Asia Taskforce speech

  • Speech
07 April 2021

Thank-you Mark for that very kind introduction, and you've done your homework and done it very well, so I really appreciate that. And it's great to be here with you all and can I also pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. And can I say that it's absolutely terrific to be here with you all this afternoon. And Jennifer, can I acknowledge you and the terrific job that you do on behalf of the BCA and thank you for the way that you have engaged with me since I've taken on this new portfolio. Mark, thank you for your kind words and for the great work that you have done in chairing the taskforce that's put together this report. It's a terrific piece of work and thank-you for that. Can I also acknowledge Andrew Parker who's here with us and Philipp, who's disappeared—Philipp?—and thank-you for all your work and to everyone else who's here.

I don't think there's been a more important time for Australia than now when it comes to how we engage with the Indo-Pacific. Obviously, over the last 20 or 30 years, as we've seen Asia develop and grow we have wanted to be very much a part of that, but the environment has changed. It is now a much more complex, strategic environment that we're finding ourselves in in the Indo-Pacific. And that means it's going to take all our efforts—all our efforts—to navigate through the next five to 10 years and make sure that we still set Australia up to be in the prime position to capitalise on all the opportunities that our region will continue to present to us. There is going to be challenges, and how we deal with those challenges is going to be telling. But the opportunities will still continue to exist and that is what we have to keep our eye on—is to make sure that we are still very much engaged and looking for those opportunities where they present themselves. And that's where this report is so important because it gives us a blueprint—it gives us a roadmap—as to how we can do that. And the most important thing that it sets out—and this is the thing that I wanted to leave one message with you this afternoon—it is that it will take a Team Australia approach. It's not going to be government-led; it's not going to be business-led; it's not going to be a society-led; it's not going to be cultural-led; It's going to require all of us doing our bit and playing a part and, in particular, in navigating the changing relationships that we're starting to see in the Indo-Pacific.

When it comes to China, at the moment, we're going to need business really stepping up to the plate. There's obviously some difficulties in the government-to-government relationship at the moment. At the beginning of January, I wrote to my counterpart, the Chinese Commerce Minister, seeking engagement. He was appointed within 24 hours to my appointment, so it seemed like a logical thing is to write a letter, seek engagement, and congratulate him on his appointment in the hope that we might see something similar reciprocated. That hasn't happened yet. So, we can't sit on our hands and just sort of think, ‘that's not very good'. What we need to do is we have to find other ways to keep engaging and to keep sending that message that we do want a good relationship, we want a friendly relationship with China. We want to keep engaging. We want to make sure that we can continue to build on the complementarity of our relationships. And so, while governments can't deliver that message directly at the moment, we need businesses to be stepping up and doing what they can. That's not easy, because, at the moment, there's also some significant trade disputes that we're engaged in which are, in many ways, hurting and impacting our businesses. But it still means that we've got to be there engaging and doing what we can with the hope that over time we'll be able to send those messages that we have previously had very good relations, and there's no reason why we can't have them in the future. There's no reason why, on certain things, we can agree to disagree. But especially when it comes to how both our economies have developed over the last 20 to 30 years through that economic and commercial engagement that has benefited both nations. It's lifted millions out of poverty in China in the same way it's enhanced many of our businesses and industries here and, ultimately, in the end, it's created jobs, whether it be in China or whether it be here in Australia. And that is what governments want to be able to do, is continue to be able to provide the means to create jobs, create businesses and create livelihoods in nations, and trade obviously plays an incredibly important role in that, and will continue to play an incredibly important role.

So that Team Australia approach is going to be absolutely vital. But it's not only with China that it's going to be vital, it's going to be vital with relationships right across the board. And one of the really important things also in this report is that we have to look at individual countries and take a sector by sector approach as to how we're going to deal with those relations. And one of the things that I'm very keen to promote as Trade and Investment Minister, in particular, is for us to be able to look at the individual relationships we had in the Indo-Pacific and then try and get more concrete examples of how we can support and help the economic and commercial relationships, and the report points the way for us to be able to do it. But as Mark said, it's not just about having a blueprint, it's then making sure that we implement, that we deliver. So it's a matter of identifying what those issues are and in many, many cases, they'll be what you might call barnacles or problems which are preventing further trade liberalisation or further investment liberalisation and how can we address those in a very practical sense? In a way that's going to help business be able to further engage with those countries. So it might be, for instance, when it comes to Vietnam, in the agricultural area where there might be some phytosanitary issues which are presenting problems. Or it could be, when it comes to India, there are things which are holding back investment, Australian investment, into India. And one of the key things that we know is the more we can improve investment flows, often that's what will lead to the trade flowing. So it's a matter of looking at each individual relationship and then examining, okay, what are the key aspects, or what are the key things that we can do to try and help. It could also be, if you take for example, in the area of higher education, we've built very good links when it comes to Malaysia—and that's been a very much two-way trade relationship. So how can we further develop those things when it comes to countries where we've got other opportunities? And that's something else that we need to be looking at, so very much that sector-by-sector approach, country-by-country approach is going to become more and more important, especially when you look now at the free-trade agreement network that we have right throughout the Indo-Pacific. Sure, we've got more work to do, and there'll be more opportunities that will present themselves but also what we have done is built an extraordinary network already, especially when it comes to CPTPP, we now have also a gold standard when it comes to regional trade agreements, which we can continue to build on. So we've got that framework we need to continue to build on that. But it's making sure that those practical steps to enable that business-to-business engagement to enable those trade flows to continue to grow, those investment flows to continue to grow, then it's going to be incredibly important. That very practical nature is something that I'll be seeking to implement over the coming months, and I really look forward to working with the taskforce and with BCA as to how we go about doing that because I think that is going to be incredibly important.

There is one other thing which I think is going to be important. It was something which was touched on at an event I did yesterday, which was on the Australia-India relationship, and I think it's also writ large in the task force, and that is around literacy. It's about ensuring that we understand that we have to continue to develop and grow our literacy when it comes to the Indo-Pacific, when it comes to Asia. That we are truly understanding the ebbs and flows of the relationships, the cultural differences, and how each country, in in these instances, is dealing with the pandemic, looking and seeking to grow out of the pandemic, and making sure that we are understanding where every country is at and what it needs. And in the same way, making sure that when it comes to Asia, that they're understanding Australia: how we go about doing things, and what drives us. Because the more we can absolutely cement ourselves as being part of the region and being truly understood in the region, the better it will be for us. And we can never rest on our laurels in thinking that the Indo-Pacific understands us and we truly understand those countries in our region. As a matter of fact, yesterday, one of the one of the key examples we got from one of the speakers, an Australian of Indian heritage, his clear message was, although we think we understand, we don't—and that is something that we've got to continue to build on, continue to grow on. Once again, that's where we can really have a Team Australia approach to getting those outcomes, because it's going to be business, it's going to be our university sector, it's going to be government, it's going to be that softer side of diplomacy, that cultural diplomacy, all those aspects of it are going to be really important in growing and understanding both with our relationships, and also understanding each other. We should never, ever sit back and think we truly understand our neighbours because it's something you have to continually grow, something you have to continue to work on and that's something which is also going to be an absolute key.

So I look forward to working with the taskforce, to implementing the 24 recommendations. Can I say, I think it's incredibly important that there was the consultations, the breadth of consultations that took place, in putting the report together, over a hundred —and that is incredibly important. So we know it's well researched. We know that it's got the foundations there. So that's incredibly important. Can I thank you for your leadership and also the other 16 representatives on the taskforce for the role that they played, because there's a lot of work that has gone into this and Government will look forward to responding, and responding favourably, to what you have here because we do want to work with you on this and I think that that's going to be incredibly important.

So I'll leave you with that one message that I started with. Please remember that this incredibly complex region that we are now operating in is going to require a Team Australia approach for us to come through the shifting sands in a way that sets our nation up like it's never been set up before. I've referred before to—we're going to need a golden period of Australian diplomacy again, but it's not going to be something which will be solely government led, it's going to have to be led by all of us. So I'd ask you and implore you all to be part of this new led golden age of Australian diplomacy as we navigate the Indo-Pacific over the coming decade. And can I commend everyone, the report, and thank everyone who's been involved with it. Thank you very much.

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