Resilience in the Indo-Pacific: A conversation with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Resilience in the Indo–Pacific.
American Enterprise Institute
18 September 2021

Kori Schake: Good afternoon, my friends. I’m Kori Schake the Director of Defence Strategy – oh, I’m in my old job. I’m Kori Schake, the Head of the Foreign and Defence Policy Team here at the American Enterprise Institute, and it’s my great honour today to welcome Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Women’s Affairs here to the American Enterprise Institute. Marise Payne is a Senator from New South Wales. She was the first female Defence Minister in Australia’s history. She is now the Foreign Minister, the Minister for Women’s Affairs and if you will indulge me somebody whose career has so exemplified the American Enterprise Institute’s values of defending human dignity, expanding human potential and making the world a freer and safer place. Won’t you join me in welcoming Minister Payne? 


Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Kori, for your extremely warm welcome and it’s a great pleasure to be here at the American Enterprise Institute. I know it’s an organisation with a very strong focus on both academic and policy independence – it is a pleasure to see a real live audience. That’s a bonus if you’re from Sydney right now – and to say how much I appreciate the work of the institute in particular, including in bringing together today’s event. We know that the institute has a very proud record of achievement in your research today focusing on the critical issues in the Indo–Pacific, for example, ensuring that we are maintaining our sovereignty. Now, we’re benefiting from technological development, growing our economies and safeguarding our people in the face of sometimes significant challenges, that research makes a very valuable contribution, and it’s a great pleasure to see you again. 

I am very pleased to be here in Washington, DC, on what is the 70th anniversary of the formal Australia–US alliance, the ANZUS Treaty signed 70 years ago this month. The alliance was formed in the awake of World War II and the enormous destruction, the loss of life was still painfully fresh. Although our troops first fought side by side in 1918 on the battlefields of France, of which I was compelling reminded at Arlington this morning, ours was still a new partnership in 1951 when the ANZUS Treaty was signed in San Francisco by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Australia’s Ambassador to the United States Percy Spender. It was a partnership for Asia. A partnership to preserve peace and security through which we pledged to act to meet the common danger. Now, our region is identified with the Indo–Pacific, but the mission even 70 years on remains at its core the same: to work together in line with our values, to keep our people safe, and to preserve and enhance the peace and the stability of our neighbourhood. We remain as committed as ever to that goal as we face new and more complex challenges.

Over the past 70 years, the commitment made by the United States to the Indo–Pacific has facilitated a period of unparalleled peace and strategic stability. It has underwritten decades of economic growth and stability. During my time as the Minister for Defence, now as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I’ve often joined with counterparts to affirm the Indo–Pacific focus of our alliance. The 31st Australia–US Ministerial Consultations this week, my sixth, and the trilateral security announcement made by our countries, along with the UK, have showed once again that as a strategic environment and the challenges evolve we must and will adapt. 

In the twentieth century, the geographic frame that drove much of global affairs was the Atlantic and Europe. The two world wars that were sparked in Europe went on to rewrite the global network of power, and today the Indo–Pacific is the epicentre of both global opportunity and strategic competition. We see escalating tensions over maritime and territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea; the increasing use of coercion, including economic pressure; arbitrary detention; the use of malicious cyber-activities, disinformation; foreign interference; technology as a central arena for competition; and, of course, the continued and devastating scourge of terrorism. 

Overlaying, and in some cases compounding these tools of competition and security threats, is the global pandemic that has taken its toll on the vulnerable populations of the region and indeed weakened institutions. This is a context in which Australia knows we cannot be a bystander. We are involved. We must be involved. My message here today is that Australia means to actively and purposely contribute to shaping our region during this period of challenge. We’ll do this in cooperation with partners, including through our alliance with the United States. We regard it as vital that we compete to preserve and shape the international order that has underpinned decades of stability and prosperity. 

Australia and the United States have a shared vision for the Indo–Pacific. We share a commitment to a region defined by openness, a place where freedom of navigation in accordance with international law is a given, where there’s a driving marketplace for the free flow of goods, of people and ideas. Our two nations share a commitment to an Indo–Pacific that is inclusive, a region where we respect and engage in the regional architecture built by the people who live here, and a region in which the many voices perspectives and players are respected. 

ASEAN is central, a grouping that represents the will of sovereign countries to work together to ensure their region is not dominated by any one nation. The dynamics of our region are changing rapidly as a constellation of nations charts new pathways – most obviously China with its rapid economic growth and increasing assertiveness. This is putting pressure on the system of international laws, rules and norms that have been carefully built over generations to keep states from transgressing upon the interests of others; and if we are to preserve a region in which the rights and sovereignty of all nations are respected, irrespective of their size or power, then it’s up to each of us to contribute to ensuring that while those rules and norms necessarily evolve with the times, they maintain the core principles that have long worked in the interests of all. 

