Professor Sally Wheeler, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of ANU
Professor Helen Sullivan, Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
Professor Evelyn Goh, Director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute
Ladies and Gentlemen
1 I am honoured to be here today. To be honest, I am quite surprised to see so many people here. I did not think this was a topic that would attract this level of attention but thank you for being here. The theme of “crossroads, lifelines and guardrails” is quite apt considering the enormous geopolitical challenges confronting us today.
Crossroads: The Strategic Environment
2 Let us start off with this map – it is obvious both from geography and history that Southeast Asia has always been at the crossroads. A certain aspect worth highlighting is that if you wanted to connect Europe to China, India to Northeast Asia, Australasia and the Pacific, it is obvious from this map that the crossroads, the focal point, is Southeast Asia. In fact, I was just checking ChatGPT just as Sally was speaking. The question I asked was, “How did the First Nation people reach Australia?” According to ChatGPT – and let me just read it out so you do not blame me if it is wrong – it says, “One popular theory is that they arrived by sea, possibly from Southeast Asia.” You see, Southeast Asia again. This theory is supported by the fact that the sea levels were lower during the last ice age, which would have made it easier to cross the water between Southeast Asia and Australia. It is also supported by genetic and linguistic evidence which suggest that the original Australians share some ancestry and cultural features with the populations in Southeast Asia. So history rhymes, even if it does not repeat itself.
3 The other geographical point worth noting is that if you look between India and China, the Himalayas and the dense jungles of Myanmar form quite a barrier for interaction between two ancient civilisations. The result of this was that most of the exchange occurred via the maritime route and hence Evelyn’s map. If you think about the historical aspects of it, geography, culture, religion, trade, investments, military power have always been brought to bear and transmitted through this exquisitely open and, if I may add, vulnerable focal point.
4 If you fast forward to today, we are at another inflection point. This is due to a profound reordering of the geostrategic order and a fundamental economic transformation due to simultaneous accelerated advances in AI, robotics, biotechnology and the energy transformation needed to deal with climate change. We are still emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. But I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty as a medical practitioner myself, there will be another one. And it will probably be sooner rather than later. In addition, at a domestic level, all countries, all politicians, are confronting a society which are beset with domestic challenges like inequality, polarisation, hyper-nationalism – sometimes even outright xenophobia – and hyper-ageing. This in effect is a perfect storm.
5 Australia finds herself at a crossroads too. Although you may not be the centre of Southeast Asia, the fact is you are not immune to what happens in Southeast and Northeast Asia, and indeed the Pacific. Foreign Minister Penny Wong recently expressed concern about a “contested region” facing “unprecedented circumstances”, where strategic competition is playing out on multiple levels. I completely agree with her. Faced with these increasing, challenging circumstances, Australia will have to decide how to exercise agency to pursue your own long-term national interests. Australia may be an island continent, but it is not immune to the challenges and waves and tsunamis that will sweep through Southeast Asia and beyond.
6 The world is now far more complex and in fact more interdependent than before. Evelyn showed a nice photograph of a house on stilts. You were trying to allude to a movement from a unipolar world to a multipolar world. Well, my slight disagreement with you on that is that while there are going to be multiple stilts, you are not going to witness the symmetry where all poles are equal. It is going to be multipolar but asymmetrical. The other point is that those stilts are going to be changing their heights quite dynamically because of all the transformations which are occurring economically, politically, in science, and in society. Bear that in mind, you are dealing with multiple stilts changing their heights dynamically. Achieving balance, achieving stability in such an environment is extremely difficult.
7 If you switch your minds back to the economic sphere, for both Australia and Singapore, we are dependent on trade for our prosperity. Trade is about 40% of Australia’s GDP, while Singapore’s trade volume is three times of our GDP. It is a highly skewed ratio, and that has to do with the fact that we are a hub, a transhipment focal point in the hub of Southeast Asia. In addition, both Singapore and Australia have concerns with major superpower rivalry. We both know if this is unchecked, and it leads on – and we see early signs of that bifurcation and the weaponisation of trade, supply chains and even of money – what this means for trading-oriented nations like ours, is that we will be witnessing many nations turning inwards.
8 We will witness the elevation of tariffs and non-tariff barriers for trade and a bifurcation must lead to: first, higher inflation because supply chains will no longer be organised on the basis of efficiency but on the basis of “just in case”. That means paying a premium for resilience. Second, in addition to inflation, bifurcation must mean a slower rate of progress. Instead of the whole world working to improve that single technology stack that defines modern society, you now split into competing camps working on different and likely, possibly, incompatible systems of technology. Third, a bifurcated world is one in which there is less interdependence, less inhibitions to not only just outright, extreme competition, but even confrontation. We will be living in a more disruptive, more volatile, more dangerous world.
