ASPI: Lobbyist or think-tank?

It is nearly two years now since Huawei was banned by the Turnbull Government from 5G at the request of the US Government and now the American drums are beating again, this time demanding that Australia ban popular Chinese video-sharing app TikTok.

If history repeats itself then if the Americans ban TikTok it’s near certain that the Australian government will follow.

Never mind the fact that TikTok has done nothing wrong and has broken no laws in Australia – as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull admitted in his own book, if you are a Chinese company your current innocence is annulled out by your presumed future guilt.

The reality for companies like Huawei and TikTok is that we are pawns in the US-China trade war and countries like Australia have little choice but to acquiesce if the US Government pushes them to ban a Chinese company.

Even the UK, a country with far more political weight than Australia to enable it to push back against US demands, was forced to openly confirm that the Huawei 5G reversal was forced upon them by the US.

President Trump actually publicly gloated about forcing the U-turn in the UK saying:

“We convinced many countries, many countries, I did this myself for the most part, not to use Huawei, because we think it’s an unsafe security risk, it’s a big security risk. I talked many countries out of using it. If they want to do business with us they can’t use it.”

Apart from being Chinese Huawei and TikTok have very little in common yet the same folks that lobbied for Huawei to be excluded from 5G are now coming for TikTok – the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

At a time when Australia is facing our most serious economic downturn in a century it is simply extraordinary that Australian tax-payers are shelling out $20 million to fund ASPI when it seems intent on forcing Chinese companies out of Australia and destabilizing the two countries relationship.

In doing so ASPI only ensures that a sensible approach to policy formulation on China, that guided Australia through the successful Hawke, Keating and Howard eras, is replaced with a constant barrage of hysteria and, from our own experience, outright “porkies” and misinformation.

How on earth do Australian tax-payers benefit from that?

The only people to benefit from ASPI’s work in demonizing all things Chinese and perpetuating a culture of fear around China are the American weapons manufacturers that fund it to the tune of millions of dollars.

The situation is almost too ridiculous for words, Australian tax-payers paying funding a ‘think-tank’ whose work actively damages Australia-China relations.

Whilst our current trade with China remains strong the fact is that the relationship between the countries is getting worse by the day.

Again – who is benefitting from that? It’s certainly not Australia, it is not our farmers, it is not our education, tourism, wine, mining industries and it is not those left on the wrong side of the ‘Gigabit Gap’ on the NBN who need world class broadband.

Let’s be frank, ASPI’s US sponsors are not giving them millions of dollars to produce harmonious Australia-China relations – they are hardly going to benefit from that.

The atmosphere that ASPI has helped to create has generated a toxic environment in Australia-China relations.

This has also forced fine people like Warwick Smith, a former minister in the Howard Government, to resign as Chairman of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations and only last week persuaded the hugely respected Helen Sawczak to step down as CEO of the Australia China Business Council.

You can’t blame the likes of Warwick and Helen for thinking “What’s the point?” when ASPI’s work is going completely unchecked and they are being showered with increasing amounts of taxpayers money by the government.

To its credit Telstra, a former major sponsor of ASPI, has now reportedly withdrawn as a sponsor of the organization. It’s certainly the right move for any company that wants a productive China-Australia relationship.

It was also great to see former Prime Minister John Howard, a highly experienced hand in foreign affairs, warn ASPI at their own Strategic Forum last week that Australia, the country it is supposed to be working for, was in danger of forgetting the bigger picture.

“We must remember the endgame, and the endgame is to maintain, to the maximum extent consistent with our values, a good economic relationship with China,” Mr Howard warned the ASPI event.

The problem is that ASPI doesn’t appear to be listening to even revered Australian political figures like Mr. Howard as it now not only publicly lobbies to have TikTok banned but is also actively briefing the media that Huawei should also be restricted in other business areas such as solar energy.

ASPI is now clearly starting to lobby against Chinese companies like Alibaba and Tencent delivering cloud computing services to Australian businesses – something obviously in the direct interests of several of its major sponsors that offer those services in Australia.

ASPI’s argument always boils down to the same thing, Chinese companies are beholden to China’s National Intelligence Law and would therefore be compelled to comply with any demands from the Chinese Government to hand over data – including data held in the cloud.

If all Chinese companies are to be judged by that yardstick then Australian companies are going to find it very hard to do business at all with Chinese companies in the future in which so much of our trade will be conducted digitally in the cloud as well as physically.

This debate is not just about 5G it is really about digital sovereignty and ASPI wants to make sure that it delivers the right outcome in Australia for its American sponsors which is yet another example of ASPI taking Australian tax-payer dollars yet clearly protecting its American sponsors rather than Australia’s own interests.

If the American Federal Government and American corporate interests want to have their own think-tank in Australia to represent their interests then it’s their perfect right to do so – but the Australian tax-payer should not be funding such an organization to the tune of $20 million when we have so many other think tanks that get nothing like that sort of funding.

Those other think-tanks are advocating for a far more sensible and practical approach to China and they actually put “Australia first” and put our own economy & businesses at the heart of their policy formation.

It’s time for the Australian Government to take a proper look at what ASPI has been allowed to become and in whose interests it is operating – because it most certainly is not in Australia’s.


Jeremy Mitchell is Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Huawei Australia

The views expressed by individual Blog authors on the Huawei Hub website represent their own views and do not necessarily represent the views of the company.

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