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ANU National Security College 10th Anniversary Lecture Series

News, speeches and media

Speech by Secretary Frances Adamson

ANU National Security College, Canberra

Thank you Vice-Chancellor for that kind introduction and the two acknowledgements of country with which I associate myself most sincerely.

Professor Medcalf, ANU staff and students, members of the diplomatic corps - Your Excellencies, Australian Public Service colleagues, and I want to acknowledge particularly my colleague Paul Symon, fellow leader in the DFAT portfolio, friends.

It is a pleasure to be here at the National Security College as part of your 10th anniversary lecture series.

Already, in just a decade, this College has become part of Australia's national security firmament – training officials, influencing policy debates, facilitating dialogue, undertaking foundational research, leading us through futures thinking and providing a platform for government leaders to explain security assessments and policies.

Tonight, I want to talk a little about the nature of the strategic landscape in 2010, when the NSC was formed, rather more about how it looks in 2020, and then chance my arm – I assure you Brian this speech was up to date an hour ago when I finished it – about how we might want, when 2030 rolls around, to look back on the decade between now and then.

What will we need to have done to have advanced Australia's national interest?

The nature of the strategic landscape in 2010

Over the past decade, we've seen a profound change in the nature, scale and urgency of the nation's security challenges.

In 2010, 9/11 and conflict in the Middle East still loomed large, consuming US attention.

And the global economy was in shock following the Global Financial Crisis.

But international cooperation had rallied in response – the G20, after all, emerged and proved its mettle in a co-ordinated response to that financial crisis.

There appeared to be little serious argument between governments that open trade, integrated economies and global institutions made sense and delivered the best outcomes for their people.

US global leadership was seen as self-evidently in that country's interests and without serious challenge, even as its relative economic and military power was inevitably declining as Asia grew in dynamism and strength.

China in particular was transforming the global economy.

Having joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, China was a player – one of many – working within the international system.

Cyber was an issue, but compared with today, its complexity, pervasiveness and pace of change were of a lesser order.

Social media was changing the way people communicated and exchanged ideas.

But its influence on national and international debates was still embryonic, and social media's use as a tool of mass disinformation was still largely theoretical.

2020: a riskier strategic landscape for Australia

A decade on, much has changed.

Many of 2010's foreign policy and security challenges are still with us – not least terrorism. But in 2010, the trend of disruption inherent in globalisation and technological development was not yet apparent.

It was still to re-shape the foreign and trade policies of many of Australia's most important partners, such as the United States and the European Union.

We are now facing a much more complex strategic landscape where these challenges are multi-layered, evolving at a faster pace and their impacts are felt more quickly and directly.

These are also tests of governance.

Recent years have taught us that all democracies must closely examine and vigilantly guard the resilience and robustness of their institutions.

What has been clear, most sharply throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, is the increasingly inextricable nature of domestic and international policy and governance structures.

Global crises like the pandemic and climate change are right in front of us, without the levels of global cooperation to match.

Malicious cyber activity, disinformation, and foreign interference are increasingly confronting governments around the globe – especially in countries like Australia whose open economies and democratic systems can be exploited by external actors.

National economies, too, are being tested more now than they were in 2010.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen levels of joblessness and government debt rise dramatically around the world in 2020.

We need to plot the path to recovery even as foundational ideas about economic openness are being questioned, including to ensure adequate resilience to shocks.

Geopolitical tensions have intensified, making multilateral cooperation harder but showing us, forcefully, the need for joint action to resolve complex global challenges, from climate change to persistent humanitarian crises.

And at the same time, COVID-19 has demonstrated, in Prime Minister Morrison’s words, and I quote, that “international institutions are most effective when they are driven by, and responsive to, accountable to, the society of sovereign states that forms them.”1

But while global engagement and cooperation is essential to see us through the challenges we collectively face, the geostrategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific region is changing.

Over the past decade, China's influence has risen as its economic weight has continued to grow, challenging American power, influence and interests as the US National Security Strategy articulated.

This economic success has underpinned strong growth in China's military spending – delivering a significant boost in the range and sophistication of China's capabilities for projecting force in its region and beyond.

China has become the largest trading partner of nearly all countries in our region and a leading source of foreign investment, infrastructure construction projects and loans for many.

Its development has been impressive, and has brought economic benefits beyond its borders to Australia and others.

But it has also brought disruption, something China's leaders themselves recognise.

Unsurprisingly, this has also meant that China wants to set, rather than merely adopt, international standards.

China wants to lead, rather than simply join, international institutions.

Crafting foreign and strategic policy in an environment such as this starts with clarity about our policy anchors and strategic strengths, and then applying and adapting them to the challenges we face.

