’ there, but is that the form defeat has to take?

Fullilove: Well, there are different scenarios for how it ends up, and probably, the scenario that will happen will be somewhere in the middle, where you’ll have some sort of a frozen conflict or some sort of stalemate in the East. You’re asking me is that a victory or a defeat for Mr Putin. He will sell it as a victory and because he owns the media and the means of production in Russia. He will probably have some success in doing that, but to me that is a strategic failure, given that he has done so much to exhaust his military, given the weaknesses that have been exposed in Russia’s military, in the Russian system of governance, in authoritarian countries in general. We’ve had a window into how they don’t operate properly because of because information won’t get passed up because no one wants to pass the bad news up to the leader. So, to me, it’s already a failure for Mr. Putin. Let’s see, you know, I’m reluctant to make predictions because everybody’s predictions on Ukraine have proven wrong, but I am hopeful and I put my hope in the Democratic country of Ukraine, the people who are fighting for their own homeland led by someone who said I don’t want your ride to the Americans, I need more ammunition. And to me that’s incredibly admirable and I don’t want to race ahead to what will happen in four months.

O’Brien: But what is at stake as far as Xi Jinping in China are concerned if Putin has a win? What is the worst that that does to Xi Jinping’s view of the future and what actions he might take? What worries you the most about that?

Fullilove: Well, I would say that that so far, the men in Zhongnanhai in the leadership compound in Beijing would be pretty worried about what they’ve seen. It turns out, as America found in the Iraq war, that it is very hard to invade and occupy a country even when it’s just a matter of rolling your tanks over a land border. Very hard. If the country you’re invading is standing up for itself and fighting back, it’s very, very difficult. And of course, it’s not a land border between China between the PRC and Taiwan – they’ve got to cross the Taiwan Straits. So, I think so far – so that’s the first thing that invading another country is hard. The second thing is that it turns out the West is not as supine and hopeless as many authoritarians believed. You know that line from Lenin that when, you know, you get a bayonet and you push and if you meet mush, you keep pushing and when you meet steel, you stop. And for a long time, I think the bayonet has met mush but, on this occasion, it’s found steel and I think that in the PRC, they’ll be taking a lesson from that too, that the West would not respond kindly to an invasion of Taiwan. Now, they will also be thinking about the next steps, ‘okay, we see how the West is responded, how can we respond to that?’ They also appreciate that their country is much more tied up in the global economy than Russia is. So, it will be harder for us to sanction China in the way that we’ve sanctioned Russia but so far, I would say this is a setback for Xi Jinping. I think it would focus his mind and cause him to think even more carefully about doing something to disrupt the status quo.

O’Brien: So, moving – setting aside the more melodramatic comments about the threat of China and the drumbeat of war stuff, what is the most threatening when you really strip it back – what is the most threatening of Xi Jinping’s actions in the Asia Pacific? Not referring specifically to his diplomatic and trade freeze with Australia, but to the wider geopolitics of the region – what is the most threatening thing that he has done or said that would cause us to fear China?

Fullilove: I think that it’s a question of balance, Kerry. For a long time, the United States was the dominant force in Asia, and it was a pretty benign hegemony that basically enabled a lot of countries including China to get rich and to grow. And I think when we look at the prospect of an Asia that is dominated by a resident superpower, like China, that is run by a Leninist political party that insists on getting its way, I think most countries in Asia – not just Australia – most countries in Asia feel uncomfortable about that. Most countries would prefer the United States to remain as part of the region, but as a non-resident power, that’s the great and lovely thing about the United States is Over the Horizon. But it’s able to project power and influence into our region. So, I think most in our region would prefer a balance between the United States and China, where of course, China has certain prerogatives as a very important power, but at the same time there are limits on how it can throw its weight around, whether that be in terms of, you know, sanctions or other means, I think balance is important.

O’Brien: What can you reasonably assume is Xi Jinping’s endgame? Is it to become the superpower in his region? Or is it more than that?

Fullilove: Well, I think first of all –

O’Brien: Not exclusively, but I suppose the dominant superpower in his region.

