National Press Club Address - Australian Interests in a Regional Balance of Power - 17/04/2023

17 April 2023





Thank you to the National Press Club for having me today, and to Jane for your introduction and moderating today’s discussion.

Thank you all for being here. I acknowledge members of the diplomatic corps, and my ministerial colleague Pat Conroy.

I want to particularly acknowledge one of my guests today, Allan Gyngell.

Allan has been an official and unofficial adviser to governments for decades, always in singular service of Australia’s national interest.

He is the definitive historian of Australian foreign policy. He is the finest writer about Australian foreign policy. He is, frankly, the finest mind in Australian foreign policy. And possibly also the smallest ego in Australian foreign policy.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.

First Nations peoples were this land’s first diplomats and traders.

But it was just this month that Mr Justin Mohamed commenced his appointment as Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People.

Elevating First Nations perspectives will strengthen our connections across the world and in our region, especially across the Blue Pacific.

The potential power of those connections has been neglected for too long, and it has been to our own detriment, when we ought to bring everything we have to the table.

Self-evidently, the first thing we bring to the table is ourselves. As I travel I tend to begin engagement by explaining who we are: a land that is home to the oldest continuous culture on the planet, and to people from more than 300 ancestries.

A nation whose people share common ground with so many of the world’s peoples.

When Australians look out to the world, we see ourselves reflected in it – just as the world can see itself reflected in us.

What that means is we have the ability to build on common ground with people around the world. This is a powerful natural asset for building alignment, for articulating our determination to see the interests of all the world’s peoples upheld, alongside our own.

This matters because our foreign policy must be an accurate and authentic reflection of our values and interests – of who we are and what we want.

And it matters because our national power, more than anything else, comes from our people.

We need to harness all elements of our national power to advance our interests, when the implications of unchecked strategic competition in our region are grave.

So today I want to talk to you about how we avert war and maintain peace – and more than that, how we shape a region that reflects our national interests and our shared regional interests.

Those interests lie in a region that operates by rules, standards and norms – where a larger country does not determine the fate of a smaller country; where each country can pursue its own aspirations, its own prosperity.

And I want to talk about how we contribute to the regional balance of power that keeps the peace by shaping the region we want.

Strategic competition is operating on several levels. Domains that we might prefer to separate – economic, diplomatic, strategic, military – all interwoven, and all framed by an intense contest of narratives.

But as well as understanding how competition is operating, we need to understand what is being competed for – that it is more than great power rivalry and is in fact nothing less than a contest over the way our region and our world work.

Many commentators and strategists prefer to look at what is happening in the region simply in terms of great powers competing for primacy. They love a binary. And the appeal of a binary is obvious. Simple, clear choices. Black and white.

But viewing the future of the region simply in terms of great powers competing for primacy means countries’ own national interests can fall out of focus.

It diminishes the power of each country to engage other than through the prism of a great power.

It is also unhelpful to narrow this discussion to the potential of kinetic conflict on our shores, when regional interests are challenged by actions that fall far short of that.

Coercive trade measures; unsustainable lending; political interference; disinformation; and reshaping international rules, standards and norms that have benefited smaller countries, from trade to human rights – these all encroach on the ability of countries to exercise their agency, contribute to regional balance and decide their own destinies.

So countries like ours in this contested region need to sharpen our focus, on what our interests are, and how to uphold them.

Our focus must be on what we need to do so we can live according to our own laws and values, determined by our own citizens, pursuing our own prosperity, making our own choices, respecting but not deferring to others.

Our focus needs to be on how we ensure our fate is not determined by others, how we ensure our decisions are our own. And if there were any doubt, Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine renders stark our interest in living in a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.

It’s true that Australia has always needed to apply ourselves with this focus. But it is especially true right now because our region faces circumstances in some ways unprecedented.

And these circumstances require a response of unprecedented coordination and ambition in our statecraft.

Tensions have risen between states with overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

Compounding that have been the militarisation of disputed features and dangerous encounters in the air and at sea.

China continues to modernise its military at a pace and scale not seen in the world for nearly a century with little transparency or assurance about its strategic intent.

In August last year, five Chinese ballistic missiles were reported to have fallen in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. And just last week, we saw China practice strikes and blockades around Taiwan.

On top of that, North Korea continues to destabilise, with its ongoing nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile launches, threatening our friends in Japan, the Republic of Korea and the broader region.

Altogether, this combination of factors and the risk of miscalculation comprise the most confronting circumstances in decades.

