KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE ASIALINK LEADERS SUMMIT: AUSTRALIA’S ENGAGEMENT WITH THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION

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Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to address the Asialink Leaders’ summit today.

It’s a momentous time to be speaking on Australia’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region, with an important focus on the Pacific.

The challenges to the rules-based international order have been brought into stark relief in Ukraine.

We continue to be deeply concerned by Russia’s unprovoked and unacceptable aggression against Ukraine. 

Along with our international partners, we have escalated our sanctions against Russia - and will maintain that response as long as Russia’s aggression continues.

But today my focus is closer to home, in the Pacific.

As I will outline, Australia has stepped up at every level to confront the threats to security, stability and prosperity in our region.

Because we are a Pacific nation, and we are part of the Pacific Family.

Despite the global challenges we face, our relationships with our Pacific family remain incredibly close, based on deep trust and friendship.

The Government’s signature Pacific policy – the Pacific Step-up - is one of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities.

And these relationships have only strengthened through the COVID pandemic.

Indeed, our Pacific relationships are in the most positive state they have been in many years. This is a result of deliberate government attention and prioritisation of our shared Pacific interests.  

From the Prime Minister down, every level of our Government has made immense efforts to reach out, to listen, and to respond to Pacific priorities across a range of areas.

Leaders across the Pacific are engaging regularly and directly with Prime Minister Morrison, Foreign Minister Payne, myself, and indeed other ministers in the Government in warmest terms.

The Step Up draws on the full range of Australia’s national assets to deepen our engagement with the region. And the Step Up means that we are better placed to confront the challenges in our region than we have been in a generation.

It reflects the fact that our relationships with our Pacific family are unique – nowhere else in the world do we engage more deeply, or more widely.

We see great opportunity to work even more closely with our Pacific partners in the years ahead.

Because of our shared and abiding interest in working together, we appreciate the Pacific faces immense development challenges, from climate change to health security.  These are pressing concerns globally and for the Pacific.

I am proud that the Pacific Step-up is directly addressing these concerns.

Because of the trust we enjoy, and our shared interests with our Pacific family, we owe it each other to talk openly about the other potential risks to our region.

These include the ramifications of increasing geostrategic competition.

For Australia and our region, the rules-based order is fundamental to the open global trade system that underpins our prosperity and security.

After decades of peace in our region, it is clear the risks of miscalculation and conflict are growing.

Whether in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, or indeed closer to home in the Pacific, China’s economic growth and increasing power and assertiveness are testing the rules-based order.

China’s growth has had positive impacts: we are conscious Australia and other Pacific nations have benefitted immensely from China’s economic rise. And we welcome the fact that millions have been lifted out of poverty as a result of China’s economic transformation.

You will all have read of the Chinese vessel that shone a military-grade laser at an Australian air force plane conducting routine coastal maritime surveillance.

Not in the South China Sea, but in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, transiting from the Arafura Sea, through the Torres Strait, towards the Pacific Ocean. This was a deeply irresponsible and dangerous act.

It is but one example of the increased and sustained pressure on rules and norms in our region.

For you as leaders: leadership is about honesty and the ability to understand and respond to the strategic reality before us, not the way we wish it to be.

Denial and inaction are the most dangerous of traits in these times.

Coercion, disinformation and foreign interference are on the rise.

These trends hinder development, trade, and economic growth but, most worryingly, undermine the trust and strong bonds we share.

We do not want to see competition slip into confrontation, or to see the regional order undermined or destabilised.

This is why Australia is working with our partners to build resilience and support the rule of law in our region.

And while some on the left argue for appeasement of China, the Morrison Government believes that we need to be resolute in defence of our region’s shared values.

As a Government we are deploying all our tools of statecraft, using development, diplomacy, defence and economic cooperation - to seek to preserve security and prosperity in our region.

With our allies and partners – including the Quad, AUKUS, France and New Zealand – Australia is supporting peace, stability and democratic values across our region.

That is one reason our development program supports systems and institutions of open, sovereign, accountable government in our neighbourhood.

Last year we spent a record $1.7 billion in ODA in the Pacific, by far the largest of any country and over 50 per cent higher than when we came to office.

This investment makes a very clear contribution to development, and an immense contribution to regional stability and security as well.

 

And it is an expression of the democratic values we share with our region.

