The Complacent Country: Alternative Visions For Australia’s Future in the Region and the World

The Hon Kevin Rudd, AC

26th Prime Minister of Australia

Australian National University

28 August, 2019.

Tonight I’d like to talk about alternative visions for Australia’s future. I’ve been doing a series of these around the country. That’s because I fear we have become the complacent country – complacent about the many great political, economic, social, environmental and security challenges that now threaten our future. And the uncomfortable truth is that out future is not guaranteed. We have to secure it though own efforts. As government and as a people – together.

A couple of nights ago, at the University of Queensland, I spoke about what constitutes the elements of a credible national vision. How it must be anchored in our sense of national identity. How it must be anchored in our sense of national values. And how is must also be grounded in our enduring national interests. Interests which transcend any particular political administration.

Yesterday at the University of Melbourne, I spoke about alternative visions for Australia’s economic future.

What I’d like to do in this address at my old university, the Australian National University, is speak about alternative visions for our future in the region and the world, given China’s rise and given America’s response to it, and how we best navigate our future in the midst of these rapidly changing strategic realities.

I’ve sought to do so by framing what I describe as ten major challenges for Australia that are now washing over our shores, just as they are also disrupting many countries across the world. Large ones. Big ones. Disruptive ones. And our topic this evening cuts across most of them. But so that I am clear about the overall framework I bring to bear in this, let me run through at the outset what I see to be these ten major disruptions affecting us all.

One, the unfolding challenge of the global technology revolution.  On the one hand challenging Australia’s future international economic competitiveness, unless we ourselves become major successful innovators in these new generators that will drive future global growth. And on the other hand, also facing the profound employment disruption, social and economic instability which comes from these technologies themselves, in particular artificial intelligence.

Two, the profound challenge of sustaining strong, long-term Australian economic growth given the ageing of our population, static levels of workforce participation, and declining levels of economic productivity. As well as a declining bipartisan consensus on long-term migration flows, inadequate investment in infrastructure, STEM education and research, the transformation of our domestic energy sector to natural gas, and as noted above, a global technology innovation revolution that could well leave Australia behind.

Three, the ravages of climate change where our national and global actions to mitigate global greenhouse gas emissions are woefully inadequate to prevent unsustainable temperature increases and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, with long-term consequences for global food and water security, the forced migration of peoples, and within Australia itself, the sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Four, a failure to deal effectively with five critical social policy challenges: growing inequality and declining equality of opportunity; inadequate retirement income; a mental health crisis sweeping a society  increasingly riven by anxiety, depression and loneliness; an amphetamine epidemic killing our young people; and a failure to conclude the national reconciliation process with Indigenous Australians through sustained investment in the Closing the Gap strategy and our inability to complete the process of constitutional recognition.

Five, the failure to prepare sufficiently for the ageing of our population both through the absence of fundamental health, hospitals and aged care reform to sustain a high quality health system for our people, while also managing the costs of the system through the failure of successive governments to sustain the comprehensive reforms introduced in 2010 in preventative, primary, acute, post-acute and aged care, and in digital health records management.

Six, a fragmenting global order driven in part by China’s rise, an increasingly isolationist America, a divided Europe, a yawning global leadership deficit, an increasingly G-Zero world, and the growing danger of returning to the pre-’45 notions of survival of the fittest.

Seven, the increasing polarisation of our own region between Chinese and American spheres of geo-strategic and economic influence, reducing the freedom of policy manoeuvre for regional states as they seek to secure their own futures.

Eight, the growing wave of people movements across the world by those escaping political economic and climate insecurity in their countries of origin, but generating in turn politically and racially-charged reactions in the countries they seek to escape to, leading in turn to the heart of local political concerns on the deepest questions of collective cultural and political identity.

Nine, the polarisation of our democracies between rich and poor, an increasingly struggling middle-class, the failure of much of the traditional politics of the centre-right and the centre-left to deliver sustainable solutions to fundamental problems; compounded in our case by a national media split between Murdoch’s far-right, elements the faux left, and the screaming Balkanisation of social media destroying any real possibility of a political commons through which to conduct a reasonable national conversation on alternatives for our country’s future; all bit by bit delegitimising democracy itself in the eyes of the people, to the extent that democracy’s long-term future itself  is no longer a given.

And finally, underpinning all of the above, a new gaping chasm in our deepest underlying values. We are at an extraordinary historical transition point as Christianity declines and almost disappears in the West from 1,700 years of cultural dominance, driven in large part by the sheer weight of its own institutional hypocrisy, only to be replaced by a secularism increasingly uncertain of its own moral compass to guide what is left of the modern-day Enlightenment project. And now facing also an increasingly self-confident new authoritarianism, in China, in Russia, and elsewhere offering alternative models of political and economic governance.

And if that’s not enough to make you all feel cheerful this evening, our already troubled democratic institutions are faced with an even more fundamental challenge. They are having to deal effectively with all these complex, unprecedented challenges simultaneously. While the legitimacy of these very same national political institutions, and their international counterparts, charged with dealing with these challenges, is itself also under threat.

Whatever the hue and cry that passes for our day-to-day political discourse, these structural challenges don’t go away. They are material. They are real. They are washing over us irrespective of whether the political process chooses to be conscious of them or not.

I believe there are effective responses to each of the above. Not because of some Pollyannaish optimism. But because there is a reasonable way though each of them if we have the national resolve to do so. The question for government, however, is what is the policy response? What is our strategy? And how can this be anchored in our enduring identity as Australians, who we are as a people, the values we share, as well as the deep, underlying, continuing national interests which will always define us into the future.

China’s Strategy

As I said at the outset, my purpose here at the Australian National University is to look specifically at the question of China’s rise, America’s response to it and how we fit in the middle of that with a credible, durable National China Strategy for Australia.

To begin with, it’s worth thinking about China’s own grand strategy and what its impact on us might be. I think it’s helpful to understand how other people think and why they think that way. Understanding China’s worldview, Xi Jinping’s worldview, and what, as a result of that, constitutes China’s grand strategy, should be our first step in framing our own national response.

Let me run through seven quick points looking at the world as seen from Beijing.

Number one priority in China’s strategy: keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. They don’t intend to wither away. They intend to be there beyond their centenary in 2021 into the long-term future as a hard, Marxist-Leninist party. They’ve said it. Repeatedly. And guess what, they mean it. They obtained power through the barrel of a gun, and, if necessary, they will sustain it that way. And I have never shared the assumption that I’ve seen so much in  the literature over the years that China will one day transform into a more liberal democratic state.

Number two: hold the nation together. And so, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These are elemental to China’s national self-image and equally elemental to its national strategy for the future. And if we diminish this, or fail to understand the centrality of this in China’s own “Maslowian hierarchy of needs”, then we are failing in our analysis. In this  Taiwan remains fundamental.  Hence why Taiwan, rarely in our news, is always in Beijing’s news.

Three, continue to grow the economy. Why? So that people’s living standards are improved and as a consequence of that, the party sustains its legitimacy. If you fail to grow the economy, if you fail to grow living standards, you delegitimise the party. Remember, the party was deeply delegitimised as a result of the Cultural Revolution which only concluded in 1976. The rebuilding task in terms of the party’s credibility began with Deng’s economic revolution in 1978. Another reason for the centrality of economic growth is to grow China’s national capacity – that is its capacity to act as a strong state both at home and in the world.  But now China’s national economic strategy has a critical new twist: to continue to grow the economy in a manner which is environmentally sustainable. The reason again goes to party legitimacy. Chinese people, like people anywhere in the world, demand clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and food which is not contaminated.

Four, China has fourteen land borders, the greatest number of any country in the world, apart from the Russian Federation, which also has fourteen. But in addition to that, China has at least six neighbouring states with whom it has disputed maritime borders. China’s objective with its neighbours, on land and across the sea, is to have as benign relationships as possible, and ultimately as compliant relationships as possible, when measured against the benchmark of China’s core national interests. China has no interest in territorial invasion. But China does have an interest in having neighbours which cause no trouble.

Number five, looking to the east of China’s mainland towards its maritime periphery, to push the United States back to the first island chain (from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan and then through the Philippines) and then over time to the second island chain (which is another line about a thousand kilometres further east running through Guam). This interest is driven by the central organising principle that this is the strategic space necessary for China to secure its ultimate objective of returning Taiwan to the motherland’s embrace. Even if this ultimately requires military force.

Number six, looking west to China’s continental periphery, through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, to convert Eurasia into a new zone of Chinese economic opportunity, as well as a region with generally benign political attitudes to Beijing. Its scope is to cover an area including the five “stans” in Central Asia, through the countries of Eastern, Central and Western Europe and the Middle East. From Shanghai to Rotterdam. The most important task on China’s continental periphery has been to secure a new relationship with the Russian Federation – historically problematic in the Tsarist period because of the large Russian acquisition of Chinese territory over the centuries prior to the 1917 Revolution. This was followed by a period of ideological condominium with the old Soviet Union until the Sino-Soviet split of the late 50s and early 60s. Then with the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’89, a gradual strategic re-accommodation between Beijing and Moscow anchored in Deng’s normalisation of the border with Gorbachev. And most recently, a wider normalisation of the Russia-China relationship to the point that it now has all the hallmarks of an effective strategic alliance.

And finally, in this hierarchy of needs, as we seek to understand the Chinese leadership’s strategic priorities, there is also the question of the future of the global rules-based order. China’s intention is not to change the order overnight but to gradually reform multilateral  institutions, change their personnel and transform their culture in a manner more compatible with Chinese interests and values. China also seeks simultaneously to establish institutions beyond the United Nations framework and the Bretton Woods institutions. Hence the Belt and Road Initiative. Hence the Asian infrastructure Investment Bank. And hence a number of initiatives along these lines.

US Strategy

International reality however, is the sound of two hands clapping, not just one. And that other hand is the United States. The Trump Administration has declared that the 40 Years of strategic engagement between the United States and China since 1978 is now dead. That occurred with the publication of the National Security Strategy of the United States in November / December of 2017. Instead, the Trump Administration has now formally defined China for the first time as a strategic competitor.

However, declaring China as a strategic competitor in and of itself does not add up to either a policy or a strategy. It’s a declaration. And as I’ve said recently to audiences in the United States, it reflects an American attitude rather than American strategy.

When we look at the White House itself and the very different views on the future of China within the Administration, we need to be cautious in reaching conclusions on what actually constitutes the sustainable elements of long-term American strategy towards China. Let alone if there is a Democrat Administration replacing Trump at the end of next year.

For example, on the question of the trade war, the President of the United States has a singular, abiding interest, going back to his time as a candidate, in reducing the physical size of the bilateral trade deficit by a very big number. Others around him, including USTR Lighthizer, are less interested in the President’s obsession with a mercantilist “deal” on the future size of the deficit, than they are in bringing about structural change in the Chinese economy on the core questions of intellectual property protection, forced technology transfer through foreign joint ventures, as well as bringing to an end state subsidies for Chinese firms operating as a result with an unfair commercial advantage in international markets.

Then there are others, like Navarro, Miller and Michael Pillsbury, who argue that the function of American strategy should be to retard China’s growth, ultimately to crush its economy and impede China’s further rise by a much wider economic decoupling across trade, technology and finance.

Then you have both Secretary Pompeo, the Secretary of State, and Secretary Esper, the new Secretary of Defence, arguing for a broader foreign policy and security policy decoupling from China as well.

And finally there is Vice President Pence who says that the human rights war against China has only just begun, particularly in defending the rights of ethnic and religious minorities within the People’s Republic, a passion which his President, however, evidently does not share.

The question for those of us who analyse American strategy closely is which of these approaches will ultimately prevail in the eventual determination of American strategy, and, most critically, which will President Trump himself support when these things come to a head. It’s a valid question.

If you look, for example, at the trade war alone and its intersection with the Huawei debate – whether Huawei should be banned or not banned as a 5G carrier in the United States and elsewhere in the world on national security grounds – we  find the President often saying that maybe if the US and China can resolve the bilateral trade dispute  we can all just forget about the Huawei problem. While at the same time his tweets to this effect are terrorising other members of his administration who are heading in precisely the reverse direction on Huawei. We simply do not know which view will in the end prevail.

Therefore, as we look carefully at the future of Australian policy towards China, we need to be as clear as we can about what in fact American strategy is in substance, and how sustainable it will be, as opposed to how it is described ion any given day. Whether we like it or not, it is this question which sets many of the strategic parameters within which we are conducting our own debate on the future of Australian policy on China.

More broadly, we must also ask ourselves what is America’s substantive view on the future integrity of its alliances worldwide? You’ve seen what the President has said about those “freeloading” Europeans who are unworthy of receiving collective security guarantees from the United States. You’ve seen the trade wars he’s unleashed against both Japan and Korea, two long-standing American allies. Indeed, you’ve seen an American economic and trade policy fundamentally at odds with so much of traditional US security policy and alliance solidarity.

Then there is the wider question of how sustainable in America’s own mind is its alliance structure long term? How long will future American administrations, including Trump in particular if he’s re-elected, wish to sustain those political commitments and fund them militarily? The reality is that President Trump himself has raised all these questions in the international debate. And it is not unreasonable, therefore, for American allies to begin to think through where all this may ultimately land.

These are questions which an Australian National China Strategy will need to resolve. That is, where does America wish to be in reality. Not in declaratory terms. But in substantive, operational terms against the core questions I’ve listed above. As opposed to a press release or the occasional venting of national spleen. Strategy and spleen are different things. We need to be clear about that.

Australian Policy

So let’s turn to the third hand clapping, if you will pardon the metaphor. That’s ours, Australia’s, as a long-term ally of the United States, as we look closely at China’s growing strength, Beijing’s increasingly assertive international strategy as well as America’s own strategic response given the contending forces at play within the White House. To repeat: Australia must be absolutely clear about what U.S. grand strategy is, whether it will be sustained into the future and whether Australia, pursuing its own national interests, necessarily agrees as a matter of policy logic with every element of this unfolding US strategy.

This is a process requiring deep policy discipline in Canberra as we examine each of these questions rationally. If we fail to do so, we will end up constructing a national China strategy on flimsy foundations indeed. In determining Australia’s national China strategy, let me argue five core principles for the future.

The first is this: the most important thing about having a national China strategy is to have one. At present, we do not.  What I see instead is a government, as in the United States, with a series of attitudes about China, rather than a coherent policy for dealing with China, including the substantive challenges that China represents in terms of our own enduring interests and values.

When, for example, Malcolm Turnbull stood up in late 2017 and proclaimed in appalling Chinese that the Australian people had finally “stood up” against the Chinese threat,  I asked  “what the hell was all that about”, apart from being deliberately offensive to the Chinese political class by parodying something Mao said on the proclamation of the People’s Republic on the First of October 1949. Or was it largely an exercise in Australian domestic politics, or worse, internal Coalition politics, as the Conservatives now seek to “out hairy chest”  one another on the “China threat”. In politics, I suppose all’s fair in love and war. But on core questions of our long-term national security and economic interests, I would say to the current generation of conservative political practitioners to be very careful about simply seeing the China relationship as a domestic political tool to use  in either intra or inter-party politics.

When I look at the likes of Andrew Hastie, what is it about adolescent Tory politicians who have these dreams of becoming the next Winston Churchill,  standing up and proclaiming to the world that the Chinese have already marched into the Sudetenland.  It’s a slightly more complex picture than that. What we see with the likes of Hastie, however, are ambitious politicians who see China as a rich, appealing and potentially politically rewarding topic to advance their own stocks within the conservative movement in Australia. And with the added benefit, from the conservatives’ perspective,  of further polarising our national political debate on China between themselves and the Australian Labor Party in order to depict Labor as being “weak on China.”

When I look also at the periodic public grunts of other leading conservatives, like Peter Dutton at his Neanderthal best,  either whacking refugees and  asylum seekers one day, or whacking the Chinese the next, it’s much the same political game –  part of the internal fault lines of conservative politics as Dutton seeks to maintain pressure on Morrison not to consider any reset on China policy, or else run the risk of losing his support in the party room, in the continuing  internal tensions of the Liberal Party leadership.

The China debate, however, should not be a matter of gratuitous domestic political commentary. These are serious matters that go to the heart of our enduring national interests. The question of our nation’s future strategy for dealing with the rise of China – the first time in 250 years that the global economy will be dominated by a non-English-speaking, non-western, non-democratic state – is of itself a deeply serious matter. It should not be trivialised as if it is simply part of the rolling sport of domestic retail politics, let alone intra-party politics among the conservative parties themselves.

Therefore principle number one is to actually have a disciplined, substantive national China strategy, not just an attitude. Because attitudes of the type we have seen vented so far in our so-called national “debate” on the future of Australia’s China policy and strategy are unworthy of the descriptors  “policy” or “strategy”. They are at best attitudes alone. And this is too serious a business to trivialise.

The substantive definition of a national China strategy involves a disciplined Cabinet process across all government agencies, including:

  • an analytical consensus on the evolving nature of China’s substantive impact on our domestic political institutions, avoiding the populist political hysteria which characterises the current “debate”, which has turned a three out of ten operational challenge for our security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, into what is now publicly inferred to be a nine out of ten existential threat;
  • an analytical consensus on the future content and direction of US and Chinese strategy and behaviour, including the emerging reaction from other states;
  • a clear, detailed and granular articulation of Australian national interests; and most critically;
  • agreement on the policy measures to be taken across the whole of government, where possible in partnership with others, other times independently, to secure these core and continuing interests in response to China’s rise;
  • most importantly, for such a strategy to be effective, it must be fully coordinated across government and where necessary beyond, in both its development and execution;
  • it must also be consistent over time; and
  • it must be operational rather than simply declaratory, with clear delineation between the two.

Little of this exists at present.

The second principle follows from the first: to be clear in our analytical conclusions about the strategic environment in which we are now operating. As noted above, that means being as clear as possible about the likely direction of US strategy, both under the Trump Administration, and any successor Democrat Administration. It also means being clear about Chinese strategy. Just as it means being clear about Japanese, Korean, ASEAN, Indian and European strategy towards China. On the China question, both regionally and globally, we are not an island. Our own freedom of policy manoeuvre is also shaped by those around us. But of all these, the most important is the future posture of the United States where much remains uncertain.

The third principle is that it would be useful for the current Australian government to conclude that there may be things to learn from previous Australian governments. I know it’s a radically conservative proposition to think that conservative governments could actually learn from the past. But some of us have been around these race courses a few times before.

I just said this government does not have, to the best of my knowledge, a coherent cabinet-endorsed national strategy on China. My government did. It took us two years to develop. And the reason we did so was when in 2009 we began to notice China’s increasing activism in the South China Sea; when we began to confront Chinese state-owned enterprises wishing to take over long-established large-scale Australian mining firms; and when we confronted  growing human rights concerns with China. And when we found to our dismay that every level of the Australian government was engaging China in a different way.

That was why we embarked upon a two-year-long internal cabinet process between 2009 and 2011. It became our strategic framework for handling this growing complexity. On the one hand, we responded  through the Australian Defence White Paper of 2009 in terms of what the future force structure of the Australian Defence Force should be given the range of   contingencies we might confront from China’s rise and its military activities in our wider region. These conclusions were there in black and white. They weren’t terribly well received in Beijing at the time. Nor were decisions such as rejecting the Chinese application to take over Rio Tinto though Chinalco. As well as a range of other decisions, based on the best intelligence advice we had available to us at the time, not to have Huawei provide its hardware into the Australian National Broadband Network. Not to mention positions we took on human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang and in relation to Australian Chinese businessmen incarcerated by the Chinese government. We did all this though a unified strategic framework. And it may be recalled we were roundly criticised, by both the conservatives and certain of their business community acolytes, for being too hard-line in the management of the relationship.

However,  when explaining these positions to our Chinese counterparts, we did not seek to do so gratuitously and offensively, nor necessarily in all circumstances publicly. We believed there was a role for private diplomacy and we used it.  And when necessary we articulated our positions publicly. But our preference was always operational. Rather than simply declaratory.

At the same time, however, we managed to grow the Australia-China relationship in many other areas. For example, in the period 2007 to 2013, our economic relationship grew from strength to strength. The trade value between our two countries increased by a hundred and fifteen percent between 2007 and 2013. I contrast that with the period between 2014 and 2019, when the trade value between our two countries has increased by about half that amount.

Our strategic framework provided a framework for dealing with both common interests and conflicting interests. As further evidence of the constructive relationship we had with  Beijing at the time, we collaborated intimately with China in multilateral organisations. In the G20, for example, we worked closely with our Chinese counterparts on how to re-stimulate the global economy at the time of the global financial crisis and the great global recession that followed in 2008-9. China also welcomed Australia joining the G20. And for the G20 replacing the G7 as the principal institution of global economic governance. Japan did not by the way. On either count. China did.

At the same time, as is now well recorded, Australia also had considerable disagreements with our Chinese colleagues on the question of climate policy at the Copenhagen conference. But because we conducted our climate change relationship with China robustly, but within the framework of a consistent, balanced strategy across the breadth of Australia-China relations, the rest of the relationship continued to develop. Furthermore, China’s approach to climate change policy and action was gradually transformed in the period between 2010 and the Paris Conference of 2015, when China finally signed and ratified the Paris Agreement.

My argument is that a balanced national strategy for dealing with China, managed though the framework of a coherent national China strategy, is difficult but doable. And I would invite the current government to examine our own Cabinet documents on this subject to identify what parts of it continue to be relevant a decade later. I suspect quite a lot.

The fourth principle goes to the actual conceptual framework we used to underpin our national China strategy. It could best be phrased as “constructive realism.” Realism about where we will always disagree with China – for example on our continuing alliance with the United States; human rights where we are universalists while the Chinese are not; and  various aspects of the foreign interference debate in this country where we may be  unlikely to agree.

Beyond that, however, there are a number of questions where it might be difficult to work together with Beijing , but certainly possible top do so. In such areas, its critical to be constructive with China. For example, constructively engaging our Chinese friends on the future the Belt and Road Initiative. As opposed to simply demonising it as the definition of all ideological evil.  I often say to our American allies on the BRI: where’s your cash to match it? China is prepared to put somewhere between one and three trillion dollars on the table. The Americans, the last time I looked at it, had a hundred million dollars to spare. They called it the Build Act.  The bottom line is that America in 1944, through the Bretton Woods process, invented the World Bank and then invented the regional development banks – the Asian development Bank, the African Development Bank,  Inter-American Development Bank. The US could re-capitalise these institutions afresh in order to provide first class, transparent infrastructure funding mechanisms for the world, particularly for the target countries of the BRI, all of which which are infrastructure poor but where China at present is the only game in town.

And then there are things that should be easier for Australia to do with Beijing on a regular basis, both to advance our common interests, but also to rebuild political trust between Australia and China over time. For example, we should engage China on the complexity of its own domestic and external climate change policy and posture. As China is the largest emitter in the world, it will shape much of Australia’s own climate change future. We could even  suggest that we engineer some joint aid and development projects with China in various countries of interest to us both, rather than simply turning everything into a binary struggle.

This is what the idea of “constructive  realism is about: realistic about where we fundamentally  disagree with China, and where the diplomatic challenge is to manage these disagreements peacefully; constructive about where it’s difficult but nonetheless doable to work together on common challenges;  as well as constructive in those areas, where we should be working together as a matter of course.

My final principle for a credible National China Strategy is for Australia to avoid own goals.

To repeat: own goals such declaratory statements and dramatic language like the “Turnbull Declaration” of 2017 used primarily for the purposes of Australian domestic politics, irrespective of the unnecessary political alienation that may cause in the broader bilateral relationship. This contrasts with having a national strategy for dealing with China which is operational rather than simply declaratory. China after all looks at what we do. We seem to be preoccupied with what we say to our domestic audience. While what we say also serves to poison the bilateral political atmosphere. I would strongly suggest to those framing Australia’s China strategy today that this key differentiation is critical.

But when I say we should avoid own goals, I mean something broader as well. It also means making every post a winner with our other regional friends, partners and  allies as well. Take for example the South Pacific. When we were in office, we had a respectful, collegiate relationship with all countries in the Pacific Islands Forum, with the single exception of Fiji, which was then a military dictatorship.

Our South Pacific regional strategy was based on two things. We became the advocates for small island state climate change interests in the world – through the Pacific Island Forum, the Commonwealth, the G20 and and through the United Nations treaty negotiations. We used to take the concerns of  Pacific Island leaders in Copenhagen to the negotiating table. Where did the language of keeping global temperature increases within  2 degrees centigrade come from in the Copenhagen Accord? It was our advocacy, acting as the champion of small island developing states, to change the language in the Accord to that effect. We secured respect across the region though what we did on their behalf on climate. The current Australian government has finally shredded all that at Tuvalu Forum in August 2019.

And on top of that, our development aid allocations increased significantly under our government for each of the island states. By the time we left office,  in the 2013-14 financial year our aid to the Pacific Island States was $1.2 billion. By 2015, the incoming conservative government had reduced that to $640 million.  They had cut it in half. Now if you are a recipient state, a small island state of a hundred thousand people or so, or even a quarter of a million or half a million people, this sort of cut makes a profound difference on the ground. Programs were simply cancelled. So when I see Prime Minister Morrison now talking about the “Pacific Step Up”, as of 2018-19 Australia’s total development assistance to the Pacific Island countries stood at $1.1 billion –  less in nominal dollar terms to what was in place when we left office.  And that’s now six years down the track.

And through all of this, both on climate and aid, is it any wonder that China has been able to make significant political strategic inroads in the region? It’s just a matter of common sense.


I conclude with this. It’s not rocket science to develop a national China strategy – one which is anchored in the principles of being clear about what US and Chinese strategy are,  in reality not just in rhetoric; learning from the strategy that previous Australian governments had developed;  embracing a concepts like “constructive realism” as guides to our national China strategy in the difficult period that lies ahead;  avoiding monumental own goals like we’ve just kicked in the South Pacific; and understanding the difference between an operational strategy and a declaratory strategy;  and having the wisdom, from time to time, to simply act rather than screaming from the roof tops tp appease the domestic right.

Indeed, I’m happy for the Cabinet Secretary to hand over our cabinet papers on this subject to the current prime minister. I’d be delighted for Morrison  to read everything we deliberated on to reach our conclusions. As the relevant former prime minister for the period, its within my authority to do that. That’s because I’m the custodian of the cabinet documents of our period in office. Some things will have changed. But I suspect many of the judgements will apply just as well now as they did back then.

I’m still from Australia. And I’m still here to help.