By Brendan Nicholson*
Australia, the United States and other democracies must stand up to autocratic and increasingly aggressive nations such as Russia and China and protect their institutions against all attempts to undermine them, former American Ambassador to Canberra John Berry has warned.
Delivering the Vernon Parker Oration to the Australian Naval Institute last night, Mr Berry said that as those who lived in wildfire prone environments took precautions to manage risk, so too should democracies prepare carefully for engagement with authoritarian governments, to be ready for anything, up to and including the worst fire imaginable.
Russia’s new authoritarian model was a good example of how broad are the challenges the democracies faced, Mr Berry said.
On one hand, Russia seeks to grow through trade with Europe and international partners while making no pretence of reciprocal benefits to those same partners within its borders. While pretending to comply with the liberal world order created by democracies and free market economies, it has aggressively sought to undermine and assault that order, most notably on its borders, but increasingly further afield—even into the electoral processes of the United States and murder within Great Britain.
Its efforts in Ukraine and multiple adjacent nations, along with its active efforts to undermine NATO and wedge unity among democratic nations through everything from predatory economics and strategic blackmail to outright military intervention, captures the spectrum of challenges I am trying to describe that democracies face in the 21st century when engaging authoritarian governments.
Mr Berry said that both Republicans and Democrats had encouraged China’s economic growth and closer integration into liberal institutions under the belief that eventually, with a broader middle class, there might be convergence with the free market system and increased pressure for broader political freedoms, rule of law and human rights.
We hoped that as one of the primary beneficiaries of the international rules-based order created post–World War II, China and other authoritarian governments might eventually be integrated with that order.
That wasn’t without cost for democracies, he said. Since 2001, when China joined the WTO, US manufacturing declined 40%, losing more than a million jobs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin alone. ‘It’s interesting to note that those four states are responsible for making Donald Trump president in the last election,’ he said.
Mr Berry said China still applied a 25% tariff on us car imports, compared to 2.5% tariff in the US, and under pressure from President Trump they were finally talking about reducing that.
No US auto company may own even 50% of a factory in China, while in the US there are now five automobile companies that are 100% Chinese owned. US tech companies are required to have a joint venture and share intellectual property with a Chinese partner, as well as storing all data on Chinese servers, with no countervailing requirement in the US.
It speaks volumes that despite these attempts to handicap the USA for decades, we still exported over $400 billion to the Asia–Pacific region in 2017, up 160% from a decade before.
The days of bipartisan hopes and dreams for China are now over. ‘We’ve awakened to a new day that requires clearer thinking and sharper vision,’ Mr Berry said.
Republicans and Democrats clearly see that the Communist Party and its single leader are now more firmly ensconced than ever with protectionist and predatory economic policies that jeopardise intellectual property, benefit state owned enterprises and block fair trade.
All democracies see China’s clear violations in the expansions and recent militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea, despite Rose Garden promises not to do so. China clearly seeks unilateral hegemony in defiance of international law over this busy trade region.
And, sadly, all people see China’s use of the internet to enforce greater authoritarian control and violation of human rights within its borders behind a not-so-great modern firewall.
The new US National Defense Strategy noted that China and Russia are undermining the international order by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles and rules of the road, Mr Berry said.
America and Australia led the charge to create institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund that guided the international rules-based system and allowed global trade to lift millions out of poverty. But that did not lead authoritarian nations to become partners for the global commons. ‘Great power competition has returned, with one of the most important stakes being no less than a free and open Indo-Pacific.’
Mr Berry said that democracies ignore at their peril the extent to which authoritarian nations are expanding military investments, in some cases modernising nuclear arsenals, as well as aggressively pursuing artificial intelligence, quantum computing and space miniaturisation.
‘Second place is not an option for democracies in any of these fields lest we find out too late that a new “sputnik” looms, or that the “silk curtain” is actually made of steel,’ he said.
The former ambassador went on to stress, however, that ‘all is not dark’, noting that the US economy continues to lead the world and is poised for potentially much greater growth. Australia maintained one of the world’s longest recession-free periods in history. ‘Congress had approved an additional $80 billion in defence investment and upgrades for every year going forward,’ Mr Berry said.
History counsels us that when democracies push back against authoritarian overreach, it is very effective. Witness North Korea’s response to the tightest sanctions ever, led by the US and Australia. Witness Australia’s bolder approaches to enhancing its ADF and strengthening regional security through its high end/high tech fighting capability linked with US force posture and multilateral and quadrilateral architectures. It’s when democracies either fail to push back, or are slow to do so, that authoritarian governments take advantage, exploiting our hesitation to their gain.
Mr Berry listed measures the democracies must take to manage the risks.
Recently, the Chinese ambassador to the US presumed: ‘an old American era is about to end’. He was dead wrong. Freedom, democracy and the rule of law are not in decline and are nowhere near the end.
Authoritarian governments feared those values and would do anything to undermine them, he said.
That’s why it’s critical that democracies not only recommit to, but publicly defend, these values in each and every forum against any attempt to undermine them.
Addressing war veterans in the audience, Mr Berry said authoritarian governments wanted a world that no one in a democracy would want to live in. ‘Thank God for the blood and courage of the men and women in this room who have made sure it’s not a world we live in today.’
Authoritarian governments must not be allowed to create one-sided rules, Mr Berry said. Democracies were strong enough to demand a level playing field, equal access and fair competition.
It’s essential that America and Australia both refresh and defend the rules based order … being on guard for authoritarian termites undermining the foundations of these institutions.
Mr Berry said the democracies must always ‘show up’ and not allow a vacuum to exist that authoritarian governments could exploit. ‘The new Chinese movie Wolf Warrior shows that they want the world—specifically Africa in the movie—to believe that the USA “left you” and “we are here”.’
The US and our allies aren’t perfect by a long shot, and we occasionally drop a ball like anyone—but don’t mistake dropping a ball for leaving the field. Let no one doubt that the USA and our democratic allies are here to play and will stay for the whole game.
The democracies must maintain strong, capable and connected alliances, Mr Berry said. The greatest difference between democracies and authoritarian governments was very plain: democracies wanted stronger partners, whereas authoritarian governments wanted weaker ones.
The rule of law must be encouraged and coercion and force deterred as a method for achieving goals.
It was crucial to establish peaceful resolution methods and conflict avoidance to the greatest extent possible, Mr Berry said. Good examples were, possibly, norms for cyber engagement and modernising hot lines of communication.
The democracies must ensure that electoral and campaign finance systems and human rights are protected and advanced by technology, not undermined. ‘Democracies should apply full transparency when authoritarian money is changing hands as the best defence against forked tongues,’ Mr Berry said.
There is no legitimate purpose—ever—for an authoritarian nation to make political contributions or to engage in political social media in a democratic nation. Such actions should be illegal in each and every democratic nation.
Mr Berry’s final message was that free nations must ‘prepare, prepare, prepare’.
Every democracy should work together to ensure that we are never in second place when it comes to technology, education or our national defence.
* Brendan Nicholson is defence editor of The Strategist.
First published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute