The United States Studies Centre hosted a virtual address and in-conversation event with Senator the Hon Penny Wong to launch the United States Studies Centre report “Correcting the course: How the Biden administration should compete for influence in the Indo-Pacific.”
Senator Wong's speech
I acknowledge the lands I am joining you from today are the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their country.
I acknowledge the Kaurna people as the custodians of the Adelaide region and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today.
I also pay respects to the cultural authority of Aboriginal people joining us from other areas of Australia.
Thanks to Simon Jackman, Ashley Townshend and Susannah Patton for arranging this discussion and inviting me to launch their report on how the Biden Administration should compete for influence in the Indo-Pacific.
It is a frank and thoughtful assessment of the Biden Administration’s approach to the region to date, and a useful scene-setter for the upcoming release of the Administration’s broader Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Of course it follows the recent 70th Anniversary of the Alliance, and indeed many more years than that of shared values and enduring friendship.
Friendship forged in the fire of war and fulfilled in decades of peace and prosperity.
In recent days there has been a great deal of fanfare about the Government’s decision to enter into a tripartite partnership with the US and UK – the AUKUS partnership.
It is important to be clear that this is not a new treaty, nor a formal alliance.
It is an agreement to co-operate more closely on cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.
Greater cooperation in these areas is a helpful step.
It is consistent with a long tradition of security cooperation with America, in recent years most significantly with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama working together to establish permanent Marine rotations through Darwin.
Central to the announcement of AUKUS has been the government flagging an intention to acquire nuclear propelled submarines.
The decisions have been to end the existing attack class contract, and to engage in an 18 month consultation before making any actual capability decision.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the consequences of the cancellation decision.
After 8 years of government, this is the second submarine plan which has been scrapped.
And just like the first failed plan to purchase Japanese submarines, there are substantial costs Australia is bearing.
Not including as yet unknown cancellation fees, in the order of $4 billion has gone down the drain on the French contract, with nothing to show for it.
Further, some three decades after a Labor government first commenced construction of the Collins class, we are back to square one on their replacement.
Reports indicate the first such nuclear submarine we might acquire under these arrangements isn’t likely to be operational until 2040.
This a story of missteps and mismanagement Australia can ill afford in the face of intensifying strategic competition.
However, the decision to explore acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines is nevertheless a substantial one.
And the Labor Opposition will take a mature and considered approach.
We have been briefed as to the rationale for nuclear propulsion being the best option for our submarine program.
We accept the advice provided, but many questions and issues remain to be resolved.
Labor has three conditions for the support of nuclear-powered submarines, on which we have sought assurance.
Firstly, that there be no requirement for a domestic civil nuclear industry.
Secondly, that there be no acquisition of nuclear weapons.
And, thirdly, that this agreement would be compatible with the non-proliferation treaty.
The Government has made clear these conditions can be met. We will hold them to these commitments.
More broadly, it is not unreasonable to expect the Morrison-Joyce Government to inform the Australian people on the strategic, environmental, commercial, and political ramifications and consequences of this decision.
Including valid questions about Australia’s sovereign capability.
Such as how will we control the use of technology and capability that is not ours?
What implications are there for the design, assembly, operation and maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines?
These are in addition to our concerns about how capability gaps will be managed, timeframe, costs and the impact on Australian jobs.
The Morrison Government’s defence strategic update last year stated that Australia could no longer rely on a decade of warning time for interstate conflict.
Yet we face up to 18 years’ wait until we would get the first submarine under this announcement, let alone getting all eight in the water.
And there is an important question here for Australia’s sovereignty.
It’s one that Mr Morrison cannot ignore, and one that people like Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd have alluded to over many years:
With the prospect of a higher level of technological dependence on the US, how does the Morrison-Joyce Government assure Australians that we can act alone when need be; that we have the autonomy to defend ourselves, however and whenever we need to.
All of these concerns will be priorities for us through the consultation phase over coming months, whether from opposition or government.
Which is why Anthony Albanese has proposed a bipartisan consultation mechanism on this proposal – this partnership and this procurement cannot be at the mercy of changing political winds, particularly in this pre-caretaker period.
This needs to be about the long term national interest.
The handling of this multi-decade project on the eve on an election is a moment of truth for Mr Morrison’s stewardship of the Alliance.
Will he bring the alternative government into the tent, in pursuit of a shared national interest?
Or will he do what he has done consistently on issues foreign and domestic - from the Jerusalem embassy decision to the Trump rally, to picking fights with premiers – and seek to use this as an opportunity to further his immediate political interests.
He has yet to agree to Mr Albanese’s proposal to take it out of the political realm. He should.
There has been debate over the past week as to how AUKUS contributes to assuring Australia’s interests in our region.
The Indo-Pacific is being reshaped.
The task for this generation of leaders and thinkers is to maximise our influence on that reshaping.
The first and obvious point is that AUKUS is “additional to” and not “instead of” Australia’s contributions to regional architecture and alignments.
It doesn’t replace the ANZUS Alliance, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC or the Quad.
Central to maximising our influence in the region is looking to build greater alignment around matters on which other regional partners share similar interests.
The anxiety expressed in some of the reactions to the AUKUS announcement suggests that more preparatory work could have been done to assure our partners of the practical implications of these announcements – including compliance with our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
Quite rightly, the region doesn’t want a nuclear arms race. Mr Morrison needs to demonstrate - in word and deed - that AUKUS is not a precursor to more nuclear weapons states in Asia.
