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The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
02 6277 7800
11 June 2022
Three weeks ago, Australians elected a new Government under the leadership of Anthony Albanese.
And it’s my honour to represent Australia at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue as the new Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence.
My thanks to the Director-General and Chief Executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Dr John Chipman, for the invitation to speak to you.
I also want to thank Singapore for hosting this time-honoured event.
Australia has a deep and abiding defence relationship with Singapore – one in which the Singapore Armed Forces have trained in Australia for more than 30 years.
And I’m looking forward to working with my counterpart Dr Ng Eng Hen.
I also want to acknowledge my fellow panellists from Malaysia and Qatar:
Senior Minister Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin…
And Dr Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah.
Malaysia is one of Australia’s closest defence partners. Our two-way secondment program is the largest in South-East Asia. We both work with Singapore as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements – which has been an anchor of regional security for over 50 years.
And Australia and Qatar are long-time friends and partners, including through our contribution to the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh. In 2017, I visited the Combined Air Operations Centre and I saw first-hand the importance of Qatar’s role in hosting this facility.
Under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Australia will take our place in the world with confidence. And we will bring new energy to our relationships with old friends.
Australia will embark on a new era of engagement in the Pacific.
Indeed, we already have. Foreign Affairs Minister Wong has visited several Pacific Island nations. And those who know me will be aware that I can’t wait to visit the Pacific as soon as I can.
The Pacific has been a passion of mine since I first visited Papua New Guinea as a 16-year-old in 1984. It’s home to many of my friends. It’s a place that still amazes me. Its peoples and cultures are astonishing and unique, and fundamental to the world’s human heritage.
Australia will become a more engaged and responsive partner to our Pacific neighbours.
But this requires effort. It requires respect and a willingness to listen. We want to earn the trust of the countries of the Pacific to be their natural partner of choice.
The Australian Defence Force will always be there for our Pacific neighbours. Be it in response to natural and humanitarian disasters, or the complex array of security issues we now mutually face.
This includes establishing an Australia Pacific Defence School to train the Pacific Island defence and security force. We will help deter illegal fishing and transnational crime through more support for Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program.
Australia is committed to the countries of the Pacific because we are a Pacific country too.
We share in each other’s security. And we believe that Pacific security challenges need Pacific security solutions, consistent with regional agreements and processes, such as the Pacific Island Forum and the Boe Declaration.
The new Australian Government will also revitalise our historically deep engagement in South-East Asia.
In 1974, Australia became the first dialogue partner of the Association of South-East Asian Nations under Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
Since then, ASEAN countries have been at the heart of both our security and economic interests, and our vision of the Indo-Pacific.
Modern Australia is now home to many diaspora communities from South-East Asia. Indeed, our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, began her life in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.
It’s why Prime Minister Albanese’s first international visit was to Indonesia.
It’s also why Australia will tighten military ties with South-East Asia. We will appoint an ASEAN Special Envoy. We are committed to the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus framework as the pre-eminent regional defence forum.
And we are committed to working with South-East Asia to support ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
The Australian Government will have a renewed focus on climate change.
As Prime Minister Albanese said, climate change is not just about the environment.
It’s about lives. It’s about livelihoods. It’s about national security.
In 2011, I addressed the UN Security Council on the security implications of climate change. I did so with Marcus Stephen, the then President of Nauru. I spoke about coral atoll nations like the Marshall Islands. When one stands on the shores of Majuro, as I have, with nowhere else to go, with the sea on either side of that thin strip of land, one senses the intense vulnerability felt by those living on small islands. The sea, which has long been a source of food, sustenance and culture, is being transformed into a source of anxiety and threat.
Climate change will drive destabilising population movements as people’s lives and livelihoods are increasingly at risk. And this in turn will give rise to new security challenges.
Our Government’s approach to climate change demonstrates how seriously we take our place in the world.
Our target is a national emissions reduction of 43 per cent by 2030 on the road to net zero by 2050.
Gone are the days when Australia neglected climate change as a security issue and treated it as a marginal priority.
Australia is back at the table as a responsible, sensible, thoughtful, and purposeful actor.
Climate change will now factor into Australia’s defence planning and defence diplomacy.
Under Anthony Albanese you will also see a change in Australia’s tone.
It is in the character of Australians to be frank. We will always be forthright in articulating our national interest and in advocating for our region’s security.
But this Government will be respectful, including with countries where we have complex relationships.
This includes China.
Australia values a productive relationship with China. China is not going anywhere. And we all need to live together and, hopefully, prosper together.
China remains our largest trading partner. China’s economic success is connected to that of our region.
Australia’s approach will be anchored in a resolve to safeguard our national interest and our support for regional security and stability based on rules.
