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Shaping Australia’s role in Indo-Pacific security in the next decade

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Women in International Security Series


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

Australian National University, Canberra


It's a great pleasure to be here at the ANU, which plays such a central role and carries such a heavy responsibility in Australian academic life and stands particularly tall in the fields of international security and foreign affairs.

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and paying my respects to their Elders past and present.

I thank the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and, of course, Professor Evelyn Goh as today's chair– for hosting this "Women in International Security" series, and encouraging future waves of female leaders in international security and in foreign affairs.

Security and defence is still a male-dominated profession, but for those of you here today who are still students – perhaps about to embark on your own careers – my great hope is that you will see that change over the course of your professional lives.

I confess, I've been waiting for this opportunity to congratulate the ANU on the choice of name for the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, launched over three and a half years ago now by Australia's first female Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop.

Coral Bell was many things to many people, including to your Chancellor, Gareth Evans, himself a former Foreign Minister, who recognised the direct and lasting impact Dr Bell's ideas made on the policy debate in Australia and internationally.

I recall her generously sharing some of those ideas with the 1985 cohort of DFAT graduate trainees, of whom I was one.

In an area and an era dominated by men she stood out.

She once told a student [Shannon Tow, current DFAT officer] that she was a feminist not because she made a big deal of it, but simply because she didn't think it was a big deal, and just got on with her job.

Coral was a diplomat originally [Third Secretary, Wellington], who witnessed the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in San Francisco and knew exactly how important alliances and institutions were to preventing war.

To my mind, she will always be the diplomat's scholar of strategic studies.

She understood that diplomacy is the necessary art for achieving and sustaining stability in a world where the interests of the major powers often rub against each other.

It is a mammoth topic that I've been asked to speak to you about today – "Shaping Australia's role in Indo-Pacific security in the next decade" – but I will endeavour to muster some of Coral Bell's concision!

A decade is a long, long time in the intensely dynamic Indo-Pacific.

Our region today is far from simple or benign – it is characterised by fast-paced change, shifts in geo-economic weight and power, technological advances and demographic swings.

This is creating an increasingly complex economic and political environment, much of the outlines of which will already be familiar to you.

By some measures, China now produces more than the United States.

India is now the world's fastest growing major economy.

Indonesia is bearing down on being a Top 10 economic power by 2030.

We in Australia have benefited enormously from this growth in our region.

At the same time, as manufacturing has shifted to Asia and technological advances have increased automation, highly visible job losses and slow wage growth have led some in advanced economies to question the merits of globalisation.

Nationalism has become a stronger political force and protectionist sentiment has increased.

This poses a threat to the open economic policies that have underpinned global growth and prosperity over the past 30 years.

Strategically, the picture has become much more complicated, too.

The economic growth that has come with globalisation is changing power balances, particularly in our region, the Indo-Pacific.

The dispersal of global power has continued, with many countries – China, Japan, India and others – building increasingly powerful military forces, and positions within global architecture to match their rising economic weight.

The international order that has been a foundation of global growth and stability is being contested.

International rules designed to help maintain peace and minimise coercion are being challenged.

Competition is intensifying, over maritime and land borders, sea and airspace and regional economic integration.

The Indo-Pacific – the key lens for Australian foreign policy

A mammoth topic, as I said, to talk about in my short time here with you this afternoon – but, equally obviously, one which presents tremendous career opportunities for future ANU graduates.

For a nation of only 25 million people, the world Australia faces today is increasingly challenging.

This is the context in which we developed the Government's Foreign Policy White Paper, released last November .

It would have been easy for complexity and uncertainty to lead to indecision and inertia in Australian foreign policy.

But such an approach would not protect Australia's vital economic and security interests.

Nor would it represent the best of who we are and the long history of our vigorous engagement with our own region.

We did not go down that easy path – last year we considered, debated and discussed, consulting widely, the challenges in front of us, and we delivered a White Paper that set out a plan to maintain the prosperity, peace and security to which Australians are accustomed.

We made choices.

Choices about what was most important to Australia.

Choices about where we should direct effort.

We chose to identify the Indo-Pacific as being of primary importance to Australia.

This reflects the strategic and economic reality that the most important part of the world for Australia is embraced by these two oceans.

It also reflects the reality that India is an increasingly significant feature of our outlook.

The Indo-Pacific, and its dynamic economies, will continue to create opportunities for Australia.

But we will have to work harder to hold our place.

We will need to be competitive and agile.

We will have to work intelligently and creatively, to support the international order that enables us to benefit from others' rise.

We will need to think and act strategically, and use all the levers at our disposal to maximise our influence.

Almost twelve months on from its launch, the geostrategic shifts we identified in the White Paper continue to test even the most robust foreign policy framework.

Ours, however, is not a set and forget document.

Public debate – which we welcome – on the policies that underpin the White Paper will only sharpen our ongoing policy reviews.

Australia's strategy to support a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific is undergoing a strategic transition as profound as the economic transformation that preceded it.

No long-term foreign policy objective is more important to Australia than ensuring this change does not disrupt the stability that underpins economic growth and prosperity.

This will be best achieved if our region evolves in a way that does not erode, and ideally supports, the fundamental principles on which the Indo-Pacific's prosperity and cooperative relations are based.

Australia will be more secure in a region characterised by respect for international law and other norms and where disputes are resolved peacefully.

We will be more prosperous in a region in which open markets facilitate the free flow of trade, capital, technology and ideas.

We therefore seek a balance in the region that supports these objectives and helps protect the interests of all states, large and small.

Australia, of course, is not a great power.

Yet we should not underestimate our strength, especially the strength of our partnerships.

Our approach to the Indo-Pacific is multifaceted, and we are investing in each of these facets so that we can better shape the character of our region.

We are deepening our Indo-Pacific bilateral relations, especially in Asia, because they are among our most important in their own right, and because strong bilateral relations help support our regional goals.

In March this year, Prime Minister Turnbull concluded a Strategic Partnership with Vietnam, strengthening our defence, trade and diplomatic ties.

In August, Prime Minister Morrison concluded a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Indonesia, reinforcing our emphasis on trade integration as a national and regional priority.

We are also working more across our key regional partnerships to support a shared vision for the region.

We seek to strengthen regional political, security and economic architecture and to help build regional norms – "rules of the road" – if you like.

For example, we are committed to adopting and owning international legal principles as a regional framework for dispute resolution.

In March this year, we signed a Maritime Boundaries Treaty with Timor-Leste – the result of a conciliation process under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The conciliation allowed us to move forward on the type of boundary issue that we see locked down in tension and dispute elsewhere in the world.

Instead, here, we found the space for negotiation and compromise – an example of how international legal process can help improve relationships and strengthen regional stability.

Partnerships with the United States, China and ASEAN

International law is fundamental for achieving the balance we seek, but the reality is that it in turn depends on a working balance between powers.

At the same time, we recognise that a region in which all the major powers are actively engaged – the US, China, India, Japan and Indonesia, for example – will help support a long-term balance favourable to our interests.

Our alliance with the United States is central to Australia's security, and we are committed to enriching this crucial relationship.

Since the release of the White Paper, the Government has been active in fulfilling this commitment; deepening our engagement across a wider spectrum of key figures.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Payne, is in Washington this week doing just that.

In July following the AUSMIN Consultations Australia and the US announced a series of partnership initiatives to focus our efforts out to mid-next year.

The breadth of these initiatives speak for themselves – everything from mineral extraction to infrastructure investment; from civil space activities to global health; from energy security to cyber security.

Our bilateral engagement is with more than just a few key players at the most senior levels of the US Administration – it is with scientists and specialists and businesspeople and policymakers at every level.

We are mindful of the important US interests in Southeast Asia.

We want the US to be deeply engaged in our region – in Southeast Asia as well as in Northeast Asia.

In the US itself, these issues I have spoken about have been under close study.

Over this past year, we have seen a focus on strategy building in Washington.

A National Security Strategy and a National Defense Strategy have been released.

Both these documents commit the US to deeper engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

That is very welcome.

The Australian Government also believes it is strongly in our interests to play an active part in shaping our region's approach to economic integration.

As Trade Minister Birmingham has said, global trade "is what has been so successful at lifting our prosperity in Australia and millions of others out of poverty around the world"[1] – and we want to ensure that trade rules continue to move towards openness, inclusiveness and predictability over the next decade and beyond.

To this end, Australia has been among the core group of countries driving ahead with trade liberalisation through the TPP-11.

The signing of this deal in March this year is a major achievement.

It stands as a platform that is open to others to join if they are ready to meet its high standards, as several are interested in doing.

Quite clearly, the role of China is vital for continuing stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and will shape the future contours of our region.

China's geopolitical weight derives from its geography, demography and its statecraft, supported of course by its remarkable economic transformation over recent decades.

It follows that Australia's bilateral relationship with China is one of our most consequential.

Notwithstanding our distinct perspectives on some issues, we are clear-eyed about the opportunities as well as the challenges before us, and are confident of building a durable partnership founded on our shared interests and mutual respect, for lasting mutual benefit.

From a broader perspective, the relationship between China and the United States is the most significant for the future, and its condition will colour the regional strategic landscape.

Some competition between the two countries is inevitable, but there is space for cooperation on issues of common interest.

Of course, Southeast Asia and its regional organisation, ASEAN, are central to any debate about the future of our region.

Geographically, diplomatically and strategically, ASEAN sits at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.

It is the collective voice of Southeast Asia.

It has helped develop significant parts of our rules-based order, and it convenes the most important diplomatic forums in which the powers of the Indo-Pacific meet, such as the East Asia Summit.

Equally, Southeast Asia's central role in the Indo-Pacific is putting its cohesion to the test.

How Southeast Asian countries respond to the shifting balance of power in the region more broadly will be one of the factors which shapes our region's future.

We have long recognised Southeast Asia's strategic and economic significance.

But we know we need to intensify engagement with this key region – as we committed to do in the White Paper.

This was why we hosted the ten ASEAN nations here in Australia earlier this year at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.

This was a unique opportunity to engage and work with all of our key ASEAN partners in a new way, and to demonstrate to them the emphasis we place on them and the region we share.

The Special Summit marked a new era in our partnership.

Australia and ASEAN committed to intensify our response to regional and global challenges and build on our deep legacy of economic cooperation.

Partnerships with the Pacific islands

At the same time, our partnerships in the South Pacific remain an important anchor for our efforts in the broader region.

We work from the principle that a secure, politically stable, economically resilient, Pacific island chain is a necessary element for security in the Indo-Pacific more broadly.

Our commitment is grounded in a narrative of regional opportunity and ambition, and our efforts are explicitly directed at those priorities identified by Pacific island leaders themselves.

To support economic growth, for example, we focus specifically on increasing opportunity for jobs, income and skills growth through structured labour mobility arrangements.

Building on our existing Seasonal Worker Programme, the Pacific Labour Scheme – started in July this year – will mean that up to an additional 2000 Pacific workers will have access to the Australian job market each year

That number is set to grow in the years ahead.

To support regional security cooperation, Foreign Minister Payne joined Pacific leaders in signing the Boe Declaration in Nauru just last month – a set of principles that define and strengthen our security relationships.

We have agreed to pool our resources, foster collaboration between governments, and improve information-sharing – targeting security issues across the spectrum, from illegal fishing and drugs smuggling, to climate change and disaster resilience.

Australia will play a central role in supporting implementation of the new declaration.

Through an Australia Pacific Security College, from early 2019, to help strengthen Pacific capacity and security networks.

Through our 30-year Pacific Maritime Security Program, delivering new Guardian-class patrol boats and aerial surveillance.

And through a new Pacific Fusion Centre, also announced by the Foreign Minister in Nauru, to be set up in mid-2019, to help strengthen maritime domain awareness and enable better targeted security responses.

In short, we are helping develop the systems, custom built for our region, to deliver on leaders' ambitions for a stronger collective response to the contemporary security challenges facing the Pacific.

We recognise too the importance of Australia's personal connections across the Pacific, in security and in all other areas.

We continue to build on partnerships both between our governments – including through regular Guest of Government visits – and between our communities.

