Shangri-La Dialogue: sovereignty means being free to choose 
11 Jun 2022|

The first Shangri-La Dialogue since 2019 is a chance for world leaders and ministers to discuss urgent and long-term international security questions, including a focus on whether rules and sovereignty matter anymore.

The answer has been a resounding ‘yes’, but much discussion has focused on what words we shouldn’t use and what actions we shouldn’t take.

Don’t refer to ‘the West’ as it will upset the East. Don’t use the word ‘democracy’ as it will upset non-democratic countries. Don’t say ‘strategic competition’ as it frightens the non-aligned movement. Don’t say you support the US as it will be seen as provoking major-power rivalry. Don’t call out Chinese Communist Party aggression as that is asking countries to make a binary choice between China and the US. Don’t let the US change its strategic-ambiguity approach to Taiwan as it might provoke China. Don’t talk about security components of the Quad as the region won’t like it. Don’t have clear foreign policy and defence strategies. Don’t ask countries to choose.

It left a sense of needing to apologise for being democratic and for expecting countries and their governments to have and follow international standards. Oh, by the way, don’t mention international standards as they are Western standards driven by the US that are anti-China.

All of this is, of course, only serving authoritarian regimes because it enables the narrative that anyone calling out their malicious actions is being provocative. Don’t ask me to stop hitting you or I’ll punish you by hitting you harder.

Such discussions about what we cannot or should not do also distracts from many of the urgent issues at hand. It means the discussion doesn’t have to fully recognise the reality of what is happening around us—economic coercion, military expansion, cyber intrusions, foreign interference, human rights abuses, misuse of technologies. Don’t talk about these things as it might upset some nations, and the people doing them, or those hoping to ignore them.

It is of course always important to adapt to different audiences, to understand different interests and to not impose our values on others. But we need to shift from a foreign policy of ‘don’ts’ to a foreign and strategic policy of what we must and can do—ourselves, and with others. And in doing so we should not be apologetic about what we are—democratic—and what our principles are: standing up for our freedoms, security and sovereignty and holding to account those responsible for breaching our freedom, security and sovereignty.

It’s easier to say what not to do, or what we don’t like, than what should be done. So, what actions should Australia, our allies and likeminded partners take that advance our interests, protect our values and promote a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific?

First, recognise that being true to our own values doesn’t have to mean diverging from the interests of those we want to partner with, across Southeast Asia, Europe and the Pacific islands. We have proven that our democratic values are consistent with our aligned interests with Vietnam and Philippines on issues such as trade and the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation and resilient supply chains are in all our collective interests.

Second, the Australia–US–Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue should be revamped. Understandably, this dialogue has taken a back seat to the important development of the Quad, but it needs to be viewed as a vital cog for our long-term security. It can, for example, discuss key issues, such as Taiwan, in a way that the Quad is currently unable to. This is not a criticism of the Quad, which is among the most important partnerships for Australia.

Third, Australia should make clear that human rights matter. We should show that we can maintain relations with countries while addressing human rights and, where necessary, calling out crimes against humanity. Too often nations only call out the bad behaviour of those countries with which they do not have a significant economic relationship. This has enabled some to argue that trade reduces the potential for conflict. But this is a falsehood, seen not just by Russia’s war in Ukraine or even World War I, but because this mentality has meant that China has been winning a contest and conflict, one that simply hasn’t involved bullets and missiles.

We should ensure that even where we are economically entwined we are able to maintain our principles. In this regard, the new Australian government should use the Magnitsky powers to sanction those responsible for human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. All other Magnitsky countries—the US, the UK and Canada—and the EU did so last year and it was a mistake for the previous Australian government to have left it to the new government. Notwithstanding this omission, the new government should join our partners and make it clear that we will also stand up for those unable to do so themselves due to oppression, coercion and subjugation.

Fourth, just as we should call out the bad behaviour of authoritarian states, we should be up-front with our allies, friends and partners. While being realistic that it won’t be reversed in the short term, Australia should continue to tell the US that it was a strategic mistake to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although there can be many other positive initiatives, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, nothing will equate to the strategic heft of the US joining the TPP’s successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the meantime, we should fast-track those keen to join that meet the high standards of trade and economic investment. That means making the UK and Taiwan new members.

Fifth, European countries, in particular collectively as the EU, have significant power and we should encourage them to be more actively aligned. For too long, key European countries have inconsistently countered—and often outright avoided countering—malicious authoritarian behaviour. The EU response to China’s economic coercion of Lithuania demonstrated the collective power of the EU. Imagine the collective power of the EU with the US, Japan, Australia and others to both deter such behaviour and respond to it. Consistent, aligned approaches deter malicious authoritarian behaviour. It is the current inconsistency that encourages the bad behaviour we too often see today.

In this regard, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in Berlin and former ASPI scholar Ben Schreer correctly told the dialogue on Friday that the ‘middle way’ in which Europe benefits from US security without joining strategic competition against China and Russia is no longer the right approach, because European values and interests are more aligned to those of the US, rather than those of China or Russia. The malign activities of China and Russia will continue and this will eventually force their hand, as we’ve seen with the illegal war against Ukraine.

Which brings us back to the don’ts—don’t ask anyone to choose. We should be clear that not choosing is actually making a choice. And that, instead, the key is being free to choose.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in the dialogue’s keynote address, asked and answered this key question for Australia and our partners:

Can the rules-based international order we have built through hard work, dialogue and consensus be upheld and the march of peace and prosperity continue? Or will we return to a lawless world where rules are ignored and broken, where unilateral changes to the status quo by force are unchallenged and accepted, and where the strong coerce the weak militarily or economically?

That is the choice we have to make today.