JOHN MENADUE. The anti- China ‘think tank’ receives farewell largesse from the Coalition

 In this week’s budget the Australian Strategic Policy Institute received an enormous increase in government funding from $3.528m in 2017/18 to $20m in 2018/19.( Budget Papers -3.1.2 Grants ,Tables 39 and 40) .If the grant is for more than one year why is it all lumped together in 2018/19. Is it because ASPI fears that a new government might reduce it’s funding,as well it should.?

The ASPI is not an ‘independent’ think tank that it claims to be. It is ‘joined at the hip’ to the US defence/arms and intelligence complex and an enthusiastic supporter of almost all things American . It it hostile to China and has become the ‘go to’ organisation for anti-Chinese commentary.

See below a slightly edited post of mine of September 6 2016 concerning ASPI. The detail may be dated but the nature of ASPI has not changed.

In an earlier blog, (Military/Security takeover of Australia’s foreign policy) I described the pervasive influence of the ‘Australia/US Defence and Intelligence Complex’ (AUSDIC). In Australia that complex can draw on a galaxy of leading Australians who have benefitted substantially from American largesse and support- in the media, particularly News Corp, politics, bureaucracy, business, trade unions, universities and think tanks. Over many decades thousands of very influential Australians have been co-opted by US money and support in travel, ’dialogues’, study centres and think tanks. Their influence far exceeds Chinese influence. The Chinese are beginners in this game.

ASPI, based in Canberra, is dependent on Department of Defence and defence supplier funding. It is an enthusiastic member of that ‘complex’.

On the 15th anniversary of ASPI, Hugh White, formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Defence, and the Inaugural Executive Director of ASPI, wrote:

‘ASPI’s primary purpose wasn’t to contribute to public debate about defence policy, but to provide an alternative source of policy ideas for government.’

He went on to say that this purpose, to contribute to policy debate has now changed. He added

‘the quality of defence policy [has] slumped and demand from government for independent policy advice largely evaporated. ASPI’s focus inevitably swung around to contribute to public debate not good policy making.’

We have seen several recent and unfortunate forays of ASPI into the public debate. Its Executive Director, Peter Jennings, recently told us incorrectly, that China was responsible for bringing down the Bureau of Statistics website at the time of the recent census; that Chilcot was extremely naïve about the way countries e.g. UK go to war and that the Australian Parliament should not hinder the prerogative of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to take Australia to war e.g. Iraq. Only last weekend in the Sun Herald an ASPI ’expert on Chinese military modernisation’ warned us that the H-6K Chinese bombers based in the Spratly Islands could threaten Australia and we had to consider stepping up our missile defence, with the help of  US Patriot missiles. With a viewpoint and mind set like that he is incapable of considering whether the way we have locked ourselves into the US alliance so fully is in our best interests. His response was that we had to work even more closely with the US, That would entrap us even further.

ASPI’s pro-American and anti-Chinese views reflects the attitude of the ‘Australia/US defence intelligence complex’ (AUSDIC). Its views on China have been reflected in the sloppy 2016 Defence White Paper and the debacle over the French submarine involving the purchase of a large conventional submarine at a huge and exorbitant cost and naively supposed to operate in the South China Sea to deter China. With its large fleet of nuclear submarines the Chinese must be smiling at our ineptitude and waste!

Peter Jennings led the External Expert Panel appointed by the Government in 2014 to advise ministers and the Department of Defence on the 2016 Defence White Paper. This would have included advice on the submarine purchase. It never challenged why Australia needed a bigger conventional submarine than any other country and why we should undertake offensive operations in the South China Sea. ASPI never questioned the decision to buy French submarines for $50b rather than German ones for $20b with much larger industry benefits.. Indeed shortly after publishing an article passionately justifying the French acquisition. Peter Jennings wrote another article saying that what we really needed were nuclear submarines with a hint that the French acquisition supported that aspiration.

ASPI has clearly strayed from its original purpose to provide policy advice to the government. It has become an active participant in the political debate. It’s claim to be ‘independent and non-partisan’ has a hollow ring.

Consider how ‘independent’ ASPI really is.


  • Its 2014-15 annual report, tabled in October 2015, reveals that 56% of its $5.9 million funding came directly from the Department of Defence.
  • 22% of its funding was from sponsors which include corporations heavily involved in supplying military hardware or services across the world– Airbus Group, BAE Systems, Boeing, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, MBDA, Raytheon, SAAB and Thales.
  • 17% of funds were received in ‘partnerships and projects’ which included the Australian Army, Australian Defence College, Defence Materiel, Department of Defence, Department of Immigration and Border Protection.


The board includes:

  • Stephen Loosley, who is also on the Advisory Board of Thales, which describes itself as ‘part of a leading international electronics and systems group which services the defence, aerospace, security and transport markets in Australia and throughout the world’.
  • Kevin Gillespie, former Chief of the Australian Army.
  • Margaret Staib, who served for over three decades in the RAAF.

Senior Staff

The executive group comprises:

  • Peter Jennings, Executive Director and formerly Deputy Secretary of Defence; In 2016 he was awarded the French decoration of Knight in the National Order of Legion d” Honneur
  • Anthony Bergin, Deputy Director and formerly Associate Professor of Politics at ADFA (UNSW);
  • Andrew Davies, Senior Analyst and Director, Research, who spent 12 years in the Department of Defence in capability analysis and intelligence.

The funding, governance and senior staffing of ASPI is heavily dependent on the Defence department, its associates and military suppliers. In governance and funding it is hardly ‘independent and non-partisan’.

As taxpayers we have a right to expect that a body like ASPI to be VERY independent, irrespective of the source of funds.

In 1961 President Eisenhower warned Americans about the power of the military and industrial complex. Later that term was extended to include the ‘Congressional complex’. A large number of members of congress in the US are heavily dependent on defence manufacturers and military bases in their states or electorates. That incestuous complex including ‘think tanks’ has enormous influence in the US but also around the world. The US is scarcely ever at peace. In part that is due to the responsibilities that US Presidents feel have been imposed upon them, but it is also driven by the power of vested defence /military interests throughout the US. War is in the American DNA.

We have the same problem, although on a smaller scale with the same close relationships between ‘think tanks’ like ASPI, the Department of Defence in Australia, the intelligence community and our defence industry. What makes that all the more concerning is that our defence policy is being increasingly contracted out to the US, a ‘dangerous ally’ as Malcolm Fraser warned us.

ASPI provides good analysis, but it is very unlikely to come to conclusions and recommendations that would embarrass or annoy the Department of Defence. defence suppliers, the Australian Government or the US government. Culturally, it is conditioned to a view of the world dominated by the US. Its mindset makes it difficult for it to adjust to the seismic shift in world power with the rise of China.

Our relationship with the US and China are critical issues. How do we get the balance right between the risks and benefits in this dramatic change in our region and indeed the world?

By its performance, it is difficult to see how ASPI is equipped to help us develop a new architecture to advance and manage our relations with China and the US.

More importantly, ASPI is not in the habit in recent years of speaking truth to power. It has seriously departed from the original charter that Hugh White explained.

It acts like the political arm of the Coalition. It is funded accordingly.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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5 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. The anti- China ‘think tank’ receives farewell largesse from the Coalition

  1. Avatar Cameron Leckie says:

    ASPI is all about reinforcing the status quo. I read the ASPI Strategist regularly, not because it is particularly insightful but rather because it showcases the conventional wisdom in this country on strategic issues.

    I can cite two specific examples.

    The first is an ASPI paper by Professor Dibb titled ‘Why Russia is a threat to the international order.’ I wrote a response to this paper on Army’s Land Power Forum here: Professor Dibb appears to be stuck in the 1980s, he crafts his argument by omitting virtually all of the context which would enable the reader to gain a balanced perspective on Russia. In short his paper is at best misleading.

    A second example is the coverage of last years Skripal incident. In particular Michael Shoebridges article ‘Russia, Novichok and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention’ ( was a particularly sloppy piece of work. I wrote an article for the Strategist that pointed out the flaws, logical and factual inconsistencies in Michael’s article but was not published (I did however receive an email from the Strategist’s editor stating that I had identified some legitimate issues). Any objective review of the information available re: the Skripals (see for example Craig Murray’s work or Salisbury local Rob Slane, suggests that the story the British Government is trying to sell us is a load of baloney.

    Somehow I don’t think increased funding will assist Australia in navigating the choppy waters of the future. If ASPI is the best that we can do for developing strategy to deal with the changes unfolding in the world I fear we are in a lot of trouble.

  2. Avatar Sandra Hey says:

    Talk about theft from the public purse? Two other books that should be read in my opinion: Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean and The Future is Asian author Parag Khanna.

  3. Avatar ANDREW FARRAN says:

    Agree. This budgetary provision is surreptitious and sneaky.
    Clearly the objective is, if there is a change of government, to fuel up this supposedly ‘independent’ institution to attack any deviant policies, and in the process to constrain any moves towards the development of independent foreign and defence policies less beholden to our ‘dangerous alliance’.

  4. Avatar David Macilwain says:

    In the new environment of hybrid warfare it seems that ASPI is intended to have an expanded role, and this investment is already bearing fruit. Commenting today on the new curtailment of election funding by hostile states, Fergus Hanson of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre expressed doubt that Facebook’s measures would be sufficient to counter foreign interference as “local proxies and front groups” could circumvent them.
    Which foreign governments would seek to influence our election, either to preserve or change the current government, we could only speculate, along with whether support for the viewpoint of one of those foreign powers constitutes “foreign influence” or “meddling”. Going on the allegiances of ASPI, supporting the stance of the US and NATO on global issues is not considered malign activity.

  5. Avatar James O'Neill says:

    “Culturally, it is conditioned to a view of the world dominated by the US. Its mindset makes it difficult for it to adjust to the seismic shift in world power with the rise of China.”
    That is the problem in a nutshell. Unfortunately, it is not confined to ASPI. It is a cultural mindset that permeates the Liberal and Labor parties. Clinton Fernandes’ recent book Island off the Coast of Asia (2018) should be required reading for every political and bureaucratic leader.
    I would also like to see them all look at a map and Australia’s trade figures. In a perfect world they would also acquaint themselves with the realities of China’s BRI, not the fantasy version peddled by News Corp and others.
    Come this May’s election however, we can only expect more of the same old same old.

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