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The Indo-Pacific: Australia’s Perspective

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

Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur

Thank you High Commissioner, and thank you for the energy you bring to promoting Australia's interests here.

I'm not sure we've yet developed a perfect measure of ambassadorial energy but in this day and age I acknowledge that almost 2,000 new [Twitter] followers in just over a year is a valid – or indeed, welcome – data point!

I respectfully acknowledge, and also thank, Tan Sri Rastam Chairman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies who has kindly agreed to moderate our discussion later this evening.

I am delighted to be in Malaysia for the first time since the historic election last May.

Watching from Canberra, it was wonderful to see such a vibrant example of democracy on show.

Our Westminster parliamentary systems are just one thing Malaysia and Australia have in common.

We are middle-sized democracies, federal systems, constitutional monarchies, with a shared legal tradition.

We are diverse, multicultural, multi-faith societies.

We are in the same part of the world – the Indo-Pacific.

More than 138,000 Malaysian-born people live in Australia [1], comprising the 9th largest group among our overseas-born population [2].

And that's not counting their children and grandchildren, with so many strong links to this beautiful country.

Nor does that include the tens of thousands of Malaysian students studying in Australia in any given year – 26,000 in 2018.

And as part of that community's evident and growing contribution to Australian society, it's fair to say Malaysians have had an outsized influence on one very important element of Australian life – our food scene.

Not that that would come as a surprise to anyone in Malaysia – it's a country very focused on food!

But it means that Malaysian-born cooks have won or been the runner-up in three of the 10 seasons of the popular television cooking show MasterChef Australia [3].

A new season starts tonight, and I don't know if any of the contestants have Malaysian heritage, but if they do, their rivals would be well advised to watch out.

I understand the High Commission recently hosted a very successful public diplomacy visit by one of those MasterChef winners, Diana Chan.

A surefire success, in either country!

At the same time, a contest of quite a different sort is underway in Australia, and that is our federal election campaign.

In our election, Australians' appreciation for food makes an appearance.

It's customary for barbeques to feature alongside ballot boxes at polling stations all around Australia.

People vote, then they buy a sausage sandwich.

It's called the "democracy sausage" and my youngest daughter, Sophie, whose 18th birthday next week will enable her to vote for the first time is looking forward to it - voting, that is, and her first democracy sausage.

So while it may not be "high culinary art" in the MasterChef style, the tradition of the "democracy sausage" has become so emblematic of our Election Day that a miniature version is the official Twitter emoji for the occasion.

And the High Commission in which we are gathering this evening will of course be the site of an overseas voting station in this upcoming election.

We plan to invite our Malaysian Government colleagues and media representatives on the main voting day, 18 May, so they can see how the Australian Electoral Commission and my Department work together to provide voting services to our very mobile Australian voting population. Rumour has it, we may even see democracy sausages here at the High Commission that day.

In the meantime, I am guided by the caretaker conventions currently in place, which the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet brought into effect as soon as the election was called.

I am confident that, whatever the result of the election, Australia will continue to work towards the vision and the goals I will describe for you this evening, as they reflect Australia's national interest and the policy positions of both Australia's major political parties.

The title of my speech this evening is "The Indo-Pacific: Australia's Perspective".

I'd like to set out Australia's views on the region's changing dynamics, and our vision for a peaceful Indo-Pacific, with ASEAN at its core, international law supporting its stability, and open markets driving its prosperity.

I propose to conclude, if I may, with some thoughts on Malaysia's influence in our region.

For Australia sees Malaysia as a vitally important player in our region's evolution, facing both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where rapid and consequential change continues apace.

I am here in Kuala Lumpur for regular Senior Officials Talks with my Malaysian counterpart Dato' Sri Muhammad Shahrul, the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and my visit is an opportunity to listen to Malaysian perspectives, as a close friend and key regional partner for Australia, and to share with you our own views.

Let me start with the Region's Changing Dynamics and our Foreign Policy White Paper.

Advances in technology, shifts in economic weight, demographic changes, climate change and globalisation and its contents, and discontents, are driving strategic and economic transformations globally.

Today our region – the Indo-Pacific – is undergoing a profound transition as economic and strategic weight shifts.

This will continue to bring economic opportunity, but also challenges for all countries of the region.

This dynamic part of the world has, at its very heart, Southeast Asia.

In late 2017, the Australian Government published a Foreign Policy White Paper, setting out a comprehensive framework to advance Australia's security and prosperity in a contested and competitive world.

This followed the 2016 publication of our Defence White Paper.

Together, these White Papers provide definitive statements of our views on the drivers of regional and global strategic change, and our response as a country.

We gave particular prominence to the rise of China.

