Address to the Opening of the Seoul Defence Dialogue 2023

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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18 October 2023

I’d like to thank Minister Shin for hosting me in Seoul and allowing me the honour of addressing the 2023 Seoul Defense Dialogue in such esteemed company as Ban Ki-Moon.

Arriving this morning into Seoul, it’s hard not to see this glittering city as an embodiment of Korea’s national story: a country that emerged from the devastation of war to become one of world’s leading economies, a thriving democracy with global cultural cachet. Like all Australians, I have tremendous admiration for this story – the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ – a testament not only to the hard work of the Korean people but to that brilliant combination of economic and political liberalism.

But the shadow of war still haunts us. North Korea remains to this day an enormous source of insecurity, impoverishing its people even as it invests in an illegal nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programs. But of course North Korea is not the only major risk. We meet today as Israel responds to the most brutal terrorist attack in its history. The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a complex one. But nothing, let me repeat, nothing justifies Hamas’ brutal assaults on innocent civilians. Israel has a right to defend itself and act against Hamas. In doing so the rules of war must be respected and civilians protected.  

We also meet when Russia, a nuclear armed state and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, persists in its brutal invasion of another sovereign state. To date, Australia has committed close to a billion Australian dollars in support for Ukraine’s defence. Australian soldiers have delivered training to more 1,150 Ukrainian recruits, and the Royal Australian Air Force is deploying its state-of-the-art airborne early warning aircraft – the E7A Wedgetail – to Europe to help protect a vital gateway of international support into Ukraine. As the Australian Prime Minister Albanese has said, we will support Ukraine’s defence for as long as it takes.

I’m aware, of course, of those who question providing such support. But I find it especially hard to entertain those questions when visiting this vibrant country, knowing where it has come from. When another brutal authoritarian regime invaded 73 years ago, the South Korean army struggled to hold on against repeated North Korean onslaughts. It was at this desperate time that the UN Security Council committed forces from willing nations to the aid of South Korea. These forces were led by the United States, and Australia was one of the first contributing nations, sending nearly 18,000 Australian soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses.

But imagine for a moment that the United Nations had not acted. What other grim future would have been birthed? What if the UN had decided the risks too great? My point is that the great city we meet in today – this emblem of national prosperity and success – did not happen by chance. It is the result of choices: hard choices, not without risk, but which were prudent and necessary; choices made during the war and after the Armistice; choices made by the Republic of Korea, its ally the United States and partners including Australia that set the parameters for a peace dividend that the region still reaps today.

This is a lesson we need to heed today. Because the choices we make today will be vital. Thirty years ago, the grim realities of the Cold War gave way to the optimistic assumption that ideological competition had ended and that the world was on an irreversible trajectory toward economic integration and political liberalisation. But that optimism now looks more like wishful thinking. We need to face the reality that the post-Cold War era has come to an end. In its place is a new struggle among states as they compete to shape the structures of the new era to come. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first major conflict of this struggle. Russia didn’t embark on this war of choice only out of a desire to subjugate a neighbour. It also saw a chance to decisively shift the international order in its favour through the use of force.

It is important that we ask ourselves what conclusion we want the world to draw from this invasion. That aggressive states willing to use force can successfully change the international order to their advantage? Or that aggression was a catastrophic misjudgement in which the costs vastly outweighed any perceived benefit? That’s why Australia and other likeminded partners support Ukraine’s defence. Because the war in Europe represents a failure of deterrence. And our job, is to ensure we experience no equivalent failure in our region.

We need to speak frankly about this. As defence leaders, we have a unique and profound responsibility: to prevent worst case outcomes. The most consequential risk we face is the resumption of great power conflict in our lifetime. Nowhere will this be more important than on the issue of Taiwan. Australia’s position on Taiwan has not changed. Australia does not take a position on the final status of Taiwan other than it must be arrived at peacefully, consistent with the will of peoples on both sides of the Strait, and not though the use of force or coercion. But the consequences of US-China conflict over Taiwan are so grave that we cannot be passive bystanders. We must work together to navigate this challenging new period with nuance and judgement, with statecraft that ensures that no country judges that the benefits of conflict might outweigh the consequences.                                                                                      

Colleagues, no country can reduce this risk alone. It will require increased cooperation to strengthen the norms and principles that underpin our collective security and prosperity. We have done this before. Following World War II, nations set up a system of multilateral institutions centred around the United Nations. The objective was to give states a means to resolve disputes and address common challenges through a set of institutions operating under agreed norms and rules. This is what we mean when we talk about the global rules based order. And let me acknowledge the scepticism that often greet that phrase, which is often seen as self-serving or hypocritical.  But acknowledging this order as flawed shouldn’t obscure its vital role: it oversees institutions to manage global financial risk; maintains a nuclear non-proliferation regime which has been so vital to avoid catastrophe; and promotes a global trade regime that has not only fostered the greatest wealth creation in history but also facilitated a much overdue transfer of wealth from rich to developing countries by improving access to markets, shifting manufacturing from north to south, and creating an interdependent network of global supply chains.