-              We support the conduct of elections, including in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and Solomon Islands.

-              Our police forces, courts and justice agencies are working with partners to provide security, policing and justice support.

-              We speak out in defence of international human rights

-              We support free and vibrant media environments

-              And we support cultural, sports, and faith-based links to build understanding.

 

COVID-19 has exacerbated the risks to stability.

Through this once in a century crisis, I am proud that Australia has stepped up to help our region weather the storm, save lives, and protect our shared prosperity.

The Government is injecting an additional A$1.1 billion in official development assistance to address COVID in our region up to 2024-25.

We’ve provided over 25 million vaccines to our neighbours across the Indo-Pacific.

These vaccine doses, and our end-to-end support for vaccine delivery, have been the critical factor in allowing many Pacific countries to manage COVID-19 and re-open to the world.

In parallel we’ve used the development program to shore-up safety nets in Fiji, Tonga, Timor-Leste and elsewhere during COVID – providing an additional $300 million to help countries in our region manage fiscal risks.

Australia’s funding has helped to ensure that the health crisis in our region hasn’t turned into a destabilising economic or security crisis.

We have supported the Government of Fiji to extend essential welfare to over 102,000 people in 2021-22 – more than 10 per cent of its population. And our vaccines helped Fiji vaccinate nearly 99 per cent of its adult population.

Indeed, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has said our assistance reaffirmed the “everlasting bonds of friendship between Fiji and Australia”.

Our COVID support is on top of our ongoing, $4 billion development program, which continues to protect the poor and marginalised, helping maintain the social cohesion so vital for investment and growth.

And we have stepped up not just through the aid program, but through all the tools at our disposal.

Let me provide some recent examples of how we’re using that broader toolkit to maintain security and stability in our region.

On 24 November 2021, a protest against the Government of Solomon Islands escalated into incidents of public disorder, arson and looting in Honiara.

The Australian Government responded decisively to a request for help, dispatching diplomats, police and ADF personnel within 24 hours of receiving that request.

In short order we provided over 60 personnel, who, together with our Pacific partners, quickly helped the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to restore calm.

In parallel we continued to support Solomon Islands’ COVID-19 response, guaranteeing full vaccination coverage and providing over 300,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses. We have provided 100 oxygen concentrators, six tonnes of UNICEF emergency water and sanitation and dignity kits, and 1000 UNICEF rapid antigen test kits.

Similarly, Australia has responded rapidly and decisively to Tonga’s requests for assistance following the eruption of an underwater volcano and subsequent tsunami in Tonga.

We have committed $3 million in humanitarian assistance.

HMAS Adelaide, Supply and Canberra have been deployed to provide essential supplies and community support. 16 RAAF cargo flights have arrived in Tonga carrying essential supplies.

Tonga’s Guardian-class Patrol Boats and landing craft – gifted by Australia - have been checking on impacted communities, distributing pre-positioned humanitarian aid and managing evacuations.

These pre-positioned Australian humanitarian supplies were able to be distributed almost immediately. They are a tangible example of the fact that our aid program is longstanding, forward thinking, and tailored to the region’s needs.

In Tonga as in Solomon Islands, our response was underpinned by our long-standing diplomatic, development, economic and security links in this region.

Indeed, both situations are excellent examples of how our diplomatic presence in the Pacific is contributing to regional security.

For the first time, Australia now has diplomatic representation in every Pacific Islands Forum member state. No other country in the world has this presence.

Our defence links are also important to build trust across our region and support regional sovereignty and security.

We’ve worked closely with our Pacific partners for decades to help maintain stability, including by providing support and assistance in times of crisis.

We maintain Defence Cooperation Programs with 12 countries across our region. These build our partners’ capacity to protect their sovereignty and contribute to regional security.

In Fiji last November, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Blackrock Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Camp, a project being delivered under our Defence Cooperation Program with Fiji. 

At Blackrock I saw first-hand the high-quality facilities the ADF and Royal Fiji Military Forces are delivering together. New warehouses, training facilities and accommodation at Blackrock will enhance Fiji’s ability to respond to natural disasters and other humanitarian crises in the region.

In a similar way Australia’s A$2 billion Pacific Maritime Security Program is building 21 Guardian-class patrol boats to improve our Pacific partners’ maritime surveillance and sovereign capability. 

