Anyone remotely interested in security and intelligence issues would have to be living under a rock to have missed this recent interview with the former head of the CIA and the NSA, General Michael Hayden, by Chris Joye of the Australian Financial Review.
The interview transcript is itself a trove of open-source intelligence. It has had global media reach, has been picked up by prominent voices in the US policy debate, and various security commentators (including me) have been cited as applauding it.
That does not mean we need to agree with or vouch for every word Hayden has said. But it is very much to be welcomed that such a senior, experienced and credible figure from the US intelligence community has spoken openly about the global intelligence competition between China and the US and what it means for countries like Australia. His on-the-record remarks are an important data point in understanding the risks and uncertainties of Australia's changing security environment.
In January, the Australian Government's National Security Strategy warned of cyber espionage and foreign interference but politely declined to name countries of concern. General Hayden is much less diplomatic, and we have to take seriously his assertion that the intelligence contest between China and America is more pervasive than anything during the Cold War. This includes Chinese industrial espionage and extends to targets among America's allies.
The headlines have mostly been about his espionage allegations (strenuously denied) against the huge Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, but most of General Hayden's comments address a larger canvas still. It is hard to challenge his point that the Chinese security establishment is in a position to place a strong, even compelling, expectation on Chinese corporate entities that they may be called on to help facilitate a comprehensive national espionage effort along with other Chinese national security activities.
General Hayden doesn't deny that the US conducts its own vast intelligence effort globally, but he is also right to call out the double standards of many of the countries that have been quick to be outraged by the Snowden leaks – and not only Russia and China. Indeed, he notes that political figures in some of those countries, for instance in Europe, probably don't know what their own intelligence services get up to.
From an Australian perspective, the part of the Hayden interview of most immediate importance may not be his assessments about Huawei, but rather what he says on the impact of the Snowden leaks to the interests of US allies like Australia. For Australia, access to high-grade US signals intelligence is a major benefit of the alliance.
By greatly compromising channels of intelligence gathering, the leaks mean that the US could have less useful intelligence to share with Australia, and that would be bad for Australian security.
Hayden's remarks can't be dismissed as the prejudices of a China hawk. He rightly sees conflict with China as neither desirable nor inevitable. But he argues that crises and miscalculations will have more chance of being averted with a balance of power in Asia, which includes countries like Australia being serious about contributing their own military as well as diplomatic weight to this balance.
He is right to warn allies like Australia that they need to carry more of the burden of their own security in this looming age of Indo-Pacific strategic competition. Here is a champion of the Australia-US alliance warning Canberra that it would be foolish to rely so blithely or exclusively on the alliance.