Of course, states in our region have individual strengths to contribute. Before coming to Washington, I visited Jakarta, New Delhi and Seoul. Each recognises that the Indo–Pacific is key to reign in strategic competition, and many of the issues that I’ve discussed in Washington are also the subject of discussion in those other capitals. Countries in our region have agency and independence to chart their own course. They have their own perspectives. Australia, the United States, and other partners do and will need to work hard to make sure that our vision for an open, secure, inclusive, resilient, prosperous Indo–Pacific is shared and embraced, and not misunderstood. The way that vision is put into practice does, will, vary from state to state. We are each different sovereign nations. We’re inclusive in how we work with others to achieve this outcome. 

Like the United States, Australia is a very proud democracy. We believe it serves the needs of its people as no other political system. But we don’t seek to impose this system on others. Importantly, our values are consistent with the interests of our partners. Our two countries have demonstrated that democracy delivers. The United States has been the world’s largest economy for more than a century, while Australia enjoyed continuous economic growth for an unheard of 29 years before the pandemic struck. These successes at home form the basis for solid and effective foreign policy. Australia knows that our ability to shape our region depends on having a strength and a resilience to be a credible voice and to have influence with others. 

Our alliance is up to the task of turning our values and our principles into practical action that strengthens our region. And to safeguard our security and our prosperity, we undertake joint military exercises. We draw on the strength of our highly interoperable Defence Forces, including in exercise Talisman Sabre, the latest of which concluded last month. US Marines rotate through Darwin on a regular basis. We’ve long had Australian military personnel posted in the United States. Since the Korean War, we have often been the first ally to contribute forces alongside the United States. Our contribution and our sacrifice continue today, and most recently in Afghanistan.

Today ANZUS itself, at 70 years of age, is much more than just a military alliance. It also reflects our strong and vital economic links, particularly trade and investment, with businesses and companies on both sides of the Pacific reaching across to invest in each other’s future. 2020 marked 15 years since the United States Free Trade Agreement entered into force. Bringing both certainty and stability along with its liberalising effects, the Australia–US Free Trade Agreement has helped two-way trade double and two-way investment triple since it entered into force. 

Now the AUKUS partnership, which will bring together our technology, our scientists, our industry and our Defence Forces, will build significantly on our existing cooperation with the United States in key areas, including guided missile technology, hypersonic aviation, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There’s enormous potential in the future areas of collaboration, artificial intelligence, cyber quantum technology and undersea capabilities. Maintaining our technological edge will be critical, indeed crucial, to influencing the shape of the Indo–Pacific. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re also working together to support recovery from COVID-19. The United States has donated more vaccines overseas than any other country. For our part, Australia has shown our commitment to health security through our regional response to the pandemic. When COVID-19 emerged last year, we pivoted our development program to support our neighbours in preventing and preparing for and responding to outbreaks. In fact, we redirected nearly a quarter of our development support to address critical needs, importantly, based on the priorities of our partner countries. We deployed over 100 tonnes of humanitarian supplies on Australian-supported flights. We have sent 11 Australian medical teams to six countries across the region to help establish test facilities and train front-line health workers. We have a team currently in Timor-Leste. We are contributing $750 million for vaccine support, and we’ll share at least 20 million vaccine doses with the Indo–Pacific by mid-2022. 

We are a supporter of and a participant in COVAX, contributing $130 million to date. We have already donated and delivered more than 3.1 million doses to countries in the Pacific and South-East Asia, with many more deliveries planned for the coming weeks and months. And wherever possible, we are cooperating with others, as we have made clear through our two countries through the AUSMIN Global Health Security statement, and as we are doing on infrastructure, development assistance, including for women and girls and on delivering for the region. All of these things are a significant part of the subject matter for my meeting with Samantha Power this morning, the director of USAID. 

There is also no better example than of this than the Quad vaccine partnership, which is expanding access to safe and effective COVID vaccines in the Indo–Pacific by securing doses and supporting delivery. Australia’s role in the Quad vaccine partnership is about supporting last-mile delivery in South-East Asia. It complements the investments by the United States and India. The Quad itself embodies our belief in the strength of our liberal democratic system to deliver for our people and partners. Boosted by its elevation to leaders level with the first in-person leaders meeting coming just next week, the Quad has a positive and practical agenda to support regional partners to respond to the defining challenges of our time. 

