Malcolm Turnbull speech places China in multipolar system

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Image: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The challenge from here is to engage with others, to confidently reset the approach toward national security - writes Rory Medcalf

The Australian Financial Review, 9 August 2018

Some foreign policy speeches are subtle and many-layered, crafted as much for their place in a long narrative as for any quick diplomatic fix they bring.

So it is with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s address this week at the University of NSW, where his audience included Australia’s university leaders as well as the diplomatic representatives of the People’s Republic of China.

The speech had plenty to say about mutual respect, the benefits of economic cooperation, the rewards of shared innovation, and the role of education in advancing peace, security and understanding. It applauded the contributions of scholars and the 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage.

These remarks have thus been hailed as a “reset” in the troubled relationship between Australia and China, a return to a decades-long tradition of economic engagement first and foremost.

The reality is more complex.

No question, the Prime Minister has sensibly moved to restore balance to Australia’s official script about China and the merits of a broad partnership.

But he has not for a moment resiled from the difficult steps this country has taken to secure its interests and sovereignty, such as the bipartisan support achieved recently for strong new laws on espionage, foreign influence and interference.

This week’s milder rhetoric is not the return to some imagined old normal in Australia-China relations, where the strategic risks of rising Chinese power or the fundamental differences in political values were unsustainably censored.

Instead, the speech merits parsing for the way it reveals the grammar of a new normal.

It consolidates a new message not only about Australia’s view of China, but about our own evolving and independent role in a contested Indo-Pacific region and an uncertain world.

This was not a China-centric speech. It was not a statement that positions China as the rightfully preponderant power in our shared region.

Many of its references to China were in a context of many countries and many cultures. This places China prominently but not dominantly in the Indo-Pacific, the emerging multipolar regional system in which Australia seeks security and prosperity with many partners, not simply replacing an unpredictable Washington for an authoritarian Beijing.

The Indo-Pacific idea works to the extent it can moderate and incorporate China into a regional order based on equal sovereignty and mutual respect. And since, as Mr Turnbull noted, China will naturally assert itself, that requires others to push back with equal patience and determination.

Last year, the Prime Minister delivered forthright remarks at the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore, emphasising the need for the region to oppose coercion and to uphold international law. These plainly alluded to China’s expansive and risky actions in the South China Sea, such as its militarisation of disputed islands.

Rather than disown these remarks, the Prime Minister has reiterated their main point: the dangers of allowing international affairs to be based on the view that might makes right.

Mr Turnbull also sought to co-opt China itself into the vision of a rules-based order, quoting back Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s own remarks to the Australian Parliament to 2014, endorsing “the equality of all countries before international rules”.

It was rather more diplomatically done than his needless allusion to Mao last December when asserting Australians’ sovereign right to “stand up”.

This time, China’s representatives have no excuse to claim offence.

After all, this speech – like the foreign influence laws and an Indo-Pacific foreign policy – was really about Australia.

It emphasised the contribution Australia itself makes to wider prosperity, innovation and security. Hence it underscored the achievements of the New Colombo Plan, of Australian students building bridges into many countries – Indonesia first among them - and the benefits for China’s own development from shared research discoveries in cleaner energy.

No speech offers a complete solution to a painful diplomatic bind. It will be a long time, if ever, before Australia and China achieve anything resembling strategic trust. This is especially so if China keeps trying to use economic ties for strategic leverage or academic links to steal an edge in new technologies of war and surveillance.

In the end, what matters is what nations do, not what their leaders say.

In the past two years, we have seen Australia lay the foundations for a harder-edged response to a worsening security environment.

These include modernisation of the navy, the expansion of cyber security capabilities, stricter security around foreign investment, a foreign policy to diversify security partners, a focus on countering Chinese influence in the South Pacific, the empowering of a Department of Home Affairs, the creation of a new Office of National Intelligence, and of course the foreign interference laws, backed by a hard-won new political consensus.

The journey is far from over. But this more comprehensive approach to national security should allow Australia to engage with others – including China – more confidently, and thus more constructively in the long run. That is the real reset.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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Malcolm Turnbull speech places China in multipolar system

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