Challenges ahead as our dynamic region rises

  • Articles and op-ed

The greatest expansion of prosperity in human history has occurred in the decades following World War II, supported by the international rules-based order that has been steadily built during that time. 

This order – a web of alliances, treaties and institutions underpinned by international law – was designed to prevent a repeat of past eras where powerful nations invaded or coerced other nations, leading to conflict that inflicted untold human suffering.

The Australian Government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper reinforces the importance of that order to our prosperity and security.

The White Paper also details how that order has supported the rise of other nations, particularly in our region of the Indo-Pacific.

But the rules-based order is under challenge, including from nations pursuing short-term gain, through selective circumvention or violation of international law, and rising protectionist sentiment in many countries.

It is vital that all nations support and strengthen that order so that the era since World War II, known as the ‘Long Peace’, is maintained. This will allow other developing nations to continue to grow.

Globalisation, which has been facilitated by technological advances and the embrace of free trade and open markets, continues to accelerate economic integration between regional countries and the rest of the world.       

These foundations and forces have seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty.

There is still much potential for the Indo-Pacific region to develop, which also brings great opportunities for Australia. 

It is worth noting that only three of the top 20 global economies, when measured by GDP per capita terms, are in the Indo-Pacific.

The majority of regional countries are yet to reach the status of fully industrialised and high-income economies. 

By some estimates, the middle class in our region will increase five-fold from about 600 million currently to three billion by 2035. 

In international politics, the conditions for continued peace, stability and prosperity can never be taken for granted and must be reinforced by all nations.

North Korea’s illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs and the use of these to threaten other countries constitute the most direct challenge to the region and world. 

Beyond the menace of Pyongyang, we exist in a region where there are unsettled territorial disputes and pre-existing rivalries dating back decades, even centuries. 

To a large extent, the prospects for continued peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific depend on our capacity to manage the consequences of rising prosperity and wealth – which is overwhelmingly a blessing.

Rising national wealth enables nations to invest more in their military. Defence outlays in the region expanded over 5.5% in the last financial year, which easily outpaced the 1% overall increase in global military spending.

By 2020, the combined military budgets of regional countries will likely match or exceed military spending by the United States for the first time in at least a century.

Even though the US is likely to remain the world’s only superpower in the decade ahead, we have never been in an era where there has been a powerful China, Japan and India at the same time.

Many nations in Southeast and South Asia are just beginning their rise.

Australia welcomes the emergence of new powers outside our traditional network of security allies and partners.

This is precisely what a free and open international rules-based order is designed to achieve, by supporting the emergence of increasingly prosperous and powerful nations willingly participating in that system.

Our collective challenge is to ensure that all nations use their growing power responsibly – that while benefitting from participation in the rules-based order they respect and strengthen that order at the same time.  

Australia is well placed to play a constructive and influential role despite being in a region that is becoming more contested and competitive. 

We are one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world and we place a high value on our institutions and are mindful of the positive regard in which our successful democracy and pluralistic society is held.

Although we do not seek to impose our values on other countries, Australia will remain a vocal champion of and advocate for respecting international law, free societies and open economies, underpinned by strong independent institutions and the rule of law.

We have a long-standing alliance with the only superpower in the world in the foreseeable future in the United States, the roots of which are deep and continue to grow.

Under the Coalition government, Australia’s relationships with Japan, South Korea, India and key ASEAN states such as Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have never been stronger. 

Australia and China are Comprehensive Strategic Partners with a constructive and respectful relationship.

The White Paper further explains how Australia will use our domestic capabilities, international standing and strong relationships to pursue our strategic and economic interests, and promote our values in the decade ahead.

It outlines an ambitious and proactive approach to the way we engage with the region and rest of the world.  

It is also a practical document to guide policy in a way that is relevant to the daily lives of Australian citizens. 

This includes drawing inspiration from existing initiatives such as the New Colombo Plan, which will have enabled more than 30,000 young Australians to live, study and work in our region by the end of next year.

They will develop friendships, create networks and gain an understanding of the region that will last a lifetime. 

We will continue to make long-term investments in our regional relationships which will pay dividends for decades to come.

In these uncertain times ahead, Australia will approach the next decade with ambition, confidence and purpose.

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