AUSTRALIA needs to sharpen its focus on what its interests are and how to uphold them in the now contested Indo-Pacific region, Foreign Minister, Penny Wong has boldly stated last week.
Wong was addressing the Australian National Press Club Address last Monday and to which she spoke on the Anthony Albanese Government’s stance on Australian interests in a regional balance of power.
Wong’s address comes in a time when the western allies have woken to the reality of China’s growing influence in the Pacific region due to its rather strategic approach in the handling of its development aid.
She said the Albanese Government is deploying all of these elements of national power to make Australia more stable, confident and secure at home, and more influential in the world.
“Strategic competition is operating on several levels. Domains that we might prefer to separate – economic, diplomatic, strategic, military – all interwoven, and all framed by an intense contest of narratives.
“But as well as understanding how competition is operating, we need to understand what is being competed for – that it is more than great power rivalry and is in fact nothing less than a contest over the way our region and our world work.”
Wong said many commentators and strategists prefer to look at what is happening in the region simply in terms of great powers competing for primacy.
“They love a binary. And the appeal of a binary is obvious. Simple, clear choices. Black and white.
“But viewing the future of the region simply in terms of great powers competing for primacy means countries’ own national interests can fall out of focus.
“It diminishes the power of each country to engage other than through the prism of a great power,” she said.
Wong said it is also unhelpful to narrow this discussion to the potential of kinetic conflict on our shores, when regional interests are challenged by actions that fall far short of that.
She charged that coercive trade measures; unsustainable lending; political interference; disinformation; and reshaping international rules, standards and norms that have benefited smaller countries, from trade to human rights all encroach on the ability of countries to exercise their agency, contribute to regional balance and decide their own destinies.
“So countries like ours in this contested region need to sharpen our focus, on what our interests are, and how to uphold them,” Wong underscored.
“Our focus must be on what we need to do so we can live according to our own laws and values, determined by our own citizens, pursuing our own prosperity, making our own choices, respecting but not deferring to others.
“Our focus needs to be on how we ensure our fate is not determined by others, how we ensure our decisions are our own. And if there were any doubt, Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine renders stark our interest in living in a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated,” she added.
Wong said it is true that Australia has always needed to apply itself with this focus and more so now because the region faces circumstances that in some ways are unprecedented.
“And these circumstances require a response of unprecedented coordination and ambition in our statecraft,” she added.
Touching on the cross straits tension, the Australian Foreign Minister said tensions have risen between states with overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
And compounding that have been the militarisation of disputed features and dangerous encounters in the air and at sea, she said.
“China continues to modernise its military at a pace and scale not seen in the world for nearly a century with little transparency or assurance about its strategic intent.
“In August last year, five Chinese ballistic missiles were reported to have fallen in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. And just last week, we saw China practice strikes and blockades around Taiwan.
“On top of that, North Korea continues to destabilise, with its ongoing nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile launches, threatening our friends in Japan, the Republic of Korea and the broader region.
“Altogether, this combination of factors and the risk of miscalculation comprise the most confronting circumstances in decades.
“This is why I am so steadfast in refusing to engage in speculation about regional flashpoints, whether the Himalayas, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula or anywhere else.
“In particular, there is much frenzied discussion in political and media circles over timelines and scenarios when it comes to Taiwan. Anyone in positions like mine who feels an urge to add to that discussion should resist the temptation.
It is the most dangerous of parlour games.
“My approach to this is not simply a politician seeking to avoid hypothetical questions. It is a frank and clear-eyed assessment of interests.
“We do not want to see any unilateral change to the status quo. We call for the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues through dialogue without the threat or use of force or coercion.
“Because let me be absolutely clear. A war over Taiwan would be catastrophic for all,” Wong said.
“We know that there would be no real winners, and we know maintaining the status quo is comprehensively superior to any alternative. It will be challenging, requiring both reassurance and deterrence, but it is the proposition most capable of averting conflict and enabling the region to live in peace and prosperity.
“So, I will say it now to the National Press Club – to avoid any possible misunderstanding: our job is to lower the heat on any potential conflict, while increasing pressure on others to do the same. The Albanese Government does that here at home, and we do that in our diplomacy.
“That may not sell as many newspapers today, but it will help you to sell them for a lot longer.
Wong added, “In our China relationship specifically, the Albanese Government will be calm and consistent, and continue to do as we have since coming to office: cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, manage our differences wisely, and above all else, engage in and vigorously pursue our own national interest.”
“We start with the reality that China is going to keep being China.
“Part of that is the reality of the world’s second largest economy, representing 18% of the world’s GDP. China’s growth story has played a crucial role in alleviating poverty for its own people, the region and the world.
“Its dramatic economic growth has been a driver of Australian prosperity,” she said.
Wong said even with increased diversification, China will remain Australia’s largest trading partner for the foreseeable future, and a valued source of foreign investment, where it meets our national interests.
Beyond that, she said President Xi has made clear China’s goal of being “a great modern socialist country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century.”
“Like any country, China will deploy this strength and utilise this influence to advance its national interests.
“We know at times these interests will differ from our interests and from others in the region.
“Importantly, China understands national interest as being advanced by favourable outcomes, by reducing the possibility of unfavourable outcomes – and by reducing the space for disagreement or dissent.
“This understanding is coordinated through its persistent statecraft.
“A great power like China uses every tool at its disposal to maximise its own resilience and influence – its domestic industry policy; its massive international investment in infrastructure, diplomacy and military capability; access to its markets.
“This statecraft illustrates the challenge for middle powers, like us and our partners in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“Yet we need not waste energy with shock or outrage at China seeking to maximise its advantage.
“Instead, we channel our energy in pressing for our own advantage.”
Wong said Australia will deploy its own statecraft toward shaping a region that is open, stable and prosperous.
“A predictable region, operating by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated. A region where sovereignty is respected and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.
“A region that safeguards our capacity to disagree.
“A region that preserves our agency.
“A region that protects our ability to decide our own destiny.
“When we talk about our interests, this is what we mean.
“That kind of region doesn’t simply exist organically. It demands our national effort, especially as some seek to rewrite the rules.”
Wong said that effort cannot be left to one or another arm of Australian Government.
“Our diplomats cannot do it alone, nor can our military. And what we do in the world needs to reinforce and be reinforced by who we are and what we do at home.
“It takes investment in all elements of our national power.
“A more diversified economy, making more things here, responding to climate change and making Australia a renewable energy superpower, strengthening trust in our institutions through the National Anti-Corruption Commission, facing our cyber security needs, investments in education and training, strengthening the services people rely on, growth in wages – all part of making Australia more robust and resistant to external shocks.
“Our economic security, our domestic resilience as a multicultural democracy and our international engagement combined as our statecraft.
“The Albanese Government is deploying all of these elements of national power to make Australia more stable, confident and secure at home, and more influential in the world.
“Central to statecraft is our foreign policy, advancing Australian interests and values in our region and the world – to keep Australians safe, to ensure our economic strength.”
By Deli Oso