This is why I am so steadfast in refusing to engage in speculation about regional flashpoints, whether the Himalayas, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula or anywhere else.

In particular, there is much frenzied discussion in political and media circles over timelines and scenarios when it comes to Taiwan. Anyone in positions like mine who feels an urge to add to that discussion should resist the temptation.

It is the most dangerous of parlour games.

My approach to this is not simply a politician seeking to avoid hypothetical questions. It is a frank and clear-eyed assessment of interests.

We do not want to see any unilateral change to the status quo. We call for the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues through dialogue without the threat or use of force or coercion.

Because let me be absolutely clear. A war over Taiwan would be catastrophic for all.

We know that there would be no real winners, and we know maintaining the status quo is comprehensively superior to any alternative. It will be challenging, requiring both reassurance and deterrence, but it is the proposition most capable of averting conflict and enabling the region to live in peace and prosperity.

So I will say it now to the National Press Club – to avoid any possible misunderstanding: our job is to lower the heat on any potential conflict, while increasing pressure on others to do the same. The Albanese Government does that here at home, and we do that in our diplomacy.

That may not sell as many newspapers today, but it will help you to sell them for a lot longer.

In our China relationship specifically, the Albanese Government will be calm and consistent, and continue to do as we have since coming to office: cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, manage our differences wisely, and above all else, engage in and vigorously pursue our own national interest.

We start with the reality that China is going to keep being China.

Part of that is the reality of the world’s second largest economy, representing 18% of the world’s GDP. China’s growth story has played a crucial role in alleviating poverty for its own people, the region and the world.

Its dramatic economic growth has been a driver of Australian prosperity.

Even with increased diversification, China will remain Australia’s largest trading partner for the foreseeable future, and a valued source of foreign investment, where it meets our national interests.

Beyond that, President Xi has made clear China’s goal of being “a great modern socialist country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century.”

Like any country, China will deploy this strength and utilise this influence to advance its national interests.

We know at times these interests will differ from our interests, and from others in the region.

Importantly, China understands national interest as being advanced by favourable outcomes, by reducing the possibility of unfavourable outcomes – and by reducing the space for disagreement or dissent.

This understanding is coordinated through its persistent statecraft.

A great power like China uses every tool at its disposal to maximise its own resilience and influence - its domestic industry policy; its massive international investment in infrastructure, diplomacy and military capability; access to its markets.

This statecraft illustrates the challenge for middle powers, like us and our partners in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Yet we need not waste energy with shock or outrage at China seeking to maximise its advantage.

Instead, we channel our energy in pressing for our own advantage.

We deploy our own statecraft toward shaping a region that is open, stable and prosperous. A predictable region, operating by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated. A region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.

A region that safeguards our capacity to disagree.

A region that preserves our agency.

A region that protects our ability to decide our own destiny.

When we talk about our interests, this is what we mean.

That kind of region doesn’t simply exist organically. It demands our national effort, especially as some seek to rewrite the rules.

That effort cannot be left to one or another arm of Australian Government.

Our diplomats cannot do it alone, nor can our military. And what we do in the world needs to reinforce and be reinforced by who we are and what we do at home.

It takes investment in all elements of our national power.

A more diversified economy, making more things here, responding to climate change and making Australia a renewable energy superpower, strengthening trust in our institutions through the National Anti-Corruption Commission, facing our cyber security needs, investments in education and training, strengthening the services people rely on, growth in wages - all part of making Australia more robust and resistant to external shocks.

Our economic security, our domestic resilience as a multicultural democracy and our international engagement combine as our statecraft.

The Albanese Government is deploying all of these elements of national power to make Australia more stable, confident and secure at home, and more influential in the world.

Central to statecraft is our foreign policy, advancing Australian interests and values in our region and the world – to keep Australians safe, to ensure our economic strength.

It’s the strategy we deploy to shape the region so that its character is closer to our interests; to avert conflict and maintain peace.

That is what the countries of the region want too. ASEAN has expressed concern over actions that “could destabilise the region and eventually lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers” and called for upholding multilateralism, partnership and cooperation.

As I said at the outset, strategic competition is not merely about who is top dog, who is ahead in the race, or who holds strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific.

It’s actually about the character of the region. It’s about the rules and norms that underpin our security and prosperity, that ensure our access within an open and inclusive region, and that manage competition responsibly.

It’s clear to me from my travels throughout the region that countries don’t want to live in a closed, hierarchical region where the rules are dictated by a single major power to suit its own interests.

Instead, we want an open and inclusive region, based on agreed rules, where countries of all sizes can choose their own destiny.

Countries want a prosperous, connected region, trading together at the epicentre of global economic growth, through a transparent system, where economic interdependence is not misused for political and strategic ends.

And countries want a region that is peaceful and stable. That means sufficient balance to deter aggression and coercion – balance to which more players, including Australia, must contribute if it is to be durable.

A balance where strategic reassurance through diplomacy is supported by military deterrence.
It is why Australia is so invested in the idea of guardrails to manage great power competition, so it does not career into conflict.

Guardrails where the major powers have reliable and open channels of communication at all levels to minimise the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation. Where limits are established on each country’s security policies.

The guardrails that were developed in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis serve as a guide.

President Biden has made overtures to China toward agreeing guardrails. It is in all the world’s interests that his overtures are met. I have said this to my Chinese counterpart, and to his predecessor. And I will keep saying it.

And in my continuing travels, I will keep reminding my colleagues that it is in the interests of all of us with an existential interest in regional peace and stability to press for the responsible management of great power competition.

Indeed, this is an interest that extends beyond the Indo-Pacific.

All countries need to exercise our agency to avert war, and maintain peace.

And advocating this objective is the most critical aspect of Australia’s diplomacy.

This starts with the capability of our foreign service – our people on the ground that put our foreign policy into action.

I am proud every day of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, so ably led by Jan Adams – here with us today.

They provide vital strategic insights and warning, they champion our interests, they influence and persuade, they are in the room and at the table, they work with partners to deliver Australian assistance, they provide critical consular support for Australians in need.

As a result of the previous Government’s failure to ensure long-term resourcing for our diplomatic capability, Australia’s diplomatic footprint has actually shrunk.
For all their talk of a Pacific step up, the Morrison Government actually had fewer diplomats working in the Pacific than when the Liberals took office.

This is on top of the former government’s $11.8 billion of cuts to our development program, which left vacuums for others to fill.

Our first budget delivered the single biggest ODA increase since 2011-12 to build a stronger region.

The Albanese Government will soon release our new development policy. Development assistance is central to statecraft. It helps our regional partners become more economically resilient, develop critical infrastructure and provide their own security so they have less need to call on others.

And all of this led by the engagement of the Prime Minister and other members of the Government.

In the eleven months since my appointment, I have visited 30 countries, five of them more than once.

This week I will visit New Caledonia and Tuvalu, meaning I will have travelled to all Pacific Island Forum members as foreign minister.

Our work had to start in the Pacific because the Pacific is family, because of the shortcomings of the previous government we needed to remedy, and because it is in Labor’s DNA.

I remind you of Gough Whitlam’s partnership with Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare in Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia. Though Whitlam was not short of remarkable reforms, he said:

If history were to obliterate the whole of my public career, save my contribution to the independence of a democratic PNG, I should rest content.

Many countries in the Pacific have lived the reality of great power competition spiralling into catastrophe and conflict – when their own agency was sidelined and their voices ignored.

Anyone who questions the strategic importance of Pacific islands to Australia’s security needs only acquire the briefest familiarity with history.

While our strategic circumstances have changed in the last 50 years, our geography has not, and nor has the centrality of the Pacific to our own security.

With the return of strategic contest to the region, this security is enhanced when we work together, when we respond to Pacific priorities, and when we respect Pacific institutions.

As a member of the Pacific family, our priority is to ensure the Blue Pacific remains peaceful, prosperous and equipped to respond to the challenges of our time.

That’s why we have worked closely with our regional counterparts to help the Pacific family stay united, and why we will continue to elevate Pacific voices on the issues that matter most to our region.

Our view and the view of the Pacific Islands Forum is that the Pacific family is responsible for Pacific security.

We’re realistic about what is happening in the Pacific – we know that things won’t go back to how they were before.

We make our concerns clear when countries don’t respect Pacific institutions, when they impose unsustainable debt burdens, or when announcements aren’t followed by delivery that benefits communities.

We want Australia to be a partner of choice for the countries of our region. Partners, not patriarchs.

We have delivered real action on climate change, after nine years of disrespect from the previous government.

We have increased our ODA to the Pacific by nearly a billion dollars over four years.

We’ve boosted our infrastructure investments and established a dedicated climate and infrastructure partnership to deliver climate-resilient investments for Pacific needs.

We’ve expanded and improved Pacific labour mobility programs and are working with partner governments to ensure the skills gained pay dividends for all.

