Wednesday 1 November 2023
Let’s face it, the world has rarely been a stable place. If it was, we would still be cave dwellers and hunter-gatherers.
Today we are in a time of a growing number of regional wars and facing the threat of greater conflict.
We are also in a time of destructive weather events of predicted increasing frequency, scale and impact.
And we are in a time of technology disrupting not only how we communicate but rivaling – and potentially even influencing – how we think or act.
It is easy to hit the panic button but, as a good churchgoer might say, and I’m not counting myself as one of those by any means, ‘let us give thanks’.
Hans Rosling’s thought-provoking book Factfulness gives proof to the fact that across the world ever increasing numbers of people continue to live longer, healthier and richer lives.
The trend lines on the core measures of human existence remain overwhelmingly positive.
Put simply, humankind has never had it so good, yet faced so many simultaneous threats.
As leaders we are presented with the challenge that our obligation is to pass on a better future to the next generation.
Unquestionably, that should still be our goal. But first, we must preserve the gains we’ve made.
To preserve these gains may require us all to return to some first principles.
What are the good parts of human development that have enabled us to go from cave dwellers to consumers, from hunters to carers, and from gatherers to innovators?
And we need to be willing to defend, uphold and advance these principles that have enabled these achievements.
Despite its current ineffectiveness as an entity, we can find sound principles in the United Nations Charter, which acknowledges “the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
It further urges the promotion of “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” to “live together in peace with one another as good neighbours,” and “that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.”
The countries that have led the modern gains in human advancement, whilst most closely adhering to these principles in the UN charter, overwhelmingly share two systemic traits – liberal democracy and market economy.
These are the systems that saw nations get healthier – and richer – faster. Where at least some elements of these systems have been copied by others, such as China’s economic opening and reform commenced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970’s, they too have become healthier, and richer
Each of the systems of liberal democracy and market economy though are under threat, in some part from within and in large part from the growing global disorder of autocrats and dictators.
Aspects of liberal democracies and of market economies may also be threatened by how we act in preservation of one or the other of these systems.
To what extent can we successfully defend the sovereignty and role of liberal democracies in a world of open, trading, market economies?
Or, to what extent will we maintain comparative advantages in innovation if we restrict the openness of market economies in the name of defending liberal democracies?
Do we decouple or de-risk?
Do we onshore or diversify supply chains?
Do we respond to growing militarisation with growing militarisation?
How do we make diplomacy work to prevent conflict, to uphold the ideals of the UN charter and to enable all nations to cooperate in addressing global challenges of climate change, or optimal use of pervasive new technologies like AI?
There are many questions that nations like ours – and their governments – must answer.
In recent months the world’s hotspots have tended to be as far away as Australia has used to them being throughout most of our history … Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Hamas, Azerbaijan-Armenia, Serbia-Kosovo, coups across Northern Africa.
But the big spot of the future remains the Indo-Pacific, right on Australia’s doorstep.
The increasing cooperation and interconnectedness of those driving destabilisation around the world points to greater risks than even the hyped commentary of recent years has envisaged.
We in the forum – Australia and the United States – must make every aspect of our alliance as effective as possible if we are to prevail against these challenges.
From an Australian standpoint, there are three key roles we can and should play.
First, we must make a meaningful contribution to deterrence, by building the combined strength of our alliance through our defence investment and cooperation.
Second, we must be an honest and principled interlocutor in our international engagement, especially with the major powers.
And third, we must advance diverse partnerships wherever they advance the cause of peace, stability and prosperity.
On deterrence, Australia is talking the talk and has sketched out the architecture, but we run the risk of not walking the walk.
The previous Coalition Government showed great foresight when, prior to the 2013 election, it promised to restore defence spending from a woeful 1.56 per cent of GDP to at least 2 per cent.
Critically, we delivered on this promise, notwithstanding other spending pressures, efforts to balance the budget pre-Covid and, of course, the cost impacts of Covid itself.
Without this, Australia would not have been a credible partner for AUKUS, nor would the architectural sketches of our future defence posture be considered viable.
But since the election of Labor, defence spending has gone backwards not forwards. The Defence Strategic Review is strong in strategy and welcome, but a subsequent quagmire of further reviews is delivering delay rather than hard capability.
China’s People’s Liberation Army is already the world’s largest armed force and continues to advance its capabilities, including in nuclear weapons.
The US-Australia alliance needs Australia to demonstrate that we can efficiently and effectively build currently planned surface ships, while increasing their lethality where warranted. We must equally make the planned guided weapons enterprise a reality, enhancing our long-range capabilities.