In short the global rules based order, when applied by all, helps offset the advantages of the powerful by giving agency to smaller states. Consider one example: the conciliation that led Australia to agree a new maritime border with Timor-Leste in 2019. The Maritime Boundary Treaty, agreed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dispute resolution procedures, was the first of its kind and saw Australia cede territory to Timor Leste. Australia was not forced to do this, and Timor Leste was not powerful enough to compel us – just as the Philippines isn’t powerful enough to compel China to adhere to UN dispute resolution in the South China Sea. But this agreement occurred because Australia and Timor Leste invested in a system of rules underpinned by international law, rather than simply following the power relativities of the two states in question. 

This is the system we think of when Australia talks about the rules based order. It’s not abstract for us, nor are we cynical about it. We need it, and at a time when our strategic environment is coming under increasing pressure we will need it even more. The question is how we best ensure its relevance today.

Australia’s first response is to deepen our network of strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. It will take a network of states acting together to shape our region’s strategic trajectory so that it continues to support our collective security and prosperity. In this context there are few more important priorities for Australia than deepening our strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea. As mature liberal democracies, I’m convinced the strategic defence relationship between Australia and South Korea can go from strength-to-strength and is full of opportunities to deepen it even further. I’m visiting here for the second time in a year to act on that conviction.

The second key objective is to invest in an effective balance of military power in which no one country in our region is predominant. Australia is doing this via the most significant reinvestment in defence capability in decades. We have committed to increase defence funding by an additional 0.2 per cent of GDP above its existing trajectory by the end of the decade - a shift from 2.1% to 2.3% of GDP by 2032-33. This will include over $A19 billion dollars over the next four years to acquire long-range strike systems, manufacture guided munitions, and upgrade critical air bases across northern Australia. This investment includes working with our AUKUS partners, the United Kingdom and the United States.

But getting the hard power equation right is only part of the picture. Because for Australia deterrence involves all aspect of statecraft: from increasing our defence capability, to non-military elements that disincentivise conflict and reassure states that they have options to seek their strategic goals within agreed rules, standards and laws, where sovereignty is respected. This means continuing to invest in an inclusive regional order in which trade and investment integration continues to expand – not shrink. Russia’s decision to start a major war in Europe has killed off the theory that economic interdependence is an antidote to conflict. But we are still better off with it than without it. The division of our region into not only rival geostrategic but also geoeconomic blocks will make our region poorer and more vulnerable to conflict.

But while we must not fall into the trap of decoupling, our third objective must be to diversify supply chains. Secure supply chains are diverse ones. This will be critical if states are to maintain sovereignty and resilience. Diversification not only minimises the risk that states see trade as a useful tool of coercion, it fosters healthy competition and incentivises investment in trade rules.

Fourth, we must participate in the difficult task of norm building. This includes striving to preserve a strategic culture where we are a region in which disputes are resolved through dialogue and in accordance with international law. That’s why Australia supports ASEAN’s Code of Conduct negotiations with China regarding maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea. It’s why Australia supports APEC’s work on inclusive trade and investment rules. And why we support the development of multilateral norms on the use and adoption of critical and emerging technologies in ways that seeks to maximise their benefits and minimise their risks.

Finally, we must do our best to commit to transparency. Military build ups in the Indo-Pacific are a reality. But states can offset the risk of miscalculation through increased transparency and communication. Australia is striving to practice what we preach. In the Defence Strategic Review, we have set out in plain detail Australia’s assessment of our security environment and how we need to respond.

Colleagues, together we can help ensure the Indo-Pacific’s strategic outlook is a positive one. This will require us to build diplomatic and strategic muscles. It will require changes in the way we’ve all thought about, and structured, our defences. And it will require reconvening on the idea of the international rules based order. But the task before us is the renovation of that order, not its dismantlement. And I commit to working with you all on this profoundly important task

Thank you.


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