Guardrails: US-China Relations
9 This brings me to the next aspect – guardrails – and that is usually discussed in terms of US-China relations. The US and China are currently locked in perhaps one of the most intense competitions across multiple domains in our lifetimes. At the heart of it – and I say this as a regular visitor to Washington and Beijing, even during COVID times – at the heart of this dysfunctional relationship is deep mutual suspicion and an almost complete absence of strategic trust on both sides.
10 The US believes that China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective”. Keywords: “intent” and “power”. It is now a settled bipartisan view in the US that China’s rising power is inimical to American interests and values. In this view, for national security reasons, the US must go for “extreme competition” and it must seek to maintain an “absolute advantage” over China especially in foundational technologies, which include semiconductors, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and green technologies.
11 From the point of view of China, perceptions of the US have also soured considerably. Almost everyone I have met in Beijing believes that the US intends to “contain, encircle and suppress” China. And if this strategic misalignment is not enough, you also have a trigger, a fuse, waiting to be lit. The most dangerous flashpoint of all is Taiwan, which is the reddest of red lines for Beijing. Singapore, Australia, and almost every other country in the world maintains some version of a “One China” policy. However, cross-strait relations have been framed by some in the West as a broader ideological contest on the issue of “democracy versus autocracy”. Actually, I think taking this view is deeply worrying and dangerous. The status quo that has prevailed for several decades was predicated on all parties exercising restraint and maintaining the status quo. Right now, however, it is clearly evident that tensions are high and rising, and the risk of mishap or miscalculation is even higher, and with that, the risk of an escalatory spiral. If that happens, it will trigger grave consequences for all of us.
Lifelines: Vital Connections
12 Let me move to lifelines and talk about vital connections. Of course, I believe all of us in this room and indeed, at a national level, hope that the US and China will keep lines of communications open, and with time, gradually repair their relationship on the basis of mutual respect and the gradual accumulation of strategic trust. This point of mutual respect and strategic trust is worth emphasising, because you cannot at a political or diplomatic level, hope to neatly distribute issues into cooperation, competition and confrontation. It does not work that way in Asia or in Southeast Asia. It starts first with a relationship, and a relationship begins with whether there is at least mutual respect – you do not have to agree, you do not even have to like—but you need to have mutual respect.
13 The second ingredient for a productive, functional relationship is the gradual accumulation of strategic trust. And note that I said “gradual accumulation” because trust is not something you conjure just with a sophisticated form of words. It takes time, it takes history, it takes a pattern of behaviour that accumulates strategic trust. Right now, these two critical ingredients are missing.
14 Countries in Southeast Asia feel this impact of dysfunctional relations between the two biggest superpowers and we feel it keenly. In fact, we all hope and pray that the lifelines and the lines of communication between the two of them will be established, will be nurtured and will grow. That is the only way in which we can see a productive way out of this otherwise insoluble dilemma.
15 The US and China are struggling to make progress on areas where they really do need to focus on public goods for the world – climate change, energy, food security, pandemic preparedness, to mention a few. But the economic imperatives are often overshadowed by national security concerns. Countries are pursuing self-reliance and resilience, and I mentioned “on-shoring” or “friend-shoring” supply chains. I also mentioned the impact of increasing bifurcation in technological and economic systems.
16 But again, if you turn the focus back on Southeast Asia, actually all of us want both China and the US to be engaged in Southeast Asia, all of us want to have productive, friendly relations with both, and all of us do not want to be forced to choose sides, to make invidious choices.
Australia’s Domestic Strengths
17 I believe many of these sentiments apply to Australia as well. In fact, Australia can play an important stabilising role in our region and Australia has many unique strengths. Here, let me offer a perspective from someone from outside Australia about Australia’s value proposition because sometimes when you live within the system, you fail to see the value proposition that you have for outsiders. So let me list that.
18 First, Australia can and should take the lead in pushing for green, biotech and digital revolutions, within Australia and in Southeast Asia and beyond. This is not just empty flattery, but it is actually based on careful inventory of Australia’s resources. Australia is one of world’s largest producers of bauxite, iron ore, lithium, gold, lead, diamond, rare earth elements, uranium and zinc. My standard parlour question to Australian business leaders or political leaders is, “Name me one element that Australia is short of.” So far no one has been able to give me an answer for that.