Equally, we should be looking for and expecting the United States to open up defence trade between our nations as comprehensively and quickly as possible. The pillars of AUKUS can best be achieved by enabling the seamless and secure flow of intellectual property, skilled people and hardware between and within our countries.
These initiatives go not only to enhancing the defence capability of our militaries, but also lifting up our defence industrial capability such that we may more effectively respond to future uncertainties.
On Australia’s role as an honest and principled interlocutor, this requires Australia to demonstrate consistency in our principles and the courage of our convictions.
China’s attempts at economic coercion against Australia should be openly called out as such.
It is to the enduring credit of Australian industry and business that we withstood, with minimal economic impact, the barrage of trade sanctions applied both directly and indirectly against us.
That these sanctions are eventually being removed without acquiescence to the infamous list of 14 Chinese demands is a fact noted around the world.
However, the removal by China of their sanctions against should not be seen as a cause for gratitude, but instead, simply as adherence to the agreed terms of the China Australia Free Trade Agreement. It is the bare minimum we should expect of one another.
Similarly, we cannot tolerate the indefinite or arbitrary detention of Australian citizens and we should expect transparency and justice for Dr Yang Hengjun, including his return home to Australia.
We should also expect adherence to other international rules that underpin stability and trade in our region, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And we should speak strongly against breaches of them.
China’s refusal to respect previous UNCLOS rulings and its increasingly aggressive posture towards the Philippines – or towards others exercising rights to freedom of navigation and overflight – risks miscalculation and escalation that is against all of our interests.
The continuing scale of PRC military operations near Taiwan presents similar risks and warrants similar calls for their cessation.
Equally, the strengthening of relations between China and Russia that has been undertaken throughout Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated a willful disregard for the very principle of sovereignty, which China so often asks others to respect.
That China’s ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia has bloomed as the rogue states of Iran and North Korea have simultaneously increased their military support for Russia speaks to the gravity of the security challenge we could face and must work to avert.
Averting the worst threats requires as much strength and unity as possible.
Ukraine remains a test for the west.
If the US congress is to stand as the “beacon of liberty” described by new House Speaker, Mike Johnson, this week, then the House should act decisively to continue defending liberty in Ukraine.
We need the US to be the leader of the free world, not just the biggest in the free world. And in return we must also – all – be willing to do our fair share of the heavy lifting too.
As partners across the democratic world with a commitment to market economies we must engage cooperatively to strengthen those economies, especially where they are threatened by market distorting actions or intellectual property theft.
But a US and EU that undercut each other – and their free market allies – through excessive subsidies, or fail to seize opportunities to deepen free trade between our market economies, does nothing to make the sum of us stronger.
In contrast, if US and EU negotiations can secure a practical and principled approach in sectors such as steel and aluminium, which achieves concomitant economic security, national security and climate change objectives, it could present a new model true to shared principles and interests.
How to maximise both economic security and national security will increasingly require these types of integrated policies and strategies.
The step up in diplomatic engagement by the Biden administration has been extremely welcome, especially within the Indo-Pacific.
For greatest impact this engagement needs to meet the needs of the region, which requires the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity to deliver real growth in US trade and investment with the region.
I, for one, would continue to prefer the US to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. No matter how forlorn a hope that may be, in this era of continuous disruption it is worth repeating the tangible benefits that would bring to our shared interests.
The CPTPP is just one of the diverse network of partnerships Australia has built, must sustain and extend.
By necessity it must be diverse, both in type – economic, security, regionally based, values based – and in geography, albeit with a natural focus to our region.
The previous Coalition Government delivered this. In the security realm we drove the Quad to a leaders’ level dialogue, established AUKUS and deepened traditional partnerships such as with the US, UK and Japan.
Economically, the growth in our network of trade agreements is unrivalled, from north Asian nations, through RCEP and CPTPP, across to India and the UK. Breakthroughs such as our digital economy agreement with Singapore provide models for increased cooperation in the new economy too.
Regionally we ensured that Australia was the first country to sign a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN and built the Pacific Step-Up to deepen ties across Pacific Islands Forum member nations.
While we must stand up for our interests as a liberal democracy and market economy, this cannot limit our engagement with the world.
Our rallying call to all nations beyond the major strategic competitors, must centre on the unifying interests of respect for sovereignty – a world where the strong don’t dominate smaller or mid-size nations or economies – not through military invasion, nor through economic coercion, nor through a rewriting of global rules to advantage one over another.
Whether a member of the Global South or of the OECD, these should be shared interests, especially among mid and small-sized nations, which Australia can and should prosecute.
In our world of constant disruption, with its amazing successes for humankind but significant threats, we should meet the challenges head on, both with realism of the threats and optimism, knowing that our human capabilities have brought us a long way together already.