Building a cohesive Indo-Pacific

  • Speech (check against delivery)
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra

Thank you very much Frances and good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Let me also begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting this morning, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

Excellencies, heads of mission, senior officials, distinguished guests, I want to add to Frances’ warm welcome to you all here to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It has been a phenomenally busy year for all of us and yet we have seen very little of each other face-to-face — except virtually of course — so it is good to see in person so many friendly and familiar faces together in one place this morning.

Frances, may I acknowledge you and Paul Symon for your leadership of the organisation through a very, very difficult year. It is also a good opportunity to thank your excellencies and your governments for the cooperation that we have all so enthusiastically embraced in 2020. The coronavirus has no interest in international politics — none whatsoever. It affects us all without fear or favour or bias.

And imagine how much more difficult it would have been without the cooperation that has been engendered and developed across the international spectrum. Together, we are gradually getting through the pandemic. We certainly still have a way to go, but that cooperation has taken the edge off some of the worst outcomes.

We can also be buoyed by the number of COVID-19 vaccine frontrunners, with the UK’s approval this week of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as a tangible reason for optimism.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world has changed dramatically in the first two decades of this century. An Australian born today — and this is slightly terrifying — can expect to be alive at the beginning of the 22nd Century. They will witness change we can’t possible yet imagine. But nowhere is change happening more rapidly than in our region, in the Indo-Pacific.

The character of the regional and international order that emerges will determine the security and the prosperity of Australians and our partners over the course of this century.

The Indo-Pacific, as Frances said, is in a period of strategic competition. As that competition evolves, we have agency and influence to contribute to shaping our region through the decisions we make, and the actions that we take.

Australia will be true to our values and respectful of the fundamental rules and norms that have stood the test of time. The order based on these rules and norms has served all countries in the region well. These are not necessarily static, but their reform should be pursued through negotiation, not through the exercise of power.

Australia will compete constructively. We will do so by investing in our regional partnerships, building long-term trust and confidence, and by working with our partners, both because we share values and interests, and because by working together we amplify what we each do separately.

Sometimes, the commentary in media and even the foreign policy community suggests that the US and China are the whole story, but they’re not.

Indo-Pacific nations beyond those have considerable weight in their own right. Together, these countries generated more than 20 per cent of global GDP last year. As Professor Rory Medcalf noted in his recent book on the Indo-Pacific, Australia, India, Japan and Indonesia are projected to have a combined population of over 2 billion people by 2050 — which will be 50 per cent larger than that of China, and four-and-a-half times larger than the US.

Regional powers have genuine agency and influence. None of us is a bystander — and Australia most certainly won’t be. We have a positive vision for our region and we are taking action to realise it.

I think Australia is well-positioned in this environment. We are a regional power with a strong and resilient economy. Through sound, pragmatic policy-making and the willingness of Australians to work together, we are making consistent progress on our path to recovery from COVID-19 — though we know well that this is a long road.

We have a strong strategic outlook in clear alignment with a number of like-minded countries. We have a sound reputation as a country that constructively approaches issues with enthusiasm, fairness, equality, openness and pragmatism.

There is no actual blueprint for a region that supports our interests. And I suspect that anyone who perhaps thought they had a blueprint in 2019 would have been in for a rude shock in 2020. But there are core principles that stem from our values and that can guide our response. Foreign policy isn’t an abstract concept to be carried out in international spaces. Ours is a projection of our nation’s, and our people’s, values and principles.

We have a vision for our region that is open. Security and prosperity are most assured when the movement of goods and services, people, and information is as open and free as possible.

And we believe in an inclusive region. The many and varied voices and perspectives of Australians are part of our character. It’s a principle that can benefit all of our region.

We need a prosperous and resilient region that has the strength to bounce back from shocks like COVID-19. A healthy region supports and protects a healthy Australia with higher living standards.

Rules, norms, and institutions provide fairness and predictability to Australians through our society and legal system at home. We believe that the same approach benefits the international community, including in our region.

Our goals resonate with partners across the Indo-Pacific as diverse as Japan, India, the United States, Southeast Asia through ASEAN, as well as throughout Europe.

We believe that our vision is accessible to all and is to the benefit of all. The endeavour of shaping the future of our region won’t be completed this year or next. It’s a long-term effort, to which Australia is committed. But taking the easy road today won’t make life any better for those Australians who might see the next century.

I want to discuss Australia’s work to bring about this vision this morning. In short, we’re investing. We’re investing in people, in economies, in security and systems, to help to keep our region strong. We are doing so through policies such as our COVID-19 vaccine program for the Pacific and Southeast Asia, our Pacific economic recovery package and our additional Southeast Asia initiatives recently announced.

We are also helping to grow and sustain a network of vital partnerships — bilaterally but also through important fora such as ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, through the Pacific Islands Forum, as well as through specific arrangements including the recently signed RCEP, the CPTPP and PACER Plus trade agreements.

We are also working more closely with groupings that extend further afield, including the G20, APEC, the OECD and our EU partners.

This year — and I am avoiding using the phrase ‘the year unlike no other’ — the Prime Minister and I, along with many other Cabinet colleagues, have been in — albeit virtual — overdrive building deeper connections with our partners overseas in ways that advance our national interests.

In 2020, Australia has signed a new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India, founded in many years of diplomatic relations, many years of welcoming a broad Indian diaspora to Australia, supported by Frances’ predecessor, Peter Varghese in the development of the India Economic Strategy, predicated on a firm bilateral relationship founded in democratic values. It is a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership led by Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Modi that is literally taking the Australia-India relationship to the next level.

We’ve signed a Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership with Papua New Guinea — physically our closest neighbour, a neighbour with whom we share generations of history in our region, a neighbour with whom we share a deep and abiding commitment to support Papua New Guinea in their development and their growth. That Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership changes fundamentally the trajectory of the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship for the better, for many, many years into the future.

We’ve recently signed a Strategic Partnership with Thailand. We’ve finalised the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Indonesia, and a Plan of Action with Vietnam to deliver on our Strategic Partnership. We continue to work to elevate our cooperation with other key partners in the near future, including across a multiplicity of trade endeavours, including an Australia-EU FTA and an Australia-UK FTA.

Last month, the Prime Minister announced an in-principle agreement for a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan to improve interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and the Japan Self-Defense Forces, that underlines our commitment to regional security and stability. And in fact, in this year of COVID-travel challenge, the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence  Senator Reynolds and I have travelled to Japan in the past few months. Those visits testify to the enormous potential for further growth in that relationship.

In one of the only two visits internationally that I have made since March because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, our very successful Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations in July reinforced our Alliance, our practical cooperation and the strong relationship of trust and respect between Australia and the United States. We look ahead to the inauguration of a new Administration in January, and I acknowledge and thank my friend AB Ambassador Culvahouse for his duty and service here as Ambassador.

We’ve progressed our work with the Quad through a second ministerial meeting hosted by Japan. For Australia, the Quad is a creative, diplomatic grouping with a positive agenda for our region. It is one way, among many, for the pursuit of our regional interests in the Indo-Pacific — which have ASEAN at their core.

And the Pacific Islands Forum is at the centre of our COVID-19 response, including working together to establish protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission across the region.

With Japan and the United States, we have recently announced the first project under our Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership — an undersea telecommunications cable to the Republic of Palau, demonstrating our collective will and capacity to pool resources and provide high-quality, sustainable critical infrastructure that serves the genuine needs of the people of Indo-Pacific.

As global challenges mount, and as trust is an increasingly important commodity, partnerships such as all of these and many more are invaluable.

One development I particularly want to highlight is ASEAN’s agreement to hold annual leaders’ summits with Australia, making us a premier partner with the grouping that lies at the heart of our vision for a secure, stable, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

The growth of Australia’s relationship with ASEAN epitomises the way we are building our networks in the Indo-Pacific, growing an even stronger backbone of stability for the region.

Our region’s shared response to the COVID-19 pandemic has, I think, helped affirm the true meaning of the phrase “Pacific family” and to the wider concept of regional cooperation.

We have to absolutely acknowledge and commend the efforts Pacific island countries have made to keep the pandemic out of their countries. They have enforced travel restrictions early. They have ensured they had health responses ready, but it does come with a strong economic impact.

That’s particularly so for the tourism-dependent economies of our friends in Fiji and Vanuatu, for example. We know that the Pacific region is facing a greater than 6 percent contraction in 2020 and the barest growth in 2021.

Pacific governments face declines in revenue, in foreign reserves and in cash balances. Australia’s response has had to be swift and practical, while still in line with our economic principles.