19 Now, let’s focus specifically on the critical minerals needed for the new, emerging digital and green economy. If you focus on critical minerals, I discovered that Australia has the world’s largest deposits of nickel, Australia has the second largest deposits of lithium, cobalt and copper, the fourth largest deposits of manganese and the sixth largest deposits of rare earths. So if you believe that we are undergoing a green and digital transformation, guess who has the lion share of the essential raw materials for this new economy? That is one strength (of Australia).
20 Second, Australia has been, and I believe will continue to be, a strong proponent for international law and for the peaceful resolution of disputes. Fortunately, Australia has no territorial disputes with any country in Southeast Asia. That makes it easier. In fact, Australia has supported the use of third-party dispute settlement mechanisms where possible and in fact the example which I want to cite is the resolution of the long-standing maritime boundary dispute that Australia had with Timor-Leste. Originally, this was stuck, there was deadlock, and it was a huge missed opportunity. But in fact, the resolution turned out to be the first actual worked example of compulsory conciliation under UNCLOS. I want to congratulate Australia for doing so, and settling this, and setting an example for the future.
21 My third reason for highlighting Australia’s value proposition is that Australia has always been a firm advocate for free trade and has been an active participant in the regional economic architecture. Again, let me cite examples— the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which includes all 10 ASEAN countries plus China, Japan, ROK, Australia and New Zealand; and now the ongoing work on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, as well as the various digital economy agreements (DEAs) including the one that we signed between Australia and Singapore.
22 Australia and Singapore were trailblazers in signing the landmark Green Economy Agreement in October last year. So my point is that Australia, due to its own natural heritage and its own approach to international law, resolving disputes, and its approach and its behaviour in pursuing multilateralism and signing agreements and sticking to that, this has made Australia an ideal and mutually beneficial partner for all of us in Southeast Asia.
Australia’s Role in Southeast Asia
23 Here I would like to highlight that Southeast Asia is not just a crossroads. Southeast Asia on its own merits has a population of 670 million persons, which by the way that makes us by population larger than the EU. Southeast Asia is cumulatively the fifth largest economy in the world with a combined GDP currently of, in slightly in excess of US$3 trillion, and this number will double if not quadruple within the next two, maximum three decades. We are now seeing a burst of entrepreneurial energy in Southeast Asia, and it is home to many innovative high growth companies and digital unicorns. Southeast Asia is one of the world’s fastest-growing digital markets. We believe the digital economy in Southeast Asia will grow by three times and will be worth more than US$300 billion by 2025. That is just a couple of years from now.
24 ASEAN also happens to be a firm believer in free trade and a key economic partner for many countries. ASEAN is already Australia’s second largest trading partner after China, and it is the third largest export market after China and Japan. In fact, it is not implausible to believe that ASEAN could very well become Australia’s largest trading partner, just as ASEAN has displaced the EU as China’s largest trading partner since 2020.
25 Australia knows that Singapore has always been a keen advocate for Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia. Australia was ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner, and subsequently elevated relations with ASEAN to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in October 2021. Australia recently concluded negotiations for an upgraded ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA in February. The 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia Dialogue Relations next year will create even more opportunities for cooperation.
26 So I am glad that Australia is already looking at ways to step up its engagement of Southeast Asia, not just for short-term political or commercial advantage but because of careful, reasoned long-term analysis (that) shows opportunity and alignment between Australia and Southeast Asia.
27 Let me now to turn to zoom in specifically to the bilateral relationship between Australia and Singapore and suggest three ways in which we can take our relationship forward.
28 First, Singapore can work with Australia as a pathfinder for Australia’s broader engagement of the region. We are already leading the way. The Singapore-Australia bilateral DEA which we signed in 2020 and our landmark Green Economy Agreement which we signed last year. Singapore looks forward to working with Australia to support its ambition to be one of the top three exporters of hydrogen to Asia by 2030. As we push ahead on clean energy and enhanced digital connectivity, I believe we can work together to improve the resilience of the subsea infrastructure.
29 Second, Singapore and Australia can leverage our bilateral cooperation as a template for Australia’s engagement of Southeast Asia. I have already mentioned the Digital and Green Economy Agreements and these can serve as models for Australia’s engagement across Southeast Asia. Our work at the bilateral level has already paved the way for similar principles to be adopted at the multilateral level, including regional economic architecture such as the RCEP, the CPTPP and the IPEF which I mentioned earlier.