And part of addressing these valid regional concerns is ensuring that the great power competition that is defining our current era does not spiral into catastrophe.
Southeast Asian nations have been clear - they do not want to be forced to pick sides in US-China competition.
They want to maintain their strategic autonomy and regional stability - and to ensure ASEAN centrality.
It is why, for years now, I have said that Australia needs to encourage and contribute to what I have called a “settling point” between the United States and China.
What Kevin Rudd has called “managed strategic competition”.
And what Ashley and Susannah refer to as “a statement of the United States’ vision for the end-state of strategic competition.”
And as their report makes clear, effective US competition in the region requires comprehensive economic outreach - not just strengthening the US’ military presence.
Deeper US economic integration will demonstrate that the US can compete effectively, help address the region’s needs and build shared prosperity.
It is why Anthony Albanese emphasised the value of the US rejoining the CPTPP on the day that President Biden was inaugurated.
But it is also up to Australia to lead within the Alliance - to demonstrate our value-add by being a partner of choice in the region.
Working with partners in the region to build our collective security, to diversify our export markets, secure supply chains, provide renewable energy and climate solutions, avert coercion, and respond to natural disasters.
By investing financially and intellectually in the security and stability of our region – because defence capability on its own won’t achieve this.
We share with ASEAN states an abiding interest in averting hegemony by any single power – so this is where our energy must be applied.
And our strategic ambitions must be matched by equally ambitious efforts to respond to the region’s needs.
This of course requires a bigger investment in our diplomacy, including in our economic engagement and our development program.
And it again demonstrates why regional perspectives should have been better factored into how the Government executed the AUKUS announcement.
As this audience knows well, we face the most challenging set of strategic circumstances since the end of the Second World War.
We are operating in an environment that requires Australia to work much harder to secure our interests.
Submarines might help protect the region, but on their own they won’t build the region we want - a region that is stable, prosperous, as well as respectful of sovereignty.
And submarines can help our national defence, but won’t of themselves prevent efforts at economic coercion.
Yet last week, Mr Morrison had the air of “mission accomplished” about him – when the response to the announcement made painfully obvious that only a fraction of the job has been done.
International reactions highlight how much work there is to do with other partners in our region.
But the lack of diplomatic legwork was most acutely observed in the French reaction.
France ought to have been shown the due respect of a partner with shared Indo-Pacific interests.
Instead, it’s been reported, that having failed to put in the work before the announcement, members of the Government are now describing the French as “having a sook”.
A marketing man should be able to tell you that perceptions, narrative and words matter - as well as understanding how negative perceptions can be used against the interests of the nation.
It won’t just be France that might have doubts over whether Mr Morrison can be trusted as an honest partner - after a letter from his Government saying they were satisfied with the French project was delivered to the Macron Government on the same day as Mr Morrison’s television announcement that the project was being dumped.
And now while he’s in the US for the Quad leaders’ meeting, Mr Morrison is in damage control - rather than focusing only on advancing Australia’s interests.
We appreciate and welcome the Biden Administration’s hosting of the first Quad leaders’ summit.
With the momentum of the past year and the promises made by its members, the Quad now has an opportunity to demonstrate its value in the region.
It has always been clear that we will not prevail over COVID until we prevail over it everywhere.
The pledge of a billion vaccines for the region is a welcome step but much more needs to be done both in the region and around the world.
We welcome President Biden’s call for the world to step on vaccines – as he said, we need to go big.
We look forward to seeing what specific commitments will be delivered given to countries currently grappling with Delta outbreaks - including Indonesia.
Because for all of the Morrison Government’s promises to deliver vaccines to Indonesia, we’ve seen piecemeal delivery and belated assistance.
We also hope to see progress within the Quad’s climate change working group. President Biden has made this a priority within the Quad and across the US’ global outreach.
Mr Morrison’s failure to commit to net zero is leaving Australia behind and risks undermining our relationship with the US.
It diminishes us in the region, thus hobbling our ability to add value to the Alliance as a partner of choice for our neighbours.
From climate to health to security to critical tech, the Quad should have a positive regional agenda with practical outcomes.
Our partnerships and alliances across the region – including the Quad – are our advantage, but Australia needs to show that it can lead the way and deliver for our regional partners, especially for the people of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
President Biden’s leadership within the Quad underscores the indispensable, albeit changed, nature of US power and influence.
And how this has evolved to ensure the central role of allies and partners in achieving our shared interests in the region.
To uphold the rules of the road, provide balance and build the region we want.
Not by relying on unhelpful binaries that reinforce existing prejudices of Australia in the region or reduce our complex environment to cold war analogies.
There is no scenario in which China doesn’t matter, and no responsible scenario where we can opt out of engagement.
Equally, we know that China is becoming more assertive, and at times aggressive – which, when combined with its military modernisation program, often reduces our strategic policy debate to the two fatalisms.
First, that China’s rise is inevitable and immune to accountability, and we need to just get used to it.
Second, that conflict is inevitable and we need to just get used to that.
We need to move past this thinking.
Australia should always act in our national interests, not through the prism of great-power competition.
At times this means disagreeing with the US – as we did with former President Trump’s rejection of the global rules-based order.
But it also means adding real value to our relationship with the United States through our partnerships in the region.
And it requires Australia, to quote Bob Hawke, to be self-reliant within the Alliance.
As I have said for many years, as a US ally, the fact is we have long ago made a choice. But that is not the end of the matter.