Thursday, 2 November 2023


Cameron Stewart: Fascinating observations about the situation we’re in right now. I’d like to start off with the biggest story in the world. Just weeks ago, of course, 14 other Israelis were killed by Hamas. We now have a terribly large amount of Gazan civilians being killed. The divisions in the world over this conflict are widening by the day. It’s getting more complicated. Where to from here? I wanted to ask you, Simon, first of all, what are the biggest risks in this facing Israel, do you think?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the risk for the region is clearly if this conflict cannot be contained, and the risk then is to how that impacts other nations, not just within the region, but notably and particularly the United States, from a spread. The conflict, the destabilisation flowing on from there. So Israel, the risk is partly one of reputation globally as we’re seeing, but also very clearly a risk of what if it is not resolved. What if they do not successfully disable Hamas. That has to be kept in mind as increasingly global calls and pressures. And I gather the Prime Minister made one here earlier today for pause…


Pause is an easy word to say, but for it to be meaningful, you’ve got to give it definition and understand the conditionality. Nobody wants to see a pause take place in circumstances where Hamas is able to rearm. Yes, we want to see more humanitarian aid get into Gaza, but not for Hamas to rearm. Yes, we want to see as many innocent lives as possible protected, but not for Hamas to be able to reorganise. And of course, it’s not in anybody’s interests to see this conflict either spread or go on longer than is necessary. And so, for Israel in particular, effectively disabling Hamas is critical.

But then that begs the broader what next question, which is a big test for the world and the region. Israel is not going to want to stay in Gaza once it’s disabled Hamas, and nor is it likely to be trusted by the people in Gaza. Is the UN up to sending in the peacekeepers? Well, on current form, you have to give a universal answer of no. So, who will step up? Will Arab nations be able to step up? One of the great diplomatic tragedies, alongside the human tragedy, of the disinformation that came from the hospital explosion that occurred in the early stages of the war, was that President Biden missed the opportunity for the face to face dialogue with Middle Eastern leaders, because that’s what’s going to have to frame the medium term in terms of who goes in to provide for stability, for peacekeeping, for rebuilding, and does so in a way that doesn’t simply see Hamas rise again or an alternative rise again, but instead gives the type of stability where there is some glimmer of a chance of a long way down the track, having proper peace negotiations on that.


[Other panellists omitted]


Cameron Stewart: Simon, I mean, do you think Iran is as pacifist as Gareth suggests?


Simon Birmingham: To be clear, as always, in separating regimes, governments, controllers, rulers from peoples and Iran is not without hope, absolutely. And 12 months ago, as the Women Life Freedom movement was gaining traction, we saw the courage of Iranian people. We saw the sophistication of Iranian people. And that should give us hope that within that country there are alternatives. But the regime as it stands is diabolical. It is destructive. It is seeking to make sure out of current conflicts around the world that it can seize what advantage it can. It is funding terrorist activities and groups in a range of spheres, seeking to cause the type of destabilisation we are seeing so that it can benefit from it in terms of its relative strength and positioning in the world. That is why we’ve really got to be looking at how we tackle the regime. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its status as a terrorist organisation and support of terrorist organisations, and to do that with far greater effect globally than is being managed today.


Cameron Stewart: Okay, so we’re running out of time. So I’m just going to move to the topic quickly to the big one. The Prime Minister is turning up to China – first prime minister since 2016 to visit. Very slow reparation of the relationship driven, I should say mainly by China. But Michael, I wanted to ask you the simple question are we getting the tone right at this minute in relation to China?


I think broadly, yes. I think I think the government has been firm. But, you know, willing to listen and willing to engage in dialogue. I certainly don’t think that there’s been an or, you know, an unrestricted embrace of China. I think that there has been a consistent messaging to China that there is more that needs to happen in that bilateral relationship before it is truly stabilised. So, I think broadly, yes, I think the tone has been about right. Yeah.


[Other panellists omitted]


Simon Birmingham: That sounds the invitation to let you down already, Gareth. Look, stabilisation with China is a good thing. It is welcome. We should be seeking to have the best possible relation, economically and internal dialogue that can manage and diffuse and avoid conflict. All of that should be taken for granted. We also need to make sure that we’re standing up for Australian interests and values. We work in a way where we are clear cut about how our defence security and our economic security protects our liberal democracy and our interests in having an effective market economy that has delivered many goods. Therefore, many goods and benefits to peoples, and therefore understanding how China challenges or threatens those [inaudible] and being very upfront about those challenges in a respectful way, of course, but being willing to call it out. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Mike Burgess and other Five Eyes leaders of security agencies, called out actions in terms of intellectual property theft. Or other challenges in terms of cyber hacking and engagement around the world. I think we’ve got to be clear cut about those things and be demanding and expecting that China do better, and that all of those types of grievances have to form part of the Prime Minister having effective dialogue with China. We’ve got to be clear cut.

I think we have been muted in recent weeks in relation to China’s engagement with the Philippines in the South China Sea. That presents a real risk in terms of the type of miscalculation or accident that could occur. China is deliberately thumbing its nose at UN rulings on the Law of the Sea, and that is being provocative in the way it is behaving. It’s doing the same in terms of its increased military activity around Taiwan Strait. So, let’s be very clear in terms of the approaches we take in a range of areas. Let’s also not be thankful for China relieving Australia of its trade sanctions or economic coercion. They should never have been applied in the first place. They are clearly a breach of the free trade agreement that China voluntarily entered into. They are clearly a breach of the World Trade Organisation rules, which is why China has only agreed to relieve them after the WTO handed parties its interim rulings. So, we’ve got to be clear in our principles and defence of our interests in this regard. But, yes, do so in a way we also try to find the ways to cooperate, try to find the off ramp on conflict and make sure as well, in that defence and security regime, that we are building effective deterrence or the type of either active military conflict or accidental military conflict from miscalculation or, of course, broader economic coercion occurring in the future. In all of that we could go on to the challenges China is facing economically and elsewhere, but that would be another hour and ten minutes.