With the smuggling of drugs and weapons through the Pacific, and illegal fishing, on the rise, the maritime security program is making a critical contribution to the Pacific’s, and Australia’s own, security.

These defence assets are not counted towards our official development assistance, but there is no doubt they are enabling growth in our region.

And going forward we will be supporting security in our region through delivery of a new capacity, the Pacific support vessel, announced by the Prime Minister in 2018.

The procurement of a Pacific Support Vessel is well-advanced. Consultations with Pacific Governments are underway. And the Government expects to make an announcement soon about the deployment of this asset to our region.

Labor rhetoric indicates a bipartisan approach to regional security. That’s welcome.

However, it’s essential for the Australian people to look very carefully at Labor’s record, and then assess for themselves what Labor would do to confront these security threats if elected.

Voices as senior as Paul Keating’s and Bob Carr’s are arguing for accommodation of China’s more assertive security posture. In 2019 Mr Keating called the heads of our intelligence and security agencies “nutters” and asked for them to be sacked to fix our relationship with Beijing.

Examples like this are not in short supply, and place in doubt Labor’s resolve to confront the security challenges we face.

When last in office, the Labor party gutted the Defence budget by $18 billion – taking Defence expenditure to the lowest level as a proportion of GDP since 1938. And now their long-term partners, the Greens, are pushing a policy to cut defence expenditure in half.

Such spending cuts undermine our humanitarian response and defence capacity. And they project weakness internationally, leaving us vulnerable to intimidation and coercion. 

As recently as November last year, Penny Wong – who would be Foreign Minister in an Albanese Government – was blaming the Prime Minister for the state of Australia’s relationship with China, accusing the Government of playing politics. I have two concerns with this. One, blaming the Government for standing by our fundamental democratic principles is simply having a bet each way. And two, labelling any debate over national security as ‘playing politics’ is a base attempt to dodge the hard questions. Should we take at face value Labor’s claim of bipartisanship, or should we test it against Labor’s actions and record?

We saw Labor unwind Australia’s strong border protection and lose control of our borders, with deep impacts on our Pacific partnerships. To manage this blunder, the then Labor Government redirected at least $750 million in aid funding to pay for onshore refugee processing. 

More recently in December 2020, after the Chinese Embassy released its infamous list of 14 demands, in which they said we would have to compromise on core democratic freedoms – of the press, of the parliament, on human rights – Anthony Albanese said it reflected poorly on the Australian Government that China wasn’t picking up the phone.

So which of those freedoms would Anthony Albanese have us compromise on? Would he silence the press? Or the Parliament? Or have us silenced on human rights abuses in Xinjiang? If none of these, then I guess it was just cheap politics to blame the Australian Government for the consequences of refusing to yield to these demands. Either way, this behaviour was not that of a leader who is genuinely providing bi-partisanship on national security. More likely it betrays the way Mr Albanese would respond if faced with similar demands as Prime Minister.

All these examples go to Labor’s approach to national security. Those who claim there is no difference between the approaches of the two sides of politics on national security and territorial sovereignty are either ignorant of the facts or are pushing a partisan agenda.

Let me turn now to economic growth.

A clear priority for the Australian Government’s engagement with our region is enabling business-led economic growth. This is about delivering jobs and growth at home and for our Pacific neighbours. 

Australia’s economy is robust, with growth rebounding strongly and unemployment trending towards 4%.

In contrast, the economic challenges in our region have been gravely exacerbated by COVID-19 and border closures.

Of the 11 Asian Development Bank member economies expected to contract for a second year in 2021, nine are in the Pacific.

Such vulnerability creates risks of economic exploitation.

Predatory lending is a particular concern for me. Loans for unviable assets, which stand little chance of making an economic return, are saddling Pacific countries with unmanageable debt.

We are working with the nations in our region to confront these economic challenges.

For Papua New Guinea, we have provided loans over multiple years, worth a total of approximately $1.1 billion. In Indonesia, we have provided a bilateral loan worth $1.5 billion.

Our loans are provided on a transparent basis, including disclosure in our budget statements and those of recipient countries, and only following careful assessments of debt sustainability.

We want countries in our region to develop their infrastructure and have financing that is sustainable, delivers quality assets, provides economic growth and stability, and supports high standards of governance.

That is why the Morrison government has established a A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific.

