Op-ed: Defence partnerships for our future

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Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC

Minister for Defence

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Nicky Hamer (Minister Reynolds’ Office): +61 437 989 927

Defence Media: media@defence.gov.au

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18 October 2020

As Defence Minister, it is my job to see and respond to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

I see an increasing imperative for Australia to actively and assertively advocate for stability, security and sovereignty in our region.

Since my appointment, one of my highest priorities has been engaging with our regional neighbours and global partners.

Defence diplomacy has never been more vital than now, as our region faces the most consequential strategic realignment since World War II.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which the Prime Minister and I launched on July 1, takes a clear-eyed view of geostrategic trends.

Australian interests are being challenged more directly. Strategic competition, military modernisation and coercion have increased, while warning times for conflict have decreased.

It is clear COVID-19 has dramatically altered the global economic and strategic landscape and is accelerating these trends.

The Prime Minister has spoken about preparing for a post-COVID world ‘that is poorer, that is more dangerous, and that is more disorderly’. The pandemic has exposed the need to build stronger, more resilient and more assured supply chains, and it has illuminated the need for greater international transparency.

In this less certain world, some are seeking to advance their own interests outside the established rules-based order. Yet, this order has been crucial to our regional stability, peace and prosperity.

The Defence Strategic Update sets out the Government’s approach to dealing with these challenges, in particular working with our friends and partners to shape our strategic environment.

During my visits to Japan, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines this week, I will be engaging with my regional counterparts both on shared challenges and new opportunities in our bilateral partnerships.

Our longstanding regional partnerships have always been important to Australia, but they have taken on a new significance in the context of our evolving strategic environment.

Australia has a clear vision for the type of Indo-Pacific region we want to live in.

A region that is open and inclusive.

A region where sovereignty and the rights of all states, large and small, are respected.

A region where the rule of law is upheld.

We are not alone. Our vision is closely aligned with ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

Regionally, we are also facing complex challenges that don’t resemble the traditional notions of conflict. They exist in what’s known as the “grey zone”.

In this grey zone, influence becomes interference. Economic co-operation becomes coercion. And investment becomes entrapment.

Likeminded countries must work together in support of shared interests – to strengthen our collective security, sovereignty and resilience to coercion.

COVID-19 has further underlined the need for us to work collaboratively.

This is why Defence has maintained a high tempo of support and cooperation across the Indo-Pacific throughout COVID-19, despite the significant health and logistical challenges.

We have reoriented our Defence Cooperation Programs to assist COVID‑19 responses across the Indo-Pacific, including the provision of air and sea lift to provide medical and food supplies to vulnerable populations.

Defence has shared online training packages in local languages and exchanged lessons on managing the pandemic.

We have provided personal protective equipment to the Indonesian military and support to military hospitals in the Philippines to contribute to their national medical responses.

In the South Pacific, we have reallocated significant defence funding and resources to assist regional partners with health, economic and security responses.

Working together with partners to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19 remains a key priority, and I plan to offer further support this week.

Defence has also continued operational activities across the Indo-Pacific in line with COVID-19 restrictions.

This includes the largest ever ADF deployment to the Indo-Pacific, comprising five naval vessels, a range of aircraft, and around 1,500 military personnel.

Our engagement and exercises with 11 regional partners as part of this deployment strengthened our ability to work cooperatively to support our common regional security interests.

These deployments reinforce the right to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight under international law, including in important areas of the global commons such as the South China Sea.

For example, as part of our regional deployment, Australia and Japan conducted joint exercises together in the South China Sea, demonstrating our shared commitment to Indo-Pacific.

During my visit, I look forward to discussing how we can deepen this cooperation.

There has never been a more important time for Australia to stand shoulder to shoulder with our regional friends and our global partners.  Nations must work together, using the strength of our partnerships and cooperation, to shape the future of our region in line with our common interests.

Australia’s regional engagement has a long and deep history, but our relationships are not static. They must continue to evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing strategic environment.

We actively seek ways not only to strengthen bilateral co-operation but also to involve others in ‘minilateral’ activities where our interests intersect and are mutually reinforcing. Our activities will also continue to reinforce the centrality of ASEAN, as we have done ever since becoming ASEAN’s first dialogue partner more than 45 years ago.

During my visit I will meet long-standing friends as well as new colleagues.  We will review what we have already done together, and I look forward to discussing with them new opportunities to expand our defence diplomacy, cooperation, and capacity-building activities.  

The Morrison Government is committed to forging partnerships. Our goal is to listen to and work with our neighbours and partners to help build a secure, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific which is defined by cooperation and rules, not conflict or coercion.

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