The top merchandise trading partner for most of the region's economies – including Malaysia and Australia – China's increased economic heft is translating into significant broader influence. [4]

But, even as China's power grows, the United States will, for the foreseeable future, retain its significant global lead in military and soft power, and wealth in GDP per capita terms.

And the Australian Government judges that the United States' long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Both the United States and China are important partners for Australia.

Australia supports the deep engagement of the United States in the economic and security affairs of the region. This continued engagement remains essential to the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.

At the same time, we continue to strengthen our relations with China across a wide range of common interests, including through a new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, announced just last month.

As a former Australian Ambassador to China, I know first-hand that a strong and productive Australia-China relationship is in our mutual interest.

Of course, the US and China are not the only major players in the Indo-Pacific.

Japan, as the world's third-largest economy, remains a cornerstone of global value chains, a major source of foreign direct investment in Southeast Asia, and the catalyst for much of our region's economic progress [5].

India, the pre-eminent maritime nation in the Indian Ocean, will exert increasing influence as its economic and strategic reach grows.

The region we foresee is one that is more competitive and contested.

That dynamic is putting pressure on all the countries of the region, and on the rules and norms that have underpinned the region's security and prosperity.

In this context, Australia is stepping up our work with partners to shape the region's order.

We believe every country has a role to play in building the character of our region.

Australia is committed to doing it. We think that Malaysia has an important part to play also.

And I would argue that as countries that are not great powers engaged in strategic rivalry, our voices can be influential, not least because they carry important moral authority.

Australia's vision for the Indo-Pacific

In our two White Papers, Australia set out our vision for the region, a region in which:

  • Disputes are resolved peacefully in accordance with international law and without the threat or use of force or coercion
  • Open markets facilitate flows of goods, services, capital and ideas
  • Economic integration is inclusive of and open to all the region's economies
  • Rights of freedom of navigation and overflight are upheld and the rights of small states are protected.

These are core themes to which I'll return.

They are informed by Australia's perspectives and interests.

They are consistent with the principles that underpin other countries' Indo-Pacific visions and concepts.

Principles that we can all agree serve to make the Indo-Pacific more prosperous and peaceful.

Our White Paper makes clear that no long-term foreign policy objective is more important to Australia than ensuring the region evolves peacefully, in keeping with these fundamental principles, on which the region's prosperity and cooperative relations are based.

ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific

Southeast Asia is the nexus of major power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Your subregion, which is vital also for Australia, has benefitted significantly from relative peace and stability – a stability that owes much to the statecraft of Southeast Asian leaders, including of course the significant contribution of Dr Mahathir over many years.

Institutionally, ASEAN too has made a vital contribution to the region's security and stability for more than five decades.

Not through grandstanding or throwing its weight around, but through a steady record of achievement: fostering dialogue, resolving disputes peacefully, establishing forums where great and lesser powers can work together.

The region's security and stability for more than five decades also owes much to the foundational principles of ASEAN. The ASEAN Charter and Treaty of Amity and Cooperation have helped establish expected standards of behaviour.

Today this grouping of nations, at the heart of our region, is more important than ever.

In an increasingly competitive and contested region, ASEAN's normative role in setting expectations of behaviour, fostering respect for international law and promoting habits of cooperation is vital.

In this context, we want to work even more closely with Malaysia during your period as Australia's ASEAN country coordinator.

We welcome work underway in ASEAN at present to develop ASEAN's own Indo-Pacific 'outlook'.

We support the key principles being discussed: openness, transparency, inclusivity, respect for international law and respect for sovereignty.

We see ASEAN's articulation of its Indo-Pacific concept as an assertion of ASEAN centrality.

And the ASEAN-centred architecture takes on even greater salience as we seek to shape a region that adheres to law, rule and norm.

That's why we strongly support ASEAN centrality and ASEAN's leadership, including in its role as convenor of the region's most important architecture, particularly the East Asia Summit.

Since its inaugural meeting in this city in 2005, the EAS has grown to become a premier forum for strategic dialogue.

It is the only leader-level forum which brings together all key regional players – the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Russia with ASEAN states – to consider our shared political and security challenges.

Supporting international rules and norms

Like ASEAN, Australia wants this to be a region in which disputes are resolved peacefully, and where rights of freedom of navigation and overflight are upheld.

Disputes and tensions in the South China Sea remain a worrying fault line.

International rules and norms are coming under great pressure there.

Australia's position on the South China Sea is longstanding.

We don't take sides on competing territorial claims, but we do have a substantial interest in the stability of this crucial international waterway, and the norms and laws that govern it.

We call on all claimants to resolve disputes in accordance with international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

International rules and norms such as these are vital for protecting the interests of all states.

These rules and norms have served us well, and it's up to all of us to ensure they endure.

We have noticed that, since his election, Dr Mahathir has himself repeatedly emphasised the importance of the rule of law domestically.