We’ve enhanced our maritime security cooperation, signed a bilateral security treaty with Vanuatu and are making progress on a treaty with PNG, signed a status of forces agreement with Fiji, helped partners restore critical services in the wake of massive cyber attacks and responded to natural disasters – most recently cyclones Judy and Kevin in Vanuatu.

We are helping regional partners become more economically resilient, develop critical infrastructure and provide their own security so they have less need to call on others.

Without these investments, others will continue to fill the vacuum and Australia will continue to lose ground as we did under the Liberals and Nationals.

The principle of our approach to the Pacific - smaller countries working together in a way that strengthens influence, leverage and sovereignty - is a fundamental principle of Australian foreign policy, grounded in the work of Australia’s greatest foreign minister, Dr Herbert Evatt.

Australia’s foreign policy, at its best, has never simply been “what you do with the great powers.”

Countries like us need an international system that constrains power with rules.

That was what Evatt worked so hard to achieve at the San Francisco Conference, understanding that our interests could never be served just by winning favour with the great powers of the day.

Yet whether Menzies or Howard, there have been those throughout Australia’s history who have thought our foreign policy should simply be to attach ourselves to a great power.

Now some imply we should attach ourselves to what they anticipate will be a hegemonic China.

But the Albanese Government will always be more ambitious for Australia. We will always pursue greater self-reliance and a more active foreign policy.

Today we modernise the Evatt legacy, working with partners and friends in the region to exercise agency in maintaining an equilibrium that benefits us all.

That is what we seek to achieve through our valued bilateral strategic cooperation with partners throughout the region.

That is what we seek to do through our regional partnerships with ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum.

When the Prime Minister welcomes Prime Ministers Modi and Kishida and President Biden to Australia next month, we will acknowledge the critical contribution of the Quad and also the power, weight and influence of Japan and India, which in their own right are contributing to strategic balance.

And AUKUS represents an evolution of our relationships with the US and the UK, helping make Australia itself a stronger partner for the region.

Our approach matters in the Pacific and it matters in Southeast Asia.

To return to an earlier point—some would see Southeast Asia as a mere theatre for great power competition.

That is not a view we share.

Because it strips Southeast Asian nations—and the enduring, central institution of ASEAN—of their influence, dynamism and agency.

Of their ability to make sovereign choices in pursuit of their national and collective interests.

It glosses over the complex dynamics that exist within and between Southeast Asian nations—the ways in which the countries of our region seek to maximise their influence in the face of strategic competition.

And how they determine their own responses to the real and direct challenges to their sovereignty, including in the South China Sea.

It downplays the ways in which Australia and our partners can work with the region to enhance our collective security and prosperity.

And importantly, it presents passivity as a feasible option: that it’s possible to stand by and hope for the best, while others make choices on our behalf.

That diminishes our ability—both Australia and our neighbours in Southeast Asia—to shape the kind of region we want to live in.

That’s why the Albanese Government has made engagement with ASEAN and its members a core priority. By the first anniversary of our Government, I will have visited every country in Southeast Asia as foreign minister, except Myanmar.

This diplomatic effort must be complemented by increased economic engagement.

The Government’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, due for release later this year, is central to that, as is our web of free trade agreements with regional partners.

Not only is this mutually beneficial, but it creates the shared value that is a critical incentive for peace.

In a diverse region of more than 675 million people, we have to be targeted about how we can maximise our impact.

And work with partners to reinforce and multiply that effect.

To create opportunity together, and to demonstrate to the region that there are interests to nurture beyond security interests.

To build the assurance that comes with knowing that their success is our success.

That’s why we encourage greater economic engagement in Southeast Asia by the United States and other partners from the Indo-Pacific and beyond, including through IPEF.

We can’t talk about the balanced region we want without being clear about America’s importance to that balance.

And I think it’s time for some reality checks here.

There is no greater turning point in Australian history than Curtin’s wartime turn to America.

The United States is our closest ally and principal strategic partner.

The Indo-Pacific would not have enjoyed its long, uninterrupted period of stability and prosperity without the US and its security guarantee to the region.

The whole region benefits from US engagement, from their contribution to the region’s strategic balance.

America has often been talked of as the indispensable power. It remains so. But the nature of that indispensability has changed.

As we seek a strategic equilibrium, with all countries exercising their agency to achieve peace and prosperity, America is central to balancing a multipolar region.

Many who take self-satisfied potshots at America’s imperfections would find the world a lot less satisfactory if America ceased to play its role.

Having said that, we cannot just leave it to the US.

