An enduring partnership in an era of change

  • Speech, check against delivery
Centre for Grand Strategy, King's College, London

It is a pleasure to be here at King’s College, an institution with such a rich history of thought and research on many of the biggest questions humanity faces.

It is fitting that through the new programme being launched today – the first of its kind in the UK – you are continuing to be at the vanguard; applying yourselves to the geostrategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, the most consequential region of our time – and likely to remain so for generations to come.

When this esteemed college was founded in 1829, the Indo-Pacific was, in large part, a collection of European and British colonies, Australia among them.

And for many decades after Australia federated in 1901, many Australians considered themselves British as well as Australian.

Still today, more than a third of the Australian population traces their ancestry back to the United Kingdom, and over a million British-born people call Australia home.

But as the nature of our nations, our regions and indeed our world has changed, so too has the character of our relationship.

In the 1920s, Australia went from essentially having our foreign policy determined by British ministers – as had been the case before the First World War – to developing our own thinking and practice in pursuit of our national interest.

After the end of the Second World War, as many of our neighbours gradually broke free of European colonial control, Australia built its own foreign service, and our foreign policy turned its focus to what we now call the Indo-Pacific.

In the 1970s, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam shifted Australia’s perspective from Asia as a place in which things happened, to a group of countries with which things happened.

And in 1992, former Prime Minister Paul Keating urged Australians to accept the “geophysical” reality of our place in the region – to accept that we have a “rightful presence” in the region.

Today, as a modern, multicultural country, home to people of more than 300 ancestries and the oldest continuing culture on earth, Australia sees itself as being in the Indo-Pacific, and being of the Indo-Pacific.

The modern face of Australia – and the modern face of Britain – is readily apparent both among our citizens at large and among our political leaders.

Take my own example. In 1836, just two years after Westminster passed the South Australian Colonisation Act, my mother’s great-great-grandparents were some of the first British to settle in South Australia.

That ancestral connection with Britain has been standard among the men and women who have served in my role.

But the other side of my family had a very different experience of British colonisation.

My father is descended from Hakka and Cantonese Chinese.

Many from these clans laboured for the British North Borneo company in tin mines and plantations for tobacco and timber.

Many worked as domestic servants for British colonists, as did my own grandmother.

Such stories can sometimes feel uncomfortable – for those whose stories they are, and for those who hear them.

But understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future.

It gives us the opportunity to find more common ground than if we stayed sheltered in narrower versions of our countries’ histories.

It helps open the world to us. It helps open the Indo-Pacific to us.

As Foreign Minister I have had the privilege of visiting 24 Indo-Pacific countries in my first six months on the job.

This work has rendered crystal clear that one of the most important ways our countries can modernise our relationships is in the story we tell the world about who we are, which is, of course, the starting point of our foreign policies.

At the same time as we continue to invest in our longest-standing relationships, Australia is engaging ever more closely with the region – and making the case for greater global focus on our region.

Indeed, that will be a major focus this week, when I will participate in the annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations – AUKMIN – alongside Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles. 

We look forward to our time with our counterparts Ben Wallace and James Cleverly.

At a time of heightened geopolitical uncertainty, AUKMIN is an opportunity to shape and modernise the strategic framework for our relationship and elevate cooperation across today’s priorities, like climate and clean energy, economic security, cyber and critical technology, and countering disinformation.

To that end, our discussions will explore ways we can, together, achieve better connectivity and engagement across the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions.

In 2021, the British Government’s Integrated Review made the case for the UK to engage more deeply with the Indo-Pacific, calling it:

“Critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.”

It described the Indo-Pacific as “the world’s growth engine” – already accounting for 17.5 per cent of UK global trade and 10 per cent of inward Foreign Direct Investment, and I quote:

“Home to half the world’s people; 40 per cent of global GDP; some of the fastest growing economies; at the forefront of new global trade arrangements; leading and adopting digital and technological innovation and standards; investing strongly in renewables and green tech; and vital to our goals for investment and resilient supply chains.”

Especially as the UK adjusts to a post-Brexit economy, its interest in engagement is obvious.

Of course, Australia has its own benefits to gain from economic engagement in the region.

But we also see two broader imperatives for economic engagement.

Advancing prosperity for all is in itself a good thing.

Doing what we can to alleviate poverty and lessen disadvantage is the right thing to do.

It is not only a contribution to humanity’s betterment, it is an investment in our own security. Stability and prosperity are mutually reinforcing. 

The countries of the region are ambitious for growth, opportunity and prosperity. We have seen this in the remarkable trajectories of development in these last decades.

We see this in the region’s contribution to global growth.

And there is much more to come.

Australia is part of this and we want to be part of this. We also want this to be understood by our partners in the region.

That we share interests beyond the security issues that can so dominate discussion.

That we understand that their success is our success.

That we know that closer economic ties have benefited us all.

So, for Australia, our membership of CPTPP, RCEP, APEC and IPEF…

And our trade agreements with ASEAN, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the US…

…underline our view that our national interest lies in being at every table where Indo-Pacific economic integration is being discussed.

Membership of these economic partnerships reinforces the rules-based trade in our region that is so vital to modern trading nations like Australia and the UK.

So Australia welcomes the many ways – both in words and in deeds – that the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ has progressed.

The Integrated Review’s logic has been accepted, and it is now being refreshed to take into account the way the world has changed in the last two years.

We look forward to seeing what shape it takes in today’s circumstances.

We were heartened to see the UK become the first country to become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 25 years.

This is both a signal of the UK’s intent to support the region’s priorities, as well as of ASEAN seeking to bring in additional capable and responsive partners.

Australia became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974 – almost 50 years ago.

And both our nations recognise the centrality of ASEAN to the region.

The UK’s request to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – one of the most ambitious trade deals ever concluded – is also meaningful.

Like Australia and the other CPTPP members, the UK is committed to trade liberalisation and the highest standards of trade and investment rules.

This approach has been underlined in our recently concluded bilateral free trade agreement, which in itself sets a high standard.

The UK has also increased its diplomatic footprint in the Pacific – opening three new High Commissions in Pacific Island countries in the last three years.

And like Australia, the UK is a founding member of the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, which will enhance partner coordination to support Pacific priorities.

There is great opportunity in the Indo-Pacific. There is much to be optimistic about.

But the Indo-Pacific does not only matter because of the opportunity it offers.

It matters most consequentially to all of us because it is the region in which the reshaping of our world is centred.

As security and economic dynamics that have held for decades are shifting, the strategic environment is changing.

We all have a role to play in this reshaping.

Despite being part of the region, Australia has not always listened to the countries of Southeast Asia and of the Pacific as carefully as we could have.

Our Government has been working to change that.

We take an approach that puts listening above lecturing.

That aligns Australia’s interests with those of our partners, whether on climate, infrastructure, food security or economic development, opportunity and resilience.

That respects the sovereignty and the agency of the countries of the region.

That doesn’t force people to choose sides, but asks people to choose what sort of region they want, and asks them to work with us on achieving that together.

In this, we must exercise agency. We are not bystanders in this story.

As I said last year at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

“…we are not hostages to history. We decide what we do with the present. And we decide what we do to help shape the region that we want.”

We want to live in a region and a world that is peaceful and predictable.

Where our countries and peoples can cooperate, trade and thrive.

Where our relations are based on partnership.

Where we respect the agency and leadership of regional institutions, whether they be ASEAN or the Pacific Islands Forum.

It is clear to me from my travels that this is what most of the region wants – just as the UK does.

We all seek partnerships that are transparent, that create economic and social value.

We all desire a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.

The kind of economic engagement I have outlined is part of how we all contribute to, and demonstrate our stake in, that priority.

But the other key element is working with partners to uphold the agreed international rules that underwrite our stability, prosperity and sovereignty.

For just as we all have a role to play in the reshaping of our region, so too do we all have a role to play in defending the rules-based order.

As a region, we know the sharp edge of strategic competition.