Fullilove: Yeah, I think he wants to run the board in Asia, no question. No question. They want to push the Americans out, they want to push the United States back so that they run the region, but does that mean that they don’t have global ambitions? I don’t think so. I think they would look at the prerogatives that the UK exerted for a long time and the prerogatives that the United States exerted, and they would say yeah, we intend to be a global power having global influence. But, in the medium term, I think it is running the board in our part of the world.

O’Brien: And to what extent is that shaped in his mind by this it’s not just a sense It’s a reality because America has expressed itself quite clearly about this, that America is the number one superpower in the world and it never wants to surrender that position. And Biden more recently talked about winning the race – I think was winning the race to win the 21st century. There’s this contest between America and China to win the 21st century. Why can’t there be sane men in a relatively sane world considering the possibility of sharing?

Fullilove: Your world leaders don’t share that well; they don’t play well together often.

O’Brien: What a pity there’s no maturity in that. It is a lack of maturity of thought isn’t it? Isn’t it a breakdown of intelligence somewhere there that you can’t see past “I am number one, and that’s how I’ll always be” and then the other party says, “I want it”? I mean why, in Xi Jinping’s mind, why shouldn’t he pursue a certain dominance in his region that America assumed in its region? As a – you know, the going all the way back to the Monroe Doctrine.

Fullilove: Well, I think that you know part of the problem is that it depends what the definition of sharing is, and it depends what the definition of dominance is. You know, we’re in a different world from that of the Monroe Doctrine. And I don’t think that, you know, to me even this discussion is shrinking Asia to the dimensions of the United States and China.

O’Brien: Yeah, we’ll come to that.

Fullilove: And there are a lot of players in Asia and all of us deserve to have our own space.

O’Brien: Of course.

Fullilove: And I think the concept of a balance is much more likely to provide space for a country like Australia or Japan or Indonesia, than one in which one resident superpower which happens to be run by Leninist political party runs the joint.

O’Brien: But is he saying that in those terms?

Fullilove: Is he saying…

O’Brien: Is he saying that he wants to run the joint? As in Asia – the Asia Pacific, he wants to run it?

Fullilove: Well, what we’ve seen what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is a hardening of Chinese policy, a hardening of internal policy, an increase – a tightening of the controls over Chinese people whether they’re academics or dissidents or Uyghurs, an increasing unwillingness to tolerate any sort of criticism or any dissent, a determination that it’s China’s prerogatives be recognized. The region is heading in a direction that discomforts a lot of us in the region. Now, you know, maybe, you know, is this just a natural outgrowth of of a powerful country? I don’t think so, I think a region that is dominated that is totally dominated by China in the absence of a counterweight is not congenial to countries like ours.

O’Brien: That’s not what I’m asking because I’m asking about the possibility of major powers sharing. And of course, there are other significant powers and there are a lot of other countries, but in terms of the structure of how international relations tend to be to be run –

Fullilove: Well, let me answer that. You know, countries do what countries do and centuries of history shows that countries compete with each other.

O’Brien: But, sorry, but within that framework and that comes to your widths which is working with institutions – international institutions, and that’s where the United Nations and these other bodies are supposed to play their part in in assisting a kind of a process of sanity in some reasonable courtesy, and civility and common sense in there somewhere, where you do have forms of sharing. But it’s the United States, it seems to me, that is absolutely having attained preeminent status in the world as the as the dominant power – which doesn’t mean that they run the world – that it does not seem capable of contemplating the possibility that they might have to share whether they like it or not. And I’ll come to another eminent foreign policy analyst Hugh White, for whom I think we share respect, who has pointed out in a recent quarterly essay titled ‘Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America’. The China’s economy is currently 19% of global GDP, America’s is 16%. By 2035, he says China will be at 24%, the US will be at 14%. Now that’s quite a significant gap, if that trend continues, how does that not change the equation?

Fullilove: I love you.

O’Brien: What have I said that’s – I think I’ve led with my chin here but go on.

