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SIA’s Dr. John Bruni listens to Lowy Institute Live: In conversation with General Jim Mattis and Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Retd)

On the morning of October 15, Dr. John Bruni joined the Lowy Institute Live’s In conversation with General Jim Mattis and Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Retd), part of the Lowy Institute’s ‘Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project’.

A very professional Zoom, as to be expected by the Lowy Institute, technical glitches notwithstanding.

The key takeaways from this Zoom are the following points:

  • Mattis argued strongly and persuasively that it is the US alliance network that forms that basis of US international power.
  • Houston maintained the longstanding government line that the ANZUS remains the cornerstone of Australia’s defence policy without which Australia would pay a far higher price for defending the country against existing and future regional security risks. That ANZUS provides Australia with special access to US military technology, intelligence and other critical security-related information, supplies and methodologies.
  • Mattis and Houston both argued that we do not spend enough time and energy investing in our respective diplomatic corps. Mattis suggesting that US governments appear to be relying on the military to undertake roles best suited for diplomats. Here, Mattis said that diplomats provide the power of inspiration while the military provides the power of intimidation. Mattis used Australia’s experience leading the RAMSI mission in the Solomon Islands (2003-2017) as the model whereby diplomats in combination with other government agencies and the military mutually supported each other. A model that the US could learn from.
  • Houston was extremely supportive of the Morrison government’s commitment to defence spending suggesting that the government has added the right amount of money over the right amount of time for the ADF to stay on top of expected regional challenges.
  • Mattis stated that in spite of what people may think of the Trump administration’s attitude toward traditional American allies, in the US Congress there is a strong and enduring support for the US global alliance network.
  • On the People’s Republic of China (PRC) there were noted differences between the two speakers. From the Australian side, Houston was adamant that Australia should tone down its ‘anti-China’ rhetoric. He suggested that there were some ill-disciplined voices in the Australian parliament. Furthermore, the public must realise that Australia is heavily dependent on and integrated with the Chinese economy and if we were serious about recovering from recession, Australia would have to reset its relationship with the PRC. This would mean taking a far softer line on things that the countries differ on (i.e. political differences and principals) and find areas for peaceful cooperation (i.e. making money). Houston said that China was not our ‘enemy’ stressing that Australia would be better off working with the CCP than against them. Also, that those promoting ‘sovereign national capability’ would not be able to achieve their ends in a way that could make Australia more resilient to and independent from the centrality of the PRC to Australia’s economic affairs. Mattis was far more circumspect. While he made the historic case that China was never intended to be an enemy of the American people, having strongly supported China from World War II through to Mao’s opening to the West and Deng’s economic reforms and opening of the Chinese economy to Western investment and trade in 1978, he questioned the direction Xi was taking both the CCP and the PRC. He did, however predict that in 2021, Sino-American relations would move towards a more constructive engagement.
  • For Mattis, when asked about Trump’s Middle East policy, he stated that the Abraham Accord between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel promoted a sense of Arab-Israeli peace. Nothing was said of how the Palestinians fit into this, however, implied in this omission is that Palestine is still a ‘work-in-progress’, though it might be said that critics of Trump may not be so generous.
  • Regarding Climate Change, Mattis said he believe it was a threat to national security. He was no sceptic, having witnessed the melting of the Arctic ice sheet. Houston sited the increasing frequency and ferocity of droughts in Australia as well as the gradual collapse of Australia’s bread-basket, the Murray-Darling Basin. He also spoke of the effects Climate Change is having on the Small Island States of the Pacific as another visible example of its destructive power.

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