We have experienced our situation becoming more dangerous and volatile.

Indeed, I have said many times that we face the most challenging strategic circumstances of the post-war period.

Our region is home to the largest military build-up anywhere in the world in that period, with limited transparency and reassurance.

North Korea conducted more than 60 ballistic missile launches last year.

And last August, five Chinese ballistic missiles were reported to have fallen in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

If conflict were to break out in the Indo-Pacific, it would be catastrophic – for our people and our prosperity.

And with the Indo-Pacific’s centrality to global prosperity and security, the cost would extend far beyond us and reach into every region.

So we must ensure that competition between major powers is managed responsibly.

It is up to all countries to ask ourselves how can we each use our national power, our influence, our networks, our capabilities, to avert catastrophic conflict.

President Biden’s leadership in putting guardrails for strategic competition on the table is welcome. It is in the world’s interests that his overtures are met. 

I have put Australia’s view on this directly to my Chinese counterpart, when I made the first Australian ministerial visit to China in three years just before Christmas.

Australia sees our investment in our future defence capabilities as essential for deterring conflict and maintaining a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific.

A balance where regional peace prevails and sovereignty of all nations – large and small – is preserved.

So we are resolved to have capabilities that contribute to the strategic equilibrium I have described.

Our historic AUKUS partnership with the United Kingdom and the United States will help us maintain our capability in the Indo-Pacific into the future, and complement our collective efforts to ensure regional stability and security.

This has been a genuinely collaborative effort between three close and long-standing partners…

And we are fast approaching a decision on the optimal pathway forward for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, which will of course be discussed at our ministerial meetings this week.

At the same time, we welcome the UK’s efforts to promote the accepted rules of freedom of navigation through the Carrier Strike Group deployment, which toured more than 40 countries in 2021, and continues to engage in the region.

The deployment of UK and European naval assets to the Indo-Pacific adds to strategic equilibrium and collective deterrence in our region.

More than that, it is a tangible assertion of the openness of the global commons on which our shared economic prosperity depends.

Our military capability is a key part of how we manage strategic competition – but it is only one part of it.

Alongside new acquisitions and exercises, we must keep focus on diplomacy, economic openness and upholding the rules; working with our regional partners in the Pacific, ASEAN, Northeast Asia and the Quad.

To be truly effective in the region, we need to offer countries choices.

After all, not being forced to choose means having real choices.

Choices in areas that count – like investment, innovation, education, energy transition and more.

Choices that help countries protect their own sovereignty.

And we need to engage transparently, and as equals, from common ground.

The strategic challenges I have outlined are not ones faced only by our region.

In Europe, we are also seeing attempts to rewrite or sideline long-accepted rules and norms of international law.

This is why the Australian Government and people – like the United Kingdom’s Government and people – care so deeply about the situation in Ukraine.

It is why we have committed considerable resources to help Kyiv defend its territorial integrity.

This includes last month deploying 70 ADF personnel to support a multinational effort to train Ukrainian troops a couple of hours down the road from here.

Not just out of solidary with the Ukrainian people, and in opposition to one of the most flagrant violations of the most basic tenets of the UN Charter in recent memory.

But because Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on all.

And on the fundamental norm of territorial integrity and sovereignty.

As we are here in London, it seems fitting I conclude my remarks by quoting one of London’s great poets:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;”

The language may reflect the time, but the sentiment still holds.

Australia, like Britain, is an island.

And I reflect on James Cleverly’s observations on why a peaceful, prosperous island nation engages with foreign policy.

In our modern, tightly-woven world, what happens in Europe reverberates in the Indo-Pacific.

And what happens in the Indo-Pacific reverberates in Europe.

No region – indeed, no country – is an island.

Australia understands this.

We are committed to working with you, with our partners, and with our region.

To help build the alignment we need, so that we can shape the region and world we want – stable, prosperous, secure and respectful of sovereignty.

Because despite the grim comparisons between today’s global circumstances with the darkest eves of human history, we decide what we do with the present, and our own actions determine our own future.

Thank you.

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