We will be steady and consistent, looking for avenues of cooperation where they exist while recognising China’s growing power and the manner in which that is reshaping our region.
Australia’s strategic circumstances are as complex as they have been since the end of the Second World War.
We want to see a region at peace, not in conflict.
A region where the sovereignty of all nations – large or small – is preserved.
And where the rule of law, not the rule of power, governs conduct between states.
Much has been said about the need for the United States to respond to China’s rise in a way that responsibly manages strategic competition, but also allows the regional order to adapt.
But that imposes responsibility on China too.
Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, observed that China has an equal responsibility for a stable and sustainable order in our region. He said:
“As [China]… steps up to a larger leadership role it will at the same time need to be willing to accept and respect restraints on the way it uses its immense strength, because the acceptance of such restraints by great powers is the key to any successful and durable international order.”
Of course it’s reasonable to expect a more powerful China will have a bigger say in regional and international affairs.
What is important is that the exercise of Chinese power exhibits the characteristics necessary for our shared prosperity and security. Respect for agreed rules and norms. Where trade and investment flow based on agreed rules and binding treaty commitments. And where disputes among states are resolved via dialogue, and in accordance with international law.
This is vital when it comes to the rearmament we are witnessing in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia does not question the right of any country to modernise their military capabilities consistent with their interests and resources.
But large-scale military build-ups must be transparent. And they must be accompanied by statecraft that reassures.
China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the Second World War.
It is critical that China’s neighbours do not see this build-up as a risk for them. Because without that reassurance, it is inevitable that countries will seek to upgrade their own military capabilities in response.
Insecurity is what drives an arms race.
So reassuring statecraft is essential.
It is essential to providing confidence that global rules apply everywhere. That the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea applies in all international waters, including the South China Sea. Chinese militarisation of features in the South China Sea needs to be understood for what it is: the intent to deny the legitimacy of its neighbours’ claims in this vital international waterway through force.
Reassuring statecraft will be fundamental to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Reassuring statecraft will be fundamental to better relations between China and India, China and South Korea, and China and Australia.
And it is critical that the global community acts as one in calling out threats to peace.
The UN Security Council should be allowed to condemn North Korea’s illegal ballistic missile tests. It should be able to call for the restoration of civilian government in Myanmar. Russian disinformation on Ukraine should be exposed, not amplified.
The return of war in Europe should be a warning to us all.
The war Russia has embarked on demonstrates that we cannot just rely on economic interdependence to deter conflict.
On the contrary, it demonstrates that interdependence is no barrier when one country’s determined military build-up creates an imbalance of military power. An imbalance that encouraged Moscow to conclude the benefits from conflict outweighed the risks.
This has been a catastrophic misjudgement by Russia. It is why Australia is standing with Europe. Not only to prevent the brutal subjugation of a sovereign state. But also to reject the idea that any power has a right to dominate its neighbour.
The global rules based order matters everywhere.
It is therefore reasonable to expect China make clear it does not support the invasion of a sovereign country in violation of the UN Charter, and China’s own longstanding commitment to the Charter’s founding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. That China has not done so should give us cause for concern, especially given the investments it is making in military power.
When it comes to the security and stability of our own region, there will be continuity in Australian defence policy.
Australia’s seventy-year-old Alliance with the United States has never been more important to our nation. And deep US engagement has never been more important to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
There will be no cuts to Australia’s defence spending. The Albanese Government has committed to spending 2 per cent of GDP on Defence, including to enhance the Australian Defence Force with capabilities outlined in our 2020 Defence Strategic Update, like long-range and precision strike weapons, offensive and defensive cyber, and area denial systems.
AUKUS – which Labor supported in Opposition – will be central. It will not only deliver nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, but also guide accelerated development of advanced defence capabilities where they have most impact, such as quantum technology, artificial intelligence, undersea warfare, hypersonics and counter-hypersonics.
As we move forward with AUKUS, Australia will ensure that we do so in a way that strengthens the global nuclear non-proliferation regime – a regime that few countries have done as much as Australia to support.
AUKUS, of course, does not limit our ambition to do more with other partners, especially Japan and India.
I look forward to visiting India soon to take forward the defence pillar of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Australia is open about why and how we are investing in new defence capability, and we will continue to be so. We are proud of our record of transparency.
Australia’s investments in defence capability are a necessary and prudent response to the military build-up we see taking place in the Indo-Pacific.
Importantly, these investments are not only about Australia’s security – they are about the region’s security as well.
Because they aim to contribute to an effective balance of military power.
A balance that ensures no state will ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks.
A balance in which the peace achieved by past generations, and from which we prosper today, can be our shared legacy for the future.