The White Paper – a strategic framework for Australia

The Government anticipated much of this complex arena of increasing contest in the 2017 Foreign Policy White paper.

Aware of the rapid changes to Australia's external environment, the Government needed to develop a framework under which we could, in a coherent, consistent way, advance Australia's national interests, built on our foundational values such as our support for political, economic and religious freedoms.

The White Paper identified five goals for our foreign policy. It almost seems redundant at ANU to mention them, but I will just in case anyone is a little rusty. They were, and are:

  • promoting an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific in which the rights of all states are respected;
  • delivering more opportunities for our businesses globally, and standing against protectionism;
  • ensuring Australians remain safe, secure and free in the face of threats;
  • promoting and protecting the international rules and institutions that allow us to tackle global challenges; and
  • stepping up our support for a more resilient Pacific and Timor-Leste.

Seen from 2020, those goals remain the right ones even if our operating environment has lurched in profound and negative ways.

Drawing on Australia's tradition of constructive diplomacy, we are responding to strategic uncertainty and the accelerating trends I have described above.

We are building new coalitions across the Indo-Pacific, developing and operationalising agendas with a neighbourhood that understands the importance of stability, of sovereignty and of rules.

We are showing leadership in partnership with the South West Pacific, co-designing new pathways of economic integration and sustainable development, building trust and common approaches to security and prosperity.

And we are engaging actively and constructively in global forums to shape outcomes that matter to our country's and our region's future.

But we are still working hard to promote an open and inclusive region.

The Government has added substance and momentum to our partnerships with Japan, India and Indonesia among others.

Australia is rolling out an ambitious agenda to remain a leading partner of Southeast Asia by increasing our health, economic, capacity-building and security assistance to the region post-COVID.

Our Partnerships for Recovery COVID-19 Development Response program will include substantial investment in vaccine access and economic recovery, on top of our existing $1 billion-a-year development assistance to the region.

Australia's support for a fast, safe vaccine rollout in the Pacific and Southeast Asia will mean we are able to return to more normal travel, tourism and trade with our key partners in the region, boosting shared economic recovery in a post-pandemic world.

In the wake of COVID, our long-term goal of supporting our businesses globally has morphed into the urgent task of supporting national and international economic recovery.

The biggest news on that front was the signing of the world's largest ever trade deal – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, RCEP – only last week.

Through COVID, we've also worked hard to support Australians, whether here at home or overseas.

DFAT has helped over 30,000 Australians return home since March – and we're continuing to support tens of thousands of Australians still overseas.

I'm proud that we have been able to deliver the biggest consular operation in our history, even as DFAT and our overseas missions – in some cases under quite draconian lockdowns – played a key role in sourcing PPE and testing kits at the height of the early phase of the pandemic.

At the same time, we've worked to support the international system.

The Government carried out our first ever audit of multilateral institutions, which found that the multilateral system delivers outcomes vital to Australia's interests, but is under unprecedented strain.

Consequently, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Marise Payne, set out in detail in this lecture theatre in June, the Government has committed to increasing our multilateral engagement.

Mr Morrison has spoken about this lately, highlighting the good and cooperative work being done this year in the East Asia Summit, APEC and the G20 – work which has occurred, I should say, even while the pandemic has been going on.

And Pacific leaders will meet at the Pacific Islands Forum in the new year to explore regional solutions to regional issues.

Australia's near neighbourhood faces unique challenges that were clear to us in 2017, but have only become more urgent – such as climate change, the health of oceans and disaster resilience.

Many Pacific economies have been hard hit by the economic effects of COVID – Fiji's economy, for example, has shrunk by more than a fifth as international tourism has shut down.

In addition to our $1.44 billion development assistance for the Pacific in 2020-21, Australia has announced a temporary COVID response package of $304.7 million, to support our nearest neighbours over two years.

Future challenges

Now to the future.

In an era of greater strategic competition, in which Australia's partnerships are increasingly being tested, advancing all of these goals will be perennially difficult.

As we look ahead at the next ten years, the key question for Australia will be how successful are we at pursuing our national interest in this tougher, riskier environment, defined by strategic competition.

China's economic recovery will be an important factor in how the region and world emerges from what threatens to be a long and uneven recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

But the questions around China are much more wide-ranging than simply its economic approach.

No power this large and globally integrated can escape scrutiny or debate.

The rest of the world has done a lot of thinking about China's power and what it means.

But it is less apparent that China has carefully considered other countries' reactions to its conduct internationally.

China may have reached a point where it believes that it can largely set the terms of its future engagement with the world.