To address the new and serious challenges of COVID-19, we also pivoted our development program to where we could most make a difference in the COVID-19 era: pivoted to health security, to stability and economic recovery of our Pacific and Southeast Asian neighbours. In the last four months of the 2019-20 financial year, over 400 individual programs worth $840 million contributed to COVID-19 response priorities through our development strategy, Partnerships for Recovery — a very significant undertaking for Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials and for our partner countries.

We are providing $304.7 million in new funding for a COVID-19 Response Package, to support the Pacific and Timor-Leste in delivering temporary, targeted economic and fiscal assistance with a focus on supporting vulnerable people in their communities.

Today, I can announce that funding from the Response Package will also be used for a Sustainable Pacific Air Connectivity Program, to support the re-establishment of safe, reliable, affordable and financially sustainable air connectivity in the region. This includes immediate funding to the Pacific Aviation Safety Office, to help ensure that when flights resume, they do so safely.

This builds on measures we have taken to support critical air routes, to maintain an essential services and humanitarian corridor to the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

Australia has worked with other members of the Pacific Islands Forum to establish key protocols to mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19 across the region, to make the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway fully operational. The World Food Program has been an important partner in this work.

Southeast Asian nations, with larger populations and larger economies, have faced different challenges. Many health systems have been hit hard, and the pandemic threatens to undermine the many significant achievements in economic growth and poverty reduction over the past two decades.

This is clearly not in the region’s interests. It is not in Australia’s interests. A poorer region is a less stable one. Just as the region’s emergence has assisted Australia’s prosperity, how the Indo-Pacific responds to, and recovers from, COVID-19 will shape the trajectory of our own economic recovery.

In the immediate term, Australia is supporting partner governments to navigate the economic slowdown, reduce the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable in their communities. We are providing advice in economic stimulus packages and trade policies to keep markets and businesses functioning, and helping governments to avoid debt distress.

We are also supporting partner governments on pathways to longer-term recovery, including the important revitalisation of export markets, accessing finance for trade and investment, and supporting job-creation, including for women in those communities.

We will continue our advocacy on open trade to stimulate a shared economic recovery across the Indo-Pacific. We want to make sure that the recovery will not undo the key economic principles that have driven economic prosperity over so many decades.

This is why our commitment to trade agreements such as the RCEP and the CPTPP is so important. These trade agreements can, and should, be measured in dollar figures for our exporters, but they also set expectations — expectations for trade and investment to be based on transparent rules and standards — and help deter arbitrary barriers to the flow of goods and services.

The more that we build confidence and trust in a system of rules, the harder it will be for countries to breach those rules.

Much of what Australia does, from trade to security to development, is about ensuring our neighbours, our partners, our friends have trust and confidence that we will deal fairly and have the best interests of our region front of mind.

As with trade and economics, so with our development program. Our goal is to work together to grow our region.

We know that a successful vaccine or vaccines will be a key to unlocking a post-COVID-19 future. Our vaccination program, for which we have pledged over $500 million to complement our $80 million contribution to the multilateral COVAX Facility, is Australia’s recognition of this.

We will work with our partner governments in the region to help ensure that the Pacific and Timor-Leste have access to sufficient vaccines to achieve full population coverage. We will do this by working in partnership with other donors and through a combination of financing the purchase or pre-purchase of vaccines, and sharing vaccines obtained through our own advance purchase agreements — subject to Australia’s domestic requirements and the suitability of various vaccines for specific countries.

We will also work with regional governments and international partners to contribute to the vaccination of Southeast Asia, starting with frontline and vulnerable populations.

There’s an immense challenge involved in vaccinating a region.

Pacific populations are separated by vast distances, difficult geographies, and in many cases carry underlying health and other disease challenges.

As well as completing regulatory assessments of prospective vaccines, each country needs to develop policies on priority populations and establish distribution arrangements. Strengthened surveillance systems to monitor vaccine coverage and safety; public information and education campaigns; and training and mobilising healthcare and allied workers are essential elements for a successful vaccine programme and implementation.

Our vaccine purchases will come with strong technical support. Australia is consulting with the health ministries of 19 countries, as well as developing an over-arching regional strategy.

At the same time, we will continue to cooperate closely with other donor countries and trusted organisations in our region such as WHO Pacific office in Suva, the World Food Programme and UNICEF, and align with other sources of finance and advice, including the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the Global Fund and Gavi — the Vaccine Alliance.

Southeast Asia, meanwhile, has a different set of challenges — not least countries’ much larger populations. Australia will work with other partners to maximise the availability of vaccines where the needs are greatest.