Fullilove: No, I love you because he – in a very civil and highly intelligent and persuasive way, he puts out ideas and he forces us to engage with them, but I don’t agree with you. First of all because as an historian, I think events are contingent. On day one of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – I’m not sure what Hugh White said – but almost every realist said “that’s it” you know, the Ukrainians are finished, because great powers do as they do, they’re going to roll in. And it turns out it didn’t work out like that. Events are contingent. So maybe in 20 or 30 years, China’s economy will continue to have grown and it will be much larger than the United States, and maybe it won’t. Maybe the United States will have collapsed in a in a pile of steaming Trump-ism, or maybe it won’t. There’s lots of contingency in human events, and so where Hugh goes after that diagnosis is therefore – because that’s the way the world’s going, Australia should, I think he says should encourage United States to leave the region quickly and gracefully. To back out of the region, to acknowledge that China requires certain prerogatives, and I don’t see it that way. I think we should – our interests, as I’ve said, lie in having the United States engaged, and I think we are more likely to end up with some kind of ‘sharing’ as you put it. Some kind of modus vivendi, where you have the country – the United States and China competing with each other. Where you have the United States pushing back and saying no, we’re not going to allow this and we’re going to we’re going to try to work with other powers, with India and Japan to provide some sort of balance. I think if the United States steps back, if countries like Australia say, yeah China’s going to run the board so we may as well let them run the board now, then we’re going to end up in a much less congenial situation.

O’Brien: Then we’ve got this other aspect which has become more pronounced with Trump. I mean, the mere fact that Trump was elected was a was a huge symptom of a fundamental problem in the United States and has become more and more evident. Even though he was subsequently voted out, and even if the January 6 hearings in Congress turned out to be his political death now, the Republican Party supported and enabled his authoritarianism, his dishonesty, his complete lack of a moral compass and his foreign policy fickleness. Just remembering back to the contempt with which he sometimes treated Australia, doesn’t that test your faith that we can really rely on America into the indefinite future? And I don’t have some sort of anti-American gene here, I’m really asking what I think are the obvious questions about the extent to which we can assume automatically, that no matter how much good will has been perpetrated between the two countries over all those decades, no matter how many times Australia has gone into support the United States, sometimes to our detriment, most particularly the Iraq War. But when you saw the fickleness of trump over something really quite small, important but small, which was whether he would stick to the deal that had been done with Australia to take some of our refugees from Manus Island or Nauru. There was a sense that that guy could turn on a dime. Now if it’s not Trump, it can still be someone else because there is this real rot taking place in the United States. Doesn’t that at least ferment a doubt, a question mark?

Fullilove: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it would in anybody. And Mr. Trump sends, you know, much greater as you acknowledged in that little issue of the refugee deal, I mean Mr. Trump didn’t believe that the rules of the road applied to him, whether it was in his personal behaviour in relation to women or business partners or allies or the world. He’s a disgraceful person, but he was voted out, Kerry. And that is one advantage that democracies have over authoritarian countries – they can course correct.

O’Brien: But as you know, what is happening as we speak is that in Republican states in the United States, there are people in office in those States who are working feverishly – in Republican administrations – are working feverishly to corrupt the Democratic voting processes in those states even more than they already are. So I wondered what extent we can actually feel any confidence that future elections are going to be honest? It’s a sad day to be even talking about this.

Fullilove: Yeah, but I think you’re exaggerating and to be honest. I’ll give you some examples. With some exceptions, the institutions of government in the United States were resilient during the Trump period. You’re right, The GOP was Trump-ified, and yet there were lots of brave election officials in key states who stood against Mr. Trump, right?

O’Brien: Yes, there was some.

Fullilove: The courts remained true to their mission.

O’Brien: Look at the Supreme Court now.

Fullilove: Well, that’s –

O’Brien: And the 2000 election was determined by the Supreme Court.