I think what the COVID crisis has demonstrated more clearly than ever is that in a highly interconnected global world, we have no choice but to cooperate on global standards for the environment, for health, for trade, and technology. And the only way we can do that is through a global rules-based order, supported by strong leadership, such as the leadership provided by the United States over many decades. The United States remains at the heart of the global economy. Strengthening the US economy isn’t just good for Americans; it’s good for the region. Trade, investment, cooperation between governments will help Indo–Pacific countries recover from the pandemic and help them find new pathways to growth, and to build resilience in the face of coercion. 

And in 2021, we also need to position ourselves to set the rules of the future of trade – important digital standards that will allow our digitally connected economies to thrive – because if we don’t, others will. We must act to protect our region from creeping authoritarianism, digital or otherwise. Australia will also continue to push for strengthened economic rule-making, including reform of international trade rules and greater resilience in the supply chains that keep the global economy running. We’ll work with the United States, as well as other partners, to achieve this. 

From emissions reduction through technology, to adaptation and resilience, to oceans and biodiversity, Australia is a partner for the United States in driving resilience and a low-emissions future for the Indo–Pacific. Our nation is on the front-line for climate change with whole sectors, including our farmers, working hard to adapt and to reduce emissions. Australia is on the pathway to net-zero with the goal of getting there as soon as we possibly can, and particularly using technological innovation. We’re also committed to using technology to support the region’s green energy transition. Already, we’re working with US business, including on emerging climate technologies. We’re engaged, for example, through Visy’s $US400 million paper-recycling plant in Kentucky; Australian company Tritium manufacturing EV-charging stations in the United States; Fortescue’s green hydrogen plans; Hyzon Motors growing hydrogen truck fleet in Australia and the United States. We welcome our growing collaboration, including through the Quad, to advance and effect an integrated response to climate change in the Indo–Pacific. 

I also wanted to note, if I may, some of the issues that Australia has faced recently and particularly with China. We have clearly acknowledged the recent challenges we have experienced. China has placed conditions on dialogue instead of, perhaps, negotiating a way forward. And Australia on the other hand is always open to dialogue. At yesterday’s AUSMIN meeting, we discussed the strategic competition of China at a number of levels that requires us to respond and to increase resilience. This does not mean that there are not constructive areas for engagement with China. There are. We stand firm by our decisions and continue to uphold our sovereign rights while remaining open to a way forward based on mutual respect, which means China acknowledging and accepting that the rights of other states to advance and protect their interests are equally valid. 

We have warmly welcomed the support Australia has received from the Biden administration in these current challenges. One significant advantage that the United States and Australia have in the world is our rich array of friendships. We very much appreciate the administration’s unequivocal statements on the importance of allies and partners. A wide range of states across the world also support a rules-based order, one that protects the rights of states no matter their size, their weight, their political persuasion or their willingness to express their views. 

Others in the region, who may also be subject to coercion, need to hear loudly and clearly that they are not alone. We know the majority of nations in the Indo–Pacific see value in the principles, the standards and the norms of behaviour that have delivered for decades the growth and stability to our region and that continue to serve our common interest. What we seek is a region in which the conduct of all nations adheres to internationally accepted rules and norms, a region in which “might does not make right”. For our part, Australia will consistently respond to malicious behaviour and defend our interests. 

China, of course, has significant influence and a right to be heard, but it also has a responsibility to observe the rules and norms that exist to serve the interests of all countries. Healthy competition within a set of rules, stability between countries, the promotion of trade and economic activity that raises standards of living and enhances human welfare – these are actually the bases of the lives that people want to live. These are the principles on which the alliance between our nations has long delivered and which remain at its heart. Australia will continue in the decades ahead, the next 70 years perhaps, to work with the United States and other partners to build that regional resilience, to uphold the rules that bring peace and prosperity to all. Australia and the United States will, as we always have, speak up in defence of individual freedoms and dignity and the rights of states under international law. We will differ at times, but we will find enduring strength and the strongest bonds in the principles and values that we share. 

I want to conclude by citing Hal Brands, one of the institute’s senior fellows. He has written, and I quote – 

competition and confrontation are not synonymous. Embarking upon long-term competition does entail a willingness to run certain risks and accept higher tensions in key relationships. Competition, however, does not inevitably imply a spiral into outright conflict, it does not necessitate abandoning diplomacy, and it can actually reduce the chances of war.

