Speech at the Launch of 'Contest for the Indo-Pacific' by Rory Medcalf - Australian National University - Canberra - 03/03/2020

03 March 2020

(Acknowledgments omitted)

My thanks to Rory Medcalf for inviting me to launch this important contribution to our foreign policy debate this evening.
Im grateful to have been asked to launch this, and to be here with Marise to affirm our bipartisan approach to the Indo-Pacific and the challenge of fully realising Australias place in it.
More so, I am particularly grateful that Rory has been willing to take on the task that this book represents.
You see, admiring the problem is relatively easy.
Many an elegant phrase has been written about the present disruption and describing the strategic competition that defines our current circumstances.
It is far harder to posit how we might respond.
When I took on this portfolio, I commented that the playbook of decades past may be of limited utility in dealing with the challenges and opportunities ahead.
That is a confronting realisation for us, and one which gives rise to a range of consequences and demands.
Amongst these is a willingness to go beyond existing habits and orthodoxies to take the risk of articulating different approaches.
It can be risky, but it is exactly what we need from policy makers, thinkers and practitioners. And this is what Rory has done.
Within that frame, let me share briefly my impressions of this book. In the timeframe I have, these are necessarily truncated.
First, the Indo-Pacific as both a strategic construct and mental map of our region is key to navigating our present circumstances.
Labor was an early adopter of the Indo-Pacific perspective helped by prominent West Australians Kim Beazley and Stephen Smith.
It was continued by Prime Ministers Rudd and Gilliard and Im pleased to see the bipartisan acceptance of the Indo-Pacific as our primary region of strategic interest.
Australia, as a dual-ocean-facing middle or rather, substantial power, faces an increasingly competitive relationship between our closest ally and our largest economic partner.
And we must do more than simply navigate the slipstream of this great power competition.
Secondly, adhering to the binary of choice between the US and China a narrative that is constructed primarily as one of containment or accommodation is contrary to our interests.
As a US ally, security partner and friend, we have already made a choice. But that is not the end of the matter.
Realising the region we want in the decades ahead demands multipolarity not binary competition.
Our real choice is actually what sort of region we want, and how best to work towards that.
Third, shaping the region we want highlights the importance of partnerships within our region.
Rory writes of the difference that middle powers can make while working together and while their vital interests at stake.
Fourth, the risk of armed mistrust between the worlds two largest economies is becoming too prevalent.
Competition in certain sectors is outweighing cooperation and there is a rising risk of confrontation by mistake or by design.
Amongst these elevated risks is climate change, encapsulated by the author as the potent interplay between vulnerable populations, rival nations and extreme weather events.
And not to mention the more impending risk of a global pandemic and the stress this will cause the international health system particularly in developing countries.
The consequential imperative for our government is to work to elevate cooperation and mechanisms to lessen the risk of escalation.
Whether this is through diplomatic architecture, confidence-building measures for practical risk reduction, working to build greater predictability and transparency to lessen the likelihood of confrontation, or generating cooperation around shared interests, we need to tilt the balance away from competition and confrontation.
As Rory points out, coexistence reinforced by diplomacy and deterrence is essential to our interests.
This task demands a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy that has the resources to demonstrate our consistency in the region and ensure that outcomes are not only determined by power.
This task hasnt been helped by the Governments step-down of our assistance to Southeast Asia.
We also need to enhance the resilience of the Australian nation to navigate this period.
As Rory makes clear, this calls for a better integration of policy across security, economics, diplomacy and the information sphere.
We need to get beyond zero-sum false binaries which position security against economics.
And I would add that we need less domestic politics and greater bipartisanship.
By bipartisanship I mean less an absence of disagreement and rather more shared purpose and deeper engagement across the parliament and between the parties of government.
Which is why it was in the authors words short-sighted that parliamentarians have been denied comprehensive briefings on China by our security agencies.
It stands to reason that the discussion on managing this complex and consequential relationship can only be enhanced by access to sound analysis.
And while efforts to safeguard our sovereignty are necessary, we need to ensure that our communities particularly ethnic Chinese communities are not marginalised as a result.
Defending our democracy is about protecting the equal rights of all Australians as citizens.
The Indo-Pacific perspective is a necessary prerequisite to the realisation and protection of Australian interests, but it is not sufficient.
Our capacity to prosecute our interests is also intrinsically influenced by our identity the narrative of who we are as a country.
In order to be a trusted partner and a champion of our values and interests, we need to deepen our understanding of the region and more effectively tell our own story.
We are a multicultural country, with a growing proportion of Australians with Asian heritage.
Elevating these dynamic diaspora stories must be at the forefront of our engagement in the region, particularly Southeast Asia.
Australia is also home to the worlds oldest living culture, but the stories of our First Nations peoples are not told enough.
In this unprecedented information age, a unifying and inclusive national story which more fully expresses who we are will only strengthen the relationship with our neighbours and our place in this region.
Our aspiration should be to work together to shape the region we want across all levels politically, economically, strategically and culturally.
Rorys book is a vital contribution to this important ongoing discussion.
Thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.