Fullilove: Yes, but we’re talking about – you’ve asked me about their ability to constrain Mr. Trump, and I would say that the system in the United States basically helD up. It basically held up. Secondly, as I indicated before, democracies can course correct. Russia can’t cause correct without a revolution. China can’t course correct without a revolution. The third thing I’d say is you use the word ‘automatically’, you said, you know, we can’t automatically assume that the United States will remain there, will remain reliable, but again, that’s why I use this term the ‘three-dimensional foreign policy’- the three dimensions. It’s not that we put all our eggs in one basket. There’s partly a risk mitigation element in engaging deeply in our own region in working with the United Nations. But still I come back to the question I asked at the at the top of this: if not the United States then who? What country of 25 million people on the other side of the world would not want a strong alliance with the country like the United States?

O’Brien: You say on the other side of the world, and that this is part of the third arm of your three dimensions, which is our region. Hasn’t part of Australia’s long-term problem one side of the coin of our attempts at serious good relationships with our neighbours? And for much of its history, Australia has been looking from this side of the world to the other side of the world as our ‘natural’ alliances, our natural cultural links, rather than cultural links within our own region, and that it does not take much to remind some of our Asian neighbours of those doubts that they have had about our attitudes within our own region – The Hanson Effect and what impact that had on regions regardless of how much effort had been put in by diplomats and previous governments. Mahati(?) is saying Australia has to decide whether it’s of the west or whether it’s of our region. Those doubts linger, don’t they? And they’re kind of renewed from time to time. So, a question out of this: do you see that our attempts to forge ongoing substantial relationships with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia all of the other nations of Southeast Asia, that there has been an inconsistency of approach through our post-war relationships, as we have walked away from the white Australia policy, as we have to one degree or another sought to in enmesh selves to some degree within the region. It’s been a very inconsistent story hasn’t it?

Fullilove:  I would tell the story this way, I think it was natural that at the beginning, because all of our prosperity came from trade with Britain and with Europe and because we had security links over there and because of that history, it made sense in a way that we looked back. But I would say that from the 1970’s onward, governments of both colours have basically deepened the relationships with Asia. And I would say over the last 40 years There have been steps forward and certainly and steps back, but I would say that that the general story has been of deepening relations with the region. And right now, I mean, for example, The Quad. I mean you don’t hear leaders in India, in Delhi and Tokyo, for example, saying Australia doesn’t regard itself as part of the region. You don’t hear that terribly much I would say these days. We have lost sight of Southeast Asia, and you mentioned Indonesia and Malaysia, I think you’re quite right there. One of my colleagues at the institute talks about South East Asia as the ‘missing middle’, where we’re focused on the United States and we’re focused on the Pacific, but we’ve lost sight of Southeast Asia. I think that’s true.

O’Brien: How does that happen? To me one of the critical aspects – one of the most important areas where, by partisanship, has been important in Australia, has been as foreign relations. and at times our foreign relations have become domestic political footballs. Another illustration of a different aspect to this, John Howard; it seemed to me that the most fundamental thing that occupied his time most in his time as prime minister in terms of foreign relations was deepening the relationship even more with the United States. And he has virtually acknowledged this himself, and I know others closer to him have said so, that his primary focus in going into Iraq was to further deepen and cement the relationship with the United States, to the extent that around that same period he was talking about Australia, being George Bush Jr’s deputy sheriff in this region. To me, it’s kind of a surrendering of a fundamental responsibility when you’ve– how can you lose sight of the importance of Southeast Asia to us into the indefinite future and most particularly Indonesia, which is increasingly going to become one of the most popular, one of the biggest economies in the world, inevitably and eventually?

Fullilove: Well, I think that the answer is that… I mean I think this is almost the first question you’ve asked me about Mr. Morrison’s foreign policy. I think that Mr. Morrison and Mr. Howard were both very focused on the first dimension on the United States, and by the way, I disagree with the Iraq War.

