Asialink Leaders Summit opening keynote - Australia’s place in Asia

  • Speech, E&OE

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respect to Elders, past and present.

I acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.

And like all members of the Albanese Government, I reaffirm my commitment to the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, voice, treaty and truth.

Thank you Martine, for your very kind introduction, and thank you also to Leigh Howard, Lotta Oberg and the Asialink convening team.


Welcome to Canberra.

And welcome to the Asialink Leaders Summit.

I’ve had the pleasure of addressing Asialink audiences a few times before, but this is the first time I’ve had the honour of doing so as Australia’s Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I’m proud to represent Australia on the international stage and feel particularly privileged to be able to do so alongside someone of the stature of our new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong.

Since taking office just a few months ago, our government has been hard at work around the world, showing that Australia is serious about expanding Australia’s influence.

The strategic environment is shifting fast, and we can’t stand idly by. We must actively shape the international environment in our interests.

To quote Minister Wong, we are in a race for influence.

But how do we best influence the world we live in?

Maximising influence means using all the tools we have available.

And one of those tools is highlighting the common ground between modern Australia and the world around us.

More than half of our population was born overseas, or has a parent born overseas.

Our multicultural identity connects us with the world.

We are home to more than 300 ancestries, and the oldest continuing civilisation on earth.

Our First Nations people have been engaging in diplomacy – both international and domestic – for tens of thousands of years.

We have a lot to learn. Australia’s foreign policy must incorporate First Nations identities, perspectives and practices.

That’s why the Albanese government is developing a First Nations foreign policy that weaves the voices and practices of the world’s oldest continuing culture into the way we talk to the world.

We’re only just starting to see Australia’s diversity reflected in Australia’s previously monocultural institutions, like the institution we’re standing in today.

All of this comes back to one of the central tenets of our foreign policy.

Australia’s foreign policy starts with who we are.

Current geopolitical situation

Today, Australia faces unprecedented threats. Our region is being reshaped.

Compared with almost any point in our history, we have well-developed international structures and norms, and international institutions worth trusting and building on.

But today, we are facing:

  • The threat of climate change;
  • Unstable global economic circumstances;
  • And growing strategic competition

The challenges in our immediate region are significant.

Climate change is a security, environmental and existential threat.

It is the single biggest challenge to our region and our world, with the countries of the Pacific and South and Southeast Asia especially at risk.

Along the Mekong Delta, extreme floods and droughts are endangering the lives and the livelihoods of the millions who depend on it.

In Indonesia, the course of the wet and dry seasons is shifting, increasing the risks of floods and droughts.

The energy transition in Asia is a huge challenge.

It’s an enormous task that will demand substantial funding and significant technical expertise.

The Australian Government has officially updated our Nationally Determined Commitment under the Paris Agreement to reflect our new, more ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets.

And we will need to look for more ways to work with Asian nations on issues like energy transition.

Since the start of the pandemic we have also seen how economic interdependence can be exploited for geostrategic ends.

China remains our largest trading partner and we want to see trade blockages affecting Australian exports removed, so mutually beneficial trade can continue unimpeded.

We have also seen how supply chains of critical products are vulnerable to disruption – whether it’s from natural disasters, lockdowns, or geostrategic competition.

The economic shock of the pandemic has been profound, and highlighted the need to building economic resilience and recovery in our region.

We also have plenty of work to do in the broader security environment.

We need to work with our partners in the Indo-Pacific to preserve a region that is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty - where nations are able to make choices for itself, free from coercion.

Russia's unilateral, illegal and immoral aggression against the people of Ukraine is a gross violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.  

Recent tensions over Taiwan are also a serious matter for the region, especially for Taiwan and for our close partner, Japan.

China’s military exercises were disproportionate and destabilising, and Australia shares the region’s concerns about escalating military activity, especially the risks of miscalculation.

We urged restraint and de-escalation because it is in all our interests to have a region at peace, not in conflict.

At the same time, it goes without saying that our relationship with China is important.

It is in the interests of both Australia and China for the relationship to be stabilised.

We will seek to address our differences directly and candidly, including through our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

We remain open to engagement with China, including to address shared challenges like climate change.

We continue to seek further dialogue and engagement, to avoid miscommunication so we can jointly continue on the path toward stabilisation of the relationship.

And our partners in Southeast Asia face singular challenges.

We support an open, inclusive and prosperous region with ASEAN at its heart.

ASEAN centrality is critical to the Albanese government’s approach to pursuing our interests in the region.

Maximising Australia’s influence in Southeast Asia requires us to put ASEAN centrality at the heart of our approach.

That’s why we support ASEAN’s engagement on the crisis in Myanmar and the Five Point Consensus.

The immediate release and safe return of Australian Professor Sean Turnell is our first priority when it comes to Myanmar.

We will continue to advocate for Professor Turnell’s interests and well-being until he is safely back with his family.

Last month’s execution of four pro-democracy activists was the latest in the regime’s acts of violence in a country that had made such recent and promising strides towards democracy and freedom.