Australia’s value add is in our planning and delivery of high quality, climate resilient assets, with upskilling of local labour and the use of local firms, generating broader economic benefits.

We have now finalised AIFFP financing for five projects totalling over $700 million: new and redeveloped ports in PNG, solar power generation in Palau, the Palau Submarine Cable, the Tina River hydro power Transmission System in Solomon Islands and an investment in Airports Fiji.

Pleasingly, Pacific nations are responding with strong demand for sustainable Australian financing, which is supporting their priorities and meeting their needs.

The Government’s agreement to finance Telstra’s purchase of Digicel Pacific is founded on the same premise – responsible, transparent financing to deliver high quality investment to our region.

Through this work, Australia is using our balance sheet to give our partners access to lower cost finance than they could otherwise access.

Given this record, where countries in the region continue to turn to other sources, including China, for opaque loans for uneconomic assets – it will be up to those governments to justify this to their people.

Alongside this economic support, we must not forget that our ongoing aid program invests in the underpinnings of continued economic growth: health and education.

In 2020-21, Australia spent $541 million on supporting education in our region and globally.

We spent over $1 billion on supporting health outcomes in our region and globally.

The pandemic has made more obvious than ever before that these investments are not charity – but are long-term investments in the security, stability and economic growth in our region.

But no nation has ever become wealthy from development assistance alone. It is the business and private sector which will drive sustainable wealth creation over the long term.

Economies create jobs and, as the Prime Minister said, “[enable a] business-led global recovery…to restore lives and livelihoods.” 

A small example.

In Fiji I launched a COVID compliance certification scheme for the tourism sector, run by a Canberra company called Aspen Medical.

This investment of just a few hundred thousand dollars was critical in allowing Fiji’s tourism operators to safely reopen to international tourists. In turn the re-opening of tourism will underpin the recovery of Fiji’s economy.

Another great example of how we are supporting jobs and growth is Australia’s Pacific labour mobility programs.

These have been critical for both Australian industries facing workforce shortages, and for the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

There are now over 20,000 Pacific and Timorese workers in Australia, with another 52,000 in the work ready pool.

This has meant that Pacific workers in Australia have been able to continue supporting their families and communities back home.

On average each worker provides a remittance to their family and community of over $1000 per month.

And this program has also been critical to Australian employers – it has provided labour to get fruit, veggies and meat off farms and into supermarkets.

At this moment of immense pressure on Australian supply chains, let me acknowledge the contribution of Pacific workers to our economy.

We have also begun to expand these labour mobility programs into the care, tourism and hospitality sectors, recognising the positive impact Pacific workers could make to sectors stretched by COVID-19.

I’ve heard first-hand from Pacific leaders and Australian employers alike how important this scheme is to them. And the Government has every intention of continuing to expand it.

Lastly, a note on our future directions. Despite the evidence I have outlined today that our Pacific relationships are now in their best state in decades and the level of our investment is the highest it has ever been, we’re not resting on our laurels.

We’ll continue to step up, working with Pacific governments to confront the economic and security challenges of our time.

And building on those successes, there are a few areas I see as particular opportunities to further deepen and broaden our engagement in the years ahead

We’ll build on the successes of our infrastructure financing.

We’ll look at ways to increase the number of Pacific islanders accessing Australia’s education system.

We’ll be looking at how we can strengthen Pacific media institutions to confront disinformation. We will build on the presence of Australian media in the region.

We’ll continue expanding sporting, cultural and religious ties.

Indeed, in every area of our engagement, we’ll ensure we’re giving real meaning to the idea of Pacific family.

Ladies and gentlemen, in summary, my key points:

Australia’s security, jobs and economy are deeply integrated with stability and growth across our region.

We’re proactively using all the tools we have to support shared security, stability and prosperity across the region.

The Pacific Step Up fortified our economies, strengthened health systems and enhanced our people-to-people links.

Our record $1.7 billion in development expenditure to the Pacific is working alongside defence expenditure, infrastructure loans and bilateral loans as part of an integrated strategy to improve security, stability and growth in our region.

And given the chance, the Government is going to keep our Indo-Pacific engagement absolutely focused on security, economic growth and jobs now and into the future.

Because the prosperity and the security of our region depends on it.

[ENDS] 

 

Senator the Hon. Zed Seselja 
Minister for International Development and the Pacific