The Richardson doctrine: friends with both, allies with one
28 Jun 2017|

‘Friends with both; allies with one.’ Thus the Richardson doctrine seeks to define Australia’s most appropriate relationship with the United States and China.

We can be sure that Dennis Richardson, one of Australia’s great public servants, thought deeply before he unveiled his doctrine on the eve of his recent retirement. Richardson has to be taken very seriously indeed because he’s a tough-minded realist without any dewy-eyed illusions about the either the United States or China.

The question is whether the doctrine is an adequate framework for future policy given the increasingly uncertain strategic, political and economic circumstances now facing Australia. Current evidence suggests that Australia might require policies more complex and nuanced than those implied by the Richardson doctrine. The doctrine might require a formulation that is sharper towards both the US and China.

It’s now commonplace that a central issue for Australian foreign and strategic policy is how to balance the nation’s economic relationship with China with its security alliance with the US. The issue has been complicated by China’s increasingly aggressive maritime activities as it moves to challenge US power and by the assertive and in some ways isolationist and inconsistent Trump administration in the US. As a crisp short-hand formula, the Richardson doctrine raises some challenging questions.

Dennis Richardson has long been prominent in articulating the difficulties in maintaining friendly relations with China. He has pointed to China’s land reclamation and military installations in the South China Sea (activities condemned by the UN’s Arbitral Tribunal). He has spoken of China’s ‘very active’ intelligence activities directed against Australia. He has spoken of China’s efforts to control Chinese language media in Australia. ASIO chief Duncan Lewis has warned about Chinese donors to Australian political parties having strong links to the Chinese government.

These and other activities, including efforts by Chinese diplomats to recruit Australian-based Chinese (including students) to help advance Chinese interests, argue against Richardson’s view that Australian-Chinese friendship can be developed with trust and confidence—especially given that China is now an expansionist authoritarian Leninist state with no regard for democracy and a demonstrated desire to throw its weight around in the world.

Equally a prudent Australian government can’t take friendship with the United States for granted given the brutish populism and the so-called ‘America First’ platform on which Donald Trump stands. At least Australia shares democratic values, common security interests, a great deal of military history and significant alliance activity with the US. There’s a deep basis for ongoing Australia-US friendship to survive the Trump ascendancy largely intact.

No similar basis exists for Australia’s friendship with China. There are different degrees, different depths, of friendship between countries. In addition to values, interests and history, US-Australia friendship is enhanced by notions of mutual respect, trust, cultural familiarity and ways of being that are absent in Australia-China relations based essentially on economic and security issues and China’s relentless pursuit of influence in this country. These subtler realities are not captured by the Richardson doctrine

There are four don’ts that Australia should observe in dealing with China. Don’t heed the siren call of ideological appeasers who want the West to concede strategic space to Beijing and overlook Beijing’s aggressive maritime activities. Don’t heed the self-serving views of those who see China solely as a benign economic opportunity and not as the determined strategic and economic competitor it actually is. Don’t allow Australian political parties and politicians to accept financial gifts from any foreign sources, especially those linked to Beijing. Don’t hesitate to pursue foreign government espionage activity against Australia as vigorously as Islamist terrorism is now pursued.

Judging by his public remarks over many years there can be little doubt that Dennis Richardson would broadly support these four don’ts. As secretary of the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs, as ambassador to the US, and ASIO’s director-general, Richardson has never sought to avoid the tough facts of international life. And one of those facts is that foreign espionage is as hostile and as damaging as Islamic terrorism and deserves to be treated similarly.

How then to tweak the Richardson doctrine to reflect a workable basis for Australian relations with China and the US? Here is a somewhat wordier suggestion:

With China, full and transparent economic and investment relations based on legally enforceable reciprocity always; with the US, military alliance always and friendship when differing national interests allow it.

Australia can’t expect any friendship with China to match its frank and sometimes fraught friendship with the US, and it shouldn’t pretend that careful diplomacy can change this state of affairs. China and its closest friends—Russia and North Korea—are deeply hostile to Australia and its democratic partners and are dedicated to damaging their interests.

Moreover, as Kim Beazley points out, Australia has ongoing historic obligations to intervene militarily in the event of a breach of the 1953 North Korean armistice. China’s close relationship with North Korea, and North Korea’s military recklessness, should serve as a warning to Australia that relations with Beijing will always have to be guarded. With a friend like China Australia needs very few enemies.