30 Within ASEAN, we are commencing negotiations on an ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement that will help to maximise the opportunities to tap into the expanding digital economies, narrow the digital divide in our societies and increase interoperability between Southeast Asia and Australia. This is another fertile area where I believe Australia can play a major role.
31 Third, Singapore can serve as a hub and financing centre for Australia's expanding economic engagement of Southeast Asia. Singapore, if you look at the map just now, is right in the heart of Southeast Asia. We are well-positioned and we are a welcome and safe harbour for Australian companies and startups as they begin their first step of globalisation by making that step into Southeast Asia. In fact, I believe we have about 200 global and local accelerators in Singapore currently.
32 The green economyhas also continued to create new and exciting business opportunities for companies in areas including energy, infrastructure, green financing, carbon services and carbon credits. Currently, there are over 70 organisations in Singapore provide carbon-related services. This is probably the highest concentration in Southeast Asia. Singapore is working on enabling pathways for decarbonisation and exploring partnerships with many countries, including obviously Australian businesses, on R&D in this field. Just as there has been a global trend to re-shore, regionalise and diversify existing production and supply chains in order to increase resilience and food security, Australia pops up again as the obvious, preferred partner.
33 The point is, Singapore is well-positioned to host the advanced, high value-added manufacturing operations, and to serve as a supply chain control centre and logistics and procurement hub for Australian businesses serving Southeast Asia as a whole.
An Open and Inclusive Regional Architecture
34 I believe if we can make progress on all these areas, we will have a stronger and more resilient region for all of us. But beyond that, an open, transparent, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture is the best way forward for all countries, big or small, to have more room to manoeuvre, more strategic latitude, and for us to be able to grow and prosper individually and collectively. We hope that other external partners engage constructively with Southeast Asia on our own merits, and not just through the prism of major power competition. A stable and prosperous Southeast Asia offers significant value for the rest of the world. I want to end by making the point that Australia is the ideal and most naturally aligned partner on this endeavour.
35 We welcome the complementary and overlapping arrangements which will give everybody a stake in peace, prosperity and success of Southeast Asia. And all that we have been working on together with Australia has the potential to be regionalised, to be multilateralised and to be a template for peace and prosperity for the future.
36 Let me just conclude by offering you a view from a tiny city state in the heart of Southeast Asia, that we are very optimistic about Australia, your inherent strengths, your engagement of our region, and that even as we deal with these geostrategic challenges and the digital and green economy, Australia is at the heart of it all. Thank you very much.
Question 1: I was just wondering, you referenced the analogy about the house on stilts and the asymmetrical balance within the region. How do you see the concept of ASEAN Centrality fitting into that and how would the region work towards achieving a more equitable balance within ASEAN Centrality?
Question 2: I have one question about Singapore, specifically about maritime security in the region. You have a substantive capability for maritime security so what do you think about Singapore’s role in maintaining the region’s stability especially for maritime security and do you have any comment on how the relationship with Australia can do anything for maritime security in the region?
Minister: The first question on ASEAN Centrality, let me get to the heart of it. If you look at the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia were arenas for proxy battles. You saw certainly a case of (this) even in Vietnam, in ROK, this combination of both a fight for nationalism, independence and this fight between communism and capitalism. I think one lesson which all of us in Southeast Asia have learnt is that we do not intend to allow ourselves to become yet again an arena for proxy battles. So when we say Centrality, the point is to deal with ASEAN on our own merits, to accept the great diversity within ASEAN. If you look at where the 10 countries stand, for instance in terms of their closeness or alignment of relationships, business and political interests with the superpowers, we are all going to be slightly different but none of us wants to be captured and to be caught in the extremes or to be forced to make binary choices. To the extent that, at least for now, all superpowers say they believe in ASEAN Centrality and they are not trying to divide us and split us. I think that is positive. But of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. But that is a key point for ASEAN Centrality.
On maritime security, that is another huge and dangerous question. Maybe let me take a step back and say that for both Australia and for all of us in Southeast Asia, keeping our maritime routes, both land and sea, open and secure, is a high priority. For Singapore, our trade volume is three times our GDP. Keeping those routes – the air and sea lanes of communication – open is critical, and I believe Australia shares that same sensitivity.
