Address, Aspen Security Forum - 'Tomorrow in the Indo-Pacific'

05 Aug 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Margaret, and again, g’day from Australia to everyone who is joining us this morning. I want to thank you for the opportunity to talk to you this morning.

In my remarks before opening up to questions, there are three things I wanted to cover.

Firstly, Australia’s assessment of the strategic outlook in the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 environment.

Secondly, Australia’s response to this challenge.

And third, how our two countries, Australia and the United States, such wonderful friends and allies, can work together to advance our shared goals of free societies, open markets and sovereign independence, particularly in our part of the world.

In examining the international environment, I want to start from two first principles, from some first principles.

And to reference the work of an Australian thinker who saw the world more clearly than almost anyone in his era or since, I believe.

I am referring to Hedley Bull, whose 1977 work, The Anarchical Society, remains one of the most influential works on global politics of the last half century. I’ve got a copy on my bookshelf behind me.

Bull coined the notion of ‘a society of states’ or ‘international society’ – said to exist when sovereign nations consider themselves to be ‘bound by a common set of rules in their relations and share in the working of common institutions.’

So what is the state of today’s ‘international society’, particularly in our shared Indo-Pacific region?

Today, the Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of strategic competition.

Tensions over territorial claims are growing.

The pace of military modernisation is unprecedented.

Democratic nations face new threats from foreign interference.

Cyber-attacks are increasing in frequency and sophistication.

Disinformation is being used to manipulate free societies.

The trade rules that have allowed us to prosper have not evolved to meet new challenges.

And economic coercion is increasingly employed as a tool of statecraft.

It’s fair to say that in 2020, our ‘international society’ is under strain.

The reaction of some has been to fret about the weakening of the rules-based international order. Fair enough.

We want to see international engagement framed by agreed rules and norms, not crude economic or political coercion.

But nor do we practically think longing for the past amounts to a strategy. 

The configuration of power in global politics has changed. 

We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

The liberal rules and norms of what has been known as the American Century are under assault.

‘The jungle is growing back’, as Robert Kagan has observed.

And we need to tend to the gardening.

A critical priority is to build a durable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific.

For more like-minded nations to act more cohesively, more consistently, more often. To align.

I assure you that Australia is not being passive - we’re acting to shape that tomorrow right now.

Australia’s approach is summed up by a quote in the Aspen Institute publication, A Struggle for Power, launched earlier this year.

It was in the chapter contributed by Robert Blackwill, and the quote came from someone not usually cited in foreign policy analyses - Leonardo da Vinci, of all people.  The quote reads:

I have been impressed by the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply.  Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Now, we are doing in Australia.

Last month, I launched Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update.

That description doesn’t do the policy commitment justice. This is a major strengthening of our force posture. This has been a major development.

We are building the capability and potency of our defence force, sharpening our focus on our immediate region, and increasing our capabilities to deter actions against our interests.

We will increase our ability to respond to actions and operations in the ‘grey zone’ — falling below the threshold of traditional armed conflict.

Australia already spends more on our defence than most of the United States’ alliance partners.

2 per cent of our GDP is no longer a target, it is a floor for us and we will spend even more – a commitment of $270 billion over the next decade.

We pull our weight.

And we are continuing to invest in the relationships in the Indo-Pacific to pursue common interests in peace, stability, openness and prosperity.

Just last month, a landmark economic partnership agreement between Australia and Indonesia came into force.

In June, our close friend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and I announced the elevation of our ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

In a virtual summit with my good friend Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month, we added to our Special Strategic Partnership through an agreement on space co-operation.

And we’re both taking concrete action to support our Pacific and Southeast Asian friends and family.

My visit to Vietnam last year was the first stand-alone bilateral visit by an Australian leader in 25 years.

We agreed to increase the depth and breadth of the security, economic and education components of our relationship.

And as its first Dialogue Partner, Australia is working more closely than ever with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.

These new networks of co-operation are absolutely vital. They are crucial.

For trade.

For science and technology.

For defence and security.

For people-to-people exchange.

Again, to reinforce what Hedley Bull called the ‘international society’.

It’s the same for our family in the islands of the South West Pacific, where we have a special responsibility.

We all want a region that’s strategically secure, economically stable and politically sovereign.

That’s what Australia’s Pacific Step-Up, which we have initiated, is all about.

As we face the challenges of COVID-19, it’s never been more important.

We’ve provided PPE, testing equipment and medical expertise.

And we’re maintaining essential services and humanitarian corridor so overseas experts and critical supplies can get where they’re needed most.

This is happening despite the increasing uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Australia is not being a bystander. We are not leaving it to others.

Not in our region. That is not in our interest. And not in the multilateral system either.

Not in the wake of the greatest health and economic twin crisis of our lifetimes.

