Minister for Defence – 114th IISS Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore

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Introduction

Ladies and gentleman, thank you very much for the opportunity to make a contribution to this session on building cooperation between regions.
Increasingly we are seeing less of a distinction between the regional and the global, making the topic we are discussing today one that is relevant to all of our interests.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is one of our region’s premier security fora, and importantly its focus is not limited to the Asia-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific

Over time, the term ’Asia-Pacific’ had come to symbolise the main focus of Australia’s strategic interests and economic priorities.

But in more recent years we have come to realise that we must consider our region in the context of the vast pace of globalisation, as well as the mutual dependencies that exist between it and the rest of the world.

The region’s continued economic growth is the basis for the rise in the global strategic weight of many Asia-Pacific countries. The bedrock of this growth is freedom of navigation and trade along the energy and trade corridors through both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

These corridors link the Middle East through to North and South East Asia, and the United States. Security of supply right across this corridor, which relies on continued regional stability, will be vital.

That’s why we now refer to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, by which we mean the maritime and littoral regions that span the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The shift of power to the Indo-Pacific is leading to increased growth, wealth and prosperity among regional states.

By 2050, almost half of the world’s economic output is expected to come from the Indo‑Pacific, and this region will be home to four of the world’s top ten economies.

Australia’s top five trade partners are all in the Indo-Pacific, and approximately 98% of our international trade by volume travels by sea – and more than half of that through the South China Sea.

Underlying tensions amongst regional states are likely to remain in the near-term strategic environment.

But the shared dependence of most East Asian countries upon the Indo-Pacific region’s maritime corridors, combined with the inability of any state to unilaterally secure its shipments, should be a powerful incentive to manage conflicting interests and ensure freedom of navigation and trade for all.

Enhancing naval cooperation

This shared interest in economic prosperity and trade routes is already enhancing some cooperation on security challenges that affect all of us, such as natural disasters, maritime piracy, and terrorism.

The cooperation of various international military counter piracy operations off the Horn of Africa has led to piracy dropping considerably in recent years.

Australia’s Adelaide class frigate HMAS Newcastle that is currently deployed in support of the US-led Combined Maritime Force is the 60th Royal Australian Navy ship to deploy to the Middle East on such operations since the first Gulf War in 1990.

But just as importantly, the type of day-to-day cooperation that helps build a degree of confidence and trust between Indo-Pacific navies, which would be too politically difficult and sensitive to conduct in territorial waters in East Asia, has become more possible in the Gulf of Aden.

Even those navies which operate more autonomously, rather than as part of a multilateral command, still engage in practical cooperation with their regional counterparts.

This cooperation offers the opportunity to increase communication and share information, conduct shipboard exchanges of commanding officers and staff, and engage in joint anti-piracy exercises.

Anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden represent a successful example of how regional countries can achieve sea lane security far from East Asia’s shores, even amidst degrees of strategic tensions closer to home.

Economic interdependence

But history teaches us that while greater interdependence reduces the likelihood of destabilising actions or conflicts between nations, it will not remove the risk altogether.

And interdependence will not prevent states from engaging in coercive behaviour, in fact it can provide the very economic links that can facilitate coercive behaviour. Nor will it prevent miscalculation.

While economic growth is leading to greater integration and interdependence, increased wealth also provides the means to modernise military forces.
This has the potential to enable more capable security partnerships, but also to increase strategic competition.

Regional maritime security

Over the next twenty years, the strategic environment is likely to become more challenging as states seek to promote their interests both regionally and globally.

An ongoing global challenge will be the management of major powers competing more actively to promote their interests and seeking to have a greater say in how the global order functions.

Australia believes that all regional partners represented here today have an enduring interest in maintaining safe and stable maritime trade and air passage.

We remain concerned by any developments in the South and East China Sea which raise tensions in the region.

Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South and East China Sea.

This includes any large scale land reclamation activity by claimants in the South China Sea.

We are particularly concerned at the prospect of militarisation of artificial structures.

It is therefore important that countries agree as soon as possible on a substantive Code of Conduct for the South China Sea between ASEAN members and China.

Disputes must be resolved peacefully, and Australia urges all parties to exercise restraint, halt all reclamation activities, refrain from provocative actions, and take steps to ease tensions.

Because when tensions are high, the risks of miscalculation resulting in conflict are very real.

As with Newton’s principles, aspects of international security are often characterised by an action and a corresponding counter-reaction.
While this doesn’t always amount to a zero-sum equation, dealings between states in our region is an inherently competitive process.

In making decisions, countries and leaders should always be wary of the consequences, unintended or otherwise, of a particular course of action and the potential for these actions to lead to escalation and miscalculation.

Australia has a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in this part of the world, including the preservation of respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation.

With ever-increasing regional and global interdependence, no country can act alone to solve the challenges that threaten the region’s security.

Foreign fighters and counter-terrorism

In fact, there is no better example of how security challenges in the wider world affect the Indo-Pacific than the threat posed by foreign fighters returning from conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

There are increasing numbers of Australians and others from this region who are connected with, or inspired by, overseas terrorist groups such as Daesh, with the intent and capability to conduct an attack against Australia and other countries.

Recent incidents in Kenya, Malaysia, France, Australia, Canada and Belgium all provide very real and sombre examples of the global nature of this threat to our national security and our societies.

We must work together if we are going to defeat this threat. We firmly support ASEAN’s call for the international community to cooperate in fighting extremism, radicalism and terrorism.

It is safe to say that turbulence will be experienced over coming decades in the region from South Asia through the Middle East and East Africa, with an enduring need for international assistance within and between adjoining regions.

That is why Australia works hard to strengthen links throughout the international system, based on common interests and the rule of law; including economic, diplomatic and defence cooperation.

Conclusion

These challenges are not insurmountable. We should focus on our common interests, and working in support of a stronger international system, underpinned by a global rules-based order, as the best means of enhancing security cooperation in our wider region.

Australia’s strong network of regional and global defence relationships will be important. Enhancing these relationships will be a core theme of Australia’s forthcoming Defence White Paper, which will underline the importance of dialogue and practical cooperation to support shared responses to shared challenges.

We welcome the region’s expanding multilateral forums, and their expanding areas of focus, cutting across traditional regions and building on a foundation of ASEAN centrality.

For example, the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) provide opportunities to discuss issues of concern for the broader Indo-Pacific region.

While multilateral forums have achieved much for practical military cooperation in the region, we cannot stand still.

There is potential for the East Asia Summit, as an organisation that brings heads of government together on political and economic issues, to play a leading role in setting norms for security issues in the region in future.

To respond to global and regional security challenges, it is critical that all regional countries work together as partners.

Thank you and I look forward to ongoing discussions about these important regional matters.

Media contacts:
Brad Rowswell (Minister Andrews’ Office) 0417 917 796
Defence Media Operations (02) 6127 1999


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