The other point, and this relates to UNCLOS, (is) freedom of navigation, not by grace or by permission but as a right. The moment a ship leaves (a) port, asserting freedom of navigation (means) that ship can go to anywhere else in the world. This is very unlike a train or a car or even flights. That sacred right for freedom of navigation for ships, and given Southeast Asia’s geographical position, is crucial. So it is both a matter of keeping trade lanes open, insisting on the primacy of UNCLOS, and keeping an open and inclusive trade and economic architecture through Southeast Asia and beyond. Certainly I can speak for Singapore and, at least in my interactions with Australia, we are exactly on the same page.
Question 3: Could you please reflect on whether there is an endogenous and a homogenous security architecture in the Southeast Asian region besides the one that is provided by economics? Thank you.
Question 4: Thanks very much Minister, thanks for being with us. It is great to have you and to enjoy your insightful analysis of the situation that we face in the region today. The hope, as you said is as our own Foreign Minister calls it “strategic equilibrium” in the region or stabilisation of regional politics in a way that avoids the choices and avoids the problems of the past. The question is of course what steps we might take to have agency in achieving strategic equilibrium. You enumerated some of our (Australia’s) assets but Southeast Asia has assets and ASEAN Centrality is accepted as a norm. You have agency, clearly, in the way Indonesia managed the G20 Summit last year. What steps can Southeast Asia, if you want to venture what steps can Australia take to achieve strategic equilibrium and stability in the region?
Minister: Both questions are related to the similar theme and I like your putting me on the spot. Let us first take a step back and say let us define what is in the national interest of Australia and the rest of us in Southeast Asia. Number one, we need peace. Without peace prevailing, especially for us in Southeast Asia, we cannot focus on the investments in infrastructure, in connectivity, in green and the digital transformation which is needed. So the first thing is just avoiding hot conflict and avoiding becoming an arena for proxy battles. I would say that is the first hygiene factor.
The second thing which all of us need is, internally and domestically, each of us needs to be united, to be successful, and to have a clear economic blueprint as to what we need to do to boot ourselves up into the new economy. This is not foreign policy, this is domestic economic policy and every country has to do that calculation for itself because it is going to be different. Again the point to understand about Southeast Asia is the great diversity. If you look at our per capita GDPs, I do not think any other regional group has the variance that we have. If you look at political systems, we range from absolute monarchies to a variety of coup arrangements and democracies in between. The point is, get our own house in order.
The third step – we believe that in order to achieve peace and in order to attract investments, we want an open and inclusive security and economic architecture. What that means is that if any superpower comes to us and says “we want you to exclude the other” in a variety of diplomatic niceties, the answer would be, “Why should we exclude anyone?” The more the merrier, more trading partners, more investors, more options, more choices. (It is important) to understand that we want to keep Southeast Asia open and inclusive.
The fourth step is to insist (on) – and I mentioned the primacy of UNCLOS just now, but the deeper habit behind that – adherence to international law, the principles of the UN Charter, peaceful resolution of disputes – these are things which are essential for small countries or even medium-sized countries who do not yet have the military muscle. We need international law, we need these processes and the self-restraint that comes with (them) if we are to have any agency at all.
Finally, I would say the more we can make common cause with each other – and this is where Australia comes in because I see it is quite a natural alignment of economic interest, a view on regional architecture and an adherence to international law and the UN Charter. It therefore creates quite a natural partnership between Australia and Southeast Asia. If we can do all these things and I would say the critical period is the next decade. In the next decade we will have answers to a few crucial questions of our time.
First question – will China overtake America, by whatever metric you want to use? Next question, what is going to be the impact of this digital revolution, AI, robotics – a whole transformation of the factors of production, to use a Marxist concept – how is this going to play out? Also, within the next decade, will the world succeed in making a dent on climate change and carbon emissions and this whole transformation in renewable anergy? And if that is not enough, the other answer I think we will get within the next decade is the revolution in biotechnology, genomic medicine, and the fact that it is now possible to sequence the whole genome of each of us here within the next decade for less than a hundred dollars. What does that mean for life and medicine and society? Our choices that we make in the next decade are going to be critical and this is a wonderful time to be alive. But I do believe, on an optimistic note, we play our cards right, all of us will be able to maintain agency, avoid invidious choices, remain open to science and technology and sound economics, to make common cause and to operate on the basis of international law. I guess diplomats have to be optimistic, and I remain optimistic.
Question 5: Minister you talked towards the end about this very refreshing timeframe of the next ten years and these wide challenges. I would like to bring you, if you would allow me, to the narrower strategist’s preoccupations. Sorry to put you on the spot, but what keeps you awake at night? If the region or the world were to fall off the rails, what would be the top two nightmare things for Singapore that might happen that keeps you awake at night?