O’Brien: I’m glad to hear it. America’s biggest ever foreign policy disaster

Fullilove: Yeah, I think it was a mistake, great powers make mistakes, right? So, you ask how do you lose sight? How do you lose engagement with Southeast Asia? I think what’s happened is a couple of things. I think first of all, the government has been overly focused on the United States. Secondly, it has become seized with balancing China, and it’s and we’ve stopped listening as closely as we should have to Southeast Asia, we’ve started to think about Southeast Asia as a forum for balancing China as opposed to deepening our relations with Southeast Asia. The other thing is that the economic relativities continue to change. So, whereas the Australian economy used to be as large as all the ASEAN economies put together, now it’s a fraction of them. So, we are less important to them and they are less important to us. And so, the answer to your question is that we are going to have to work a lot harder to maintain our influence with Indonesia, with Malaysia, throughout Southeast Asia – we can’t afford to allow decades to go past between bilateral Prime Ministerial visits to import in Southeast Asian capitals as we have. We need to be focused on Southeast Asia just as closely as we are on the Pacific.

O’Brien: Yeah, well, it’s just obvious to me. And I’m not a foreign policy expert, it’s obvious to me. But we have had such an up-down relationship with Indonesia. We bugged a president for Christ’s sake. We have at times had a very ham-fisted approach, a very clumsy approach to Indonesia. How do we build consistency into our foreign policy in relation to our own region?

Fullilove: Well, in terms of Indonesia, it’s a difficult relationship because-

O’Brien: But a crucial one.

Fullilove: It’s absolutely crucial, 275 million people just to our North, a vital force in Southeast Asia, and yet it’s hard to think of any other neighbours in the world that are so close and yet so different. We’re such different countries, and there is always going to be some bilateral issue either on their side or our side that sparks up. Whether it’s an Australian journalist criticizing an Indonesian president, whether it’s a human rights issue, a totally legitimate issue, for example, to do with the execution of Australian citizens, or whether it’s something else like the bugging of an Indonesian president. There will always be an element like that of it. What we have to do is build in some ballast. Gareth Evans used to talk about ballast. So that when those squalls come, they don’t overturn the boat. I think Mr. Albanese’s off to a good start by visiting Jakarta, like all of his recent predecessors have.  I liked that he got off the beaten track and didn’t just go to Jakarta, but went to other parts of Indonesia, talked about the long-standing historical connections between Sulawesi seafarers and the Yolngu people of Northern Australia. So he has started in the right way. What else can we do? I would like to see-

O’Brien: Consistency.

Fullilove: It’s not just that though Kerry, it’s-

O’Brien: No, but all the great moments, the smart moments can be easily dissipated when you talk about the ballast, Gareth Evans’ ballast. Whether it’s that we- look I won’t get to sort of hooked on this, but it just seems to have been one of the real failures of our foreign policy, and I know our diplomats traditionally have tended to fight above their weight in the world, as we’re regarded as having one of the, you know, a very skilled diplomatic force. But we just do not seem to have been able to maintain a rhythm and a consistency about our relationships in our own region, and every now and then we trigger yet another reminder within the region about who are we really, and how seriously are we committed to real relationships with our neighbours? And are we just that little bit superior to them? Just that reminder about the old, white Australia.

Fullilove: You’ve got some opinions on these issues, Kerry.

O’Brien: I do, I do.

Fullilove: I’m getting that sense.

O’Brien:  Well, you’re getting a lot of frustration, Michael, because look, I know life isn’t simple, government isn’t simple and governments change in democracies, and they’ll have different priorities and so on. But to me, it’s one of the great frustrations of modern Australia, and our place in the world, that we have just not valued our relationships in this region enough to guard the consistency in the building of those relationships in building the ballast. How do you forget as you put it earlier? How do you forget the middle?

Fullilove:  Well, you know to go back to Indonesia though, let me quote an example to you, you know, an example that’s often cited is Australia’s support of East Timor’s independence.

O’Brien: Yes.

Fullilove: Now, was at the wrong thing to do? I mean that definitely upset and disrupted our relationship with Indonesia, but was that the right of the wrong thing to do?

O’Brien: It was the right thing to do, but you could certainly argue about the way it was done.

Fullilove: Well, yeah, I think we played a hugely important role there. I mean part of the issue is that as a democracy, Australians feel strongly about things. They feel strongly about the use of capital punishment, they feel strongly about human rights, about press freedom, about the freedom of East Timor that has complicated the relationship with Indonesia, but does that mean that we regard ourselves as above Indonesia or not part of this region? I think that’s a little bit unfair.