As Australia’s Foreign Minister, I wholeheartedly embrace Hal’s proposition that diplomacy always has a role even in times of competition and tension. The evolving strategic shape of the Indo–Pacific is perhaps the major question of the twenty-first century. The task of influencing that evolution cannot be left to any one nation and we encourage participation from all. The shared values, and indeed the sacrifices, that have sustained our alliance for seven decades as we have worked side by side, epitomises this participation. By building upon it, extending our hands to new partners and enriching cooperation with old friends, we can build a more secure and more prosperous future for all. 

Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today. 


Kori Schake: Let me say, both for our audience present in the room and for people live-streaming the event, that you can send your questions to Sarah Nakasone. You can also send them – by email to Sarah Nakasone. You can also send them by Twitter hashtag #MarisePayneAEI. Minister, you should feel free to sit down, if you like. 

We have a series of questions, but the first thing I would like to say is to express admiration for the courageous stand that Australia has taken as a front-line state. It’s an enormously important example for free people everywhere and feels especially nice on this day of celebration of the ANZUS Treaty to recognise what fabulous role models Australians have been for all of us. 

I very much liked in your comments that you mentioned that the importance of the friendships that the United States and Australia has with others in the region as a major strategic advantage for us. It seems to me a mistake for my country to describe the challenges of managing a rising China as great power competition, because that suggests it’s us versus China. And I love the way you framed it as free countries everywhere and countries who are invested in a rules-based order that allows small and middle-sized countries enormous weight in the shaping of the order. That is what China is trying to overturn, and I thought that came so powerfully in your comments. 

Since you have been both Defence Minister and Foreign Minister, I’d love to ask you to expand a little bit more on the defence aspects of the Australia–UK–US agreement that you brought into force here on this trip to Washington? 

Marise Payne: AUKUS, as it’s known – perhaps not the smoothest of acronyms, but what can you do with those letters otherwise? The AUKUS, I think, is a reasonably natural progression. I know it’s a very significant progression, but I think it has a natural underpinning given the history and the depth of the relationships between the three countries involved. For Australia, our relationships, partnerships, alliances with the United Kingdom and the United States are both of the longest standing and the greatest depth and breadth. We have habits of cooperation which have formed over those many years, and I think what it will bring is a degree of cooperation amongst the three countries which is absolutely fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. 

So, we are in a period of extraordinarily dynamic change, of rapid military development, of changes in science and technology that we can barely keep up with. Well, certainly the younger people in the room are going to be doing a better job of it than I am! So, I think that what this sets us up for into the future is the chance to formally take advantage of all of those together and to share the opportunities that are going to be part of that – the research, the scientific development, the technological development in a whole range of areas, but particularly, as you say, in the defence fields.

Kori Schake: Michael Brown, the head of the defence experimental unit that DOD has had in Silicon Valley is fond of saying that we’re so worried about the magnitude of China’s big data, and yet if the United States and its allies could find technology-sharing arrangements, we would have a database much larger and more diverse and more vibrant than what China has. And it looks to me like one of the really important aspects of the arrangements that you all have agreed to in the last couple of days is the technology sharing, not just transfer from the US to Australia but from Australia to the US and Britain and back again. That seems to me a really important piece of it that we’re a little bit overshadowing with the discussion of nuclear submarines. 

Marise Payne: Perhaps understandably, but this is much more than tech transfer and I think its potential to build in the coming years and decades is, as I said in my previous remarks, significant. We have so many shared interests across our three nations. We have so much to gain from increasing that sharing, from increasing even our interoperability. I think in terms of managing the strategic challenges of the future, I think it’s one of the most exciting decisions I have seen in my public life.

Kori Schake: So, when I was in the Bush Whitehouse, I had to do coalition management for countries that had troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the things I noticed that was unique about the Government of Australia is that lots of America’s friends want to explain to us what we are doing badly, and we are very often doing a lot badly, but what is so interesting and I think unique about Australian foreign policy is that when seeing deficiencies in American policy, you move, as you have with this agreement – which was engendered in Australia, as I understand it – you move to provide policy alternatives or policy experiments that can advance it. Can you give us a sense of where this one came from? 

Marise Payne: I think this is the outcome particularly led by our Prime Minister of his consideration of the strategic circumstances which are ahead of us and the extraordinary pace of change that we see in the Indo–Pacific, but also globally, and his determination to make sure that Australia was positioning itself to absolutely protect our national interests, to protect our sovereignty. But importantly, where it’s possible to do that with the most fundamentally important of our partners, then I think there’s a compelling logic attached to that.

Kori Schake: It’s interesting to me how many different turns of the kaleidoscope Australia has in partnerships throughout the Indo–Pacific – the Japanese–Australian secured supply chains initiative, the Pacific Islanders initiative. You’re the orchestrator of all of these different relationships. How do you see them fitting together? Where does the Five Eyes cooperation fit with the US–Australia and UK partnership that just came? How does this fit with the Quad? How do you see these working in conjunction with each other? 

Marise Payne: I think what the twenty-first century shows us is that we need to be flexible, we need to be dynamic and responsive and not all of the existing structures are ideal for every circumstance with which we are dealing. I’m not sure whether the metaphor of Australia being the conductor of that orchestra is one we want to extend too far; apart from anything else, I’m tone-deaf so we don’t want to take it too far musically! But I think the different entities fit in their own spaces and places. But we’ve seen, particularly in the last 18 months to two years as a result of circumstances driven by COVID, we’ve seen new groupings and different groupings arise. We have seen the development of the Quad, interestingly, in a way that was perhaps not foreseen five years ago. 

So, three years ago, 2018, I think I sat down at the first – or maybe it was 2019 – at the first in-person meeting of Quad foreign ministers in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA Leaders Week with then Secretary Pompeo, with Toshi Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister and Minister Jaishankar from India. That first meeting has been the impetus for a lot of the progression that has occurred since. And if you think about what’s going to happen next week, with the President of the United States and the Prime Ministers of Australia, India and Japan will meet in person to discuss some of the more challenging issues of 2021 and of the current environment, including collaboration on COVID-19, including issues around critical technologies, climate and technology disinformation, these sorts of matters that they have been working on and we have been working on since that first foreign ministers meeting and before, it is about being responsive to what is necessary in the international strategic environment. 

I’m proud of the role that Australia plays across a number of pages, if you like, of that musical score, whether it is in the Pacific, whether it is our focus on ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo–Pacific. We are not a member of ASEAN, of course, but our Indo–Pacific outlook, the view that we have of the Indo–Pacific, has ASEAN absolutely at its core. I had an extraordinarily valuable opportunity in Jakarta last week to meet with all of the permanent representatives from the ASEAN members to ASEAN there – all of the ambassadors. I do have the opportunity to meet from time to time with my counterpart foreign ministers, of course, whether it’s the ASEAN–Australia meetings or the East Asia Summit or the ASEAN Regional Forum, but to actually sit in-person in a room in Jakarta with all of those ambassadors, highly skilled diplomats in their own right, to hear their perspectives and views, their priorities, articulate them on behalf of their nations and things they wanted to communicate with Australia, again a really important opportunity. So, taking all of those individual components and putting them into one strategic whole, I think, is emblematic of the multilayered approach in which Australia works and which enables us to be very focused on those values and principles that I spoke about.

Kori Schake: The selection of COVID-19 vaccinations as a major Quad initiative early on seems to be a terrific example of being responsive to the region’s needs. And the Chinese are attempting to make the Quad sound ominous to other countries in Asia, and so the vaccine initiative seems to me such a useful one to showcase the difference between what the Quad countries and other countries in Asia want for problem-solving and advancing their interests. 

There is one country that is not happy with the recent initiative, and that would be France. Your French counterpart described it as “a stab in the back to France”. How should the United States, Australia and the UK respond to this? How do we remind France that they are a valuable ally and a great contributor to global security? 

Marise Payne: Well, there is no doubt in my mind that is absolutely correct,and no question in my mind. I have very important relationships across – with my counterpart JeanYves Le Drian. We were Defence Ministers together, now Foreign Ministers together, a number of friends through the French system, as Australia does, of course. I absolutely understand their disappointment. There is no doubt that these are very difficult issues to manage, but we will continue to approach constructively and closely with our colleagues in France on these matters. The Prime Minister and President Macron have had the opportunity to work together on a range of issues in recent times, but when commercial decisions, strategic decisions, frankly, of this nature are made, of course, it’s difficult. And I don’t shy away from that. 

My task is to work as hard as I can with my counterpart and with senior French officials to make sure that they do understand the value we place on the role that they play, do understand the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work we want to continue to do together. Their role in the Pacific, if I can comment on that briefly, we are part of a humanitarian disaster relief–focused group known as FRANZ – France, Australia and New Zealand. Often, we are the group that goes to respond to natural disasters in thePacific. We work closely with the French territories in the Pacific, with New Caledonia and French Polynesia. They are members of the Pacific Islands Forum, another one of those entities that is part of that fabric. And I know how important the region is to France and it will continue to be so.

Kori Schake: We have a question from my AIE colleague Sadanand Dhume: Australia is one of two countries that’s part of both the Quad and AUKUS. How do you see these two groupings implementing each other? Are there things you expect the AUKUS to achieve that the Quad could not? 

Marise Payne: I think they’re completely different, actually. I think the description, Kori, that you’ve given of what AUKUS will do, and in terms of its focus on defence, science and technology and that tripartheid engagement between our countries, is qualitatively different from the diplomatic network that is the Quad; and for the very reasons you’ve identified, as you talked about the importance of a vaccine initiative that delivers on the priorities of the region, which delivers on the needs of the region as identified by them. We’ve been really careful and very clear in our engagement, for example, on vaccines. 

Australia has with all of our Pacific partners for whom we are providing either health security or economic security support in the context of COVID an individual separate bilateral partnership designed by the country and Australia together. Each one is different. The needs of Tuvalu are completely different from the needs of Fiji. The needs of Nauru are completely different from the needs of Samoa and so on. The same goes for each of our individual vaccine programs with each country. So, we’ve endeavoured, for example, to provide end-to-end support, delivery supply and assistance with distribution and administration, that would be different in one country than from another. 

So, I think making sure that you’re focusing on those priorities, the vaccine plans of the nations themselves, as a – I might have said in the context of yesterday’s AUSMIN, our approach is to ask, “How can we help you? What do you need?” and not really to premise that question based on what strategic advantage it might give us, give another country.

Kori Schake: A question from my AEI colleague Zack Cooper, which is: the response from Beijing was properly expected but was Australia surprised by the quick and negative feedback from New Zealand and how are other regional countries are responding? 

Marise Payne: I’m not sure I would agree with that characterisation. I think the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Ardern have had a good conversation about the AUKUS development. I’ve certainly had a productive conversation with my foreign minister colleague Nanaia Mahuta just this week. And we understand New Zealand’s position on nuclear matters. It’s been crystal-clear for a very long time, so it is a response that we expected in that context. And further, I know that there has also been a welcoming of the US and the UK engagement in the Indo–Pacific in that response. 

In relation to the response of China, I would say that I don’t agree with the propositions put by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this, that our focus is on contributing to the security and stability of the Indo–Pacific to do that constructively and openly and transparently and continue to work closely with our partners in the region. And, of course, as I’ve also observed this week, if there are issues that China would wish to raise with us, then my Prime Minister is always available to speak to President Xi and I’m always available to speak to State Counsellor Wang Yi.

Kori Schake: China’s strategy seems to me to be self-defeating; namely, the pressure they attempted to put on Australia, the 14 objections, the efforts to suborn members of Parliament, the refusal to accept import. All of those things look to have actually strengthened the Australian public’s resistance to Chinese influence. Does it feel that way to you? Give us a sense of what that conversation in Australia is like about China these days? 

Marise Payne: Well, I would turn your attention to the Lowy Institute Poll and Lowy, of course, has an esteemed reputation in international security and foreign affairs and similar matters. They have been doing annual polls of attitudes in Australia for a long time, and there has been a change in Australian attitudes. I think if you find yourself confronted in your own nation by efforts to compromise your national interests and your sovereignty, then you’re likely to respond viscerally. And many Australians do hold concerns about those sorts of actions. 

There’s a list, as you said, of 14 items that Australia should rectify. They include things like freedom of the press. They include academic freedom in think tanks and universities. They include freedom of speech by members of Parliament. They include not making decisions in relation to our telecommunications system that we believe were fundamentally in national security – in our national interests, in relation to 5G. They include not suggesting that the international community should pursue a rigorous independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which, as we know, has now been responsible for countless – well, not countless – too many deaths, frankly, and economic impact that will take the world, many countries in my region, our region, our shared region, a long time to recover from. There’s not a country I think that sits around tables such as the G7 table, such as any of the pieces of architecture that you’ve referred to today, which would ever compromise on those points as democracies. As much as rigorous press freedom is always a healthy check on politicians’ egos, as much as the rigorous research of Australian academics occasionally has the same impact on those same egos, I wouldn’t swap them for the alternative in a million years.

Kori Schake: In addition to being Foreign Minister, you are also the Minister for Women’s Affairs. And I’d be interested in asking you to reflect a little bit on what do you think the critical issues – where do those two portfolios overlap most for you? What are the issues of women and girls that are most pressing in a foreign policy context? 

Marise Payne: Australia has had gender at the forefront of our development and humanitarian programs and of our foreign policy for as long as I can remember from my active involvement in these areas. But it has absolutely grown over the years. We have appointed for a number of years now an Ambassador for Women and Girls, which has sort of translated into an ambassador for gender equality – very active in the region, in particular, to support our interests in focusing on the position of women and girls in the Indo–Pacific. So, that’s where I think the two portfolios very much come together. 

But the challenges of COVID-19 have, particularly in the region, really had a significant impact on women and girls. If you think about the collapse of regional economies in the Pacific largely because of restrictions of movement, complete absence of tourism and hospitality, the workers in those economies are overwhelmingly women, and the impact on their families is significant. If you think about the health security challenges where they will find themselves in economic situations which were probably already somewhat of a struggle, now trying to deal with children at home with no job themselves, and with a health security situation which does not reflect the privileged position that we all enjoy. 

I’m very acutely conscious of the recovery process and the need to make sure that across the Pacific and in South-East Asia we are addressing those issues. We’ve had to pivot a lot of our development programs which have not been able to be delivered in COVID because of lockdowns and restrictions and restrictions on even officials being able to travel around countries themselves. So, we’ve tried to make sure that where we have needed to pivot those, that we are still providing that support. But it is not easy. And I hope that as we move out of that phase with the increasing rates of vaccination, that will change. 

That brings me to increasing rates – that brings me to the issue of vaccination. We do have to make sure that whilst our own nations are pushing very hard to reach particular levels, percentages, whether they’re 70 per cent or 80 per cent, of our eligible population vaccinated, that we still have a very, very big task ahead of us in terms of the developing world and many parts of our own region. That’s why those initiatives, for example, in the Quad are so important. That’s why the United States’ donations of vaccines overseas and Australia’s ability to contribute in our region are so important. We’ve worked incredibly closely with countries in the Pacific on their priorities and it continues to be an ongoing process. 

We’ve delivered in Fiji, to respond to their Delta surge in recent months, over 850,000 vaccines. They have a very good delivery rate and they have had to, but it is work that we are doing closely together. Some of those medical teams that I referred to have spent time in Fiji to ensure that a health system which has been under enormous strain but is staffed by incredible, loyal, dedicated professionals has had some support from countries like Australia and New Zealand. 

In Timor-Leste, we see now a Delta surge that’s of great concern to them. We are doing the same there and have delivered almost 600,000 vaccines into Timor-Leste. They are spectacularly efficient at administering vaccines. No musical or medical experience but as I understand it, the developed world largely gets four vaccines out of a vial. In Timor-Leste they are so efficient, they are overwhelmingly getting five out of a vial. They are even able to do more than we counted on as we prepared those batches. So, it’s hands-on, it’s practical, but it’s part of making sure that we are patnering with our communities. 

We’ve also developed a program called Pacific Women Lead. It’s part of our gender focus in the Pacific. There are a number of Pacific countries who have no elected women. So, if you merely had an engagement that included women ministers or women in Parliament, you wouldn’t get participants from every country. We’ve expanded Pacific Women Lead to include senior civil servants, for example, and they are spectacularly smart, driven contributors to public life in their countries. And COVID, ironically, has made it possible because it’s virtual. I’m kind of over the Webex/Zoom life, but, nevertheless, it has really enabled us to make connections which otherwise would have been very difficult to make. Getting the permission of your government to travel to a Pacific Women Lead meeting, I think that might have had some hard moments in it. 

I’m very proud to say that the Pacific Islands Forum, which is the key piece of regional architecture in the Pacific, now incorporates in its annual leaders meeting agenda a meeting of Pacific women. That had never happened before. It had never been part of the formal leaders agenda. I think it’s a great outcome and my good friend Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who’s just become the first female Prime Minister of Samoa, will be a key participant in the coming months.

Kori Schake: Fantastic. 

Marise Payne: She’s great; I love her.

Kori Schake: On a more discouraging note, it seems that women and girls in Afghanistan are likely to bear quite a lot of the burden of recent policy choices by our governments to rapidly end our military involvement in Afghanistan. Can you give a sense of where we should be looking to push our policies for Afghanistan in the future? Now that these decisions have been made, now that these actions have been taken, what next for Afghan policy and in particular towards trying to shield women and girls in Afghanistan from the likely consequences of Taliban rule? 

Marise Payne: I think that is a very difficult question to answer right now. I would have to say I think this is a work in progress for several reasons. Without telling tales or speaking out of turn, it was the subject of much of my meeting with Samantha Power today: How will we continue to deliver both humanitarian and development assistance into Afghanistan and particularly to women and girls? And how will we ensure the safety of those who are delivering it given we are not present ourselves? How will we ensure the equity, equality, of distribution across the country, because I think there will be variable administrations, province by province, and what undertakings do we need from the regime, the Taliban regime, to enable that? So, there is a lot of work being done on this now. 

I know that Martin Griffiths through his role with the UN is keen on that humanitarian assistance side. There was a ministerial meeting convened by the Secretary-General of the UN earlier this week, in which I participated from Korea, which was ultimately a pledging conference, but it was important for bringing some of those commitments together, forcing countries to think about what was possible in that way. 

Australia, for one, does not want to be distributing any funding through the Taliban regime. We mean we want to work with UN and other international organisation partners. What mechanisms will there be for that? And then in the development sense, so longer term than the immediate humanitarian crisis, what does that look like going forward? We have in the past, for example, as the United States has, funded Afghan-led, Afghan-run non-government organisations, particularly organisations to support women and girls. Do they have a future? It’s unlikely. What replaces those, that remains to be seen. So, I can’t answer your question in terms of the how yet, but I would like to assure anyone who is in the room and anyone who is listening, this is a matter of focus for the international community and the priority is not lost on us.

Kori Schake: If I could ask a question about cyber and in particular election security and cyber. Both Australia and the US have elections coming up next year. It seems an area of obvious focus given our intelligence cooperation, the depth of that, but also the technological cooperation that the new agreement between the US, Australia and the UK, coming forward. How are you thinking about that issue? Where does it fit in the priorities for these three countries’ cooperation? 

Marise Payne: I think quite high. Cyber certainly fits very high in the three countries’ priorities. I released our cyber and critical technologies international strategy earlier this year under the leadership of our Ambassador for Cyber and Critical Technologies who might be known to some of your audience, Dr Tobias Feakin. That’s important work for Australia, and we have had a chance to work closely in the two working groups in the UN to achieve outcomes which are essential focused on ensuring that the rules on the road apply in the cyberspace as well, and that we are very focused on protecting ourselves in terms of cybersecurity. 

I think in the electoral sense, we have become much more attuned to the threat that cyber breaches pose for us all. Whether it’s our political parties, our Electoral Commissions, and, of course, at the basest level, the distasteful ideas of electoral fundraising, which are inevitable in the democratic process. All of those are vulnerable, I would think, and in the last 10 years – and I’ve been in Parliament for a long time, but in the last 10 years, I’ve seen an exponential increase in the level of attention paid to those issues. We’re very conscious of that and we share a lot in terms of where the threats are likely to come from, what the responses need to be and how we protect ourselves.

Kori Schake: If I could ask one last question, which is: what are the issues that you are interested in that you think Americans aren’t yet paying enough attention to? Where are opportunities for policy cooperation or for American civil society – civil society is such an important part in both Australia and the US – of our actual foreign policies? Where would you like to see attention and activism that you don’t yet see from Americans? 

Marise Payne: I think that’s an interesting question, not one I’ve particularly turned my mind to, and I suspect that’s because having been at the AUSMIN talks this week, that two plus two, they really are an extraordinary way to focus on a whole range of issues, a full gamut of issues, on which we share not necessarily the same interests but share common interests. And so, I feel like we’re quite well done at the moment actually, whether it’s on health security, or on cyber or these science and tech issues that we’ve been discussing, the significant increase in defence engagement. 

The change I’ve seen over six AUSMINs, and I’ve done obviously several as Defence Minister, several as Foreign Minister, really is the seriously substantive nature of the partnership in the work that sits under the AUSMIN umbrella. So, perhaps today is not the best day or the best week to be asking me. So, maybe I’ll start taking notes. “I wish we could do that with the United States.” Because ultimately there will be more to do. But we’ve discussed space this week, for example. We’ve discussed the health security issues, the vaccine focus. 

I met with Gayle Smith yesterday as part of the AUSMIN meeting. Obviously, the work that we’re doing together regionally in terms of defence is just increasing exponentially year on year – in fact, probably month on month. All of those focuses, the technology, the low-emissions technology work that we are doing, the President’s ambitions for the Major Economies Forum that was convened this week, his ambitions on a whole range of other issues, the summits that are occurring all the time – I can barely keep up, with those. Even the practical nature of the exchange today with Director Power about at the most fundamental level, how America and the United States can be part of supporting women and girls into the future in Afghanistan, given what we have done over the past two decades and what needs to be done into the future, those fundamentals I always find – if I could say that I’m pushing on an open door, and I would like to think it’s the same in reverse and that to extend that metaphor you, basically, don’t even need to knock. We’re very good friends and that is the way that it works.

Kori Schake: That’s a wonderful way to celebrate 100 years of fighting shoulder to shoulder, 70 years of the alliance, and the recent agreements that deepen it so much. Thank you for being such a good friend to the United States and thank you for coming to AEI today, Minister Marise Payne. 

Marise Payne: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you for having me. 


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