If it has, I believe it is mistaken – and that is because there is far more to be gained for China, and for everyone else, through working constructively and collaboratively within the international system, without resort to pressure or coercion.

The future of our region depends in part on China's decisions, but it also depends on the decisions made by other countries in the Indo-Pacific, including the United States and other regional partners.

The main challenge for Australia's foreign policy is one of shaping, with other countries, a regional and global order that responds to the new realities of power.

Inevitably, we are involved in a competition for influence – because how the regional order evolves will profoundly shape our security and other interests.

If Australia did not have an agenda and exercise agency then we would have simply to accept the terms dictated by others.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper sets out this fundamental challenge clearly:

“our interests lie in stability and in the character of the enduring peace we seek”

Defining the character of our enduring peace isn't just about China.

We have to be influential with the United States, too.

Much has changed in the relationship between the United States and the world it did so much to shape and establish in the wake of World War Two.

In the harsher light of the early-to-mid 21st Century, we have to acknowledge that the United States cannot be expected to lead in the way it once did.

As the triumphant leader of the Allies in 1945, the United States rebuilt Europe, and then went on to rebuild much of the world in its own image.

As a culture, it remains incredibly attractive and powerful.

But its internal challenges, as President-elect Biden has made clear, will be a priority for the incoming Administration and will shape the character of its international engagement.

The moment of a single global superpower has gone, and now we have a sharper competition for power, with many more visible and invisible sources of global influence than in previous decades.

As the Prime Minister has said, we look to America but we won't leave it to America.

More and more, the United States has to share power, even as we understand that American power and purpose at home and abroad remain essential to the regional order we seek, the sort of multilateral system we need and to reviving the global economy.

Australia also needs to work hard to build the practice of cooperation among all nations.

How we co-operate – the extent to which the global community comes together on particular issues – is not a simple question of the degree of superpower competition or cooperation.

In a tougher strategic environment, different nations and groups of nations are already coming together in different ways – sometimes through existing institutions, sometimes minilaterally or plurilaterally.

That underpins the rationale for Australia's engagement with the United States, Japan and India through the Quadrilateral Dialogue, where each of the four partners sees the world in a remarkably similar way and utilises their agency to shape the sort of region we desire.

Against all odds, in the face of a global pandemic sucking in all attention, multilateral and regional summits this year like the East Asia Summit, APEC and the G20 have delivered unexpected cooperation – modest certainly but cooperation nonetheless.

While a reasonable bookmaker might have concluded none of those forums was worth a wager in 2020, each has taken place, and each has provided valuable opportunities for global engagement and cooperation and for giving voice to some important principles.

The East Asia Summit, for example, underlined the continued importance of ASEAN and its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, with a common appreciation that issues like the South China Sea and the rights of small states still matter, even as we grapple with a health and economic crisis.

All of these summits have delivered clarion calls for equitable access to vaccines to underpin global economic recovery.


Colleagues – much has changed in the security landscape that surrounds Australia in the past decade.

If we want to look back on our time in another ten years, in 2030, what will we need to have done, as a country, in order to be confident that we did all we could to advance Australia's national interest, even as our environment changes?

First and foremost, we will have had to have pursued our own interests and acted with agency and purpose.

Ideally, we will have done so in a way that helped our partners, influenced our allies and supported an Indo-Pacific order that sustained peace and the ability of all countries to shape their own destiny.

We cannot hope to achieve this outcome alone - as one of my predecessors said, Australia cannot buy or bully its way in the world.

We need influence and we need to build, sustain and use our policy instruments to our advantage.

Secondly, we will have needed to maintain strong domestic foundations – with a flexible and competitive economy driving recovery from COVID.

This is why the Government's domestic response to COVID is so important.

Our international engagement supports our efforts to build our economy and society, and nothing can be achieved externally without them.

The White Paper's first chapter on the importance of domestic foundations continues to ring true.

If our economic foundations are not strong – if we cannot safeguard our sovereignty and provide opportunity to our people – then we will not be able to exercise influence overseas.

And thirdly, to be successful we will also need to have credibly fused our interests and values.

The things we stand for at home – such as openness, fairness and a level playing field – will shape our international engagement.

It is the character of the international order – not just the way power is distributed – that matters.

This is not about imposing our view on others.

We know and understand that an era within which we felt comfortable has passed.

But it is about building a system with the flexibility, resilience and openness that supports economic growth and sustained peace – for all countries in the Indo-Pacific and globally.

These are big challenges for Australia over the next 10 years which I am confident we will be able to tackle, together with our global partners and trusted partners at home – including, of course, the National Security College.

Thank you.



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