Asialink Leaders Forum keynote address on foreign policy

  • Speech

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and Owners of the lands on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here tonight.

And I reaffirm the Australian Government's commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – Voice, Treaty and Truth.

I acknowledge the distinguished guests here today:

  • Peter Varghese AO, Chancellor of the University of Queensland and Chair of the Asialink Council,
  • Martine Letts, Group CEO Asialink,
  • Leigh Howard, CEO Asialink Business,
  • And Asialink Leaders and Alumni

It's always a pleasure to meet leaders at the Canberra Summit and I'm glad to have the opportunity today to talk with you about Australia's Foreign Policy and the Indo-Pacific…

…and how what you are learning as part of the Asialink Leaders Program fits in with this national agenda.  

In setting a course for our engagement with the world, our Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said the starting point of Australia's foreign policy is who we are, our national identity.

In this way, Australia's foreign policy must be

“an accurate and authentic reflection of our values and interests – of who we are and what we want.”

So what do we want?

Australia is a nation of the Indo-pacific, where we share a region and a future with the nations of ASEAN.

This region is confronting the dynamics of change – demographic, economic, climactic and geo-strategic.

The Australian government isn't content to be a mere spectator to the impact of these changes reshaping the region.

We seek to influence the evolution of our region in our interests.

We want to see a region that is peaceful, prosperous and resilient.

A region that is predictable and operates consistent with agreed norms, rules and international law.

A region where ASEAN centrality underpins the engagement between states in Southeast Asia.

And crucially, a region where sovereignty is respected, where nations are free to make their own choices and where strategic equilibrium prevails.

A region in which no country dominates and no country is dominated.

Amidst all of this, we want Australia to be deeply engaged and sharing in the growing economic prosperity of the region that we share.

These national objectives won't just come about by themselves.

It will require us to invest in all dimensions of our statecraft; in areas of diplomacy, development, defence, and economics.

Indeed, these objectives have informed the recent budget investments the Albanese Government has made in expanding and deepening our diplomatic capabilities…

…in increasing the scale of our official development assistance in the region…

…in strengthening our defence capabilities through AUKUS and the Defence Strategic Review, and…

…in investing in the sovereign capabilities and resilience of our economy in areas like renewable energy, critical minerals and manufacturing.

We've also been looking at how other sources of Australia's national power can be deployed to maximise our international influence.

In this respect, we see Australia's modern national identity as a crucial national asset.  

Modern Australia is, in the words of that great indigenous leader, Noel Pearson, 'three stories that make us one'.

The tens of thousands of years of continuous Indigenous culture that have shaped this land for countless generations…

…the Westminster institutions and norms that followed…

…and the multicultural migration, particularly from our own region, that has enriched our nation recent decades.

For too much of our history, we only told the world one of the stories of who we are as Australians.

The remnants of the outdated stereotype of Australia as a monocultural colonial outpost that still endure in some parts of the world sells us short.

We're seeking to break through these outdated preconceptions by telling the full story of what it means to be Australian.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia

The first way we are doing this is through our First Nations foreign policy.

The first, and oldest, story of our nation is the 65,000 years that First Nations peoples lived on this continent.

For more than 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples created art and passed stories on.

They traded and conducted diplomacy.

They cared for the land and the water.

We want to put these perspectives and practices at the heart of our engagement with the world.

Not only because it is a true representation of who we are and because our foreign policy has much to gain from this expertise, but because it strengthens our influence.

We've appointed Australia's first Ambassador for First Nations People, Justin Mohamed and he's already been incredibly active.

He is representing Australia in multilateral forums like the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and in bilateral engagement including with Japan, Finland, and the United Arab Emirates.

The breadth of this early agenda demonstrates its potential – ranging from how traditional land management can aid in climate action; preserving and revitalising Indigenous languages; or supporting First Nations businesses.

Each of these interactions enriches the engagement between Australia and our international partners, but it also reshapes the way these partners see Australia.

We've made terrible mistakes as a nation with regards to our treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We can't change that history.

But the story of our nation is also the story of an open, democratic nation that has sought to grapple with these mistakes and to set a better course in the future.

We have so much to learn and to gain from centring First Nations practices and perspectives in our engagement with the world.

Multicultural Australia

Australia's modern, multicultural identity offers different benefits to our engagement with the world, and particularly with our region.

Australia's diversity links to every part of the globe.

We're a nation of 300 different ethnicities, where half of us were either born overseas or has a parent born overseas.

As the Foreign Minister says, when people from every part of the world look at Australia, they can see themselves reflected.

And when we look within ourselves we can see sources of connection and understanding with every part of the world.

This connection is particularly strong with our own region.

Millions of Australians can trace their heritage to the Indo-Pacific.

And four of the top five languages spoken most commonly at home other than English are Asian languages.

This diversity is an authentic part of our modern national identity.

It's too often been seen as an exception to

We're consciously projecting modern Australia to the world, telling stories about our diversity to the world and giving a platform to multicultural Australian leaders.

Let me give you one small example.

When most people think of international diplomacy, they think of summits between world leaders and multilateral forums filled with serious people in suits.

So, some might have thought it odd when Australia's Ambassador to Thailand, Angela Macdonald recently tweeted about K-Pop phenomenon BLACKPINK's tour stop in Thailand.

Complete with hashtag #BLINK.

This wasn't empty fan service; Ambassador Macdonald was projecting modern Australia to her Thai audience.

While Thai fans were excited to welcome home Lalisa, a Thai rapper, dancer and singer in the group, Ambassador Macdonald was pointing out an Australian connection to BLACKPINK.