None of this is a low-risk endeavour, given the scale and the complexity, but the rewards could be enormous. A swift rollout of a safe, affordable and effective vaccine that will protect our health, restore our confidence in travel, tourism and trade, and stimulate a shared economic recovery would be a huge stride forward.

More broadly across Southeast Asia, at the ASEAN-Australia Summit last month, the Prime Minister announced a package of funding to support the development of maritime resources, high-quality infrastructure, and a major investment the Mekong sub-region, with scholarships, technical assistance and a boost to cyber and critical technology capabilities.

It’s a package makes clear our continued commitment to the region’s recovery, its resilience and security, in line with ASEAN’s priorities under the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific — the priorities of maritime, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation.

Ladies and gentlemen, all of these engagements support regional stability. Stability does not magically emerge. It’s earned by governments that are able to meet the core needs of their people. We know that a desperate society is often an unstable one.

Australia is supporting good governance in the face of the strain imposed by the pandemic in the Indo-Pacific. In Timor-Leste, for example, we have helped the Government to deliver social assistance payments that have benefitted 95 percent of households. We have also helped draft legislation and operation guidelines, and developed a new payment system.

Indonesia has provided financial support to households at an unprecedented scale, more than doubling the original 2020 budget for social assistance there. Australia is providing technical advice, working with the Indonesian Government to support the expansion of programs and design of new initiatives.

This work reinforces the social contract between governments and their citizens.

National stability and regional stability go together — and helping one another achieve this goes to the heart of partnerships.

Another critical element of a stable and peaceful society is gender equality. We know there is a risk that COVID-19 will reverse hard-won gains on women’s health and safety, on economic empowerment, on leadership and resilience — with implications for overall prosperity, stability and security.

It is therefore essential that women’s leadership and participation are core to our recovery efforts from COVID-19.

Australia is helping women-owned and led enterprises in Southeast Asia and the Pacific to contribute to the economic recovery by improving access for women entrepreneurs to tailored financial mechanisms and to domestic and overseas market opportunities.

We are also making sure our efforts to end violence against women and girls in the Indo-Pacific region are as effective as possible in the COVID-19 context and build on our already strong record.

I was very pleased to secure the agreement of the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers to elevate Pacific women leaders’ discussions onto the formal PIF meeting agenda. I hope to receive the support of Pacific Islands Forum leaders.

This year, Australia and Samoa have co-hosted two virtual meetings of Pacific women — over 30 women from 18 different countries — senior officials, Ministers, members of the parliament and representatives of regional organisations. And a third meeting of the group is in the planning.

In the hours — I think merging into days and weeks — that I have spent in front of screens in the past nine months, those meetings stand out for me as a beacon of opportunity and hope for women in our region.

I think that you always want your friends and partners to be strong, healthy and resilient, and to have the confidence to maintain and defend their sovereignty and freedom of choice.

Supporting your friends and partners, and serving your own national interest, are not mutually exclusive. They are indeed mutually reinforcing. A healthy, cohesive community — including an international community — is, I think, a good place to live.

It is invaluable to Australia that our neighbours know that we can rely on each other in a crisis. And we have seen that all year. It is the kind of country that we must and will be. I think it is a reputation to be proud of. It is one that will put us in good stead to influence our region for better in the decades to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, in joining us here this morning I want to again acknowledge and thank you for the work and the cooperation that has been so generously extended across 2020 — not just here through DFAT, through your embassies and high commissions, but across the globe, from your foreign ministers, your leaders, your trade ministers, development ministers, many, many of whom I have had personal and direct contact with in a way that is tangibly different from 2019 and 2018 and for years before that — but nevertheless in a very, very important way.

And the message I would like you all to take back please to your capitals is the grateful thanks of this Foreign Minister in Australia for that 24-hour availability, when the clocks around the world have Australia at a greatest disadvantage. It is an absolute pleasure to see the smiling faces of my colleagues from all of your countries, all of your continents, with whom I have had constant contact through 2020.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that I think the key to survival in 2020 has been cooperation. I absolutely mean that and absolutely reinforce the importance of those engagements and that cooperation, virtual though it may be.

I’m not sure it is ever going to be possible to replicate it in person, but it has been essential and it comes with my greatest respect and my grateful, grateful thanks to all of you for that.

May I wish you all the very best for the festive season, for Christmas and for the New Year. 2021 is going to be a better year, but 2021 will be the best year if we can continue our work together and if we can continue to deliver for our communities, for our regions and for our world.

Thank you very much.

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