Australia must avoid war in the region, says Penny Wong
17 Apr 2023|

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has set out her government’s plan to avert war in the region and maintain peace using all the elements of Australia’s national power including diplomacy and development assistance, underwritten by strong military deterrence.

In a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, Wong said strategic competition was operating in the region on several levels—economic, diplomatic, strategic and military, all interwoven, and all framed by an intense contest of narratives. This was nothing less than a competition over how the region and the world work, she said.

‘Today, I want to talk to you about how we avert war and maintain peace, and more than that, how we shape a region that reflects our national interests and our shared regional interests.’

Those interests lay in a region operating by rules, standards and norms, where a larger country did not determine the fate of a smaller country, and where each country could pursue its own aspirations and its own prosperity.

‘And I want to talk about how we contribute to the regional balance of power that keeps the peace by shaping the region we want,’ Wong said.

Countries like Australia needed to sharpen their focus on what their interests were, and how to uphold them.

‘Our focus must be on what we need to do so we can live according to our own laws and values, determined by our own citizens, pursuing our own prosperity, making our own choices, respecting but not deferring to others,’ Wong said.

‘Our focus needs to be on how we ensure our fate is not determined by others, how we ensure our decisions are our own. And if there were any doubt, Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine renders stark our interest in living in a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.’

The reality was that China would keep being China, Wong said. It was the world’s second largest economy, representing 18% of global GDP, and its growth had played a crucial role in alleviating poverty for its own people, the region and the world. ‘Like any country, China will deploy this strength and utilise this influence to advance its national interests. We know at times these interests will differ from our interests, and from others in the region.’

A great power like China used every tool at its disposal to maximise its own resilience and influence—its domestic industry policy; its massive international investment in infrastructure, diplomacy and military capability; and access to its markets, said Wong.

‘This statecraft illustrates the challenge for middle powers, like us and our partners in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Yet we need not waste energy with shock or outrage at China seeking to maximise its advantage. Instead, we channel our energy in pressing for our own advantage.’

Australia must deploy its own statecraft towards shaping a region that was open, stable and prosperous, said Wong. ‘A predictable region, operating by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated. A region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.’

The region must safeguard nations’ capacity to disagree, preserve their agency and protect their ability to decide their own destiny.

‘When we talk about our interests, this is what we mean.

‘That kind of region doesn’t simply exist organically. It demands our national effort, especially as some seek to rewrite the rules.’

That effort could not be left to one or another arm of Australian government, Wong said.

‘Our diplomats cannot do it alone, nor can our military. And what we do in the world needs to reinforce and be reinforced by who we are and what we do at home. It takes investment in all elements of our national power.’

That meant developing a more diversified economy, making more things here, responding to climate change and making Australia a renewable energy superpower, strengthening trust in its institutions through the National Anti-Corruption Commission, facing its cybersecurity needs, investments in education and training, strengthening the services people rely on, growth in wages—all part of making Australia more robust and resistant to external shocks, Wong said.

‘Our economic security, our domestic resilience as a multicultural democracy and our international engagement combine as our statecraft,’ she said.

‘To avoid any possible misunderstanding, our job is to lower the heat on any potential conflict, while increasing pressure on others to do the same. The Albanese government does that here at home, and we do that in our diplomacy.’

Wong said the government was deploying all these elements of national power to make Australia more stable, confident and secure at home, and more influential in the world.

In the 11 months since her appointment, she has visited 30 countries, five of them more than once.

‘It’s clear to me from my travels throughout the region that countries don’t want to live in a closed, hierarchical region where the rules are dictated by a single major power to suit its own interests. Instead, we want an open and inclusive region, based on agreed rules, where countries of all sizes can choose their own destiny.’

Without these investments, others would continue to fill the vacuum and Australia would continue to lose ground.

All countries of the region must exercise their agency through diplomatic, economic and other engagement to maintain the region’s balance—and to uphold the norms and rules that have underpinned decades of peace and prosperity, Wong said.

And this balance must be underwritten by military capability, as in the plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, she said.

‘Just as we each have a responsibility to help maintain the conditions for peace through our diplomacy, we also have a responsibility to play our part in collective deterrence of aggression.’

If any country could make the calculation that it could dominate another, the region would become unstable and the risk of conflict would increase.

Australia must take responsibility for its own security and be able to deliver deterrent effects, Wong said. In an age of military modernisation, as other militaries can operate from increased range, with faster speed, and greater precision and lethality, taking responsibility for our security means being able to hold potential adversaries’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance.

‘We must ensure that no state will ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks. This is fundamental to assuring the safety and security of our nation and our people. Our foreign and defence policies are two essential and interdependent parts of how we make Australia stronger and more influential in the world.’

Wong said Australia must make its concerns clear when countries don’t respect Pacific institutions, when they impose unsustainable debt burdens, or when announcements aren’t followed by delivery that benefits communities.

‘We want Australia to be a partner of choice for the countries of our region. Partners, not patriarchs,’ Wong said. ‘We are helping regional partners become more economically resilient, develop critical infrastructure and provide their own security so they have less need to call on others.’