O’Brien: I think it’s more about that it’s not that hard to trigger the suspicions that have never quite gone away about us. I’m not suggesting that is an intent on our part, I’m saying that it doesn’t take much to trigger. And if we are not consistent in our approach over years and decades, I think we still have something to prove in this region as predominantly white – changing. Changing. And maybe that is going to be part of how we enmesh ourselves further in the region because it’s going to be undeniable as we change our, kind of, ethnicity, our ethnic mix in this country

Fullilove: Well, we now have a foreign minister who has a Southeast Asian origin story. I think that helps. Look, I guess where we can agree is this: that if you treat relationships with Southeast Asian countries and Pacific countries in in a transactional way, then sometimes you’re going to be on the wrong side of the transaction. So I agree with you on that. Yes, we need to listen more, we need to be more engaged in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, we need to be more focused on those countries. If we appoint this Special Envoy to Southeast Asia, for example, I hope that she or he spends more time listening than talking. But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as you make out, because I think the issues that I’ve mentioned in the Indonesia bilateral relationship; they are real issues, and they would have done violence to that bilateral relationship, regardless of who was in power. And so the key is as I say more ballast in the relationship, more attention, more visits, more focus, more teaching of languages, more teaching of Bahasa, more teaching of other Asian languages in the country to achieve some sort of- I don’t know about consistency, but ballast.

O’Brien: Yeah, and at the heart of what I’m putting I suppose is that if we are able to conduct long-term friendly relationships, with genuine links with these countries that that becomes a part of our insurance for the future in the event that the United States Alliance cannot be sustained in the way it is now and the way we hope it can be. So just quickly, I want to come back to China because we’re going to run out of time. Once upon a time when I was doing interviews for 7:30, and you might have to come in at 10 minutes and I’d be going for 12. I never thought I’d reach a stage when I had an hour that I was still going to be struggling for time, but there you go. So just to come back to China, The Quad, AUKAS, both designed to deal with China, if not contain China, neither helpful to the relationship with China. So, what is the strength of having those relationships?

Fullilove: Well, I think you’ve got to do both things at once, I mean, you’ve got to be on speaking terms with China, so I’m very pleased that we are now talking directly to China. I think it made no sense when we were not speaking with China. You’ve got to cooperate with China whenever you can, but you’ve also got to be prepared to disagree with China when you must. And at the same time, defence planners must do the planning for the negative situation if things don’t turn out as we wish. And so, I think on along that track, the idea of engaging further with the United States and Britain, and in particular, getting that kind of deterrent power that a fleet of nuclear submarines would offer Australia, that seems to me to make sense. It’s not going to help the relationship with China, you’re right, but ultimately, China respects strength. China respects consistency, Kerry to use your words, China does not respect weakness. So, if you think that by scrapping AUKAS or scrapping nuclear submarines, we’re going to have a much easier relationship with China, right? That’s not been my experience with Chinese interlocutors.

O’Brien: We’ve got to have a minute of Paul Keating in this. Keating’s comments on the AUKAS relationship and the nuclear submarines – nuclear powered submarines, that we’re going to get hopefully in 20 years, by the time we get them, he said “it’ll be like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain”, that was comment one. “And Britain”, he said,” is like an old theme park sliding into the Atlantic compared to modern China”.

Fullilove: Is there a question there Kerry?

O’Brien: What happens what happens to the nuclear-powered submarine strategy if satellite technology and satellite imaging reaches the stage, which is entirely, you know, maybe quite close where it can see where every submarine is? You know, say a decade before we even get them?

Fullilove: Everybody’s an expert on nuclear submarines.

O’Brien: Not me. I’ll tell you up front, I’m not. But it’s an interesting question isn’t it?

Fullilove: Not me either but look, all I would say is that you know, when you talk to submariners, for many years they’ve often said to me “we need nuclear powered submarines” because of the length of Australia’s Coastline, because of the distance between Australia and other countries, nuclear boats- nuclear powered boats make more sense than conventional boats.

