Launch of Rory Medcalf book: Contest for the Indo-Pacific - Why China Won’t Map the Future

  • Speech, check against delivery
Australian National University, Canberra

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, diplomats, excellencies, leaders of our public sector, the Chief of Navy I see in the front row here, and so many friends and colleagues who have joined us here tonight, but most particularly the author, Professor Medcalf, thank you for your welcome and your kind introduction, Helen. Please pass on our best wishes from a long distance to Brian.

May I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet here this evening, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

I also welcome my colleague in the Senate, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong. We are both I presume in the midst of estimates travails of one sort or another and you will hopefully excuse at the very least my early departure during this evening’s proceedings.

It is, as Helen has reminded us, always good to be here at the ANU, and particularly here at the National Security College. ANU itself is an institution that has led and defined our national discourse for decades.

It want to start by congratulating our author, by congratulating Professor Medcalf on Contest for the Indo-Pacific and its US version, which as Rory reminds me has to have the word “America” in to be sold in the United States productively.

The opportunities and the challenges that are explored in this work are not actually academic. As Australia’s Foreign Minister, I and the Government deal with them in one way or another every day.

I want to focus tonight on how we perceive and how we respond to the notion of a “contest”. There is a somewhat persistent chorus about how we live in a time of “great power competition”, but really that begs the question of whether that’s all that’s going on in the 21st century.

And I think it’s far from the reality.

The numerous risks and challenges facing our region, which are supercharged by unprecedented connectivity and technology, have motivated us to think hard about how we define, and actively project, our national voice in what is admittedly a much more complex world.

We cannot, and we will not, be a passive player as the world changes in our region and more broadly.

As power, wealth and influence has moved rapidly back to our region in recent decades, Australia is well-placed to contribute to shaping what Rory observes as the “centre of gravity in a connected world”.

That is what our region expects of us. Across the region, our perspectives are highly regarded as a valuable contribution that has real and tangible influence.

That includes:

  • our steadfast support for free and liberal trading rules, which have underpinned Australia’s 29 years of consecutive annual economic growth
  •   our clear, unequivocal advocacy of resilient, sovereign states that determine their own futures in their national interests and cooperate on the basis of shared interests
  •   our defence of individual human rights and freedoms in the face of illiberal and authoritarian oppression
  •   our practical and positive vision for an Indo-Pacific in which states and individuals make their own decisions free from coercion and intimidation.

And as the contest for the future of our region intensifies, we are clear in articulating and promoting the fact that Australia’s perspectives, Australia’s values, Australia’s principles have universal application.

The Government is focused on playing our role in shaping the evolution of the Indo-Pacific in ways that advance the interests of Australia and other countries in the region.

The environment that will best support us through the 2030s and beyond is one that is open, inclusive and prosperous — and this is the one that we will continue to promote.

It is in this vein that I commend Rory’s contribution. It has pirates, elephants, dragons, empires, presidents and a phantom menace. It is fast-paced, a letter to the Indo-Pacific that is fundamentally optimistic about the role that Australia can play.

As Professor Medcalf rightly reflects, Australia was the first government to formally start using the concept of the Indo-Pacific as our strategic framework for the critical region in which we live.

In fact, we have been using the term Indo-Pacific for almost as long as Rory.

Australia is a nation deeply ingrained in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The term Indo-Pacific, as the book records, serves as a signal that we do not, and should not, see our region in terms of false binaries. Our region is made up of much more than the strategic competition between the United States and China.

Indeed, we share one of the core premises of Professor Medcalf’s book: that the regional players, not just the global superpowers, can have a profound impact in shaping the region’s future.

Australia is doing this through our expanded and deepened engagement both through our Pacific Step-up and with the region more broadly.

Our approach to the Indo-Pacific has ASEAN centrality at its heart. As ASEAN nations said last year in their Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, they want a region marked by peace, stability, security and prosperity. So do we.

As the Prime Minister has said, this means backing the rights of all nations, large and small, to make their own decisions — to be who they are.

We are engaged at all levels with our Southeast Asian friends and neighbours. In February, I became the first Australian foreign minister to make a bilateral visit to Brunei. I travelled again to Indonesia in early December with Minister Reynolds for our annual 2+2 meeting. And of course, we recently hosted and welcomed President Widodo here in Australia. Before that, my counterpart from Malaysia, Saifuddin Abdullah.

In fact, on a cursory examination of the last few years, I know that I’ve visited nine out of 10 — one to go — of the ASEANs, either as Defence Minister or Foreign Minister for very productive exchanges and engagements.

Our relationships in the region have grown and changed. They are richer and more varied than in the past, and they reflect Southeast Asia’s growing economic heft — shown in particular by things like the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which again has ASEAN at its core.

The Indo-Pacific region has its share of challenges, as I said: long-term shifts in power relativities, unpredictable development trajectories, economic instability from time to time and the need for infrastructure, the recognition of the impact of natural disasters and climate change amongst them.

New and complex challenges will emerge over the coming years, and a reading of the final chapter of Professor Medcalf’s book adverts to many of those, but the key principles that guide our engagement with the region must remain consistent.

  •   a commitment to open markets with trade relationships based on rules, not coercion
  •   an approach which protects sovereignty and builds resilience
  •   respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes, without the threat or use of coercive power
  •   a commitment to supporting ASEAN centrality, and strong and resilient regional architecture.

We are putting these principles into practice every day. Our focus is on:

  •   encouraging the strongest possible US engagement in the region’s economic and security affairs, based on our enduring Alliance
  •   working more closely than ever before with other partners like Japan, Indonesia, India, South Korea and Vietnam
  •   a constructive relationship with China, whereby we pursue the key aspects of our broader relationship and trade, all the while managing those issues on which we have differences
  •   both stepping up in the Pacific across the board and maintaining our focus on continuing to be a partner of choice in Southeast Asia
  •   building resilience and leading collaboration on issues such as cyber security, infrastructure development and maritime security
  •   and speaking up to preserve the established rules and norms to guide constructive cooperation.

This is an agenda that has a great deal of momentum behind it. Across the entire government, we are putting our shoulders to the same wheel.

So as challenging as our strategic paradigm is, Rory’s book is not essentially pessimistic — and nor are we.

It has been a challenging start to the decade. I don’t know about you, but Christmas seems a very, very long time ago. We’ve had significant bushfires. We’ve seen the tensions between Iran and the United States. We have the outbreak of a coronavirus, the impacts of which are still playing out.

Ladies and gentlemen, as Australian policymakers grapple with these challenges, Professor Medcalf has in his work before us today, made what I regard as a deeply insightful and timely contribution that I commend to you all.

Thank you all for your support and interest this evening. I wish Professor Medcalf the very best with his work, here in Australia and internationally and I look forward to hearing much more from those who have the opportunity to read it.

Thank you.

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