AIIA National Conference 2023 Keynote - Australian Foreign Policy and the Polycrisis

  • Speech, check against delivery

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to Elders, past and present.

(Acknowledgements below)

I'd like to begin by saying a few words about Allan Gyngell.

Today's national conference is the first without Allan – and he is dearly missed.

Allan's contribution to Australian foreign policy, to successive Australian Governments, and to the many organisations and institutions he led, is well known.

He was, as the Foreign Minister put it, our 'finest foreign policy mind'.

At a time when more is being demanded of Australia's statecraft than ever before, Allan will be sorely missed.

What was less well known, but now clear after Allan's passing, was his immense contribution to his professional community.

And how his influence and encouragement touched the lives of so many.

Story after story of Allan's generosity, support and kindness.

I was deeply touched that after a decade of conversations in opposition, Allan sent me a copy of his book to mark my appointment as Assistant Foreign Minister…

…with his encouragement to shape, he wrote, 'the next chapters of this Australian history'.

One of Allan's distinguishing qualities – just one of many – was his belief that foreign policy was not some rarefied field to be gatekept by specialists…

…but rather a subject that should be discussed, debated and understood by the wider Australian public as befitting a democracy such as ours.

A mission that the AIIA – to your credit – continues to fulfil through events like this annual conference.

This year's conference theme, 'Australian Foreign Policy and the Polycrisis' is an apt one.

It's easy to see why the term 'polycrisis' seems to capture the spirit of our times.

It has certainly felt like, since at least 2019, we've been living through a series of rolling crises.

It started with a black summer that claimed lives, caused billions of dollars of damage, and wiped-out entire ecosystems. 

That summer Australians on the east coast woke to hazy, orange-red apocalyptic skies, choked by barely breathable air. 

They could've been scenes out of a science fiction movie – if they weren't a glimpse of our nation's climate-changed future.

A future that has now arrived.

Next came a global pandemic and a global recession that set back human development by five years.

Then, when we were finally coming out of lockdown, we saw…

…torrential rain and flooding in parts of Australia…

…Russia's illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine…

…and this year, abhorrent acts of terrorism by Hamas and a terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza.

'Polycrisis' about sums it up.

We also face unprecedented challenges ahead.

A planetary-level climate threat to humanity requiring radical global commitment and cooperation to address – a subject of my discussions in France last week.

And a region facing unprecedented military build-up, yet transparency and strategic reassurance are lacking.

We have seen rising tensions and dangerous encounters in the Taiwan Strait and in the South and East China Seas.

North Korea continues to destabilise with its ongoing nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile launches, threatening Japan, the Republic of Korea and the broader region.

To deal with all these challenges, Australia's foreign policy is to contribute to strategic balance in the region and lift our engagement across the board:

In Southeast Asia. In the Pacific. In the Indian Ocean region. And in the world at large.

We need to use all the tools of Australian statecraft to lift our engagement and maximise our influence globally.

And that is what the Government has been pursuing since last year.

The Albanese Government recognises that Australia's future is closely tied to Southeast Asia's.

Australia and the countries of Southeast Asia share a vision for a region that is peaceful, open, stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.

A region where ASEAN and ASEAN-led architecture hold the centre, guided by the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN is becoming even more important as we face increasingly complex regional challenges, including climate change, the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and the push and pull of great power competition.

Yet, alongside these challenges, Southeast Asia is also a region of great economic opportunities.

It is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

By 2040 Southeast Asia's consumer market will be 10 times larger than Australia's.

It will be home to three-quarters of a billion people.

And it will be the fourth-largest economy in the world after the United States, China and India.

Yet Australia's trade and investment with Southeast Asia hasn't kept pace with the region's growth.

Despite our proximity, we were only ASEAN's 8th largest trading partner in 2022, with just 3.4 per cent of ASEAN's total trade.

Australia's FDI in the region has stagnated, while other countries have significantly increased their investment.

We've been far too complacent.

We must do more. 

That's why the Government is prioritising engagement with ASEAN and its member states.

In September, the Prime Minister launched Invested: Australia's Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, a report for the Australian Government by Special Envoy for Southeast Asia Mr Nicholas Moore.

The report was informed by extensive consultations across Southeast Asia and Australia.

Mr Moore has had hundreds of conversations, and absorbed hundreds of written submissions.

Listening to our region, and identifying opportunities for Australian businesses.

The Government is taking time to consider the 75 recommendations in Mr Moore's report.

But as an initial response, the Prime Minister announced three initiatives that go to the heart of the report:

  • the creation of new 'investment deals teams' – jointly run by DFAT, Austrade, and Export Finance Australia – to help increase investment in Southeast Asia;
  • a Southeast Asia Business Exchange Program to support two-way trade and engagement by small and medium enterprises; and
  • a placements and internships pilot program for young professionals.

Southeast Asia will also play a crucial role in addressing the great challenges of the future.

Take, for example, the net zero transition – a transition that will re-shape our country, our region and our world.

As Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, has said, Australia's energy transformation “is the most important twin economic challenge and opportunity facing our country in the decade ahead”.

Like us, our neighbours face that twin challenge, asking themselves questions like:

  • how do we to surmount a significant financing gap?
  • how do we ensure supply chain security in the face of global uncertainty?

Australia is well-placed to help answer some of these questions thanks to our expertise in transitional industries such as solar, electric vehicles, battery storage and decarbonisation.

Another example is the opportunity in Southeast Asia's digital economy.

Southeast Asia's digital economy is expected to be worth up to USD $1 trillion by 2030.

The population of Southeast Asia is young and tech savvy – around 380 million people were under 35 years old in 2022.

These fundamentals present significant opportunities for Australian businesses.

This could include Southeast Asian startups opening facilities here in Australia…

…such as Bukalapak, an Indonesian company who provide e-commence services for micro-, small and medium sized enterprises and have opened an international technology hub in Melbourne…

…or Australian companies reaching into markets in Southeast Asia.

The Australian video game development sector is a good example of an export-oriented industry with the potential to scale up.

82 percent of the revenue generated by Australian game development studios generated in 2020/21 was from overseas markets and investment.

But, as I heard during a roundtable with video game developers and representatives from Indonesia during the PAX Aus video game convention in October, there is more we can do to capitalise on this market.

These are just some of the economic opportunities in Southeast Asia.

Next year marks a special milestone for our friendship with the region: 50 years of dialogue partnership with ASEAN.

Australia was ASEAN's first dialogue partner 50 years ago.  And two years ago, in 2021, we became one of ASEAN's first Comprehensive Strategic Partners.

We recognised then – as we do now – that ASEAN is integral to our region. 

And next March we will celebrate 50 years of close ties between Australia and ASEAN at a Special Summit in Melbourne, hosted by the Prime Minister.

And as we look ahead, Australia remains firmly committed to a shared peaceful and prosperous future with Southeast Asia.

Now – if we turn our gaze from Southeast Asia and look west, we see another important story in the Indian Ocean.

In the 1980s, the world witnessed the tiger economies of Singapore, Korea and Taiwan.

In the 2000s, we saw the economic miracle that was China.

By the end of this decade, and in the decades to come, we will see the remarkable rise of economies in the Indian Ocean region.

The rise is partly driven by demography.

In 2022, India overtook China as the world's most populous country.

And countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh will experience the so called 'demographic dividend' as they host some of the largest youth labour forces in the world until 2040.

Despite its increasing importance, the region hasn't tended to receive the attention it deserves in policy terms.

That's changing.

Next year, Australia will host the Indian Ocean Conference – and we will be welcoming heads of government, ministers and senior delegates to Australia to discuss to the key issues facing the Indian Ocean region.

And we have a significant stake. 

Australia has one of the longest Indian Ocean coastlines of any country and we are responsible for its largest search and rescue zone.

The Indian Ocean is already bustling with more than a third of the world's bulk cargo traffic and a whopping two-thirds of global oil shipments.

Just like the South China Sea, it is in all our interests to ensure this vital waterway for the entire international community remains open, free and secure.

Australia's shipping lanes depend on it; the world's shipping lanes depend on it.

As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles once put it, Australia's geography makes us a steward of the Indian Ocean.

When the Defence Strategic Review defined Australia's primary area of strategic military interest it included the north-eastern Indian Ocean alongside Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Given the Indian Ocean's importance and its status as a point of confluence for strategic competition, it's crucial that Australian diplomacy is lifted in the region.

We've opened new posts at Malé, Bengaluru and Kolkata.

As Assistant Foreign Minister, I've made a series of visits to the Indian Ocean region to participate in regional fora and bolster our relationships.

It's crucial we show up, we contribute to solutions, we work on shared regional problems.

Whether it's working together on climate change…

…or on the Australian-funded Indian Ocean Rim Association Blue Carbon Hub…

…or collaborating with regional partners on shared maritime safety and security…

…we are using all the tools of Australian statecraft to maximise Australian influence in the Indian Ocean region.

We're doing this because we want to see an Indian Ocean – and an Indo-Pacific region – that is peaceful, prosperous, secure and governed by agreed rules, norms and international law.

Finally, let me say a few words about the world at large. 

The events of the last few years have shown that we have reached the point in human history where no country can remain insulated from the rest of the world.

And what's more, the challenges we have to contend with are no longer national or even regional, but planetary.

Rapidly melting ice shelves in Antarctica, scientists say, are doing more than raising sea levels.

They are changing ocean currents, raising global temperatures and driving extreme weather events all over the world.

Microplastics are no longer only present in our fish, they have made their way to the deepest, unchartered parts of our oceans.

Ecosystem collapse is no longer a theoretical concept. It is a possibility – if not a probability – as the world is about to plunge off the cliff‑face of irreversible biodiversity loss.

As Foreign Minister Wong said at the UN General Assembly in September, “we can only solve our biggest problems together.”

Australia's foreign policy must extend across the world to work with global partners to solve some of these global problems.

We are reinvigorating our relationships in Africa.

Because by 2050, Africa is expected to be home to a quarter of the world's population.

I've made it my focus on ensure Australia's diplomacy extends to working substantially with African nations, including by attending the African Union Summit earlier this year - the first Australian minister to do so since 2017.

In Latin America, where our relationships are diverse and growing, there are many opportunities to supplement our trade and commercial links with increased collaboration on science and innovation, particularly on climate matters.

I heard about this firsthand in Peru, when I led Australia's delegation to the Organisation of American States.

It was the first visit to the region by an Australian minister since 2019.

The next polycrisis – whatever it looks like – is going to throw up new iterations of the kinds of global challenges we're already struggling to solve.

In this sense, the 2030 Agenda and 17 Sustainable Development Goals remain our best roadmaps for global cooperation.

As Minister Conroy has said, Australia is restoring our development policy to the heart of our statecraft.

We're going to aim to solve some of the world's problems before they become full-blown crises.

The Albanese Government has been clear in our intention to restore Australian statecraft and to ensure we use all elements of national power.

And we have been clear about the world we'd like to see.

Australia's interests are in a region that is peaceful, prosperous and stable, governed by standards, rules and norms.

A region where countries can exercise their agency and decide their own destinies, free from coercion and interference.

Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.

Where no country ever concludes the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks.

We are pursuing an Australian foreign policy that builds the conditions for peace and prosperity for our country and for our region.

Developing our long-term economic partnership with Southeast Asia.

Responding to Pacific priorities.

Pursuing stabilisation of our relationship with our largest trading partner, China.

Playing our part in the international response to climate change.

Investing in AUKUS and strong defence capabilities to keep Australia safe.

Delivering a high-quality development program that makes a real difference.

Australian foreign policy – along with all the other elements of Australian influence and power – will continue to work to deliver a future that is safe, peaceful and prosperous for all Australians…

…regardless of what polycrisis may be looming around the corner.

Thank you.


  • Dr Heather Smith, AIIA National President
  • Zara Kimpton, AIIA National Vice-President
  • His Excellency, Dr Egils Levits, President of Latvia
  • His Excellency, Mr Aso Taro, former Prime Minister of Japan and Vice-President of the Liberal Democratic Party
  • Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham

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