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Albanese calls for Indo-Pacific jaw-jaw and guardrails

Posted By on June 3, 2023 @ 12:15

‘To move from imagining conflict is impossible to assuming war is inevitable is just as harmful to our shared goals. The fate of our region is not preordained. It never was. It never is. What we do here, what we decide here, matters—for us and the world.’

— Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Shangri-La Dialogue, 2 June 2023

A leader’s defining speech on defence offers what they see now and what they want for the future. The predictions and hopes are set against the fears and the threats.

Anthony Albanese offered both hopes and fears in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Australia’s prime minister didn’t use Churchill’s phrase that ‘meeting jaw to jaw is better than war’. But his speech was a passionate call for more dialogue, embracing the US quest to create ‘guardrails’ with China.

The government line is that the Shangri-La speech sets out ‘Australia’s vision for the Indo-Pacific’ in the premier forum for discussing ‘regional security dynamics and challenges’. Take the prime minister at his word. See this as the major foreign policy speech to mark Albanese’s first year in office, perhaps even a defining statement for this term in office.

History shows that what an Australian leader offers in this Singapore keynote can, indeed, set much. The previous Shangri-La effort, by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, was what I dubbed a ‘Hunger Games’ speech, offering robust language about the ‘dark view’ of a ‘coercive China’ seeking domination. A five–year icy period in Australia–China relations was launched.

My headline for Albanese’s words is the plea for meeting jaw to jaw. He joined this to a theme that Turnbull also emphasised: the Indo-Pacific couldn’t leave it to the great powers to safeguard our interests.

Albanese lamented the errors of the ‘end of history’ view that hoped globalisation, free trade and new technologies would create ‘a more open, more stable world’. Instead, he described what we’ve got with these three points:
— The rise of nativism and isolationism

— A land war in Europe

— And the biggest conventional military build-up since the Second World War, in our own region.

The nativism worry can be pinned on Donald Trump, as previous president and current candidate. The military build-up is China’s. And Ukraine stands as the warning about what happens when talking fails. The region has much to do to save itself.

Albanese said Australia is strengthening deterrence and diplomacy, to help build a region ‘where two countries can disagree—even very firmly—without that disagreement ending in disaster’. Central to this was the ‘word of the moment’—strategic ‘guardrails’:
Now, I’m a former minister for infrastructure, so I confess that when I hear guardrails, my mind goes straight to the safety barriers on the side of major roads. But that’s actually not a bad way of thinking about what is being proposed. Because this isn’t about a policy of containment, it’s not a question of placing obstacles in the way of any nation’s progress or potential. This is a matter of simple, practical structures to prevent a worst-case scenario. The essential precondition for this is dialogue.

Albanese said the ‘pressure valve of dialogue’ beats the ‘silence of the diplomatic deep freeze’. The prime minister’s prescription for the region echoes Canberra’s bilateral effort to defrost with Beijing.

Without dialogue, Albanese said, there’s less chance to pick up the phone to seek clarity or context, and there’s ‘always a much greater risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable action and reaction’. His government had put dialogue at the heart of efforts to stabilise relations with China: ‘We’re not naive about this process, or its limitations. We recognise there are fundamental differences in our two nations’ systems of government, our values and our worldviews.’

Albanese pitched the revitalised Quad and the AUKUS agreement on nuclear-powered submarines as fresh supports for Australia’s long engagement in Asia and the South Pacific:
Before I stood alongside President Biden and Prime Minister Sunak to announce Australia’s pathway to acquiring conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines, I ensured that my government spoke with every ASEAN and Pacific partner and many other nations. More than 60 phone calls, being open and transparent with the region about our intentions.

Albanese quoted Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo’s view that the Quad and AUKUS should work as ‘partners and not competitors’ in making the region stable and peaceful: ‘The submarines we are acquiring—the single biggest leap in Australia’s defence capability in our history—reflect our determination to live up to those expectations. To be a stronger partner and a more effective contributor to stability in our region.’

Australia is putting its dialogue call into action across the Shangri-La program. Ahead of Albanese’s keynote, the chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, spoke in a session on Challenges of Asia–Pacific military capability development’, while Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles will speak in Sunday’s final session on ‘Developing models for cooperative security’.

Campbell’s presentation was a short and sharp version of the prime minister’s big picture. He said ‘our region is being reshaped’ by influences ranging from stealth weapons to coercive statecraft to influence operations in the grey zone. Because of great-power competition, Australia sought a ‘sustainable balance of power’ rather than a hierarchy of power, pushing against ‘rule of power over rule of law’.

You know Australia’s defence equipment mindset is shifting when the chief of the ADF adopts the geek-speak motto—‘move fast and break things’—to describe the ‘accelerator’ approach to investing and developing new technology for military kit.

Defence had to engage early with emerging technology and be ‘fast to fail or to succeed’, Campbell said. ‘You need to move winners forward very quickly and walk away very quickly from the ones that fail.’

The prime minister’s plea for the power of words is playing to the strength of any politician. But Australia’s defence chief wanting to throw quick money at tech and junk slow movers just as quickly? That imagines a revolution in the way Australia’s big defence beast buys and builds. We are in new and strange days.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/albanese-calls-for-indo-pacific-jaw-jaw-and-guardrails/

[1] keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/iiss-shangri-la-dialogue

[2] ‘meeting jaw to jaw is better than war’: https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/quotes/quotes-falsely-attributed/

[3] ‘Australia’s vision for the Indo-Pacific’: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/australia-singapore-annual-leaders-meeting-and-shangri-la-dialogue

[4] ‘Hunger Games’: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/malcolm-turnbull-asias-times-trumps-hunger-games/

[5] Shangri-La program: https://www.iiss.org/events/shangri-la-dialogue/shangri-la-dialogue-2023/speaker-agenda/