But I'd also like to suggest that international law is just as important – particularly to countries like Malaysia and Australia.

For without it, "might" becomes "right", and the bigger are able to push around the smaller.

The vulnerable and the less powerful in the global community become more susceptible to influence, interference and coercion – just as the vulnerable suffer in a domestic society when the rule of law is not upheld.

While rules and norms can be valuable for all sorts of states, they have particular significance for small and medium-sized states, which need to rely on them – and not on great power – to defend their interests.

And so it is for this reason that Australia focuses so keenly on upholding international law – as the best means to protect the rights of all states, whatever their size.

Australia is pleased to see many of our regional partners echoing similar points to ours as they articulate their own Indo-Pacific visions and agendas.

And we also are backing this vision with action, including in such crucial areas as enhancing maritime security.

This is already an area of significant cooperation with Malaysia and other regional neighbours, and we look forward to continuing and expanding this effort.

Regional economic integration and prosperity

A further major priority of our Indo-Pacific agenda is economic integration to boost growth in ways that reduce the risks of strategic rivalry.

Ongoing trade tensions between the United States and China are a serious concern.

Australia calls for both parties to resolve their disagreements in ways that open markets in line with the principle of non-discrimination and strengthen the multilateral trading system.

Australia's overarching commitment is to an open and inclusive economic architecture, for the world and for our region.

We believe the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership has a key role to play in that regard.

We also see a modern, high-quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as another important stepping stone in regional economic integration.

And we remain strongly committed to APEC.

We look forward to your usual strong support for open markets when Malaysia hosts APEC in 2020.

Dr Mahathir's oft-quoted views about Malaysia being a trading nation are music to the ears of another trading nation like Australia.

Our shared prosperity requires a shared and sustained commitment to economic openness.

Elsewhere, we've also recently announced significant new economic governance and infrastructure initiatives, as we believe these are crucial long-term priorities for the region as a whole to address.

Malaysia, a regional leader

So, where does Australia see Malaysia in all of this?

In short, a capable, respected state that can make a real difference.

Our region thrives when many countries are strong in themselves, resilient and forward-looking.

Australia considers Malaysia's first democratic change of government to be a major event for our region.

Malaysia has shown the world how democratic change reflecting the will of the Malaysian people can occur peacefully and respectfully.

Indonesia's Presidential elections tell a similar story.

Malaysia has a unique credibility on the world stage.

When Malaysia speaks, other countries listen.

This not least because Dr Mahathir is a leader of immense regional and global experience.

And so we believe that Malaysia has a key role to play in shaping the future of our region.

Malaysia and Australia are natural partners when it comes to defending and advancing the order that has been the basis of our region's stability.

Of course, Australia and Malaysia have a long history of working together for peace and prosperity.

To this audience, I do not feel I need to list those well-known areas of cooperation.

But I will highlight that, just last week, the High Commissioner, alongside Australian and Malaysian military and police colleagues, unveiled a roll of honour commemorating the 63 Australians who died in Malaysia in post-World War II conflicts.

It is just that sort of long-standing, tremendously deep cooperation – in this and many other areas besides – that makes me very confident we are two countries which share similar perspectives and are willing to work together for the regional good.

Moreover, since the 2018 election, Australia has been partnering with Malaysia in a wide range of new areas, strengthening links between our democratic institutions in support of Malaysia's reform agenda.

This includes working together on parliamentary reform, electoral reform, judicial training, media and public service cooperation, economic policy exchanges, discussions on human rights, higher education financing, English language teaching – and more!

As an another example, later this week, the High Commission will be co-hosting a Gender Policy Dialogue with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

I have focused on this particular agenda very keenly as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and look forward to hearing about the outcomes of the Dialogue, as I'm sure my department could learn yet more from such an exchange of ideas.

And I believe that is just the latest phase of what could be even closer cooperation between us.

I had the pleasure of attending a lunch today which the High Commissioner hosted for a group of Deputy Ministers from across the portfolios, and including the Speaker of the Lower House, the Attorney General and the Chair of the Election Commission, and came away with a real sense of enthusiasm and potential about what we can achieve together.


Let me conclude with the observation that our region is at an important moment of change.

Australia has a vision for a prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and we will continue to work hard to achieve that goal.

As a significant nation, with considerable influence and relevant perspectives, Malaysia also has a key role to play in shaping the type of region in which we will live together.

I look forward to seeing the Malaysia-Australia relationship develop further in the years ahead, in both this regional arena, but also in our deepening bilateral cooperation together.

Through our combined efforts, we can continue to build a relationship and region that is strategically secure, economically stable and where the sovereign rights of all states are respected.

In that, I believe, we genuinely have a shared vision and an important agenda for working together.

Last Updated: 2 May 2019
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