Question 6: We have not talked about Myanmar. We talked about the centrality of ASEAN – I think what is happening there is deeply corrosive to the centrality of ASEAN. Australia has played a prominent role in the past in the (Comprehensive) Cambodian Peace Accord (Agreements), in resolving the East Timor crisis, but it could only do so when it collaborated closely with Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries and Singapore. Is there something we can do about Myanmar, what does the future hold for Myanmar and ASEAN?
Question 7: ASEAN is working on the ASEAN Vision 2045. How confident are you that we will still have ASEAN by that year?
Minister: The easiest question is your question. I am confident ASEAN will still be around. I am not saying that, again, for diplomatic reasons but just through the analysis which I shared just now in the speech. If you look in terms of our inherent advantages, if you look in terms of our growth potential, if you look in terms of the demographics, if you look in terms of the natural resources, if you assess our potential in very great partnership with Australia, there is every reason to be optimistic about ASEAN.
Now, the complicating factor, and there will be, is if you were to ask me how many members will be in ASEAN in 2045. The answer is, I hope at least 11. But it relates to John’s question. What Myanmar illustrates is that if a country cannot get even to the first base of achieving national identity and a modicum of cohesion amidst diversity, and keeps relying on military force to assert, impose unity and dominance of one rule over the other – you are never going to get to national development and all this future we are talking about here based on investing in technologies for the next stage of the economy, of uplifting people, training, education, fair opportunities and integrating with the world. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing in Myanmar is not just a coup that is two years old; it is the fact that they have never, unlike the rest of us, been able to achieve that national unity, that basic modicum of consensus to operate the country.
If your question is how long is it going to take for them to get there, I do not know how long. What is happening there is a tragedy and people are paying in blood for that tragedy. The implication for ASEAN is that there will be a member, for a long time, who is not fulfilling its primary responsibility to its own people and therefore not able to play a constructive role in ASEAN, and actually not even able to harvest these bountiful opportunities that are unfolding in front of Southeast Asia for next two decades.
The related question is what should we do about it? And here I want to caution that I do not believe in external interference, I do not believe these deep political questions at the domestic level can be answered by any of us. In the end, we do not want to have blood on our hands so I think we need to make sure the actions we take collective and individually do not make the situation worse and do not allow or encourage or enable the military to shed more blood for their own narrow parochial interests. Having said that, we also must not get ahead of ourselves and say somehow we can go in there, wave a magic wand and create a functioning democracy. That is not what the history of Southeast Asia has taught us. It may take a long gestation time but we will need patience, we will need to signal disapproval, we will need to make sure we do not make things worse, we will need to make sure we do not have blood on our hands, but we will also need some strategic patience.
So what will happen by 2045? Time will tell. I hope that problem will be solved way before that. But if you think about the time, the 70, 80 years in which they have struggled, will they be able to solve that in another 20 years? I do not know.
Your question on what keeps me awake – number one is I do worry about that fuse in Taiwan. I do worry about being forced to make invidious choices and sometimes it is hard to say which one will jump first to force us to make a choice. I do worry, and this is now at the domestic level, if people do not understand both the enormous strategic challenges and opportunities that are unfolding in front of us in the next 10 to 20 years, and if political leaders are unable to communicate that and at least get sufficient level of consensus and commitment to reforming education, upgrading skills, building new safety nets. In the same way, the last industrial revolution needed the corrective of a welfare state and moves in retirement, health and education. All of us are going to need to do fundamental self-surgery on our political and economic domestic systems. I do worry that if that is not handled properly you end up with another (similar) period. The parallel I worry about is whether we are in a period similar to before World War One or even in the interregnum between the First World War and the Second World War, when strategic questions were not addressed and you have the Great Depression and the rise of populism on the Left and on the Right.
These are things that I do worry about – a sudden cataclysm in Northeast Asia, a failure to make that transition domestically, and then a failure for us to avoid the mistakes of the past. Therefore I want to keep Southeast Asia united despite the diversity, avoid being an arena for proxy wars, and instead focus on making it a zone of great opportunity. Again, as I said, I just want to say to Australia, sometimes just take a deep breath, step back, realise you are truly the Lucky Country and even more so for this brave new world that is emerging. Stick to your own values and your own diplomatic habits, it will be a good day.
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Photo Caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Keynote Remarks at Australian National University’s Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update in Canberra, 1 May 2023
Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore