Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Address to the Asia Society, Canberra

25 March 2014

Canberra

Prime Minister

E&OE

It’s an honour to address the Asia Society, which has been a leader in promoting the relationships between Australia and the rest of Asia since its establishment in 1997.

This Society understands the importance of trade to improving the understanding between nations. Every time one person freely trades with another, wealth increases; and when wealth increases, countries grow stronger.

Trade is an essential part of building a stronger and more prosperous economy and a safer and more secure Australia. International trade builds the economies of two countries, the seller and the buyer, and makes both of them stronger and more secure.

So, along with getting the Budget under control, scrapping bad taxes and cutting red tape, fostering freer trade is part of the Government’s economic plan. When I said on election night that Australia was once more open for business, I meant business with our trading partners as well as business amongst ourselves.

In a fortnight, I will lead trade missions to Japan, Korea and China. This will be my first official visit to North Asia and it’s happening very early in the new government’s term.

Trade means jobs. It means more and better jobs here in Australia and in the countries we do business with.

Serendipitously, this year marks the 80th anniversary of Australia’s first ever diplomatic mission and the destination was also Asia.

In 1934, the then Lyons Government’s Minister for External Affairs, Sir John Latham, whose picture hangs in the ante-room of the Coalition Party Room in Parliament House, embarked on what he called a ‘Goodwill Mission’ to Asia.

It was Latham who called Asia, and not the Levant, Australia’s “Near East”; just as Sir Robert Menzies subsequently referred to Far East as Australia’s “Near North”.

This week marks my 20th year as a Member of Parliament. In my first speech, back in 1994, I said that there was no limit to what Australia could achieve. It was true then and it’s true now particularly given the economic circumstances of the countries to our north.

The global middle class is projected to grow from 1.8 billion to over 3 billion by 2020 – and most of that growth will occur in Asia.

Asia will generate about half the growth in global output between now and 2030.

There is, of course, no law of nature saying that the Asian middle class must buy the products of Australian manufacturers, must use our services, must study at our colleges, or must visit our tourist destinations.

Just because Asian countries have found Australia a good supplier in the past, doesn’t mean they will inevitably do so in the future.

That’s why this Government is doing everything it can to complete free trade agreements with our top three export markets.

While in Korea, I hope to witness the signing of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In Japan, I hope to help finalise the Japan-Australia FTA. In China, I hope to announce substantial progress towards freer trade. This is the trifecta of trade we are working towards.

The Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement will reduce or eliminate tariffs on key agricultural exports and will open opportunities for innovative service businesses, well suited to compete in President Park’s “Creative Economy”.

We will open the doors – but Australian businesses will still have to walk through in order to maximise the benefits of these arrangements, in the same way that Hastings Fund Management, for instance, an infrastructure fund manager, has opened an office in Seoul and is now in partnership with the Incheon International Airport Corporation.

Free trade agreements mean little without businesses willing to make the most of them. So, accompanying this trip to our three largest trading partners will be a very senior business delegation, indeed.

My visit will also coincide with the inaugural Australia Week in China, to which Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb is leading the largest ever overseas business delegation from Australia.

It will involve small, medium and large companies from across our country and across all sectors of our economy – including financial services, food and agribusiness, and manufacturing. I’m pleased to say that it’s likely that all six premiers will also participate.

“Australia Week in China” represents an unprecedented level of focus and partnership with business in this key market – where Australian exports increased by over $2 billion in just the last year.

I want to say that the transformation of China is a watershed in human history. Lifting hundreds of millions of people into the middle class in just a generation is perhaps the most spectacular advance in human welfare ever accomplished.

I congratulate the Chinese Government and people on this remarkable achievement, of which they are justly proud, and am pleased that Australian coal and iron ore has helped to make it possible.

It’s hard to overstate the importance and the strength of Australia’s relationship with China. China is now by far our largest trading partner. In some years, it’s our largest source of immigrants and in most years it’s our largest source of foreign tourists and students.

As liberalisation spreads from the economy into other elements of Chinese life, I am confident that Australia will be a valued friend and strategic partner, as well as a rock-solid-reliable economic partner, to the Chinese people and government.

China’s achievement mirrors Japan’s and Korea’s, some decades earlier – only on a larger scale.

Japan and Korea have been strong democracies as well as powerhouse economic for decades. I honour the Japanese and Korean people, not only for their economic achievements, but for their steadfast commitment to liberal democratic values.

Indeed, Australia’s friendship with Japan has been one of the most mutually beneficial bilateral relationships in global history. Japan has been a key economic partner for almost six decades.

Coal and iron ore were little more than cottage industries focused on domestic production until Japanese demand and investment turned them into global giants. Australia’s post-war prosperity owes more to Japan than to any other country.

Our business people have similar outlooks and our companies thrive in transparent markets.  Australian and Japanese businesses are now working together throughout the region.

For example, Australian architectural consulting firm PTW and engineering consultancy firm Meinhardt have both won contracts to work with Japan’s Tokyu Corporation on the Binh Duong New Town project in Vietnam. 

Japan’s economic resurgence under Prime Minister Abe will be good for Japan, good for Australia and good for the world.

With a combined population of 1.5 billion and a GDP of $15 trillion, China, Japan, and Korea collectively have decisively shifted the world’s centre of economic gravity. For Australia, the tyranny of distance has given way to the advantage of proximity.

Australia sells significantly more to these three markets than it does to the rest of our trading partners put together: from the custom-made Maton guitar that accompanies Japanese singer-songwriter sensation Motohiro Hata, to the nine million Chinese using Baxter’s skin care products, to the cell and tissue cultures manufactured by Serana, which are exported throughout Asia from the company’s new production laboratory in Bunbury, Western Australia. 

There will be new opportunities as President Xi drives China’s transformation into a more market-driven and globally integrated economy; as President Park forges a more creative as well as a highly productive economy; and as Prime Minister Abe pursues market liberalisation to drive economic growth.

It’s telling that on the eve of my trip, Chinese and Japanese aircraft are together searching the southern Indian Ocean under the coordination of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Korean aircraft are also on their way.

In the search for flight MH370, the countries of our region have demonstrated an ability to work together in a good cause.

Deep down, what peoples have in common is always more important than anything that divides us.

Certainly, we are all much stronger and more successful working together than working against each other.

Australians are only too well aware that our prosperity depends upon the continued growth and strength of China, Japan and Korea. But for their part, China, Japan and Korea are among each other’s largest trading partners too. Anything that damages any of them, damages all of them.

Obviously, my objective is to strengthen Australia’s ties with all of our friends in North Asia. My predecessor, John Howard, often remarked that Australia did not have to choose between its history and its geography. My message is that making new friends doesn’t mean losing old ones.

This harmony was on display when the US and the Chinese presidents addressed the Commonwealth parliament on successive days in 2003.

And I hope that a Japanese Prime Minister might address our Parliament quite soon.

On issues like counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, combating piracy, and disaster relief, Australia’s engagement with our North Asian partners is strong but can yet be deepened. I’ll be looking for opportunities to work more effectively together on contemporary challenges such as maritime cooperation, cyber, food and energy security.

Together with our United States ally, I hope to strengthen collective political and security cooperation bilaterally and through regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit.

As Australia and the nations of Asia engage in more trade we will see a reinforcing cycle of investment, growth, innovation and prosperity.

It would be an unspeakable tragedy were this ever to be jeopardised by territorial conflicts based on the shadows of the past.

This year not only sees Australia chairing the G20 but China chairing APEC. I am keen to work together in the cause of freer trade, more efficient markets, more effective regulation, more modern infrastructure and more widely shared prosperity.

It was in fact another Coalition External Affairs Minister, Sir Percy Spender, who said, and I quote: “…our future, Australia’s future, depends to an ever increasing degree upon the political stability of our Asian neighbours, upon the economic wellbeing of Asian people, and upon the development of understanding and friendly relations between Australia and Asia.”

Spender’s insight led to the Colombo Plan, which brought the best and the brightest students from Asia to Australia to study at our universities. Australia has much to teach the world; but much to learn as well, especially from Asia.

Six decades after Spender, the new Australian government is completing the circle by sending Australia’s best and brightest to study at universities in our region. It is our mark of respect for our regional partners.

In Japan, I will launch the first pilot phase of the new two-way Colombo Plan which complements Prime Minister Abe’s ambition to double the number of Japanese students studying abroad.

Of course, for millions of Australians, the countries of Asia are family, through ties of ancestry, marriage and migration. These bonds are to be nurtured as much as the bonds of trade and commerce.

All these bonds rest on decades of strategic stability in our region. Australia’s relationships with Japan, South Korea and with China are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

Australia is strong enough to be a useful partner but not so strong as to be threatening one. We have been involved in many international conflicts but we’ve never started one and, afterwards, have always striven to turn enemies into friends.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m confident that the Asian Century will be Australia’s moment too.

For much of our first century as a nation, Australia’s leaders lamented our isolation from the centres of world affairs. How that has changed. We are not at the wrong end of the world but the right one.

We are in the right place, at the right time, with the right spirit. Australia will work with its partners to seize this moment.

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