We are using all elements of statecraft to shape the world we want to see.

I emphasise that we are not, though, uncritical participants in multilateral fora. 

We will call it as we see it.

International institutions are most effective when they are driven by, and responsive to, the society of sovereign states that form them.

As Hedley Bull argued, they are symptoms of a well-functioning society of states, not the cause. 

When global institutions and their bureaucracies become unaccountable, when they become vulnerable to manipulation or coercion, when they lose the confidence of their membership, they fail in their task to help the sovereign nations that establish them agree a common sets of rules to guide their relationships.    

In my Lowy Institute speech nearly a year ago, I described that trend as negative globalism.

And my view hasn’t changed.  

As I said and repeat now, we believe in a positive globalism, where nations like Australia engage directly with others, as equal, sovereign nations, in the pursuit of common objectives through these fora.

This is a cornerstone of our approach to the Indo-Pacific region, and to our engagement with nations, large and small.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have welcomed China’s rise as a major economic partner. 

It has been great for our economy and the global economy and the Indo-Pacific region.

But with the economic rise does come economic and broader strategic responsibility.

China has a role to enhance regional and global stability, commensurate with its new status.

Such a role is about the broader global and regional interest, rather than a narrow national or aspirational interest.

Because global expectations of China are now higher, and they always have been so for the United States.

Together, China and the United States have a special responsibility to uphold what Bull described as ‘the common set of rules’ that build an international society.

Now, that means respecting international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes, including trade disputes.

It means a commitment to rules-based economic interaction.

Neither coercion nor abdication from the international system is the way forward.

Finally, I want to make this point to some of the lessons that we’ve learnt during COVID-19, and we’re all going through this as a global community.

COVID-19 has been an unmitigated calamity for the world.

I won’t dwell on these issues now because we’re living them and experiencing them.

But COVID-19 has also created new opportunities, including for new groupings of like-minded countries now working together like never before, sharing information, supporting each other. 

Many new friendships have been made with foreign leaders, including from Australia, and we’re re-energising old ones.

This enhanced pathway we’re working down is making a more dynamic system.

This is a development that our nations must build on.

We must expand the scope and scale of co-operation by like-minded economies.

And we must do this thoughtfully as we build the network of like-minded economies, we need to build a greater sense of unity across all elements of our engagement.

Now, that means taking a more pragmatic, which is a very Australian way, and rounded approach to our global and regional relationships.

We’ve got to do what works.

The sense of unity necessary amongst like-minded partners can be undermined if positive political and security relationships are accompanied by abrasive or confrontational trade relationships.

We should avoid cases where we build closer strategic co-operation, only to see the cohesiveness of those relationships undermined by trade disputes. The two have got to go together.

I am not suggesting we should dull or seek to constrain the national instinct of our businesspeople and exporters to compete in global markets. God forbid.

And I do not argue that any of us should turn a blind eye to unfair trading measures imposed by our friends.

Security and trade policy approaches must be well integrated, they cannot work against each other and in isolation from each other. 

A solely transactional approach to trading relationships can undo so many of the gains made in other parts of relationships amongst like-minded partners.

Australia’s foreign policy is not simply transactional.

As we work with new global partners, our alliances with fellow liberal democracies will endure and strengthen. 

It’s important to have secure and trusted supply chains, particularly in these times.

Australia is resolutely committed to our Five-Eyes partnership, and our ever‑closer ties with our friends in Europe.

And we look to, and share a belief in, the values and institutions that the United States has championed and we share.

We respect each other as equal partners with the United States.

We do our fair share of the heavy lifting.

We’ve got each other’s back.

As I said on the South Lawn with the President last year: we look to the United States, as I said to President Trump, but we don’t leave it to the United States. That’s not who we are. 

Providing the ballast that underpins an international society depends greatly on the leadership of the United States.

America has long been a major stabilising factor in the Indo-Pacific region, and its continued focus here and engagement is absolutely vital to the world.

So the Australian way is clear.

We will play our part in maintaining the strategic balance so necessary in the Indo-Pacific.

We will invest in regional relationships because we all have a stake in the future.

We will strengthen our ties with fellow liberal democracies and like-mindeds, working with all partners in the region as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, this month marks 75 years since Victory in the Pacific.

1945 was a defining year in human history.

The year the Second World War ended.

The year the United Nations was founded.

The year that a Chicago businessman visited Colorado and decided to found the Aspen Institute.

It was a year of ‘doing’.

Actions that built new friendships, including with old enemies.

Actions that laid the foundation for unprecedented peace and prosperity over recent generations.

Actions that sought to ensure a global strategic balance.

Today’s task is no different.

We must tend that garden and we must rebuild Bull’s ‘international society’ anew.