Speech to Launch Peter Hartcher’s 'Red Zone' - King's Hall, Old Parliament House - Canberra - 19/05/2021

19 May 2021

I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we are meeting and pay respect to the Elders of the Ngunnawal Nation, past, present and emerging.

Thank you Chris Feik.

Peter makes many stark points in this book, to the extent that some would question why an alternative foreign minister would aid in launching it.

And the reason is not that I agree with every sentence or every metaphor.

I thought it was important to be here today because of the increasingly difficult environment in which Australia finds itself in relation to China - and the need to be clear about what we have to do, together, as a country - as a people - to navigate our way through.

Labor sees the world as it is, and seeks to change it for the better.

There is no way our nation can do that successfully without a much deeper understanding of what we face.

Without maps that chart the terrain, that enable us to distinguish scale and scope.

Without sober assessments of our pathways.

Without understanding the relevant history, and without understanding how our friends and allies are faring on their own journeys.

For some time now Peter has been wrestling with these imperatives.

And the extent to which I or anyone else might disagree with any of it only adds to its import, because that reveals the essence of what we are most fundamentally seeking to protect and promote: a modern, liberal democracy.

There have been years of breathless headlines about China – first hopeful, then panicked.

But all the blazing heat has produced only the dimmest light.

Too much of the discussion on China is frenzied, afraid and lacking context.

This has been made so much worse - by a prime minister who is only interested in any issue to the extent it offers him political value.

My concern is that not only does he not fully comprehend Australia’s interests in relation to China, he doesn’t even seek to. As with everything else he does, he only seeks to understand his political opportunity.

It’s always about the domestic political advantage - either in the internal fights within the Liberal Party in pandering to the far right, or in seeking to pursue some partisan advantage over the Labor Party.

We’ve seen some alarming examples of this, and I will return to how Mr Morrison has used issues in the complex China relationship in a moment, but let’s remember his prime ministership began by breaking decades of bipartisanship with the Jerusalem embassy debacle to pander for votes in the Wentworth by-election – without any care to what it meant for critical partnerships like Indonesia.

He went all in on President Trump, even attending a campaign rally, breaking long-standing foreign policy conventions by refusing to meet with senior Democrats, pandering with his “negative globalism” attacks on multilateral institutions that are central to Australia’s interests, and refusing to call out the Capitol insurrection when other world leaders did.

This month, Mr Morrison got Australia’s policy wrong on Taiwan. He incorrectly claimed Beijing’s preference – One Country, Two Systems – as Australia’s.

When pressed on this, rather than admitting he got it wrong, he doubled down and covered up the mistake with a lie.

And just last week, Mr Morrison lied again in pursuit of his political interests, claiming Labor had abandoned bipartisan support for a two-state solution, less than a day after we had issued a statement associating ourselves with his Foreign Minister’s comments on the current Middle East crisis.

Foreign policy should not be the prosecution of domestic politics by other means - because as I’ve said, in diplomacy words matter.

Mr Morrison’s political opportunism on foreign policy is as unprecedented in Australian history as some of the foreign policy challenges themselves.

As it is, the Liberals have always been awkward in Asia.

They rarely get the balance right; naïve one day, belligerent the next.

It’s strange to me to watch all this as an Australian born in Asia, and as someone schooled in Labor’s tradition of engagement with Asia.

We have always understood that like the West, Asia has a long and complex history, and that grounds a complex and changing present.

Asia has never been a monolith; it has never been static; it isn’t now.

Asia is in Labor’s DNA – in my case, literally.

It includes Southeast Asia, which Keating and Evans put at the centre of Australian foreign policy.

It includes India, which Gillard elevated as a strategic and economic priority.

And Japan and Korea – identified in the Asian Century White Paper as countries with which Australia needed to build more comprehensive ties.

And it includes China, where Whitlam pioneered engagement; where Hawke and Keating managed our relationship with both flair and balance; and on which Rudd has for years shaped our contemporary understanding.

The fact is that while it’s possible to draw historical parallels between China now and in history, as Peter does in the book, the China the world is experiencing under Xi Jinping is demonstrably different from that which we have all seen in our lifetimes.

In pressing its interests, China is more assertive.

This should come as no surprise. All great powers will come to assert their interests.

But assertion has often transmuted into aggression.

The militarisation of disputed features of the South China Sea, flouting international law, and the “cabbage leaf” and “swarming” actions there that sought to intimidate Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – all part of Beijing’s grey zone tactics.

The imposition of national security laws completely undermining the One Country, Two Systems arrangement for Hong Kong to which Beijing had committed itself by treaty.

Economic coercion – admittedly a tactic before President Xi’s leadership but escalating since - against France, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, the UK, Taiwan, Mongolia, South Korea, Palau, Canada and, of course Australia.

I’ve discussed elsewhere these efforts at economic coercion, including the corresponding failure by the Morrison Government to prepare Australia by adequately diversifying our economy – which remains the most-China dependent in the world for exports.

Then there is of course the headline-grabbing public rhetoric, whether in the form of wolf warrior diplomats, or hysterical pronouncements from the Global Times.

But it’s an oversimplification to just say that this is the inevitable behaviour of a great power flexing its muscles.

Because that ignores the specific implications of Chinese nationalism, and China’s assessment of its national interests – implications we cannot ignore if we are going to manage our own national interests successfully.

Xi Jinping is determined for China to be more self-reliant, as demonstrated in his “dual circulation economy” which shifts China’s economic model from an export focus to domestic consumption as the driver of growth, while also exploiting the appeal of its vast consumer market to attract goods and investors on the most desirable terms.

But there is also clearly an ideological dimension to Xi Jinping’s nationalism - for him no less than Mao

The central priority remains regime survival, but sustaining legitimacy is not without its challenges.

Drawing some lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CPC under Xi Jinping has explicitly warned about the threats posed by liberal, democratic values to China’s stability – and by extension, the Party’s survival.

So not only will it seek to assert the superiority of its system of government, casting its rise and the CPC’s successes against claims of Western inferiority and failure, it will go to great lengths to remove what it perceives to be threats.

That’s demonstrated in what we’ve seen in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang and in response to other expressions of alternative views to party doctrine – as it is demonstrated in efforts to influence and at times interfere in the political processes of other countries.

It may not have the Soviet Union’s demonstrated commitment to explicitly undermine democracy and impose communist systems elsewhere, but it certainly wants the China model to serve as an example.

China has clearly been working in the UN and elsewhere to weaken the liberal character of international human rights, prioritising economic development over civil and political rights, and putting the primacy of the state over the rights of the individual.

So liberal democracies have our work cut out in seeking to ensure principles like the rule of international law - including universal human rights - are preserved.

This highlights – again - the dangerous folly of Mr Morrison’s attack on “negative globalism”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is not negative globalism.

Nor is the precarious fabric of international law.

Australia’s interests lie in the defence of the integrity of these institutions - not to be part of a campaign to delegitimise them.

So you have to ask what Mr Morrison’s motivations were in.

It’s clear from the way China sees its domestic and international interests that there will be enduring differences Australia has to manage. These are structural, where interests diverge and positions are locked in.

If anyone is in any doubt about this, they need only look at the list of fourteen demands presented by Chinese embassy officials to Jonathan Kearsley, and covered in detail in chapter 18 of Peter’s book.

It is simply not in Australia’s interests, for example, to abandon our positions on the application of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea, or Huawei in the NBN or 5G network, or on foreign interference, or on Hong Kong, or on the universality of human rights.

Labor will continue to do everything we can to maintain bipartisanship on these issues.

But these structural differences between what are Australia’s interests and what are China’s interests do not mean that there’s nothing we can do.

They don’t mean that there’s no room for improvement in our own actions.

That improvement begins with recognising that we need to move beyond what Richard Maude calls the “two fatalisms’ that so often characterise the China debate.

First, the idea 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.

Three weeks ago, on the morning of 27 April, when Australians picked up the paper or turned on the radio, they will have heard the man responsible for our domestic security beating the “drums of war” and claiming Australia must be prepared “to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight”.

Mr Pezzullo’s headline came days after Peter Dutton talked up the likelihood of war over Taiwan.

Australians then saw George Christensen piling on, posting on Facebook that “war is coming.”

It would take childlike naivety to think these interventions were a coincidence, or to think the Morrison Government isn’t deliberately encouraging anxiety about conflict.

But it would represent a monumental and catastrophic failure of leadership to see that anxiety realised.

And not least for the 24 million people who live in Taiwan, and who deserve more than being discussed as a chess piece.

Yes, it’s true that Beijing has always wanted reunification. And its military intimidation of the island has increased sharply.

But it’s Beijing that benefits from other countries thinking war is inevitable. As Natasha Kassam and Mark Harrison have warned:

Hysteria – couched in terms of preparing Australians for coming challenges – actually works in Beijing’s favour. It allows the threat of war itself to be used as a political tactic…

Catastrophism intimidates the Taiwanese people and countries in the region, exacerbates domestic political division, deters growing US-Taiwan and multilateral regional cooperation, and convinces the region that it faces a stark choice between disaster and what Beijing calls “reunification”.

So two of the people most responsible for keeping Australians safe are instead talking tough for political purposes – and in doing so they are playing directly into the CPC’s narrative – and providing Beijing with the leverage that comes with a sense of inevitability about crisis, conflict and war.

It is worth remembering that the Biden-Harris Administration is very deliberately sticking to its policy of “strategic ambiguity” as the best way to maintain the status quo, while consolidating its diplomacy across the region to promote peace and security.

On what basis therefore is the Australian Government sprinting ahead of that longstanding US position?

The first job of national leaders is the safety of citizens. Leaders do not make us safe by beating the drums of war with China.

Especially when they have presided over eight long years of disastrous failures to deliver the enhanced military, security and diplomatic capability that our strategic circumstances really do require.

Large procurements – including Future Submarines, the largest in Australian history – are at least a decade behind schedule and well over budget.

Half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific by 2035, and we don’t know how many – if any - will be Australian. This government’s mismanagement of a new submarine strategy, first announced by the Rudd Government in 2009, is an ongoing national security disgrace.

We have a Prime Minister who rolls out the red carpet to re-announce years-old capability upgrades, yet at the same time is cutting $4 billion from the short-term defence capital acquisition budget.

Defence capability must be about delivery, not photo ops.

Australians don’t want their leaders to bow to coercion.

But neither do they expect their leaders to recklessly beat the drums of war.

This is the most recent illustration of what I think needs to be the fundamental change in the Morrison Government’s approach to China.

More strategy, less politics.

Talk less, do more.

Japan offers a template.

It shares many of the structural differences with China as Australia – as a US ally that has also been subjected to economic coercion, with the addition of sharing disputed territories and having to prevent offshore clashes from spiralling into full-scale conflicts.

Japan has grappled with how to safeguard its sovereignty, navigated great-power competition, stepped up to assist the region’s recovery and publicly called out China’s behaviour.

This is all without needing to beat the drums of war.

Managing Australia’s interests in our most complex strategic environment since World War Two requires more than rhetoric.

It demands a clear, confident and consistent assertion of who we are and our place in the region and the world.

But this is where the Liberal Government’s fundamental deficiency is laid bare.

They’ve never really understood Asia before and they don’t understand it now.

It was a prime minister in this government that thought President Xi would turn China into a democracy.

It was this government that wanted an extradition deal with China – because they completely failed to understand the Chinese legal system.

And now it is this government that beats drums of war.

As I said: naive one day, belligerent the next.

The difference with the earlier missteps of this government under Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull is important though.

They were failures to understand.

Now, we have a prime minister who doesn’t care to understand.

He only cares about the politics.

It’s well known that this government is more about talking than doing.

That it’s all about short term political management, not about delivery.

But this is bigger than domestic politics. This is about our economic and national security. It’s also about our deep values as a proud democracy.

So next time Mr Morrison or one of his proxies says something that happens to make for a splashy headline, ask yourself why, and ask yourself whose interest he is serving.

And again, I urge a fundamental change in Scott Morrison’s approach to foreign affairs.

More strategy, less politics.

Talk less, do more.

There are two priorities on China.

First, we need to manage our bilateral relationship with China in regional terms.

That means working with our friends, partners and allies in the region we collectively want it to be – a region that’s prosperous and where sovereignty is respected.

We are far from alone in having a complex relationship with China – as Peter makes clear throughout his book.

Managing the relationship in regional terms requires us to be a more engaged regional partner.

We need to encourage and contribute to what I have called a “settling point” between the United States and China, and what Kevin Rudd has called “managed strategic competition”.

The stakes are too high for the great powers not to determine ways to reduce the risk of miscalculation.

We want the great powers to avoid provocation, use high level diplomacy to make clear their red lines on core national security interests; to compete as a matter of course in trade, investment, technology, foreign policy and human rights; and find space to cooperate where there is mutual benefit – especially on climate change and the pandemic.

But we should also be realistic that finding such a settling point will be a long, and difficult process, so the current complex and risky environment will continue for some time.

A Labor Government led by Anthony Albanese understands this environment.

Our engagement will be calm, confident and consistent.

We will do the work to build Australia’s resilience.

And we will apply Australian diplomacy and statecraft to the outcome the nation, region and world need; a settling point on agreeable terms between our principal ally and our largest trading partner.

What we will not do is look to headlines and political advantage.

We should also add more value to the Alliance by being a partner of choice to other countries in the region.

In part that means discouraging a dynamic of loyalty tests. As Gareth Evans has said:

No state can afford to have its economy held ransom to a Washington loyalty test and none can afford to have its security held ransom to a Beijing loyalty test.

We need to find and be consistent about points of potential cooperation with China.

That includes climate change - one of the biggest issues for our region.

The Morrison Government’s refusal to deal with it undermines our national and regional security.

Whether it’s cuts to development assistance or to our diplomatic capability, Australian soft power has been diminished precisely at the time we need it maximised.

And we have to get serious – and stay serious - about India.

Make no mistake: the way Mr Morrison has treated Australians stranded in India, many of whom of Indian heritage, would have been deeply felt in India – and around the region.

It will have reminded many of our regional friends about the Australia of days past – and it is a memory that some will exploit.

The second priority is better equipping our community, our parliament and our democracy to deal with these challenges.

With rising authoritarianism around the world, more than ever we need to invest in the health of our democracy and live up to our values at home.

We know that political parties can be vectors for foreign interference - which is why

Labor banned accepting foreign donations two years before the Government finally banned them by law.

It’s also why we need to have online, real-time disclosures of donations.

And it’s yet another reason why we need a national integrity commission.

We also won’t be properly equipped until the Morrison Government delivers a real cyber-security policy – one that treats our democratic institutions as critical infrastructure and protects against cyber-enabled foreign interference.

But we also need more than laws – whether they be foreign interference or the more recent foreign veto bill.

One suggestion that has been put to me – and one Peter makes himself - is to better fund Chinese language broadcasting on SBS and the ABC, so there is a greater plurality of Chinese media voices in this country.

Our social cohesion is fundamental to our success; it is intrinsic to our sovereignty.

It means Mr Morrison should have condemned his colleague Eric Abetz subjecting Chinese-Australians to loyalty tests.

Chinese-Australians who have experienced rising racism and suspicion need greater leadership and protection from the Morrison Government; consistent, vocal support for the inclusion of diaspora communities.

It means greater China literacy and Asia capability in Australia to inform and integrate our policy settings.

And it means helping Australians understand the world we live in, sober explanations of the risks and opportunities we face.

That is why it my great pleasure to be here today, to participate in the launch of this important contribution to our national debate by Peter Hartcher.

Because we don’t have to submit to the two fatalisms - and it’s not in our interests to.

Our interests are in being more ambitious about what we can achieve in the world, and more self-reliant in charting our course – Labor’s way since Curtin and Evatt.

Seeing the world as it is, and seeking to change it for the better.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.