All countries of the region must exercise their agency through diplomatic, economic and other engagement to maintain the region’s balance – and to uphold the norms and rules that have underpinned decades of peace and prosperity.

And this balance must be underwritten by military capability.

Last month, Australia and our AUKUS partners announced our pathway for acquiring nuclear-powered submarines – the single biggest investment in our defence capability in our history, representing a transformational moment for our nation, our Defence Force and our economy.

Just as we each have a responsibility to help maintain the conditions for peace through our diplomacy, we also have a responsibility to play our part in collective deterrence of aggression.

If any country can make the calculation that they can successfully dominate another, the region becomes unstable and the risk of conflict increases.

As the Defence Strategic Update in 2020 emphasised, Australia must take responsibility for our own security, meaning we must grow our own ability to deliver deterrent effects.

In an age of military modernisation, as other militaries can operate from increased range, with faster speed, and greater precision and lethality, taking responsibility for our security means being able to hold potential adversaries’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance.

By having strong defence capabilities of our own, and by working with partners investing in their own capabilities, we change the calculus for any potential aggressor.

We must ensure that no state will ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks. This is fundamental to assuring the safety and security of our nation and our people.

Our foreign and defence policies are two essential and interdependent parts of how we make Australia stronger and more influential in the world.

Together, they make it harder for states to coerce other states against their interests through force or the threatened use of force.

Together, they contribute to the strategic balance of power that keeps the peace in our region.

As my colleague Richard Marles has said, “deterrence isn’t an alternative to cooperation – together, they are mutually reinforcing.”

Now, an undertaking as big as AUKUS in a democracy like ours should attract scrutiny.

Some are concerned the price is too high. There are two responses to that.

First, in the context of the scale and speed of the military build-up in our region, a serious financial investment is required to have credible defence capabilities of our own, and making our contribution to regional balance.

Second, much of the financial investment is in ourselves. In our own jobs, industry and sovereign capability. Let’s not forget AUKUS is about more than submarines. It’s also about joint development of capabilities including artificial intelligence, quantum technology and cyber.

Some are concerned about timeframes. It’s true that we lost a lot of time over nine years of capability announcements with no delivery. But we can’t go back in time; we can only get to work on the best way forward to deliver the necessary capability, at a realistic pace, with the lowest transition risk.

It is why the pathway doesn’t just involve acquiring Virginia class submarines or building our own, but also extending the life of the Collins class.

And some have raised concerns about nuclear non-proliferation.

Labor has a proud history of championing practical international non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, having ratified the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – and will ensure we continue to meet its obligations to the highest and most rigorous standards.

Our AUKUS partners understand and recognise Australia’s commitments under international law, including the Treaty of Rarotonga.

Naval nuclear-propulsion is consistent with our obligations under the Treaty of Rarotonga.

The US has confirmed that the nuclear-powered submarines visiting Australia on rotation will be conventionally-armed.

And while we are not a party to it, Australia will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the basic principles of the Bangkok Treaty.

We have and will continue to engage, regularly and transparently, with the IAEA and with our regional partners.

I thank our partners for their willingness to engage – and for their public messages of appreciation of our efforts to keep them informed.

I particularly note the comment from Indonesia, that: “maintaining peace and stability in the region is the responsibility of all countries. It is critical for all countries to be a part of this effort.” That is precisely what we are doing.

Australia is fortunate in so many ways – not least in the way we benefit from the foresight of our greatest statespeople: Curtin, Evatt and Whitlam.

They showed us the path to advance our national interests in the world. That path continues today, in modernising their legacies, of alliance, partnerships, rules and region.

That path guides us as well as ever as we face today’s circumstances with the foresight to benefit the generations that follow us.

I want to conclude with a point I make with many audiences around the world, because it really gets to the heart of it.

Today’s circumstances have prompted comparisons with 1914, the 1930s, and 1962.

Those comparisons should serve as warnings, but nothing more.

Because we are not hostages to history. We decide what to do with the present.

We are investing in our national power, not just to guard against regional contest, but to shape and influence it to advance our national and shared interests.

We are doing this by creating deterrence, with major military investments in future capability, including through the AUKUS partnership.

We are doing this by creating domestic economic resilience, addressing climate change and energy security, through more robust supply chains, making more things in Australia, and skilling our people.

And we are doing this by investing in our diplomatic power, renewing Australia’s closest partnerships, and advancing our interests and values.

Our decision is to use all elements of our national power to shape the world in our interests, and to shape it for the better.

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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.