ASPI: The Tabloid Think Tank

May 20, 2021

Is it true? Or did you hear it from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute?

To paraphrase Bismarck, Australia is ‘navigating on the stream of time’ which we can ‘neither create or direct’ but can ‘steer with more or less skill and experience.’ The rapidly deteriorating relationship with our largest trading partner and talk of the ‘drums of war’ suggest that we are steering with less rather than more, skill, experience, and judgement.

Reflecting upon how we reached this current nadir in relationships with China, in a very short period, is of vital importance if we are to salvage the situation before it gets worse. We face the prospect of war with China which would, according to Hugh White, be the biggest failure of statecraft in Australia’s history.

The quality of advice provided to the Government is one factor that has led to the current situation. A key provider of that advice is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an organisation that describes itself as a producer of ‘expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders’ and measures its success by participation in government advisory committees and the number of citations in official government communications.

The Government obviously values this advice, as demonstrated by budgetary increases and comments from the former Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, who stated in July 2020 that ‘Peter [Jennings] and his team are critically important contributors to our national defence and also to our security dialogue.’

ASPI staff are regularly featured in Australian media with ASPI being ‘one of the most authoritative and widely quoted contributors to public discussion of strategic policy issues in Australia.’  Given this influence, ASPI has a serious responsibility to ensure the quality and accuracy of its outputs. A responsibility that ASPI is failing, particularly when it comes to the big three: China, Russia and the United States.

It is reasonable to expect that a strategic policy think tank would produce sober, critical analysis based on reliable evidence and well-reasoned judgement. Far too often however ASPIs coverage of the big three is more akin to a tabloid newspaper, with polarising coverage that includes heroes (the United States and its so called ‘rules-based global order’) and villains (Xi and Putin), common sense (the alliance with the United States and increased defence spending) and absurdity (anyone who questions the strategic status quo).  

Pearls and Irritations has published many critiques on the failings of ASPI including by Michael McKinley, Mike Scrafton, Bruce Haig and several others including this author. Combined these critiques present a damming picture of ASPI indicating that it is doing the nation a grave disservice.

Examples abound of ASPIs tabloid approach to strategic policy, whether that be the use of ‘wolf warrior’ type and  the constant repetition and/or exaggeration of falsehoods/unproven allegations against Russia and China, the acceptance without question of official US narratives whilst automatically classifying those of Russia or China as disinformation. Without any sense of irony, ASPI produces reports on Chinese economic coercion and human rights abuses, and Russian/Chinese grey-zone operations whilst ignoring an array of far more egregious actions by our closest allies. This one-sided and biased approach is an admission that the world view espoused by ASPI will not stand up to reasonable debate. 

ASPI claims its independence from Government, yet the almost perfect correlation between its outputs and the objectives of its sponsors, whether they be foreign governments or arms manufacturers, highlight unquestioning support to the ideology of US hegemony. This explains why ASPI provides no real alternative strategic policy advice to Government other than to spend more on defence, deepen the alliance with the United States and stand up for Australia’s so-called and inconsistently applied ‘values.’

ASPI is also an active participant in the Western world’s grey-zone operations against China and Russia. This includes publishing the works of authors who are little more than political activists with an obvious agenda. It also includes contributing to circular arguments where the US State Department funds ASPI, ASPI produces outputs that align with US State Department objectives, and then these outputs are published in mouthpieces for US foreign policy such as the Washington Post and the New York Times  as evidence to develop support for those policies. In effect ASPI is a contributor to the hybrid war echo chamber targeted at China and Russia.

Developing an effective strategic policy in a rapidly changing world requires an honest assessment of the world as it is. ASPI has fallen into the trap of describing the world as its leadership wishes it to be, achieved by basing its analysis on caricature like assessments of China and Russia that suit its ideological position. This tabloid approach may engender a feeling of righteousness, but it will not result in sound strategic policy decisions.

It is time for serious questions to be asked about both the necessity and role of ASPI. Why does the Government fund an organisation that has demonstrably harmed our national interest? Why does the Government allow ASPI to be funded by foreign governments and arms manufacturers whose interests do not align with Australia’s national interest? Should ASPI be classified as an agent of foreign interference?  Why is a strategic policy institute playing an activist role by investigating selected human rights concerns whilst ignoring others? What recourse is there for those individuals and businesses who have been negatively impacted by the deteriorating relationship with China led by the likes of ASPI?

Australia desperately needs a reset of its relations with China and a reassessment of its alliance with the United States. This is highly unlikely when a tabloid think tank has so much influence in this country. ASPI, Australia would be better off without you!

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