O’Brien: But are they going to be for here, or are they going to be for elsewhere? Are they going to be for patrolling our vast Coastline, or are they going to be patrolling somewhere in Northern Asia?

Fullilove: Well, the advantage of nuclear-powered submarines is you don’t know where they are. And they can pop up anywhere off your coastline, and so they have deterrent power that a small boat that patrols your coastline doesn’t give you. So, I think that’s an argument for you, that in a in a world in which Russia can do what Russia has just done to Ukraine, to have the deterrent power of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines that can counterpunch is valuable. Now having said that, I’m not an expert on nuclear submarines, I know that they’re going to be incredibly hard to build and deliver. This is a huge project. It’s a sort of whole-of-nation project. But, when you talk to the experts, I find them convincing.

O’Brien: So, Keating also says that “the foreign policy debate in Australia is now driven by spooks”. What do you think of the influence of Australia’s intelligence agencies given the extent to which they have grown since September 11?

Fullilove: Well, how do you measure their influence when you say their influence has grown?

O’Brien: I’m quoting Keating. What I’m saying is that they have grown physically. They have grown physically, very significantly. And one of the things about, I think, probably any public service department, and if you grow to a certain size, your natural instinct is to protect that size. So, to what extent can we be comfortable and confident that what we are getting from the intelligence agencies is totally, purely and genuinely about providing the best intelligence they can? And is there, given the human capacity in all of this, is there just a little bit in there of the more fearful we get about our place in the world, the more we need intelligence?

Fullilove: I’ve never seen any evidence of that, Kerry. My experience with the intelligence agencies is that they’re staffed with patriotic, public-spirited people. I agree that our spending on the intelligence agencies and security agencies and diplomacy and development has got out of whack. I agree with that. I think DFAT needs more money. But ultimately, don’t blame the intelligence agencies. If you disagree with government policy, I think you’ve got to blame the government. Ultimately, what the intelligence agencies do is provide information and analysis to an elected government. And so, I think that the blame for poor policy lies with government, not the intel agencies.

O’Brien: Okay, this is the last question, but I don’t think you’re going to answer it in 30 seconds. Who after Putin, who after Biden who after Xi – so I’m not asking you for a ridiculous crystal ball here, but to what extent in the case of Putin is it one man rather than a whole mindset of Russia? In the case of Xi, he has changed the direction very substantially in China. So, are we going to get more Xi’s after Xi? And then of course Biden, who is now deeply unpopular in the United States, with the strong possibility of a Republican president next, so Xi, particularly, is the important one, I think, in that equation. Are we going to see more Xi’s?

Fullilove: Well, you’re going to see more of Xi. You’re going to see more of Xi, because he has overturned the normal conventions that presidents serve for two terms, he wants to be president for life. Look, I mean again, I guess to return to where we started, in Russia and China, you have systems that are built around one man. In the United States, you don’t have that, and so I hope that President Trump doesn’t return to the White House, I think that would be a stunning blow for the United States and for friends of America around the world. But to me, I back democracies, not because they’re pure or perfect, because they can be messy, they can be very unappealing, but ultimately, they have the ability to course correct, they have the ability to change direction when they’ve made a horrible mistake. So, I don’t know who will come next, but I back the democracies over the authoritarians.

O’Brien: Well, that’s a good line to end on. Michael Fullilove, thank you very much for giving us this conversation.

Fullilove: Thank you, Kerry.

