‘Very courageous’: Former Obama official backs Australia’s hardline stance against China

A senior defence official under former United States president Barack Obama says the Five Eyes spy network should be used as a diplomatic grouping to pressure China, in a direct contrast to New Zealand’s attempt to narrow its remit.

Michèle Flournoy, who was at one stage the favourite to be President Joe Biden’s defence secretary, also backed Australia’s hard-line stance against China’s growing assertiveness, saying Canberra was “seen as very courageous in Washington right now”.

Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defence, has backed Australia’s handling of the China relationship.Credit:Photo: AP

Australian officials were blindsided when New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta last week criticised efforts to pressure China through the 70-year-old intelligence-sharing partnership known as “Five Eyes”.

Asked about New Zealand’s position, Ms Flournoy, who was under secretary of defense for policy between 2009 and 2012, said, “New Zealand is an example of a smaller country that is under a lot of pressure and probably feels significant risk with making waves or sort of provoking China”.

“Where we have common interest, where we can identify common positions through consultation, it’s much more powerful for us to make those statements together, and frankly beyond the Five Eyes, including as many others in the region as possible,” she told the Lowy Institute’s The Director’s Chair podcast.

“Five Eyes is invaluable as an intelligence cooperation mechanism and set of relationships but, honestly, I do think it goes beyond that. It’s really a national security set of relationships more broadly.”

“And, again, I think as a basis for consultation, trying to find common ground where we can, and then expressing that – I think that’s helpful.”

The Five Eyes includes the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand and was formed in 1941 to share secrets and signals intelligence during World War 2.

There has been growing friction between Canberra and Wellington over the past year on the question of how to handle China’s increasing economic coercion and its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Beijing last year imposed more than $20 billion of tariffs on Australia after it took issue with its push for an independent inquiry into COVID-19 and a number of policies to counter foreign interference and espionage.

Ms Flournoy, who was also deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy under President Bill Clinton, said there was “a lot of attention on what Australia’s doing”.

“I think Australia is seen as very courageous in Washington right now in that you are standing up for your interests, you are standing up for your values,” said Ms Fournoy, now chair of US think tank the Center for a New American Security.

“You’re being candid, you’re being truthful, you’re being clear. We need more of that frankly. It’s been inspiring for me to watch it. I wish the Chinese were not trying to punish you so much or to push back on you so much. But I do think that so much of what we need to do to be successful, as allies and as a broader community, is call China out on their misbehaviours and call it as we see it. It’s very powerful when a group of nations stand up and say: ‘This isn’t right.’”

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