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Launch of 'Independent Ally: Australia in an Age of Power Transition'

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Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

Thank you Professor Blaxland.

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambrie people, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present here amongst us.

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the ANU; Professor Michael Wesley, Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific; my eminent predecessor Stuart Harris AO; colleagues and friends;

I am delighted to launch this evening a valuable contribution to our foreign policy debate – Dr Shannon Tow's book "Independent Ally: Australia in an Age of Power Transition".

First and foremost, congratulations, Dr Tow, on a well argued, disciplined account of a major issue.

You are yet another credit to the ANU.

I worked with your father, Bill, during his time on the Foreign Affairs Council and the two of you seem to share not only an interest in Australia's big strategic issues, but also the rigour and judgement to help make sense of them.

Praise, too, to Melbourne University's academic publishing house, MUP Academic, for your commitment to bringing hard-edged scholarship to a general Australian audience. "Books with spine", indeed.

I am delighted to welcome another woman's voice to the Australian national security debate.

As I made clear at the National Security College's "Women and National Security Conference" last month, we do not yet have enough women making decisions on national security at the senior executive level.

This is not good enough.

Australia needs women's perspectives at all levels as we analyse, understand and prosecute our national security priorities.

Behind every great woman there's another great woman, and Shannon's title nods to Coral Bell's classic, Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy.

Another Australian doyen of international security, Owen Harries, said of Coral Bell that she always tackled the great questions of international politics – "not for her the splashing about in the shallow end of the pool".

Judging by this book, on Australian Prime Ministers' perspectives on major security issues, I can say the same of Shannon.

The book

Shannon has made a compelling case that for more than a century now, Australia's decision-makers have vigorously pursued our national interests in relations with a rising power, even though we were allied with the world's major power.

Now, after more than 30 years as a practitioner in Australia's international affairs, I needed no persuading that Australia prosecutes an independent foreign policy.

All I've ever seen our diplomats do is act in our national interest.

But Shannon's work shows that, from 1908 onwards, Australia has made our interests in the transition of power the main business of our international affairs.

Australia's leaders and decision makers have sought to influence the great powers' perception of the great strategic issues of the age, and have succeeded in influencing their commitments and actions.

Shannon's book is timely, coming as the Government is preparing a new Foreign Policy White Paper.

It will consider how Australia should further develop and exercise our influence over the next decade.

Shannon has analysed the precedents.

In roughly the first half of the twentieth century, Australia sought to influence Britain's Pacific policy while we built closer relations with the United States.

In 1908, from within the British Empire, but against Britain's preferences, Deakin reached out to the United States.

He sought an Anglo-American understanding in the Pacific, as he feared that some in the United States were sympathetic to German interests in our corner of the ocean.

In 1950, Menzies and his Foreign Minister, Spender, believed that the British Commonwealth would be stronger for an alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Britain disagreed, but Australia persisted, and struck the ANZUS Treaty.

Another case in point: Indonesia's independence

The reality is, while Britain was, and the United States is a superpower, we in Australia know our region. We, and our children, live with the consequences of developments here.

An enormously important Australian foreign policy initiative in the 1940s is worth adding to those Shannon relates.

Indonesian nationalists led by Sukarno were determined their people should emerge from the Second World War an independent nation. The Netherlands, crushed by Nazi Germany, hoped that regaining their colonial grip would help them rebuild their economy.

The United States had global responsibilities, including to allies in Europe. Yet the US commitment to national self-determination burned as brightly as ever.

Faced with this conundrum, the United States was publicly neutral on Indonesia's independence, but behind the scenes, supported the Dutch.

Britain, itself still a colonial power in South-East Asia, advised Australia to stay out of the Indonesia dispute.

Against the preference of our major partners, Australia brokered peace talks between the Netherlands and the Indonesian nationalists.

Chifley told the Dutch that they should meet the Indonesians 'more than half way'.

Indonesian independence was in our national interest, and we acted accordingly.

Influence the United States in the era of China's rise

In the second half of last century, Australia influenced US Asia-Pacific policy while pursuing our interests in the era of China's rise.

In 1972, Whitlam recognised the People's Republic of China, seven years before the United States did the same.

A poignant case Shannon studies is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Guided by values, and without reference to the United States, Hawke sanctioned China but did not fully sever ties. Serving on my first posting in Hong Kong at the time, I remember this well.

Shannon argues that US President Bush (senior) had Australia's policy in mind when he persuaded Congress that a strong response was possible without putting relations with China in the deep freeze.

The spine of Shannon's book is Australia's pursuit of our national interests in our region.

No public servant has done more in this cause than Dennis Richardson, who gave an address at the National Press Club the week before last, on his last day as Secretary of the Department of Defence.

As Dennis said, Australian governments have, and I quote, a "strong and consistent record of charting their own course, with the [US] alliance part of the overall strategy, not the driver of the strategy".

We have had increasing influence in recent decades.

On the economic side, Australia pushed successfully for APEC, which today brings together 21 Asia-Pacific nations in economic cooperation, including discussion of a possible Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.

Dennis referred to the influence Australia exerted on the United States to call a G20 leaders' meeting in 2008, rather than a smaller group, which would have omitted Australia.

Since 2015, while benefitting enormously from our major free trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea, we have advanced regional trade and investment agreements that knit together countries under a common set of high quality rules, aimed at creating an open and seamless business environment.

The Trans Pacific Partnership is the most ambitious of these. We have made clear that we think it's a good deal, and that we hope the US will rejoin this effort at some point in the future.

We joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite US misgivings, and we are working to build a transparent and effective institution that can help meet Asia's infrastructure needs, estimated to be worth 26 trillion US dollars.

On the security side, we have emphasised that the Australia-United States alliance serves objectives closely shared with other countries in the region, including a commitment to strong bilateral relations, and regional dialogue.

All Australian Governments have worked hard to elevate the East Asia Summit since its inception in 2005, including to achieve, and then strengthen, US participation.

The EAS promotes peace through dialogue between ASEAN, the United States, China, Japan, India, Australia and others, in an environment made more conducive by the stabilising presence of US power.

The great challenge, of course, it to maintain that stability while China's power continues to increase relative to that of the United States.


During the Government's consultations with Australians for the Foreign Policy White Paper, one participant said Asian business colleagues were increasingly asking, 'whose side are you on?'

They meant, ultimately, will you side with the United States or China.

The correct answer, of course, is "Australia". We're on Australia's side. We will pursue our national interests with the United States and with China.

That said, as Dennis Richardson has reminded us, Australia's relationship with China and the United States can be summarised simply: "friends with both, ally with one."

Our alliance with the United States enhances our power, and aligns with our values.

In New York earlier this month, Prime Minister Turnbull said that Australia, like the United States

"defines its national identity, not by race or religion or ethnicity as so many others do, but by a commitment to shared political values, as timeless as they are inclusive – freedom, democracy and the rule of law".

The stability and prosperity, the quality of life we enjoy within Australia rests, to a great extent, on these political values.

And on this basis, Australia has real influence in the world.

As Shannon's book shows, diplomacy is not about taking sides, it's about pursuing the full range of our national interests.

We will continue to forge our own path in Asia and beyond. We will continue to build shared expectations of the kind of region we all want and can in fact achieve.

Australia's success will depend, in large part, on the quality of our thinking; on informed, tested and proven ideas about power transition in our region – and, of course, on the quality of diplomacy.

Thank you, Shannon, and all with whom you have worked, for this fine contribution to that effort.

Last Updated: 23 May 2017
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