Mik Auckland: Thank you, Michael, thank you Kerry. I’m Mik Auckland and acting CEO at HOTA in Criena’s absence on annual leave, and I have the great pleasure of summing up. I could have listened to that for another hour or two, or three, because I think you only scratched the surface of the very big questions facing Australia and indeed the region, and Michael, I love the 3D analysis. We didn’t touch much on the width, but we did quite a lot of height and depth today, and I also loved the balance in our region and the concept that it’s the US that provide that balance against the other powers. We touched obviously on China and Taiwan after having heard about the successes that we’re seeing from Ukraine and the concept that it is actually a failure for Russia, and that there’s a lesson there for China in as much as it’s actually not that easy to invade another country if the other country is willing to fight and has friends to fight with. I return to the question of balance when looking at China, and balance is a theme that seemed to resonate throughout the conversation and the USA is a non-resident power, which is an interesting term, a ‘non-resident power’, providing that balance for us. And the thought that that balance provides space for other organizations, other countries to grow within their region, and indeed I think everybody needs that space to grow. Some great quotes: “Why can’t they be sane men who consider sharing?”. I think every kindergarten teacher is asking that question every day. And followed by “world leaders don’t play well together”, “What’s the definition of sharing and dominance?”, “Events are contingent”, which is a great way of putting a balance on, perhaps the negative way we are looking at the future at the moment, and the palpable sense of fear that I think moves for community at time to time, but the idea that events are contingent on the thing that’s going to happen next helps us believe that there could be good outcomes rather than the bad ones we presuppose.
Has Australia been inconsistent in its approach to building relationships in our region? I think we agreed that it was, but quite rightly pointed out that from the 1970s We’ve spent a lot of time deepening those relationships, The Quad being a good example of a recent effort. We have lost sight of the missing middle, the Southeast Asian region, and we need to pay more attention, and I think the great quote there was “we need to listen more than we talk”, and that’s probably not something Australians are particularly good at doing, so perhaps a good lesson there for our politicians moving forward.
There will always be an ebb and flow, and we need more ballast, and what a great concept for people who live on a coastline and who love riding about in their boats, especially at the moment where ballast would be very handy.
Quad and AUKAS can make our relations with China quite difficult, but we do need to keep talking to China, and I think something that most of us innately have heard, or read, or know is that China respects strength and consistency, and not weakness.

And we finished with some discussion about Putin, Xi and Biden, and we’re told we’ll see a lot more of Xi, in fact, he’s enshrining himself for life, and that kind of brought us back to the beginning of the conversation and systems that are built around one man, the totalitarian systems, and then there’s a democracy which may not be perfect but has the ability to reset when it makes mistakes, and that I think was a great way to finish. And it was one point of agreement, through the evening many points probably, but one that’s stood out which was that the Iraq War was not Australia’s finest moment or indeed the finest war for anyone to be involved in.
So thank you very much for a great conversation today. Conversations continues in a month and I’m very pleased to announce tonight that our next guest on this stage will be Leigh Sales. Leigh Sales, as you know, I’m sure, was a multi award-winning author and journalist most recently, and still at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and until very recently the host of the 7:30 show. The face of ABC’s major events coverage including federal election and budget nights, and she has interviewed every living Australian prime minister, and she should be enshrined just for that alone. A three-time winner of the Walkley award and the author of four books, and in 2018, Leigh was awarded the Order of Australia for her services to journalism. Leigh will be joining Kerry here on the stage at HOTA on Thursday the 25th of August, and tickets are on sale at 9am tomorrow.
So that’s it for us, thanks again to Caitlin Byrne and the teams from Griffith and indeed the team from HOTA for delivering another engaging edition of A Better Future for All, thanks to Kerry and Michael for your time and your insights tonight, and thanks, of course to you the audience, both here in the room and joining along online for coming this evening and just to say good night. Thank you.

Dr Michael Fullilove AM

Dr Fullilove writes widely on Australian foreign policy, US foreign policy and global issues. He is a sought-after speaker and commentator who is quoted regularly in publications such as The Economist and appears on broadcasters such as the ABC, the BBC and CNN.

In 2015 Dr Fullilove delivered the prestigious ABC Boyer Lectures, published later as A Larger Australia: The ABC 2015 Boyer Lectures (Penguin).

Over the past two decades, Dr Fullilove has played a leading role in the establishment and development of the Lowy Institute. He has also worked as a lawyer, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, and an adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating. He remains a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings and serves on the Advisory Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

In 2019 Dr Fullilove was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to international relations.