We are creating new programs to better connect Australians and Pacific islanders – the Pacific Connect program for leaders across different sectors; the Schools Partnerships Program for school teachers and children; the Pacific Research Program for academics and researchers.

Meanwhile, we remain focused on existing programs that build lifelong links to deepen cultural connection and knowledge.

The New Colombo Plan has supported thousands of Australians to study and complete internships in the Pacific region, while the Australia Awards program has likewise supported students from the Pacific to study in Australia and elsewhere in the region.

These initiatives are an investment in the truest sense of the word, in our ongoing relationships and in our region's security.

Other bilateral and minilateral partnerships

The Government also committed in the White Paper to engage with the major democracies of the region, both bilaterally and in small groupings, to strengthen the cohesion of nations that share our vision for the region.

The pace of these activities since November has been intense.

Prime Minister Morrison travelled to Indonesia for his very first overseas visit, less than a week after being sworn in – a visit that culminated in the conclusion of our newest, and truly historic, bilateral free trade agreement.

In December, the Secretary of the Department of Defence and I held the first ever 2+2 meeting with our Indian counterparts in New Delhi – strengthening this increasingly important relationship.

Our second 2+2 is scheduled for next week [10 October].

We engage regularly with our counterparts from the Republic of Korea, as we all strive to manage the unprecedented threat to the region's security constituted by North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and potent delivery systems.

It's a focus that echoes strongly in our engagement with Japan, where we work hard to strengthen our broader Special Strategic Partnership and build ties through smaller groupings.

Our Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with the US and Japan is well established, of course, and our Foreign Secretary-level trilateral with Japan and India is gaining momentum.

We are looking for new opportunities to work with our close partners.

For example, just two weeks ago [21 September] senior officials from Australia, India and Indonesia met for the second time within a year for a formal trilateral dialogue.

This is a new initiative between three key Indo-Pacific partners, independent of the great powers – covering strategic dynamics, economic integration, regional issues of mutual importance, and practical trilateral cooperation across a number of domains.

You will also have heard of the Quadrilateral Group.

This is a new forum, and its discussions have not reached the level of maturity of some other minilaterals, such as the dialogue with the US and Japan.

However, the Quad has had two meetings since it was reconstituted last year, and I am confident that it will become an important part of our regional diplomacy.

Through these discussions, we commit not just to strengthening partnerships, but also to working more effectively on the issues that concern our region.

Maritime security and stability, including key principles such as the freedom of navigation and overflight, remain essential to safeguard the key trade routes on which Australia relies.

That is why, at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, we announced that Australia and ASEAN will work together to implement a package of initiatives to strengthen civil maritime and border protection, maritime domain awareness, maritime law and its applications, and the protection of regional fish stocks.

Much of the competition in the region is also playing out in the development of infrastructure.

Australia recognises the importance of investing in high quality infrastructure to maintain growth and prosperity in Asia.

Indeed, estimates suggest at least $33 trillion between 2016 and 2032 is required for new infrastructure investment in developing economies in the region.

Our goal is to ensure that that investment brings growth to the region, rather than tension between competing powers.

Strong norms – such as transparency, fair and open competition, and robust standards – are critical to help build an open, inclusive regional economy.

That is why we are focusing more closely on the geo-economics of our region.

We have established a new Geo-economics section in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is engaging closely across national security and other realms of government on this new and complex challenge.

It's also an issue that we are discussing more intensively with our partners.


Over the next decade, the Indo-Pacific will present substantial challenges to Australia's security and prosperity.

This region, our region, is and will become more competitive and contested.

Politics in many countries has become more fragmented and volatile.

Global governance has become more complex.

The rules on which we have relied to shape the character of our order are under pressure.

In this next decade, there is much at stake for Australia.

We need to apply ourselves with renewed vigour, focus and agility to the task of keeping Australia safe and prosperous.

That is what the Government is doing, with commitment, confidence and a clear-eyed sense of Australia's interest, as well as a deep consciousness of the scale of the challenge that we face.

This is also the decade in which many of you will be laying down the foundations of and then developing your careers – perhaps among you some who will follow Coral Bell in leaving an indelible mark on Australian foreign policy.

Now that is a cause for further optimism!

Last Updated: 3 October 2018
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