It shows no regard for Burmese citizens’ human rights and their desire for self-determination.

And it undermines the security and stability of the region.

That’s why Australia is actively considering sanctions against members of Myanmar’s military regime.

Australia’s Asia capability

In this challenging context, a key question for us is this:

To what extent is Australia ready and able to engage with Asia and all it demands from us, in the 21st century?

When Asialink was established thirty years ago, Australia was far less advanced in our journey towards understanding and working with Asia.

But we knew even then that we needed to adapt and evolve to embrace our region.

In 1992, former Prime Minister Paul Keating put it pretty bluntly, as he sometimes does.

He said:

“Sometimes, perhaps it's necessary to state the obvious: facing Asia we do nothing more or less than face reality. And that is what Asia does in facing us.”

He also said that we might learn something from the geophysical truth of the situation:

“Geophysically speaking this continent is old Asia. There's none older than this. It's certainly not going to move, and after two hundred years it should be pretty plain that we're not going to either.”

Here we are, still unmoved.

Here we are, facing reality.

And the reality is, thirty years after Prime Minister Keating told Parliament that Australia had the opportunity to engage – really engage – with Asia politically and economically, we are still lacking in Asia capability.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been plenty of excellent work that has been done – including by organisations like Asialink.

Australia has plenty to be proud of in Asia.

We had a large hand in the formation of APEC.

We played a significant role in brokering the Paris Peace Agreements.

We are a Comprehensive Strategic Partner of ASEAN, which complements our bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships in the region.

And we do a roaring trade with our Asian neighbours – our two-way trade with ASEAN is worth more than $100 billion.

In times of crisis, we stand with our neighbours – whether they be natural disasters such as the Boxing Day Tsunami; economic such as the Asian Financial Crisis; terrorist atrocities; or health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there is so much potential and opportunity that remains unfulfilled.

Generation on generation, we have failed to fully capitalise on our strengths as a nation.

We haven’t built up the lasting capability – the trusted relationships, the language skills, the knowledge of cultural context, markets, and government.

Take Indonesia, our nearest Southeast Asian neighbour.

Our national capability to understand Indonesia and operate there with effect is at historically weak levels.

We are also seeing a significant decline in Australian students pursuing Asian studies more broadly.

In 2020, less than three per cent of Australian higher education language enrolments were in Southeast Asian languages.

And we are witnessing a similar decline in secondary schools, with fewer than 760 Year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2019.

The Government is going to work to change that.

We’re appointing a dedicated, high-level envoy to Southeast Asia.

And you will have seen the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister on the road in almost a dozen countries in the first month of government.

They’re out there working for Australia.

Because our partnerships aren’t about press releases or trade statistics, they’re about relationships between people.

We are building those relationships.

Our leaders are also taking the initiative to model Asia capability.

We have more than a few MPs – Chris Bowen, Stephen Jones, Luke Gosling and Matt Thistlethwaite among them – diligently learning Asian languages in offices in this building.

In Indonesia, Prime Minister Albanese announced the government’s intention to rebuild Australia’s Indonesian language skills and deepen engagement with Southeast Asia.

As Martine pointed out, I am an alumnus of the Asialink Leaders Program myself.

And next week, I will host a roundtable meeting with leaders of business, education and multicultural Australia to develop practical recommendations for rebuilding our whole-of-nation Asia capability.

These recommendations will feed into the Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit, which will be hosted by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers, and contribute to an employment white paper.

Investing in this capability is not wasted effort.


It’s been said that each generation of Australian leaders and policy makers seems to discover anew the importance of Asia for our future.

Unfortunately, these moments of clarity are rarely backed by thoughtful and sustained work in developing Asia capability.

They’re rarely harnessed to foster genuine links between people in Australia, and in our Asian neighbours.

So, it’s no wonder these momentous discoveries are easily discarded, consigned to the ‘too-hard’ basket or the ‘too-expensive’ or ‘too-inconvenient’ pile to gather dust.

Our government has an ambitious agenda for deepening engagement with Asia.

To achieve this, we need action and we need capability.

As Assistant Foreign Minister, I can promise you this:

Prime Minister Albanese, Minister Wong and I take Australia’s engagement with Asia seriously.

Because developing our Asia capability is a priority, not a slogan.

We will work to realise the full potential of our relationships.

To build our expertise and our skills.

To create the conditions in which Australian-Asian engagement can flourish. 

And we need leaders like you to seize the opportunities that present themselves – and create additional opportunities where you see the potential.

Looking at the Parliament, and around this room; hearing the enthusiasm in the voices of Australia’s young people, I can tell you that I have faith in this generation.

Each person here today could be part of the generation of Australian leaders that discovers the importance of Asia for the last time. Because after that, it will be a given.

And each person here today is a diplomat, an ambassador for engagement with Asia and for building our capability in Asia.

I wish you all the best in your time in Canberra, and in this program.

Thank you.

Media enquiries

  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555