Another group member, Rosé grew up in Australia, going to school in Melbourne, before leaving for South Korea to seek K-pop stardom as a 15-year-old.

Yes, she was born in New Zealand, but really, what's more Australian than laying claim to a cultural export from New Zealand?

Our modern identity connects us with every corner of the world, but particularly with our own region.

Australians like James Wan, Margaret Zhang, Terrance Tao, Anne Curtis-Smith, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo are internationally recognised stars both in their areas of expertise and in our region.

Their individual stories are at the heart of our modern Australian identity, but we've done far too little to project this part of our national story to the world for too long.

We're seeking to change that, showing rather than telling, our region how modern Australia might look different to their preconceptions.

I'm sure you'll have already worked out that maximising Australia's influence in our engagement with the world, and particularly with our region, won't just require new resources, but will require new skills and capabilities.

The next phase of our engagement with the Indo-pacific is going to demand more of our leaders and their institutions than ever before.

To succeed, we're going to need to deepen our engagement.

Let me give you two examples of how we're going about this – in Southeast Asia and in India – and then explain where the capabilities you are building in the Asialink Leaders course will fit in.

Deepening Southeast Asian Engagement

What happens in Southeast Asia matters to Australia.

Not only because it's the region in which we live, but because in 2023, it's literally in our DNA.

Of the approximately 25 million Australians – more than one million of them claim Southeast Asian ancestry.

Together, Australia and Southeast Asian states share a region that is navigating a period of sustained change and significant challenges, but also realising latent opportunity.

But our efforts require focus, drive and understanding to work with our Southeast Asian partners, including fully supporting the region's existing architecture and building on bilateral cooperation with regional states.

For Australia, when we frame the Indo-Pacific, we see a regional order with ASEAN at its centre. Australia is firmly committed to ASEAN centrality.

Since being sworn in, Minister Wong has visited every ASEAN member state, except for Myanmar, several of them multiple times.

The Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and senior ministers have made over 40 separate trips to the region to drive the engagement and opportunity that is so important to Australia's future.

Prime Minister Albanese has met with President Widodo four times, hosting him in Sydney just a few weeks ago.

We understand the role of the private sector when it comes to deepening our relationship with Indonesia.

On the PM's first visit to Jakarta in June 2022, it was not by accident that he was accompanied by an Australian business delegation, something that was reciprocated by President Widodo this month on his Sydney visit.

We are also deepening our higher education links. This month, our leaders announced  that Western Sydney University, Deakin University, and Central Queensland University would all open campuses in Indonesia.

They will join Monash university in establishing themselves in extending Australia's world class higher education offering to our near neighbour and giving the next generation of Indonesian students an Australian story.

That is how people-to-people connections are forged.

Our relationships with Southeast Asian nations have gone from strength-to-strength, and we have re-established ourselves as a significant development partner in the region.

These are only a few examples, but it clear that we intend to maintain the level of energy and focus on our relationships and interests in the region that is consistent with our mutual importance.

Deepening Indian Engagement

In 2018, Peter Varghese wrote his seminal review into how Australia can better engage with India.

As Prime Minister Albanese has said, it would be a brave person to suggest that the previous government implemented its recommendations.

But already, after a year in government, we have substantially stepped up our engagement.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Prime Ministers Albanese and Modi have already met six times.

In his report, Varghese wrote that the Indian diaspora – now 7 lakh strong – will play a big role in our partnership of the future.

He said that the Indian-Australian community can go “into the nooks and crannies” of a relationship.

We understand the importance of the diaspora community. You will have seen the power of the community just recently, when Prime Ministers Albanese and Modi stood in front of a crowd of thousands at Sydney Olympic Park.

Our people-to-people links tie us even closer than this, however.

In May, our Prime Ministers announced the finalisation of the Australia-India Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement.

This agreement will deepen our ties even further, by promoting the two-way mobility of students, graduates, academic researchers and business-people.

In a world-first, Deakin University will soon open an international teaching campus in Gujarat – becoming the first foreign university approved to open a campus in India.

And this year, we established the Centre for Australia-India Relations, headed up by Tim Thomas.

The Centre have just announced a range of Maitri – or 'friendship' – cultural partnerships, to deepen our cultural relationship further.

Partnerships like the one between the Bábbarra Women's Centre in Maningrida, Arnhem Land with Tharangini Studio in Bengaluru, which will work with emerging women artists in textile development.

We're not just leaving the Varghese review on the shelf. We're putting it in to action, with the Indian-Australian community at the heart of our engagement.

We have a big agenda in Asia.

To see this agenda through to fruition, these initiatives will require more of Australian leaders; greater Asia capability.

We need leaders who do not just sit in fine hotels negotiating trade deals, or observe Asia from abroad.

We need leaders who travel to countries in Asia, who enmesh themselves in the culture and with the people.

Leaders who deliver services, who understand consumer preferences, who understand how to operate in-country.

That is where the Asialink Leaders programme comes in.

Going deeper in our engagement with our region will ask more of our leaders – our politicians, our executives, our professionals than any previous generation.

Asia literacy and capability, as a core skill for all leaders, is more important than ever.

The challenges Australia and our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific face are more complex than they've been in decades.

Climate change. Increasing strategic competition. Threats to the international rules-based order.

But far from being pessimistic, I remain optimistic, because the opportunities we have available to use are greater too.

We are more connected with the world around us, more educated and our technology is advancing more rapidly than at any time in our history.

What our challenges and our opportunities have in common is that they will require more of us as individuals.

We have to better ourselves so that we can better our world.

I congratulate you on recognising this and investing in your own capabilities.

Good luck in you Canberra Intensive and broader Leaders program.

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